I am fascinated by the current Build a Smarter Baby Brain trend, by the lengths to which parents feel compelled to go to give their progeny an edge. Frankly, this idea that there’s only one thing better than having a baby, and that’s having a smart baby, makes me almost unbearably sad. I have a smart baby. And I want to say: Be careful what you wish for. Henry tests in the 99th percentile for verbal ability; he knows more words than most children his age and can use them to form grammatically complex sentences and paragraphs. The doctor who tested him said, “It was amazing! I kept doing the test because I couldn’t believe how much and how perfectly he could remember!” When he comes across a new word, he will ask us to defi ne it, to use it in a sentence, and often to spell it for him. He will incorporate it into conversation.
One day last year, he went to school in a Spider-Man T-shirt. Another boy in his class had on a different Spider- Man T-shirt. Henry told his teacher, “Jack’s shirt has a picture of Spider- Man, but my shirt just has his logo.” He was right, but how many 4-yearolds know what a logo is? You want to know what we did to build his vocabulary, how we taught him to contextualize and utilize all those words. Flash cards? Computer games? Tutoring? Wait, just wait. Rote memory: Henry remembers everything. He can recite dialogue from movies, accurately, with proper inflection and, often, accent. He can recite entire picture books. He knows the words to every song on “In My Tribe” by 10,000 Maniacs. When he cannot hear clearly what the words are, he asks. And then he remembers them. He has excellent pitch, too, and a nice singing voice.
But what you don’t see is this: Henry has been diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability. His verbal aptitude is remarkable, but his pragmatic language skills—his ability to understand tone of voice or facial gestures or even the simple conventions of conversation—are simply average.
He can wax eloquent about “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” recounting the events of the plot in great and accurate detail, but he cannot tell you why Harry and Ron would take on a mountain troll to save Hermione. He does not understand how language is used to construct relationships; he cannot infer when someone is angry or amused or embarrassed.
Because of this, he struggles with basic social interactions. He becomes frustrated to the point of catastrophic tantrums.
“Why doesn’t Luke like superheroes?” he asked me this summer. “He just doesn’t,” I said. “But I do!” he said, clearly baffl ed. “And Luke is my best friend!” “OK,” I told him, “but Luke likes turkey sandwiches. Do you like turkey?’” “No,” he said. “Well,” I said, “different people like different things.”
He thought about this. “But why doesn’t Luke like superheroes?” he asked again. And we went on and on like this, all summer. When we tell people about Henry’s disability, the fi rst thing they say is, “But he’s so smart!” One friend said,
“But he will do fi ne in school, won’t he?” The answer is that he will and he won’t. Math may be a struggle for him, especially word problems. He will have trouble gleaning the meaning of what he reads, despite his ability to memorize the actual text. He will struggle with social skills. He may be teased. With tutoring and therapy, in the right school, he will do fi ne. But it will not be easy. I read about parents buying computers for their babies, hoping to give them a head start, to teach them letters and numbers and reading and counting before all the baby books say they should be doing those things.
I sometimes wonder if those parents have any idea that this smartness is a complicated gift, or that the real gift is to have a child who is healthy and happy and who knows that he is loved unconditionally.
What I want to say is this: Enjoy the way your child’s brain works. Play with her, talk to her, value who she is. Don’t try to reprogram her. Just love her.%uFFFD
Susan Wagner is a mother of two and the author of the blog Friday Playdate (fridayplaydate.com).%uFFFDThis essay first appeared in “Sleep Is For The Weak.”