There’s little difference between a slow learner and genius

My younger son potty trained himself at 24 months. He took his diaper off and said he needed underwear. I was like, “No, you need a diaper.” Two days later, his day care was like, “No way.” But he did it.

Then he taught himself vibrato at age six. Most cello students work years to learn vibrato at age ten.

He was invited to be on the traveling soccer team, the gymnastics team, and the dance team. He intuitively knows how to translate verbal commands to physical actions. It’s his thing.

He doesn’t read. He is in a family of obsessive readers and he doesn’t read. One day I said, “Can’t you just sit down with a book?” and he said, “Mom, don’t you see that I hate reading?”

He can read just fine. He’s great at reading the instructions for how to cheat in a video game. But he doesn’t like looking at the written word. It’s not comforting to him like it is to the rest of his family.

If he were in school he’d be a slow reader. He’d be the kid waiting for recess. He’d be the boy trying to date girls even though he’s only eight. The moms would say, “That boy is up to no good. Stay away from him.”

But instead he’s a cello genius. The line between cello genius and slow learner in school is so slim. If you learn in a special way, you don’t fit the mold for school. And there’s no other way to categorize those kids who learn in a special way except slow.

School rewards – and teaches – mediocrity. “Try a little of everything. Learn to do stuff you don’t like.” If you are not able to be at least mediocre at most things, you are an under-performer in school.

I read a poll that said half of all women think they are only one or two missteps away from being a bag lady. I think kids in school are the same way – they are each one or two missteps away from becoming their classroom’s slow learner.

35 replies
  1. mh
    mh says:

    Heh. One or two missteps away from being a bag lady. I almost — ALMOST — used the lawnmower to snork up a huge mess of smashed and sticky goldfish in the road outside my house today.

    I don’t want to broom-and-dustpan all that stuff away — don’t we have a tool for this? You can use the lawnmower to mulch leaves in the fall, I reasoned. This *should* work.

    My neighbor stopped me before I yanked the cord on the lawnmower and flicked roadway gravel (and pulverized Goldfish (TM)) into all the neighbors’ parked cars.

    Today’s iteration of the ongoing-and-escalating outdoor Nerf war among my children’s neighborhood friends must have involved some combination of popsicles and Goldfish Colors (TM), based on the battlefield casualties after all sides retreated.

    It turns out, the proper clean-up tool is called The Children, who are equipped with tiny digits at the end of their tiny hands: the same appendages that speed-load and shoot Nerf guns, in fact.

    My point is, even homeschoolers have stupid days and can feel like slow learners. And damaging a dozen parked cars *probably* would not have manded me on the street… but you know.

    The fact that I feel compelled to relate this story perhaps shows that The Stupid is still strong with me tonight.

    This post makes a strong point about the inability of most school situations to accommodate either slow learners or geniuses. I think there is another category here: late bloomers. Kids who don’t take off until adolescence or beyond. School beats them down and discourages them thoroughly, until by the time The Clever shows up in their personalities, they are too demoralized to act up on it.

    The thing about school is that it rewards conformity and discourages oddity.

    But we are all a bit odd.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Haha, I’ve had my share of days like that. That’s so true about boys. I had two brothers growing up and went through some of my brothers elementary school papers my mom kept, I think my brother was 8 and the topic was to describe an apple. One sentence said they are useful for “pegging my brother in the head with”… I thought that was funny.

      But he was also “Einstein” equivalent IQ and he’s turned out to be a real degenerate. So genius doesn’t always mean people end up in well respected jobs… sorry off topic.

  2. mh
    mh says:

    Another quick observation:

    It is so easy to load Nerf (TM) bullets and so hard to load PEZ (TM).

    Today I loaded PEZ (TM) for a child whose age is in the DOUBLE DIGITS, for heaven’s sake. He likes to see me load it in a stack. He hasn’t mastered stack-loading PEZ (TM) — he goes one-by-one.

    One-by-one is seemingly fine for loading Nerf (TM) bullet magazines, but is suboptimal for loading PEZ (TM).

    Why can’t they eat the PEZ (TM) right off the counter? Does it have to go in the PEZ (TM) figure?

    Boys are the most mysterious organisms on the planet. Equal parts joy, fart humor, and creativity.

  3. mh
    mh says:

    Boy creativity often looks like destruction.

    If you fling an apple out a second-story window, what does the splatter pattern look like?

    It is technically possible to make the bedroom fan work again after you take the blades off.

    If you put the flashlight batteries in upside down, you can leave it under the bed and get battery acid. This is the best way EVER to terrorize a younger sibling.

  4. Jim
    Jim says:

    Do/did you find it hard that your son isn’t a reader like the rest of the family?

    My whole family is type-A and very industrious and I have a son who simply is not, and it is terrifying because I watch him loll about and half-ass his chores and his homework and I go EEEEEK inside.

    It is hard work to let him be. Hard, hard work. Because I don’t want to pressure the boy to conform to the family image when it is clearly not him. But I also keep hoping he will, and trying to encourage him to, find that thing that lights his fire — like your son with the cello..

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I confess to thinking for a while that he simply could not read. I couldn’t imagine being able to read and not wanting to. It’s actually news to me that there are smart, engaged people in the world who don’t want to read.

      So much of our homeschooling is me learning to be more open-minded. And this is one of those times.


  5. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    “…half of all women think they are only one or two missteps away from being a bag lady….”

    All that tells me is something I sense already: most women are ridiculously neurotic.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      That I think this is neurotic doesn’t mean I don’t have savings, of course. I just trust my ability to get a job (some job/any job) and live frugally enough to never be a “bag lady”…

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        If we’re not being neurotic over ending up a bag lady then there is always something else, just ask my husband. :)

  6. Ella
    Ella says:

    Thank you for the bag lady link! I thought I was the odd one out, squirrelling away funds “just in case.” My partner does not understand why I need this money – he’s asked me if I’m planning to leave and I try to explain that if I don’t have the option then how can I be sure that I am in our relationship because I want to be, rather than because I must. Glad I’m not alone!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes. Totally. I make a lot of money, but I have a really high burn rate. I pay for TONS of household help so that I can work and homeschool. It’s like a house of cards, really. Like, it looks like a lot of money, but I always think that if I were laid up in the hospital for a month, we’d be out on the street.

      When I moved in with my husband, his yearly income was about $15K and mine was about $300K. Yet he was blown away by how close I was to being on the street at any given time. He grew up where there was always a cow in the freezer, ready to eat. There was alway sweet corn in the field to pick. He has never felt poor.

      His sense of plenty next to my sense of bag lady is absurd. It tells me it’s all mental – if you feel financially safe or unsafe. But it also tells me that it probably breaks down by gender.

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    If your son was in school he’d be a slow learner or else he’d be on Ritalin to get him to keep still; and since he knows how to work the system he would get all A’s and it wouldn’t even be a challenge.

    I’m so glad he gets to be at home with you where he can get all his energy out freely and learn the way he needs without some mood altering drug.

    So what if he’s reading video game pages? Why is one topic better than another? Why is book form better than screen pages? I bet he’s tried to sit down to read a book but he’s just not interested in it, not that he doesn’t know how to read.

    I guess I’m in the percentage of women who hasn’t considered that I’d even remotely end up as a bag lady… but now the thought has been put in my mind, we’ll see what happens next. :)

    • mh
      mh says:

      Thank. You.

      For whatever reason, I have a child who reads almost exclusively non-fiction. He reads well and he likes to read, but he doesn’t choose fiction. So he sits and learns about the Apollo space program or whatever, but Helpful Relatives give him novels. Which he does not really even pretend to like… that’s a little embarrassing for me. But he certainly doesn’t READ them (most recent example: Desperaux the book.) Now, other people in the family read various things, so an individual book may not be a total loss, but a lovingly-inscribed Newbery-award-winning novel to Dear Child from Helpful Relative is generally a dud.

      And Helpful Relative KNOWS THIS — and does not like this particular trait in this particular child — so I suspect that Helpful Relative is trying to CHANGE Dear Child, who reminds Helpful Relative a bit too much of Helpful Relative’s ex-spouse.

      “Happy Birthday. Be more like me,” the gift seems to suggest.

      Sometimes with family, the most important thing is keeping my eyebrows down where they belong instead of letting them crawl off the top of my forehead.

      What does it matter WHAT they are reading, as long as they are cheerfully learning? I know perfectly well-adjusted people who prefer reading the sports page, or a Nicholas Sparks novel, or a chiller-thriller. This reflects personal taste, not a personality failing. Let kids be themselves.

      Taking. Things. Personally. Today.

      • Judy Sarden
        Judy Sarden says:

        I think its totally normal for boys to prefer non-fiction. At the library my son always chooses non-fiction books for me to read to him. Now if I could only get him interested in reading them HIMSELF, I would be happy. As for the relatives, at some point I get tired of always taking the high road. Sometimes you just have to tell people “thanks, but no thanks.”

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Helpful Relatives indeed! My oldest still prefers picture books over chapter books, and only wants to read My Little Pony. Otherwise she hates reading unless it’s a math word problem, she loves those. My home office has over 1000 books that I’ve purchased for the kids to read, only 10% have actually been read. So what do Helpful Relatives do? Buy more books that THEY enjoyed when THEY were kids… so THEY get to see my child say “Oh great another book” and toss it aside. I take it very personally too… I’m sure they mean well but it’s frustrating when they ask if they’ve read such and such book and I have to say No, she isn’t interested in that right now. Thankfully I have my own family trained, it’s the in-law side I need to work on.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I saved all the fiction I loved as a girl. I always thought I’d share it with my kids. When it become clear that my sons would not go near all those well-loved girl stories I did a giveaway on my blog – if you sent me your daughter’s name and her age, I sent you one of my books. It was so fun and I gave them all away and I never worried again that my sons didn’t care about my novels.


  8. Judy Sarden
    Judy Sarden says:

    I finally succumbed to family pressure and had the kids undergo standardized testing. With disastrous results for my son. I use kind of a modified Socratic method when I teach. We cover a topic, and as the kids ask questions, we use additional resources to answer the questions and delve deeper into the topic. I help them analyze the info by asking them questions. If they give a “wrong” answer, I keep the questions and dialog going until they find the flaw in their own logic or figure out the answer for themselves. My son thrives in this setting.

    Unfortunately, this style of school does not lend itself well to standardized testing. My son hates to read. So sometimes instead of reading the questions on the test, he would just choose an answer. It was maddening watching him bubble in incorrect answers to questions that I KNEW he should have gotten correct. If he did bother to read the question, he spent too much time over thinking the answers. The rest of the test time he spent staring out the window.

    I haven’t received the results yet but am pretty sure his testing will indicate that he is “behind” or a “slow learner,” when that isn’t the case at all. And I’m certain that if he was in school they would pressure me to medicate him so that he would “focus” better. He excels in other things, including sports and violin, and he loves his drama class. The school wouldn’t care, though.

    He’s only in first grade so I’m trying not to let the testing “incident” get to me. My husband is demanding that I get the kid some workbooks. He says that schooled kids have to do worksheets all the time so they are probably able to perform better on the tests because its like doing worksheets.

    So if you have a kid who doesn’t like to read, how do you handle standardized testing? We are required to test beginning in 3rd grade so it can’t be avoided.

    • Betsy
      Betsy says:

      I would suggest practicing with him by administering assessment-style assignments orally, or doing them together. Once he is more comfortable, progress to independent work. It’s a style I used successfully as a classroom teacher. The workbooks would be a good place to start – you can do them together.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      I’m in a state that doesn’t require any standardized testing for private homeschoolers. But if for whatever reason I did, I still wouldn’t worry about it. Standardized tests are an incomplete way to view the way that you homeschool and to measure what your kids are learning. I’m not a fan of standardized tests at all. I have friends who choose to homeschool through public charter which requires them to take standardized testing starting in 2nd grade then every year after that. The teacher’s that meet with them say not to worry about it and that at this young age it doesn’t really matter.

      Why is a first grader filling out a bubble test anyway? I wouldn’t take the results seriously, no matter how they turn out, he’s so young!! You know what your kids are learning, and it’s so much better for them. A lot of employers complain that potential employees just fresh out of school only know how to take and pass tests, but work and life is not a series of bubble tests! Hang in there! :)

    • mh
      mh says:

      Judy, does your school district offer the option to have your child take the test privately with a certified moderator? That might work better than plunking him into an unfamiliar classroom and wishing him the best of luck.

      Also, test-taking is a skill that can be taught. By you. Look up your state’s test. Is guessing penalized? If not, when time gets low, he should fill in the remainder of the bubbles. On the reading section, he should read the questions first, then read the selection.

      I would never dream of telling a parent to bribe a child to concentrate, but I will personally confess to having bribed a child who did not want to participate in a music recital. LEGOs make excellent incentives for concentrating and completing a job.

      And remember, the score he gets on a standardized test two years (?) in the future will not indicate whether you are a good person or whether he is a good student. It will be a lifeless measurement of how he did on that test, on that day. It doesn’t represent him, or you, or the general population of homeschoolers. So make the incentive dependent on him preparing himself and completing the test, and not on his score. Right?

      If your child loves workbooks, then go for workbooks. If he doesn’t like them, then subjecting him to them so he can do well on a meaningless test seems unwise.

      Remember, every teacher in America is busy telling the newspapers how meaningless these tests are and how we shouldn’t be paying teachers based on the results, or drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of their teaching techniques based on the results. And who am I to contradict a teacher?

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      Advice from my daughter who took her first of four standardized tests at age 10:
      He’s too young.

      Think about what you want from it, a child who loves learning or a child who is good at taking tests.

      Forcing him to read (as preparation) is a sure way to get him to hate reading forever.

      Don’t use worksheets. Cover material verbally, which you already do.

      If you want to prepare him for testing, shortly before the test cover a couple things such as an ACT prep class covers- when two answers conflict, it’s one of them, if you’re going to guess, always use the same letter (like C)- a few practical things.

      From me: The last standardized test was the only one my child had to fill in name and info all by herself at the end of college (did not take ACT) and she had to ask a classmate how to do it. You may want to cover putting your name in those little boxes shortly before the test.

      Daydreaming will improve with age probably, but it took me several years. The fewer of these, the better. Maturation is key, not practice. People confuse that with young children.

  9. karelys
    karelys says:

    The first and most important step in nurturing the child into becoming themselves is to quit competing with everyone else.

    When I see on Facebook how people’s kids (same age as my son) are potty training or talking or doing xyz I feel the slight temptation of start “training” my child to be on par with everyone else. But just imagining the screeching sound he’ll make when he expresses how uncomfortable and not ready he is for something new….I just leave him alone.

    Sometimes I think I am a lazy parent.

    Sometimes I think I am awesome by trying so hard to listen to his cues and not force him into stuff unless it’s a life or death (or sickness) situation.

    As I do that with my son I start allowing myself room to grow outside the expectations ingrained in me from an early age. It’s amazing how parenting can be a healing process and discovery of how to love oneself.

    I was not ready for that.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Yep, this is true. Just let your child be who he is, and let him know he is loved, always. I have three kids, my oldest was talking fully at 12 months, and potty trained completely in one day at 18 months, my middle didn’t say anything until she turned two and wasn’t potty trained until over 3 years old! My third, hits the milestones exactly right in the average age range. You know what I’ve learned from this? Nothing really… LOL… all kids progress at their own rate and they all eventually learn how to talk and use the bathroom. Just love your kid no matter what and just watch them as they learn to navigate the world. :) Keep it up!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, of course this is the right answer. Of course it’s messed up that parents compete with each other. But it’s the people who are noncompetitive in all of their life who are most successful in being noncompetitive as parents.

      So I am pretty sure that I have to work harder than most parents at being noncompetitive since competing is so easy and pleasurable to me in the rest of my life.


      • karelys
        karelys says:

        As long as there is a change of winning I can be ridiculously competitive.
        But I’ve seen what that does to children. So I have forced myself to essentially grow my personality into something different or just another side of it.
        If there is no change of winning or I don’t care of the outcome I just don’t get the gumption. But what is so tempting about comparing to other parents is that no one really gives you much validation that you’re doing it right. So you want to rub it in their faces (especially when you’re pestered about your decisions).

  10. karelys
    karelys says:

    And when I feel like everyone is pressuring me and questioning our choices as parents, I remember when it was totally normal to force girls into wearing chastity belts, and break their feet for femininity, and how emotionally stunted men were forced to be.

    Those things were so normal. But thanks to people who broke the mold we live in different times.

  11. tabitha
    tabitha says:

    It has been amazing for me to witness my first and second children ‘learning to read’ at home. My oldest taught himself by 4, in order to cheat at video games! He wanted to read the walkthroughs online and I didn’t have enough time to read them as much as he liked. He asked how to learn to read, and I showed him Weeks later, he was a fluent reader reading Magic Tree House and more. In his case, he discovered he loved reading. He always has a few books he’s working on. My daughter, 2 years younger, has a different story. She didn’t show an interest in reading until she was 6, totally ‘normal’. She had played on Starfall and other sites enough to know all her sounds and even be able to write- copy- perfectly. She had me write down words for her to copy and memorized which one was which so she could use them later. “Princess” “dress” “I love you” and so on. By the time she was 8, she had been trying to learn to read for a couple of years. I had never been pushy but I recognized she really wanted it and it wasn’t happening for her. We had her evaluated last year through our homeschool charter and discovered she is dyslexic and has auditory processing disorder. The label was of no real importance to us but it did help us understand a little better what was happening. Since, we have employed new methods (basically, backing off big time, also, a tutor, and audiobooks) and she is a blossoming reader at 9 1/2. But she has no love of reading. She doesn’t put in much time with books because while she wants to be able to read to do some things that require reading (sewing patterns, recipes, history books) she does not read for pleasure, and she may never do so. That’s okay. I am more like my older son and she is more like her father, who almost never reads for pleasure but is often found reading for self-education purposes. We are both happy adults who are happy with our reading habits.

    I know I just wrote a novel but this article really brought that up for me, the eye-opening realization that our kids are not us and they don’t have to be.

    I have two younger boys (and another girl on the way soon) and the lesson my two oldest taught me in this has played a huge part in how I look at them as they start to show interest in learning to read and other academic pursuits. No expectations. They are who they are, and I get to watch in awe as they reveal that to me over the years. Homeschooling is the only reason I get to know this and get to live it.

  12. Judy Sarden
    Judy Sarden says:

    Thanks everyone for the advice! My son hates workbooks and anything that involves writing which is why we do most things orally. My daughter loves workbooks and at age 4 she rocked the kindergarten test (yes, they even have them for kindergarten). Interestingly, she has learned how to fake her way through workbooks. It usually takes me a couple of weeks to figure out that she hasn’t really grasped the concepts in the workbooks because she can figure out how to get all the answers correct. On the other hand, because we do most things orally, I know exactly what my son knows. Which is why I had been reluctant to undergo the testing in the first place. I actually feel guilty for subjecting him to the process.

    As for bubbling in answers, the test allows the kids to mark their answer in the test booklet but they still have to bubble it in.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Love that your daughter can fake her way through workbooks at such a young age! To me that seems like the ultimate predictor of future success!


  13. Stacie
    Stacie says:

    “If he were in school he’d be a slow reader. He’d be the kid waiting for recess. He’d be the boy trying to date girls even though he’s only eight. The moms would say, “That boy is up to no good. Stay away from him.” <– this is exactly whey I took my 9yo out of school this year. He can read, he just doesn't read the way they want him too, but he's great at other things. I don't want his whole childhood and "educational experience" to be about how he is "behind" in reading (and therefore, in the school system, would likely "fall behind" in various other areas too).

    The reading will come, I have no doubt. In the mean time, I want him to realize the strengths he DOES have and I, as his mom, want to be able to enjoy those things and celebrate that about him.

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