In a doctor’s office when M is 18 months old, he is sitting in a corner reciting a book out loud as he turns the pages, giving a convincing impression that he is reading. The doctor and medical assistant ooh and aah. During the intake process, they ask us several questions about our daily routine. When they hear that my husband is home full-time with M and that my work schedule at the time includes working from home a few afternoons a week, the doctor nods knowingly at the book in M’s hands. “Well, with two parents at home, no wonder he’s doing so well.”
A year later, I spend a weekend at the beach with some co-workers and our kids. It is a few months after M’s autism diagnosis, and the beginning of our brief and ill-fated experiment with the DAN! protocol. I have lugged 6 different supplements with me, which I stir into M’s juice each morning. One co-worker, with a child M’s age, stares slack-jawed as he does his usual parlor tricks: counting to 1000 in several languages, reciting the alphabet backwards, writing and solving math problems on the Magna-Doodle. Later, she asks me about the supplements. I explain that we are hoping they will help with M’s anxiety, aggressive and violent behavior, and digestive problems (update: they don’t). “We’ve got to get some of these for my son,” she says. Her son, of course, does not have issues with anxiety or aggression. But she seems convinced that the supplements might make him smarter.
At every visit with my in-laws, the universal response after M ‘performs’ is “You guys are doing such a great job with him!” The response to his autism diagnosis is “It’s all in your head. He can’t be autistic — he’s talking already,” or “Well, he’s obviously very bright. You must be doing something right.”
An essay I wrote several months ago — about parental competitiveness, hyperlexia, and our cultural focus on reading as the only measure of intelligence — was recently re-published on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. In the essay, I said that I struggled with how to respond to people who repeatedly complimented my son for his precocious ability to recite the alphabet but failed to notice any of his other achievements or good qualities.
Several people who left comments on the post seemed confused, sad, and even angry that I would not simply accept any praise of my child at face value, or that I would feel conflicted about this kind of praise but not about praise for other skills or personality traits. I floundered around trying to re-state my point after each comment, usually not very coherently or concisely. ( Concise, it’s not my strong suit).
But I think I’ve finally put my finger on what bothers me, which I was unable to explain clearly either in the first essay or in the many explanatory comments. The reason the incessant praise of my son’s hyperlexia grates on me is not because I am not proud of his skills, or because I think other people should or should not be proud of them. It’s because the praise is invariably accompanied by praise for my parenting — implying that through hard work and willpower, I trained my child to read before his second birthday.
The belief underlying this praise is that it is in parents’ power to make their children bright — if only we buy the right toys, administer the right supplements, stay home with them full time, read them the right books. It is this belief that makes parents drill their kids with flashcards before preschool, subject them to those make-your-baby-a-genius-in-20-minutes-a-day DVDs, and buy all that other crap that we’re told we’d better get because otherwise our kid will be left behind.
This line of thinking — the right kind of parenting produces perfect kids — repels me, because the necessary corollary is so ugly and cruel: If you insist that your child’s above-average skills are the result of good parenting, then his delays and shortcomings are evidence of your failure. This is the kind of thinking that gave us Bettelheim’s “refrigerator mothers.” And the parents of children with severe disabilities or life-threatening illnesses or even just below-average IQs — I guess they just didn’t try hard enough.
If I take credit for my son’s ability to read at two, then I also accept that I am at fault for his anxiety disorder, his “delayed” gross motor skills, and his huge struggles with social communication. As the parent of a child with very visible gifts as well as very visible developmental delays, I feel the sting of this theory acutely. Every time someone tells me what a great job I’m doing because M is a precocious reader, I hear an accusation: if I just tried harder, took him outside to play catch more often, quit my job to focus more on his therapy, then he’d “catch up” in all the areas where he doesn’t excel. This theory places an impossible burden of guilt on parents of kids who are not perfect (that is to say, all parents). It’s also not true.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that parenting has very little impact on children’s intelligence, behavior, or temperament. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker summarizes decades of empirical results that show, time and time again, that “All human behavioral traits are heritable. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes. …[G]rowing up in a particular family has little or no systemic effect on one’s intellect and personality.” Not only are autism and general intelligence heritable, so are behavioral traits like how proficient with language you are, how likely you are to become dependent on nicotine or alcohol, and how likely you are to experience depression or anxiety. So is every major axis of personality. All of these are largely unaffected by anything we do as parents.
This is not to say that parenting is meaningless or has no effect on children. Obviously what we do has a huge impact on our kids’ day-to-day happiness. Our job as parents is to love our kids unconditionally, to nurture them, to comfort them, to provide as many tools as we can to help them reach their potential, to do whatever is in our power to make them happy, to keep them alive. But, as Pinker argues so persuasively, our children are not lumps of clay that we mold in into a desired shape.
My discomfort with the way people praise my son does not in any way diminish my pride in him. If I sound snarky when I refer to his “parlor tricks,” the snark is directed at our cultural assumptions about parenting, “giftedness,” and disability; not at my child. I love watching his face light up when he notices a silent letter in a printed word or figures out how to count by sevens. I am willing to listen to him count by sevens a hundred times in a row (other parents of kids like M will recognize that I am not exaggerating here) just to see that look of pure joy on his face when he does it. I was an early reader too, and have always loved looking for patterns in words and numbers. Sharing that thrill with my son is one of the biggest pleasures I have found in parenting so far.
M’s abilities are part of who he is. I love those parts of him, just as I love all the other parts — including the many that others view as “below average,” “impaired,” “delayed,” “deficient,” and “abnormal.” But really, I didn’t have much to do with any of it. He was born that way.
Sarah Schneider blogs at Kitaiska Sandwich.
Born That Way appears here by permission.
[image: Pablo Picasso's late-career self-portrait, The Young Painter. Or as psychologist James Hillman has described it, the painting is not of a young Picasso but of Picasso's present-from-birth, accompanying daimon.]