Quick: without the assistance of Google, think of as many dog tricks as you can. What did you come up with? You probably thought of sit, stay, down, give paw, roll over, come, and heel. If you jumped right to play violin, discuss the differences between Hobbes and Locke, or craft a salad of warm greens and poached pears with a red wine-balsamic reduction, you haven’t met a dog.
Now think of a four-year-old child. What tricks does he know? If you guessed walk, talk, control bowels and bladder, count, use flatware, and recognize a few letters and numbers, you’re right on. If you guessed “show enormous aptitude for math, music, and language,” you haven’t met a child—or taken an honest look at your own.
Kids don’t know that many tricks. Although their little minds develop at a remarkable rate, during the preschool years they’re limited to sit, stay, and kindly remove your sister from the dishwasher young man. Apart from the cost of their accessories, and the circumstances of their birth, there isn’t much to distinguish them, and that is quite frustrating to their parents.
Until the kids learn to read. Then you have something to brag about.
In Washington, DC where I live, cottage industries have popped up to train brilliance – in the form of reading– into the still-diapered, and to identify and quantify brilliance in the recently-diapered.
It’s not surprising that you see a lot of this in DC. Ambassadors, elected officials, economists, products-that-give-you-elbow-cancer industry defense lawyers, substances-that-cause genetic-mutations-in-frogs industry lobbyists, and George Stephanopoulos all live here. Who wouldn’t pay an expert to tell them that little Emily and Noah are even more brilliant?
History is replete with examples of extraordinary children. Knee-high Mozart delighting Europe’s royalty. Picasso creating a masterwork at 8. Four Year Old Marie Curie helping her elder siblings with their math lessons.
And of course Connor Stevens, age 3, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, who can read 20 words and is “musical.”
- Did you know? Swaying to the rhythm of your “Baby Loves Stravinsky” CD doesn’t mean your child is “musical.” It means that she is a primate. Nor does your child “love classical music.” Your child loves what you play for her. She would “love 70s rock” if you showered her with praise every time she reacted positively to Steely Dan.
Connor’s parents are proud that he is “gifted,” “musical,” and an “early reader.”
They can’t tell you that he’s a gifted musical early reader because that would be tacky, seeing as your kid isn’t as accomplished as Connor. But if you should happen to bring it up…. “I wouldn’t worry that Abigail isn’t reading at five. She is completely on track with other kids her age. When Connor started reading at three everyone told us just not to push it, that they all get there and it really doesn’t matter when they do.”
I see. Thank you for your input, and please go wipe your Lexus with an organic free-trade diaper.
You know Connor’s parents. At back-to-school night, Connor’s father asked what the teacher would do to accommodate children who were reading above grade level.
Connor’s mother commented on 5-year-old Abigail’s book—that’s great for teaching simple words. Connor LOVED it when he was three.”
We are all so fortunate to have the ambassador from Douchebagistan in our school community.
I never wanted to be like that. Whether Connor was relentlessly coached or was simply precocious, he was just a kid who learned one trick. With all of their accomplishments, why must his parents be so fixated on this?
I’m not like that. People gave my kid flash cards and learning toys, saying that since I can string a few words together, my kid would be “wonderful with language.” I re-gifted the stuff. School would teach her to read, and I would just read to her—when I could. I’m not Connor’s parents.
Unfortunately, it turns out that benign neglect is an even more powerful teaching tool than flash cards. In my daughter’s preschool years I was a single mother who often had to work at the breakfast and dinner tables. Her preschool years also coincided with an exciting primary election season, and I couldn’t tear myself away from the paper on a Saturday morning as we sat together over coffee, milk, and doughnuts. I’d hand her anything with a picture, sometimes read the paper aloud, and bring one of her books—when I remembered to.
So she took matters into her own hands.
When she started pointing out words to me, I thought that it was charming. Particularly since Clinton, Obama, and McCain were among the first words she knew. When she started trying to read in front of other people, I realized that I was fucked.
In an elevator at preschool: “It says No Smoking, Mommy.”
She’s reading???????????????????? From the most uptight parent in the preschool, whom I could tell was recalculating her daughter’s chances of getting into Princeton.
Uh, only a couple of words. That’s a pretty common sign. (It doesn’t matter??).
From a friend: “Emily doesn’t even know her letters yet. Do you think I need to hold her back? I just don’t read to her enough. What did you do?’
Uhhh, nothing. I think that Emily is completely on track with the other—
My kid got me a Douchebagistani passport against my will! Everyone will think I’m Connor’s mother. I’m not.
Am I? I’m not proud that my daughter learned this trick so early. You can’t make a case that I had anything to do with it—except for giving her the gift of neglect. I certainly don’t believe that her party trick is going to mean that much for her life—almost everyone learns to read at some point.
Excessive fixation on my daughter’s reading would fly in the face of everything that is Adequate, and thus everything that I hold dear. And anyway, I love that she can read because it means that I can focus on something else. Doesn’t that make me Adequate or even sub-Adequate?
I can dissemble no longer. Deep in my heart, I harbor a dark secret that I have until now shared with no one:
I’m proud that my kid reads on the crapper.
The sight of her on the toilet, pajama bottoms around her ankles and a copy of “My Big Backyard” magazine on concealing her naked lap, is one of the pleasures of each day. As I worked in the kitchen the other day, she read me all of the previous day’s baseball scores off of the Post sports page, the bathroom door cracked an inch so I could hear her. This is it, I thought. This is why I went through pregnancy, a C Section, and her 2-year-old OCD phase.
Not only is she reading, she’s a toilet talker. All women are divided into those of us who talk between the stalls when peeing and those who don’t. Like me, she is a talker. I feel blessed.
Every kid reads, but she’s reading on the can. Just like mommy. Each night I send her upstairs to the bath, telling her to use the bathroom and undress, and I’ll be up there shortly. Each and every night, I find her with some piece of reading material—a book she hauled in from her room, the National Geographic I had brought in there, a two-day-old newspaper. Hmmm, are you undressed yet? I ask.
Oops. I forgot. I actually believe that she forgot. For an allegedly “advanced” kid, she’s quite scatterbrained. Fine by me. She hasn’t failed out of elementary school or knocked over a liquor store, so “forgetting” to get off of the toilet appears not to be a tragic shortcoming.
Not all of us are hell-bent on ensuring that our kids become a lobbyist for the stuff-that-kills-pelicans industry or a Supreme Court justice. But most parents want their kids to be happy. When my kid discovered toilet reading, stumbled upon one of my favorite strategies for achieving happiness: giving herself what she needs—be it time, solitude, entertainment, or knowledge.
And that does matter.
 And most of the people who learn to read can remember which magazines and newspapers they read.
 Post Sports Page is roughly equivalent to the Willow Creek, Alaska arts district.
 All 6-year-olds are toilet talkers, but goddamnit, we’re going to keep this thing going.