Continued from this post.
I’ve subscribed to a variety of developmental newsletters ever since the week I found out I was going to be a mother. During my pregnancy, I enjoyed seeing what food item they would compare my baby’s size with each week (shrimp, lime, coconut) and which parts of his body were forming.
For the first year of Declan’s life, the weekly email missives let me know the scope of abilities that he could have, and told me which ones he definitely should have. They reassured me that I had some idea what I was doing as I got the inevitable questions from the many many expert strangers that a baby’s presence in the world invites. They reinforced certain notions I had been given about parenting that might make you look crazy, particularly to the non-parenting world, like my sister-in-law’s suggestion that I talk to Declan about the daily things we did to help his language skills develop. It’s somehow easier to justify the loony look of talking to your six-month-old about a Diane Arbus photograph at MOMA or the uses for red cabbage at the grocery store when you know that what you can point to the effectiveness of your actions underneath an “expert” heading somewhere.
These days, the newsletters appear monthly. The last one came on Declan’s two and half year birthday. It suggested that at his age, he should know a few colors, body parts and people, and be speaking in two-word sentences.
“You can help her improve her verbal skills by giving her details,” writes the cheerful email. “If she says, ‘Dog sleep,’ for example, you might say, ‘Yes, Spot is curled up and fast asleep on the chair.’ She can’t imitate your complex language patterns just yet, but she’s learning more all the time.”
This visited my inbox during a week when Declan has repeatedly been reciting the following (his shorthand of a part of the narrative from the documentary 95 Worlds and Counting):
You go down into the holes, if you dare, re-ver–ber–ating, supersonic gas rushing out.
A pool of liquid nitrogen boiling fervently.
When nitrogen boils, intense pressure builds, until the geyser finally ends.
While visiting my brother’s farm over Thanksgiving, I tried to settle him down after a full day of cousin playtime. The usual lullabies, like “Hush Little Baby” (known to us as “Baby in Town”), weren’t very effective.
“Can you sing about liquid nitrogen?” He asked me sweetly.
I tried. I really did.
And that, like dozens of other stories about the things that occur in our daily life, can be related with innocent intentions and still end up making me feel like Cousin Eugene’s mom. The divide between celebrating his appetite for learning and being perceived as a braggart is a hairline. Some look at me as though I must be one of those Olympic coach parents who insists on putting him through wicked daily mental gymnastics, rather than a person who simply tries to open the channels to the things he shows interest in. Fortunately, others, sometimes strangers, take in his qualities and marvel at him with me.
Declan’s own actions in public can have a similar effect – sometimes his interests can completely throw people who don’t expect that his answers to ordinary questions will be quite so complicated. And while some people react beautifully, others look at him like a mutant (particularly seven-year-old boys).
I do see every child as brilliant in their own right – in ways that manifest differently, and certainly with widely varying degrees, including some that aren’t so obvious. Yet culturally, we are so prone to compare individuals, to see confidence and the celebration of accomplishment as things that make us somehow personally deficient, not healthy and happy and learning. I try to see these things in Declan’s peers and appreciate the things that they can offer each other.
Parenting magazines constantly tell us that all kids learn at their own rate, and remind us that we shouldn’t read too much into a child’s abilities at a young age. After all, Albert Einstein had early speech delays. Neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing had dyslexia, as do novelist John Irving, artist Robert Rauschenberg and billionaire Richard Branson. The same publications, along with other, more experienced moms also remind me regularly that Declan’s esoteric interests in space may just evaporate one day, and that it would be completely normal for him to forget many of the things that he knows so well right now.
I try and keep my own opinion – and expectations – of him in check, for both of our sakes. But when he gets as excited about science and scientists as he would if Steve from Blue’s Clues walked into the house for dinner tonight, it’s hard not to bask in the glow all that he is becoming and feel proud.
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