Who’s Smarter: Me or My Kid?

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A few weeks ago, I published a piece in Salon about the struggle to understand the needs of my gifted son, “Jack.”

In the comments, a reader calling herself Biogirl wrote:

I am going to come across as harsh, I’m afraid, but in my opinion it’s important for you to remember that your son is NOT smarter than you. 

Here is what I would say to her, if I could.


Biogirl, I’ve been thinking about what you said.

You’re so right. My son is NOT smarter than me, and it’s so important that I remember that.

For example:

  • He tries to take his pants off with his shoes still on, and then doesn’t understand why he falls down.
  • He thinks that “I don’t have to go to the bathroom, I just LIKE to wiggle like this” is a convincing argument.
  • He sees nothing wrong—on a germ level or a social one—with picking one’s nose and eating it.
  • He would never, on his own, choose to floss, wear sunscreen, or eat a vegetable of any kind, and really, how smart is that?

And also, unlike him:

  • I know that if your friend wants you to stop singing the same annoying phrase over and over again very close to his face, it is in your best interest to STOP.
  • I know that changing the clock doesn’t make the thing you are waiting for come any quicker.
  • I know that it is not a good idea to make loud, public observations about people’s differences, such as yelling across a crowded store, “That person is so old!”  or, “Hello, black man!”
  • I know that wearing underwear backwards is not as much fun as it looks.

Now, on many other counts, Biogirl, I have to disagree with you.  Because really, there are lots of ways my six-year-old IS smarter than me.

You see, I am in my mid-forties now, and while I do hold a couple of Ivy League degrees, the lady hormones are working their evil magic on my gray matter.

As Bill Nye the Science Guy likes to say (he is a big hit in our household), consider the following:

  • My son pretty much remembers everything we’ve ever done, and where we were, and who we were with at the time.  I, on the other hand, can’t remember where I parked my car thirty minutes ago.
  • When he speaks, the word he means to say is actually the word that comes out of his mouth.
  • He retains the name of virtually every person he’s ever met.  I often find myself saying, “Nice to meet you,” only to have the other person glare and say, “Oh, we’ve met.”  (That’s always fun.)
  • He knows what a “transitional metal” on the Periodic Table is. I would not know a transitional metal if it hit me over the head, which I hope it doesn’t, since I’m not sure what it is or how much it might hurt.
  • He knows how to make Siri call me by a nickname.  I suggested “Rock Star,” but he decided on “Sally Haven A-Whatley.”  Don’t even ask.
  • He knows the order of the U.S. Presidents, their parties, and their major accomplishments.  I pretty much remember the ones I voted for, and the guys on the money.
  • He can read a book and listen to a (different) audio book at the same time. (Yes, as far as I can tell, he is absorbing them both simultaneously.) I cannot parallel park the car unless I turn the radio off.
  • He knows about a great many Revolutionary War figures, including British generals, American patriots, and colonial women spies.  This should make him very useful should we need to plan an insurgency, or should we run low on cash and need someone to win us a bundle on Jeopardy.

But all kidding aside, Biogirl, of course you’re right.

He is just a kid.  I am older and wiser.

To say he is smarter than me in a tagline is just a cheap way to grab eyeballs in an insanely over-saturated media market.  (But hey, it got you reading, right?)

The real problem here is with the word “smart.”

It’s like the word “love.” It means about a thousand different things, at different times.  What are we talking about, anyway?  Raw intellectual ability?  Critical thinking skills?  Social acumen?  Good judgment?  All different things, on which each of us would rate differently at different times, with vastly different real-world results.

What is really true is that my son has a different kind of brain.

From a sheer computing standpoint, he’s got a lot more processing power, and not just because he hasn’t killed off a bunch of brain cells doing the unadvisable things I have.

At any given moment, his brain is doing a whole lot more things at once than mine knows how to do.  In their article, “Brains on Fire: The Multinodality of Gifted Thinkers,” noted researchers Brock and Fernette Eide describe a kind of storm of organized, complex activity all happening at once.

That can be an awful lot for a little guy to handle.

And that’s where I come in.  My job is to help him manage the intelligence he has—how to feed it, benefit from it, enjoy it, and ultimately balance it with the rest of life, and love, and living a world full of all different kinds of people.  My job is to help him develop wisdom, compassion, and perspective.

That’s every parent’s job, isn’t it?

That, and to stop doing the dishes and checking the email for once in my life so I can play Legos with him like he’s been asking.  He and I both know that’s the smart thing to do.

So, Biogirl, maybe we agree after all.

Now excuse me, I have to go find my car.


Comments: 10 thoughts on “Who’s Smarter: Me or My Kid?

  1. Martin Owens says:

    Wisdom seems to be that which can only be learned through experience. My mum used to say “There’s no point telling him, he’ll just do it anyway. Learn his lesson and move on to the next fool hardy thing” and it’s true, even if you wrote it in a book or scripted hours of TV, kids would still have to learn what’s hot and what smells too bad to eat.

    My dad on the other hand used to say “being smart is like having a toolbox, being clever is knowing how to use them” he always pushed me to think critically no matter how many facts I knew.

    My parents didn’t have degrees, but on reflection they had wisdom enough to take care of their brainy kid.

  2. Jen Block Martin says:

    I need complete silence while parallel parking too. 🙂 Love hearing about “Jack.” Does he play chess? Roy is in Chess Club at school and loves it. Great for critical thinking and planning ahead, not just knowing facts. Roy adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides in his head faster than me already. Another reason why I’m a writer…

    • Thea Sullivan says:

      Wow, maybe Roy can help me out in math! (: “Jack” doesn’t seem interested in chess (I almost wrote “cheese,” which just shows you that my mental sharpness has not magically returned), but anything that teaches critical thinking sounds great to me. Great to hear from you!!

  3. Pathfinder Mom says:

    This is brilliant. He perfectly describes my struggles to deal with my son who is 7, but often thinks like a 12 year old while acting like a 4 year old. It is such an interesting journey!

    I also struggle with balancing my multi-tasking, smart by scatterbrained self with his attention to detail.

    I get it.. and good luck finding the car!

  4. Exactly.my kids make me feel both unbelievably smart and pathetically stupid at the same time. Smart, like when they “can’t find something” that is literally directly in front of their face. Stupid, like when I can’t use a new piece of technology as if it had grown onto me in the womb. I like the reply above about the difference between wisdom and being smart. But really, in the end, Biogirl is just trying to shame you into silence — some people haven’t come to terms with the fact that THEY aren’t the smartest people on the planet. This makes them lash out at really smart children (and their parents) who are just trying to figure out how to deal with what they’ve been dealt. The smartest & wisest people I’ve known are always the people that understand that it’s OK if there are people that are smarter than them. It’s insecurity that breeds mistrust — go get a life, Biogirl!

  5. jodi says:

    oh, yes. i have stopped doubting my boy when he makes a statement, whether it’s about science, the presidents, the revolutionary war or Harry Potter. he knows and so i trust him but i also remind him to put underwear on first when he’s getting dressed.

  6. Bethany says:

    There are different kinds of intelligence–a lesson my mother taught me–and it sounds like you’re a fantastic mom, fostering his intelligence, wisdom, compassion. It’s a beautiful thing.

    Also, I’m trying to subscribe to your blog, but the “subscribe” button doesn’t work. Oh no! Just thought you should know. 🙂

    • Thea Sullivan says:

      Bethany, I am going to copy your comment onto a Post-it and hang it on my mirror for all the MANY days where I feel like anything but fantastic at this difficult job. Thank you!! I am in the process of fixing the subscription situation. Is it OK with you if I add you to my email subscription list for now? If not, check back in a week or so and it should be all straightened out. Thanks for reading.

  7. Hi Thea!
    Wow, your life has really changed since I last saw you. Thanks for sending out the announcement. I read (and loved) your Salon essay. All the best to you!

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