That smarts!

“I started reading at two!”

I don’t know how this came up, but I know we were at an Italian restaurant. A bunch of us friends had met up for dinner, and one of them mentioned this little tidbit.

I nodded, tight-lipped. My kid was about to turn two. Was reading at two years old considered early? He was the third person I knew who did it, which just meant it was doable. It wasn’t some myth. Kids can and do read at two years old, and, I mean…. it’s not like all of these guys I knew were supergeniuses or anything.

My kid is smart. He should be able to do it. Right?

Well, two came and went.

…. And he could point to the letter K, I guess?

This is the part where I’m going to project all my childhood frustrations onto my son.

Growing up, I, too, was smart.

That was my thing.

Oh god, I was “gifted.” Psychologically-tested gifted — which of course got me asking my parents, “You had me psychologically tested?” I think I was supposed to have a Promil commercial, if I didn’t get sick on the day of the shooting. I had the choreography (oh god) and the Jasmine pants (OH GOD) so I could ballet it out (EEK) to A Whole New World (… ok, that’s actually a pretty nice song).

I was in a gifted group. A club? I was young; it was strange. Or maybe it was only weird for me? Because on the one hand, I had qualified part of this group; on the other, here’s little 8-year-old me, just living, walking into a room of 5-year-old chess grandmasters, 9-year-old playwrights, and future national artists.

Why was I there?

My family would call me smart. My classmates. My teachers. Maybe I started believing it myself, too.

You know who didn’t call me smart? My grades.

During report card days, my classmates would be crying, “Oh no, I only got four Excellents!” I’d peek at mine, and go, “He-hey! Nothing lower than a Good!” I wasn’t a bad student. I just also wasn’t as star a student as people’s praises warranted.

Like: at the end of that school year, my adviser talked about her students one by one, sharing little anecdotes she would remember about each one of us. When it was my turn, I got a, “Sobrang galing n’ya sa math! As in! She’s really really good!” This meant a lot too, because not only was she my adviser, she was my math teacher! And she said that!

But then grades came out and my report card instead said, “Sobrang … ‘eh keri lang naman siya’ sa math.”

It was a weird feeling.

And it’s a weird feeling navigating through a world simultaneously recognizing me as smart, but not validating it by any measurable means.

And then I gave birth to a smartass!

Things are a little different when I’m out of my own head and thinking of someone who isn’t me. Because for all the damage being called smart has done on my own self-esteem, I can’t help thinking: but my son is really smart!

I know this, because I do experiments on him. (That’s why you have kids, folks!) Small things, like, asking him to turn off the lights when he can’t reach the switch and watching him make stairs with a stool and a chair; or asking him what he thinks of The Green Arrow, a good guy who shoots people and seeing him try to make sense of that; or watching him figure out scissors for the first time and finding it so cool he stuck the paper in between his knees so he could hold one handle in each hand.

And I observe it, too. I came home to him one night painting a brain with “a cerebellum!” — and I, a 25-year-old college graduate who had taken neuropsychology, had to Google it to realize that, oh crap my preschooler’s artwork and vocabulary are anatomically correct. I’m so sorry, Ma’am Ortega.

But my favorite is the time he asked me to download an app on my iPad for him. When I prompted with, “What’s the magic word?” he answered with, “IT’S FREE.”

That’s smart.

But experts say not to call your kid smart. Sorry, people with advanced degrees, but I, a person without any degrees or qualifications, will disagree.

Their premise is, it isn’t healthy.

Because kids who are called smart don’t know how to deal with being wrong; they’ll do whatever it takes — lie, cheat, steal — to keep the smart label; or conversely refuse to do anything at all as not to jeopardize it; and will avoid making mistakes, even though mistakes are crucial to learning.

Here’s where I agree: being called smart has done a number on my self-esteem. I bathe in doubt every day. I’ll side-eye anybody who compliments me because I’m not sure if they sincerely mean it, seeing as my actual achievements say but you’re wrong, I quantifiably suck.

Here’s where I disagree: with the prevailing definition of smart.

It looks to me that these articles are talking about the on-paper smart. You get an A and you don’t ever want to get a B, so you’ll cheat during your next exam kind of smart. The “either you have it or you don’t, and one mistake means you don’t” kind of smart. The kind of smart that looks at whether or not a kid can read by two years old.

Well, that’s a pretty shitty definition of smart! I don’t know what that is, but yeah, they’re right, I’m not calling my kid that, because that’s totally not what I mean.

So what is smart?

Watching my son grow up — seeing smart in someone else — made things clearer to me. I spent my years in doubt, but my son makes a good case for a giant “d’oh” to the head.

I’ve found that knowing how to find a solution is infinitely more useful than just knowing an answer.

Totally going to make this up, but also totally going to stand by this definition: smart knows how to figure things out.

Points go to making mistakes! Because a mistake means you’re one “okay, so this is how not to make a blanket fort” closer than someone who’s never tried. Then bonus points for trying something different and failing even better because that means, hey, learned something new!

Points go to learning the art of asking questions. “Good question!” is higher praise to me than “Good answer!” because no one’s going to get the right answer if they’re asking the wrong questions.

Points go to an attitude that follows every “I don’t know” with a, “So how do I know this thing I wanna know?”

Smart is more how to think than what to think: mashing ideas together, analyzing new information against old knowledge, and finding weird connections, say, between a brick and a glass of Sprite that no one else might think of.

Just for fun, just now, I asked him how they’d connect. “They’re both…..” — his face lights up in a Eureka moment — “BRIGHT!”

It’s problem-solving.

I don’t need my kid to know the answers; I need to know that if I drop him in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, he’ll be like, “Ma, I GOT THIS.”

If my son is out there trying to build a village using his books as houses and they keep toppling over, if he’s squinching up his forehead because, wait, how does the sperm get into the uterus in the first place?, if he’s asking me to “check on YouTube about how volcanoes work!”

Then sorry, experts. I’m calling him smart.

And, oh — he can read now, too!


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