What the fuck is wrong with you people, Part one: Parenting a smart kid

Someone on one of my message boards just started a thread by going, "Holy crap, my three year old is doing stuff three-year-olds don't normally do. I think she's scary-smart. I have no idea what I'm doing. Help?"

Some people chimed in about being parents of gifted kids, some people chimed in having been gifted kids. And eventually someone chimed in to give one of the more popular pieces of parenting advice, which was to praise the kid for effort and not for native smartness, lest s/he get a swelled head.

You have no idea how hard I hate this. I speak as a former scary-smart kid, now scary-smart adult: This is not going to work how you think it will.

The message you think you are sending to your child: "Not everything is going to be easy for you. That's okay; no one will love or value you less if they see you fail sometimes. Learning how to work at things you want or need even when you don't magically get them the first time is admirable. I'm proud of you for sticking to it."

The message you are actually sending to your child: "Only things you have to work for are worthwhile. New skills, abilities or knowledge have no intrinsic value; things that you can do without putting any particular effort into them aren't worth shit to anybody else. Stop wasting your time on the easy trash and find something that'll actually impress other people."

You ever meet one of those people who really ought to have a PhD in neuroscience and doesn't? Who speaks fluent Spanish and does crossword puzzles in pen and knows the formal Latin name for that rash on your arm you went to talk to the doctor about last week and does those jigsaw puzzles that are all one color and have ragged edges, but has never had a job more professional than night manager at the local Wendy's? You ever wonder why such a brilliant person ended up in that position? This is fucking why.

When I was in school, a lot of my classmates got $5 an A at report card time. Know what I got? Diddly. When I brought it up with the adults in charge of me at the time, they made it pretty clear that they didn't see the point of rewarding me for something I could do in my sleep. Right about then I decided that seeing a particular letter typed on a particular piece of paper was not of any intrinsic value to me, that the homework was boring me into a coma, and that if they weren't going to acknowledge that it was as miserable for me to do the boring stuff as it was difficult for the other kids to do the hard stuff, I was going to spend my time on that new-fangled internet thing instead, and they could go eat a bag of dicks.

The problem here is that when you make a big deal out of telling us that the whole brain thing is fantastic and that it's a gift and it's our duty to use it to the fullest, but then we go back to our quotidian lives and get picked on by the other kids and get "eh, that's nice," when we sculpt a perfect reproduction of the Pietá in our mashed potatoes, we compare your words to your actions and come to the entirely reasonable conclusion that you're fucking lying. And beyond that, you're hypocrites -- we know damn well that if any of our "average" classmates had popped up doing any of the shit that we do day in and day out, you'd have some sort of pedagogical orgasm over it, and we'd be hearing about it for the next nine million years. But us? No big whoop. We don't suffer for it. So you don't care.

It is goddamn near impossible to resolve this, especially in school, and especially as a child. Because when you're that smart, there is literally nothing in the entirety of the third grade that requires any real effort at all. Things we have to try at just don't exist at that point in the educational process. Fuck, I'm thirty now and I'm still looking.

My housemate -- the one who probes the cosmological secrets of the universe for a living -- pointed out to me not all that long ago that by objective standards I'm positively mind-boggling, but by my own standards, I'm kind of eh. It just never occurs to me that any of this is of any use to anyone else, because nobody ever acted like it was. By the time I grew up, I just quit telling people about most of it, because I was tired of having to pretend to believe the whole blah blah PhD in neuroscience blah rocket surgery blah blah so lucky blah, when I knew that it didn't actually matter in any way that would help me, say, earn a living or better the world or anything, and I'd probably still end up going to work every day and asking people if they wanted fries with that.

I swear to all that is holy that if there is one single thing that has fucked up my life more consistently and dramatically than anything else, it is other people deliberately withholding reactions that would give me an accurate reflection of what the things I am goddamn doing look like to them.


  1. My father treated me like I was no big whoop growing up, too. Then, as I have struggled with 3 different disabilities as an adult, he throws my intelligence in my face as evidence that I'm just being lazy. I no longer talk to him, and I'm happier for it.

    *hugs* I'm going backward through your blog, and am loving it. I really enjoyed your series on Charlie Chaplin, too :-)

    1. I moved three thousand miles without telling them. Not a single one of my friends in any way disagreed with this decision. Go Team Dysfunctional Family!

  2. This is my first comment here, and wanted to also say that I really enjoy reading your blog! I love all the rat posts (we have 3 little guys here at home, cutest animals ever), and most all your other ones, too!

    Regarding this post: what strikes me as especially strange is that most people have absolutely no problems with cheering their child on for almost ANY other genetic trait that makes them better at something, but somehow intelligence is treated differently. I mean, some kids are also insanely good at certain sports and I would be willing to bet anything that *most* parents would tell that child they did an excellent job.

    It disturbs me rather fiercely that so many people don't seem to think twice about treating as worthless something that most of the time IS seen as a 'good' thing. Considering how much parents tend to brag about their child's achievements even when those achievements are fairly normal it makes even less sense to not celebrate it when a child can do those things much earlier (and with less effort).

    You mention this above, too, but in my mind another problem with the approach of only rewarding insanely difficult tasks for a gifted child is that most things when you break them down enough consist of fairly simple steps. Being able to feel good about achieving small goals is especially important when tackling large, difficult projects as it gives you more motivation to keep going. When you actively discourage/disparage those small achievements I think you *are* sabotaging harder projects, too.

  3. Apparently, my mother used to brag about me when I wasn't there. Or so she claims. I've never seen any evidence. I was the kid who gave myself a university education in the sixth grade just by sheer willpower of READING EVERYTHING EVER.

    To this day, when my mother introduces me as her daughter, everyone assumes I'm my younger sister, the figure skater. Who is ten years younger than me. Because this is the only daughter my mother ever talks about, evidently. Most people don't realize I exist. Hell, if you walk into my parents' home? There is exactly ONE photo of me. It's on the china cabinet with all the cousins. Every other photo in my parents' home is celebrating one of my sister's achievements. My achievements, which were all academic ones, have been forgotten.

    1. Tay that is not true! You actually have no idea and as to the photos well there would have to have been photos to put them up. You are like me you hate cameras remember.......The reason that people assume that you are your younger sister is because you look younger and by the way there is more than one photo of you..........

    2. If you must have this argument, kindly do not have it in the comments of my blog.

  4. Not a bad blog. Im an aspie and while i may not have too smart as a kid i bloomed into a scary-smart adult. Otherwise no experience with this but im not surprised by this at all.


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