Why my 4yo has a mentor

Earlier this year my husband and I had an important milestone as parents: we reached a moment where we couldn’t teach our son anymore. Only in chemistry mind you, but considering he was only 3 at the time, it was a big deal. He was reading adult level books, flipping through text books, and watching university lectures on youtube for fun. Not only that, but he had an obsessive need to talk to someone about his new interests, and it wasn’t enough for him to talk at us- he wanted someone to be able to offer insight to him too. I remember feeling awful for him. Imagine your favourite thing in the world. Now imagine having no one to talk to about it. Now imagine being 3. How isolating is that?

I’m very fortunate in the way that I am a SAHM with time to spare on worrying about my kid and access to the internet. I was able to find other moms of gifted children, read their blogs, and join forums that are for parents of gifted children. I was fortunate that I even knew to look at giftedness. There have been many times throughout the past 2 years or so that I’ve reached out to the knowledgeable parents on these forums, but this was my most urgent.

SOS. I’m out.

On not one, but two, of these forums, it was mentioned to me to look into a mentorship. It’s basically tutoring, but it doesn’t sound quite as crazy. And there isn’t really an endgame in sight- it’s not about earning an A on the next term paper. It’s just about getting together and learning about science. Sure, it sounded a little extreme for a preschooler, but we were out of options.

Even then, I knew I was so fortunate that I even knew where to look for help. I was so fortunate that people took me seriously enough to make that suggestion. I was even luckier that our local university took me seriously enough to put me in contact with a student to fill the position of mentor to my son.

It’s been 8 months now, and it was the best thing that ever happened for my son. I remember seeing a total change in him after 2 meetings with his mentor. He was happier, he wasn’t quite as obsessive with the periodic table. He chilled out a little bit in a very positive way. Sure, 3 year olds change so often that any number of things could have had that effect, but after this long it’s still the highlight of my son’s week.

And I’ve learned a lot about him in the process too. For one, it gives me insight into just how amazing his big ol’ brain is. That the things he says to me throughout the week aren’t actually gibberish, they’re science. It also reminds me how little he still is- seeing him fidget in the ginormous chairs, getting excited over the colours of the crayons. He is still my baby! And it also reminds me how preposterous our situation must look when a student or professor walks by to see this little boy sitting and learning Avogadro’s number. But I don’t think anyone who sees him doubts that he wants to be there. Unless it’s the last fifteen minutes of the hour, you can see that he is totally engrossed.

I still feel trepidation talking to people about his science lessons though. I’m worried that they’ll think I’m a pushy mom, or say something negative about it and spoil it in my son’s mind. He looks up to his mentor like a big brother. For a whole hour he has someone’s undivided attention that is capable of challenging him in a subject that he loves. And that’s priceless.

I’m so happy I didn’t dismiss mentorship as something that would only be beneficial for when he’s older. I’m so happy that I didn’t limit him by his age. And I am so thankful for the people who have helped us along the way. Not only the people on the message boards, the university, and his mentor, but others too. Friends that have given him textbooks and science equipment. Librarians that have suggested books and reassured me during times of crisis. Even his teachers at school, that while their hands are tied by the school system, have recognized his abilities and tried to understand him. And let’s be honest, for anyone who thinks I’m crazy but has kept it to themselves! This is what is working for us. And that’s all we can do as parents.

We can only find something that works and stick with it until it doesn’t anymore. And then, we find something else.

So why does my son have a mentor?

Because we couldn’t teach him anymore.

Because it was the only thing we could do for him. Programs wouldn’t take him. 

Because he wanted one. And not only that, he needed one. 

The first time he met with his mentor, it was like he had been born in a land where no one spoke the same language as him, and finally, for the first time, he met someone he understood. And understood him. A lightbulb went off. Bells dinged. And eventually, it satisfied his need to learn about chemistry enough that he was finally able to let other things into his life. Yes, he still loves to build periodic tables and write out the elements, but he’s perfectly happy to pursue other interests as well. To me, it’s much healthier to give him an appropriate outlet for his interests so that he has time to pursue other ones than to force him to spend all of his time working it out on his own. But that’s just me.

Yes, our situation is an extreme one, but I think that’s what’s great about the internet. Those of us in extreme situations are able to find our people. We can take solace in the fact that there are other crazy people out there. And in addition to that, we get to learn about those who are different and understand why they do the crazy things they do. This is just one of the many crazy things we do, and we’re not the only ones. But sometimes, I don’t have time to explain it all. Or, I feel awkward explaining it all. So here it all is, out in the open.

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The aftermath

We all have those moments in parenting where we think we’re absolutely, out of our minds, crazy. The first time we sing our screaming baby a totally inappropriate song because it’s 3 am and they won’t stop crying and we’ve run out of nursery rhymes. The first time we try to go pee with the baby in the carrier because I’m going to pee my pants and they just fell asleep damn it. The first, or tenth, time we go to play group with exactly 34 minutes sleep and haven’t spoken to another adult in days and we are trying to hold a conversation with another parent and it just comes out in rambles. The forgotten keys. The lost wallets. The inside out yoga pants. The eternal question: poop or chocolate?? We’ve all been there. And we all know the relief that comes from hearing another parent confess that they’ve done the exact same thing. I’m not crazy is the battle cry of parents every where.

And I can finally say it too. I’m not crazy.

Crazy goes hand in hand with parenting. We can all accept that right? But I’ve felt particularly out there insane more than a few times this year especially. There was the time I emailed our local university in order to find my 3 year old a mentor. There were the school interviews where I felt it was my duty as my kid’s parent to say “hey, he’s a little different.” There was the constant reaching out to programs and classes and friends and acquaintances and begging for help. And then there was the time I booked my son’s psychoeducational assessment.

You know we don’t recommend testing for gifted purposes before grade 1?

You know there’s no gifted programming in this district until grade 5?

You know they won’t accelerate your child?

You know you’re batshit crazy, right?

Okay, so no one actually said the last one to my face but it was literally oozing from their voices. I knew that any psychologist worth their salt would need to be heavily persuaded. Three offices flat out ignored my pleas, one booked us in as though they were booking a doctor’s appointment (which was a major red flag to me!) and for the last one, finally, I pleaded and begged and followed up so that they knew I was serious and desperate. Out of pure luck, I got an intake coordinator who believed me even though no one could blame her if she had just ignored me like the rest. I am so thankful she didn’t though.

Because see, I knew it was crazy to get a kid tested just because I thought he was smart. But my husband and I knew something wasn’t right. We googled and researched and read. We got him snap circuits and chemistry kits. We left the library with armloads of books every week. We got our 3 year old a mentor for goodness sakes!  And still, it wasn’t enough. He was coming home from kindergarten and saying things that raised all kinds of red flags. We needed help.

And it was the best decision we could have made. Had we waited until my kid was 6 or 7, he would have been seriously deprived of learning during the most important years of his life. We would have continued to second guess ourselves for fear of being “special snowflake parents” or hot housing our child. We would have stuck him in the local public school and told him to stay there until college. If he had lasted that long.

It turns out, he’s not just gifted. He is the epitome of a special snowflake. Most parents would be ecstatic to hear such a thing, and I have to admit that knowing that it’s at least possible for my son to achieve his dreams of following in the footsteps of Genn T Seaborg makes me a little giddy; but having read as much as I have about giftedness I have to admit a part of me was hoping for more of a “high achiever” profile than profound giftedness. It would have meant an easier life for him and for us.

Do we sell our house and move to a better school district where we can only hope to buy a tiny condo? Do we let him be a Kindergarten dropout? Do we enroll him in a private school and have to put him in aftercare as well so that we can both work enough to afford to send him? Do we homeschool him and hire a whole brigade of tutors because goodness knows he’s outsmarting us already? I vote we move into a tiny house on wheels and take it to the road visiting all of the museums and science centres and NASA and UC Berkeley and road school for the next year but my husband claims that falls into actual crazy and not parent crazy.

I think the moral of my story is that we’re all crazy. But sometimes when it comes to our kids there is a big difference between actually being crazy, and just looking crazy. If it makes total and utter sense to you, and only looks crazy when you take a step outside and look in, then you probably are perfectly sane. We always hear those miracle medical stories about parents who just “know” something is wrong with their child and they end up saving their kid from a grisly death because they followed their gut. While this is far from a medical marvel, the message is still the same. You’re not crazy. You’re a parent. Follow your gut. And that’s a message I’m going to have to remind myself continually during this crazy ride ahead.

Everything is still sinking in for me. I feel absolutely, certifiably, insane. But I’m glad I know. Because now I can start parenting my kid with a kind of confidence that I didn’t have before. The confidence that was completely shaken because I had pictured his childhood completely different from the way it’s heading. I felt a little mournful, to be honest, to lose that image. To think about the things that are going to be difficult for him, that he may not experience. But then I realize that he is going to have so many amazing opportunities and experiences that he wouldn’t otherwise have. I always hated the term gifted, but I guess if we’re going to call it that, I need to start viewing it that way. As a gift. And I’m going to help him use it.

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When everyone’s an expert but you

Like every other excited  mom-to-be since the 80s, one of the first things I did when I found out I was pregnant was buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting. And then I promptly vomited. (Metaphorically.) And when that was done, I did what every modern mom-to-be does, and signed up for Babycenter. Because you are failing at motherhood if you can’t match the appropriately sized fruit to your unborn fetus. It’s a miracle any child survived before we figured this out.

It was all fun and games until my kid was born. “WHY ISN’T THIS WORKING??!” I would ask my husband frantically. “I DON’T KNOW,” he’d yell back, “IT’S WHAT YOU READ IN THAT STUPID BOOK!”

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There. Fixed that.

This carried on for a solid year and a half. We’d consult the baby books only to have everything blow up in our faces. Milestones were usually wrong. Calming strategies were always wrong. And tips that were meant to save sanity? Well, who had time for those? We were just trying to survive.

I’ll never forget the Scientist’s 6 week checkup. He was in his infant car seat on the floor, the cover pulled off, and my husband and I were sitting in the chairs trying to look like good parents who had everything under control and had definitely slept for more than 60 consecutive minutes in the past three weeks. I thought we were doing pretty good until the doctor stood back while staring at the baby, moved her head back and forth a bit and asked, “Is he always like this? So alert?”

“Yes!” We cried, finally feeling validated. Something was wrong with him. She was going to give us the magical cure that took this super alert baby and turned him into one that slept like, well, a baby.

“Wow. Is he usually happy like this?”

“Well, yeah,” we admitted. “He just likes to watch.”

“Cool.”

She sat down to type a note in the computer and told us when we were due back for a regular checkup. No miracle solution. No “keep an eye out for…” Just “enjoy not sleeping!”

And yes, I’m wise enough to know that no parent gets sleep. Sleep is a four letter word in the parenting world. It’s a known fact that if a mother doesn’t throw a chair at your head when you ask “how’s the baby sleeping?” it’s because she’s too exhausted and physically weak to even finish fantasizing about it, let alone see it through. But this felt abnormal. We had a bed time routine. We prioritized sleep. We got blackout curtains. Used white noise. Blah blah blah blah blah. In short, we did everything the experts said to do. They were liars. And I wanted blood.

Unfortunately for my vengeance, one day it dawned on us. It wasn’t the experts, it was our kid. He wasn’t a regularly developing infant. In a day and age where the worst thing you can be is a parent who acts like your kid is a “special snowflake” we had missed all the signs. And they were big, huge neon ones that everyone saw but us. It was more than a party trick that our one year old could flip through a baby sign language board book and teach himself new signs. It was more than a little abnormal for him to recognize words like “zoo” and “hop” and “hat” and “dog” when he was still learning to say those words. When he started sounding out words around his 2nd Birthday and reading PD Eastman and Dr Seuss beginner books, we realized our kid was umm, a little snowflakey.

But still, experts say not to teach your kid too much. It’s all about play based learning. So we’d cave and let him pick out the educational toy at the store, but then we’d balance it with a healthy dose of picking boogers and brainwashing in front of the TV. Because you want your kid to be normal.

But see, he never asked for toys. He wanted flash cards. Math workbooks meant for kindergarteners and first graders. Anything that had numbers on it. That was his fun! So eventually, we stopped listening to the experts. If he thought it was fun to spell all day, seeing that he was eating and getting outside and exercising, what did it matter?

We started to encourage his interests a little more. Getting him to do addition with toy cars was a win win. Play and learning. The librarian would find out about his latest obsession and point out some great books for him to borrow. He became obsessed with space, so I took him to a local stargazing night. That lead to him learning about these things called elements and the periodic table. And then our life spiralled out of control (in a really amazing, unbelievable kind of way).

I’ve had to find a new kind of expert. An expert that can explain my kid’s intense emotions and behaviours. One that can explain why learning is the same thing as breathing to him. I’ve finally realized that sometimes our kids are different. Heck, mostly kids ARE different. And most importantly, that you have to weigh all of that expert advice with your gut.

So tonight, out of some morbid curiousity, I signed into my Babycenter account. What kind of fruit should he be the size of this week? (I’m kidding. Everyone knows you can’t compare 3 year olds with fruit. You use storm classifications.) Anyways, after talking about how it’s the perfect time to introduce my kid to what letter his name starts with, (which is age appropriate for sure, just not something we’ve talked about since before his first birthday.) I was greeted with this:

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The thing is, we’re having our kid tested soon. We’ve reached the point where he’s so far outside of the norm that we really do need an expert’s advice. If he wasn’t in school, we wouldn’t have a need. But he is. He started JK in September and while he has kind teachers and his school has an outdoor classroom that I was thrilled about, we’re realizing it may not be the best fit. While he’s gaining independence, he doesn’t want to read much anymore because “kids just look at books!” His grammar is starting to slide. And to be honest, while they make the phonics lessons fun, is it really in his best interest to force him to sit through lessons he already knows at 3? If he’s not learning something new, shouldn’t he be playing? Look! Babycenter says he needs new experiences after all. What’s first grade going to be like when he’s chained to a desk and learning things that he knew before his second birthday? My guess is, not good. But do we pull him out of school without knowing the whole story?

Sometimes as a parent, you have to eschew  the status quo. You need to ask yourself what’s best for my child? You have to stop being afraid of looking like an idiot for the sake of getting them what they need. You need to pick and choose your experts. But you shouldn’t have to be prepared for people to judge you. We’ve all been places we didn’t think we’d end up. And sometimes, you are the only expert you need.

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