By Leah McLarenUpdated Jul 21, 2021
My five-year-old son has had the same best friend since nursery school, a lovely little boy I’ll call Billy.
Ever since the age of three, my son James and Billy have been inseparable. Digging in the sandbox, splashing at the water table, tumbling around the playground like Labradors and shoving peas up their noses at lunchtime—regular little-kid stuff.
So when they ended up in the same kindergarten class, I was delighted. And everything was great until one day, James came home complaining that Billy had been put into a “special group” and they couldn’t sit together anymore during reading class. I immediately worried about Billy. The boys are the youngest in the class, and Billy's even younger than James. Was he falling behind? Worse yet, would he be held back?
The next time Billy and James had a playdate, my fears were put to rest.
“Hi, James’s mum!” said Billy with his signature twinkly smile. “Did you know that the Marianna Trench is the deepest part of the sea? It’s located in the Western Pacific Ocean and is seven miles deep. Only four submarines have ever been to the bottom in all of human history!”
Billy’s mother rolled her eyes and switched off the TV, which had been playing David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. “Sorry,” she said. “He watches these things obsessively lately. It gets a little boring.”
“And also did you know,” continued Billy, now in full flow, “the narwhal is a whale that has a long tusk like a unicorn lives in the Arctic ocean near Greenland? It’s an endangered species which is why we shouldn’t use plastic bottles because they’re bad for the marine environment.”
I suddenly realized: Billy was a genius!
I looked over at my own son, who was snacking on a crayon while failing to repeat the simple pattern in a game of Simon and thought, Oh well. That's fine.
But the truth is, I was more than a bit flummoxed.
Much as I try not to be this way where my kids are concerned, I’m a naturally competitive person. Not in every aspect of life—just the ones that I’m good at. As a journalist, reading and writing are top of my list of Important Life Skills, so it did confuse me slightly that it was my son’s best friend and not my actual son who had turned out to be the reading genius. Nevertheless, I resolved to carry on (what else could I do?) and appreciate my son for the stuff he is genius at (catching ants in a jar, collecting “gemstones,” which are actually just quartz and making “potions” out of rainwater and old stuff rotting in the fridge).
The funny thing is, James recognizes that he is different than his best friend, but it doesn’t bother him in the least. “Billy is the best reader in our class,” he recently told me, “and I’m the best at the monkey bars!”
A few weeks ago, when we had Billy over for the boys’ very first sleepover, he asked if we had Harry Potter book 5. As a matter of fact, we did—it belonged to James’ older brother. “Oh, great!” said Billy, cracking open the novel. “I’m on page 367.”
James must have inherited a bit of my competitive streak because he, too, selected a novel from his older brother’s shelf and started to read it, sitting toe to toe with Billy on the top bunk. As James painstakingly sounded out the first sentence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Billy politely suggested that it might be better if they both read “in our heads” so the room was quiet.
James was asleep in under a minute. Billy read for half an hour, then switched off the light himself.
It’s hard not to compare your kid to others at the best of times, but when your son is best friends with a genius, it takes extra-special powers of Buddha-like self-mastery. Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to understand that children really do develop at different paces and that fastest is not necessarily always best.
I’ve also learned that it’s not all smooth sailing for the parents of unusually advanced kids. I don’t think Billy’s mum is humblebragging when she says she frets about Billy preferring to sit and read in the shade while the other kids play tag in the sun. So-called “gifted” children often suffer socially from being out of step with their peer group. Or they struggle to develop other aspects of their personalities that have been ignored when one skill (be it academic, artistic or athletic) supercedes all the rest.
As for James, I no longer worry that because he’s simply normal in his math and literacy skills, he’s somehow doomed to fall behind. His teacher says he’s “exactly where he should be,” and I’m putting my trust in that.
The important thing, I now realize, is not to push or compare your kids, but to be a loving, supportive and non-judgemental parent. Also, that way, I figure he’ll be sure to thank me personally in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
This article was originally published online in July 2018.