Friday, November 26, 2010

Kids of Academics--Joy in Their Joy, Smart Approaches to Their Smarts

The academic community is awash in brilliant children.  We love our little geniuses.  And we tend to stress out about them and their brilliance (myself included). 

I always thought my son (10-yrs old) was smart.  He could follow complicated plots from an early age and had sophisticated and nuanced understandings of the stories I read.  He also was good at math concepts as a preschooler, such as squared versus cubed (yeay Montessori!).  Also, he had a very high vocabulary and incredible recall (excellent listener).

BUT, transitioning from Montessori to 1st grade public, he performed poorly on the basics.  He was behind most of the kids on reading and writing, and about average on math (lot of smart kids in our university/high-tech community).  There were a few problems.

First, he wasn't good at basic memorization (too boring).  So while he could figure out how many square inches in a cube, he couldn't quickly recite 3 + 4.  And while he had much more advanced taste in reading material, he couldn't rapidly identify basic sight words (your, our, she....).  In 1st-2nd grade, none of his strengths were apparent, as all focus was on the basics. 

Second, he was a very process-oriented, not results-oriented, kid.  He was engaged with the process of learning, but wasn't interested in performing it for others or even finishing a project.  He's obedient and would do his schoolwork, but he wouldn't feel the need to be very careful or very fast.  He had an excellent grasp of physics for his age and loved to experiment at home--but never wanted to put together an actual finished project for the science fair.

I was happy that he was still in love with learning.  But I also wanted him to get past that boring phase of memorizing sight words and basic math facts so that he could enjoy the higher-order stuff.  I also worried that he was starting to think of himself as "not smart"--I was getting signs from him this was wearing on his self-esteem.

Neurons started connecting in his brain (or something!).  That, plus a LOT of work with flashcards at home.  He made major progress on reading levels in 1st grade.  Math came along.  Writing took a couple of years.  He remains a very poor speller (no two ways about it).

So we knew he was smart, but it wasn't reflected in the classroom.  And he wasn't marked for "academically talented" testing.  I was OK--I figured he'd do fine in college.  Plus, he was a very happy kid, and that's what matters most in life.  We took it upon ourselves to expose him to a lot of material, ideas, and experiences that were educational and engaging.

But after a 4th grade standardized math test, I got an email that my son was eligible to skip two grades in math.  For the first time, the school recognized his intelligence.  I had trouble processing.  The school had treated him as average for so long.  Had someone failed him up to now?  Me?  His teachers?  Ultimately, I think his brain developed and his attitude changed such that he wanted to do well and finish on time and had the ability to focus.  The next 4th grade standardized state-wide tests in reading, writing, and math further revealed to the school that he was "smart"--one of the best in the grade. 

So I am the parent of a child who has never advertised his intelligence. He was a stealth smart kid.  Until now.  Last night, talking to his cousins by phone, I heard him bragging about being in 7th grade math as a 5th-grader.  Ideally, I'd like him to continue to be "in love with learning" without needing to let others know (without exactly saying it) that he is smarter than they are.  He was on the losing end of this hierarchy until recently, and it sure didn't help his self-esteem back then! 

Not quite sure how to handle it.  He is rightly proud of himself, as he worked really hard this summer to master 5th-6th grade math.  And it is certainly fine to tell others that he's in 7th grade math.  The trick is how to do it in such a way that it is not at others' expense.

When it comes to smart kids, there's considerable amount of talk on parenting blogs about skipping a grade.  I must say that skipping up two grades--but just in math--has been GREAT for my son.   We had a quick mid-semester meeting with his middle-school math teacher, and I confess I was surprised that he had 100%.  I don't think he ever scored a perfect score in math until this year on a test, never mind consistently.  Plus, he now officially likes math.  But he doesn't have to leave his friends behind and form new friendships with kids a year older.  He is socially mature and tends towards kids older than him. But completely skipping to the next grade would probably be too much.

I like this method of skipping grades in a subject, as opposed to skipping the child in all subjects (which seems still the norm).   I have some insight, as I skipped 4th grade.  All in all, this was a good thing for me.  However, there are a LOT of issues regarding social development that never seem to come up, except for here in this NYT Motherlode post by Lisa Belkin and the comments.  For example, a comment by Anne from Wisconsin points out what the social world is like once those grade-advanced kids reach high school (including that s/he will be driving a year later than everyone else, putting them at the mercy of friends' driving skills).

Getting back to academic kids--some of my professor friends (including 3 good friends) have children on the autism spectrum.  All Asperger's.  Extremely smart, but also facing many challenges.  The challenges include an apparently higher rate of depression and even suicidal thoughts at a surprisingly young age.  I don't know where I'm going with this, except that so much of this all seems in large part inheritable--intelligence, but also Asperger's and its attendant emotional/psychological challenges. 

More than anything, I want my children to be happy in life!  Happy store clerks--that would be OK.  Maybe not ideal--but better than depressed academics.  Seriously.   

My son is a happy boy.  My daughter careens between cranky and joyful and bossy -- we're working on this.

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