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.