My little Einstein

At 5, Jack is already smarter than I am. How do you give a kid a normal childhood, when his brain is so advanced?

Topics: Real Families, Motherhood, Parenting, Profoundly gifted children, Children, Life stories, IQ, Education, Editor's Picks,

My little Einstein(Credit: Humannet, Luiscar74 via Shutterstock/Salon)

One sunny afternoon this past February, I found myself waiting with my 5-year-old son, Jack, and his friend Oliver outside a lecture hall at Stanford University. We were there to hear about the structure of viruses from one Stephen Harrison, Ph.D. Over the many years my husband and I struggled to conceive a child, I allowed myself plenty of parenting fantasies, but taking a 5-year-old to the 41st Annual Linus Pauling Lecture was not one of them.

Graduate students streamed by us clutching coffee cups. “Finish up,” I chirped to the boys, who were stuffing their mouths with oatmeal cookie. The absurdity of the situation kicked my voice up an octave. “Now, who has to go potty?”

Like a lot of first-timers, my husband, Brian, and I went into parenthood with a plan. Ours was to give Jack an unhurried childhood (though Jack is not his real name). Both teachers, we distrusted the amped-up achievement culture in affluent communities like ours, with its tendency toward high-pressure schools, anxious parents and stressed-out kids. Yes to mud pies and bubbles, we vowed; no to flashcards and Brainy Baby preschools. What mattered was letting Jack figure out what he liked and helping him do that. “I don’t care if he ends up a surfer living out of the back of his van,” Brian said.

It quickly became clear that what Jack liked — no, loved — was academics.

At 2 he refused to leave the library until he had arranged all the giant magnetic letters, upper- and lowercase, in alphabetical order. I practically had to drag him to the playground. At 3 he became obsessed with an educational website called I doled out computer time sparingly, ambivalent about this new development, until I realized he was teaching himself to read. The year he was 4 we watched him devour every book he could find about U.S. and world geography and after that, astronomy. He still slept in Pull-Ups but could tell you all about black holes, spiral galaxies, red hypergiants and brown dwarves.

People often asked how we “got” him to do these things. I’d smile and shrug, but the question made me uncomfortable. We weren’t pushing him. He was pushing us. Daily, Brian and I exchanged incredulous looks over Jack’s head: Did you hear what he just said? Where did he learn that? A family member put it succinctly. “You know he’s the kind of kid who’s going to go to college at 13, don’t you?” We didn’t know. Or else we kind of did, but to admit that went against every egalitarian bone in our bodies. Jack was smart, we told ourselves, but so were a lot of people. He was also just a kid, and what kids needed was time and space to play.

Play-based preschool was a no-brainer, and the one we found felt like Shangri-La to us, with its wooden toys, huge sand pit, and vast green yard to explore. It was perfect, except that Jack hated it. At pickup, I’d find him pacing alone under the trees, talking to himself, dark circles under his eyes. The hippie kindergarten, with its emphasis on yoga and meditation, was no better. After a few months, Jack curled himself into a naked ball, wouldn’t get dressed for school. He developed insomnia and an array of nervous tics. Our funny, upbeat boy was fading before our eyes. “When are they going to teach me something I don’t already know?” he pleaded.

Finally we hired a silver-haired woman to assess Jack. She confirmed what we had begun to suspect: Jack was more than just smart. The term of art is “profoundly gifted.” The last thing you want to do with kids like these, she said, is to try and hold them back. Mental challenge is their oxygen. Confirming the true extent of Jack’s intellectual potential was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, validating both our secret pride and a long list of worries: his anxiety, his difficulty making friends, his out-and-out difference from other kids. The news sent my parental compass spinning. Slower-is-better had been our true north. Now I didn’t know which way to go.

The silver-haired woman connected us with Oliver, another little boy in the neighborhood fluent in supernovas and subatomic particles. His mom, Kristen, and I set up weekly play dates, thrilled to find someone else in the same boat. The boys bonded immediately, rolling Play-Doh into comets and neutron stars while Kristen and I compared notes. They, too, had once tried to slow Oliver down, limiting his access to certain subjects for fear he was becoming obsessed. Like Jack, he’d responded by shutting down. These days she followed his lead, helping him pursue his many interests from origami to quarks to viruses. “I don’t want to keep him from learning opportunities just because they’re not age-appropriate,” she said in her levelheaded way.

Having stepped through the looking glass, this no longer sounded like sacrilege. I, too, was through with holding Jack back in the name of protecting him. But the Linus Pauling Lecture? It was Kristen’s idea, and I wasn’t at all sure. It seemed vaguely ridiculous to take two kindergartners to a lecture meant for adults, no matter how bright they were. “Open to the public” couldn’t possibly mean us.

I’m still not quite sure why I said yes. Maybe it was my reluctance to make waves in a new friendship. Maybe it was the simple desire for something different to do on an ordinary Tuesday. And maybe a genuine question was beginning to shake loose from all my former certainties. What did Jack really need? Did I even have any clue?

On the day of the lecture, Kristen’s baby sitter canceled, and she had to stay home with Oliver’s little brothers. I was on my own, banking on a big, dark lecture hall where a kooky lady with two 5-year-olds wouldn’t be quite so conspicuous. No such luck. The auditorium was tiny, the lights bright. As soon as we walked in, I could feel my face heating up. “This way, guys,” I whispered, hunching down the aisle. There were only two seats left together, down in the third row.

A bearded man at the podium was detailing Dr. Harrison’s curriculum vitae. I sat us down quickly and pulled Jack onto my lap, afraid to look to either side. Jack began kicking the seat in front of him and flinging his arms out to the sides. “Is this the lecture?” he asked in a loud whisper.

“Shhh,” I said, wrapping my arms around him straitjacket-style. This was a bad idea.

Oliver’s voice was equally loud. “They are going to turn the lights off and then they are going to have slides.” It seemed odd that no one around us was glaring — or even glancing — our way.

At last the room darkened and what looked like multicolored Koosh balls appeared on an overhead screen. The boys craned their necks to read words like “icosahedral” and “nanomachines.” Their bodies went utterly still.

“This structure,” Dr. Harrison pointed to a swoopy pattern of elegantly intertwined green strings, “is called the jelly roll Beta barrel.” Oliver’s eyes were locked on the screen.

“This lecture is great!” Jack called out, bucking on my lap. “It’s so interesting!” I was stunned. He really meant it. A few minutes later, he started flinging both arms up in the air over and over again, brushing me on either side of head. I pulled his arms down again and again.

“Jack, stop,” I finally hissed. It was time to go.

“Mo-om,” he complained in a loud, injured voice. “I was trying to hug you.” And then I got it. He was feeling grateful. The fact that I’d brought him here made him feel understood.

In the lobby on the way out, a stocky Asian man stopped us. Uh-oh, I thought. Here it comes. But his face was friendly, his voice a bit nervous. “Can I ask why you brought the kids today?” he said.

“Well,” I said, not sure how much to reveal. “They’re very bright, and this one,” I gestured at Oliver, “is especially interested in viruses.” A few feet away, Jack was making a pig face by pressing his nose against a glass door.

“I brought my twin boys,” he said. “They’re 8. They got perfect scores on the SAT.”

“Wow,” I said, not sure what else to say.

He was thinking of starting a school, he said, for children to work on Nobel problems. He scribbled his email on a scrap of paper. Anxiety rose off him like steam. I took it and thanked him, my head spinning.

Outside, the air was a huge relief. The boys broke into a run, chasing each other across the grass. “Jelly roll Beta barrel!” Oliver yelled, and Jack yelled it back. He seemed as happy as I’d ever seen him.

I was still holding the man’s number. I didn’t plan to call. Whatever was in our future, I doubted it was his Nobel school, though in my hand the slip of paper felt like a ticket, one for a journey I’d never imagined.

As for the needle on my compass, it had started to shift. No longer could I find my way with theories and plans.

The way forward was uncertain, the future unclear. Only one thing was sure: True north was this boy I loved, now drunk on higher learning and rolling with his friend on the green, green grass.

Thea Sullivan is a writer and creative writing instructor whose work has previously appeared in many literary journals, including The Sun magazine.  She never dreamed she'd homeschool her son.  Now she's doing just that -- and writing about it, in a memoir and her blog.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>