Raising a gifted toddler isn’t a matter of evaluation or enrichment. Your pint-sized poppy will grow and learn just fine without flashcards when you follow her lead and support it.
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We were on the way to pick up her sister, and the questions were coming nonstop:
“What is fire?”
“How do you make it?”
“Does fire burn rocks?”
“What about plastic?”
I could see her in the rearview mirror, intense concentration on that baby face. We passed a school bus on the left; her eyes gazed out the window.
“Mama,” she declared, with an air of absolute finality. “Fire is NOT a school bus.”
You are correct, kiddo. It most definitely is not.
7:45 PM, and she was missing.
“Did you look under the bed?!?”
“What about the bathroom?!?”
“I checked the closet – she’s not there!!!”
I picked up the phone, my finger over the nine key. A momentary glance out of the window:
Our cul-de-sac is shaped like a rectangle, and our home sits on the southeast corner. An ice cream truck jangled on the northwest side, surrounded by children and laughter. There on the sidewalk stood our daughter in her red cherry pajamas, spinning in circles and separate from the crowd.
She had not only heard the ice cream truck and made her way to the commotion; she had mastered the deadbolt on the front door.
I’m trying to write but he’s pressing on the keyboard, a wiggly presence in my irritated lap.
“Was dat say, mama? Was dat say?”
“Just a minute, bug, I’m working…”
I remove his hands for a moment, long enough to type out once last sentence: When the child is at home, she’ll often let her guard down…
“Da – child – is – at – hoooooomeeee. It say da child is at home. I go potty, mama,” and he’s off and running, stopping just outside the bathroom to make a puddle on the floor.
Welcome to gifted toddlerhood – an overwhelming place to hang out.
To parent a pint-sized poppy is to reside in the Kingdom of Irrationality, the great bastion of exhilaration, over-thinking, and self-doubt.
For starters, you question yourself all. the. time.
Why can he sight-read off the page I’m writing, but I have to answer the same question 50 times? Am I just crazy? Am I blind because I love him? Am I making this up because he’s mine?
And the meltdowns – they’re unbelievable. She’s so focused she never wants to stop. Am I spoiling her? Could she be on the spectrum? What is going on with my kid?
Then you compare yourself to everyone else.
Sarah’s daughter sleeps – why won’t mine?
Jackson just ate an entire bowl of blueberries. My kiddo wouldn’t go near something like that.
The neighbor’s toddler plays so well with other kids. Why does my child just stand on the sidelines, making letters out of sticks?
Finally, you seek confirmation and community, and the result is not what you expected.
In an online forum: “Are you sure she’s gifted? What you’re describing doesn’t sound that far from the mean.”
At a mom’s group: “Well, what sort of classes are you taking? We do Toddler STEM Adventures on Monday, Reading Ready on Wednesday, and Music Mania (our favorite) on Thursdays. Tuesdays and Fridays we do enrichment at home.”
At your in-laws: “What do you mean you aren’t working on reading? All of mine were reading fluently by two.”
Friend, I have so been there. Not only have I raised three poppies through toddlerhood, I’ve lived to talk about it – faculties mostly intact.
Chances are you’re feeling a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. You face great pressure to provide your poppy with every opportunity, to say nothing of the propensity for maternal guilt. It’s tempting, I think, to seek out classes and resources designed to help our children learn and grow. But there’s a hidden cost behind those options, especially if we rely on them too much.
The Cost of Structured Learning
When I was eight weeks pregnant with our first child, my husband and I took a minivacation to the countryside. Our B&B owners had a toddler with dimples and blonde ringlets.
He was on the local preschool’s waiting list two weeks after he was born.
While this family did live in a rural area and there weren’t many preschool options from which to choose, this revelation came as I was knee-deep in “holy-cow-I’m-having-a-baby” preparations. I’d been toying with my registry, reading reviews of Baby Einstein flashcards.
I was also a high school teacher growing jaded with parental pressure in my classroom. All of it – the waiting lists, the resources, the expert voices, and testimonials – seemed an introduction not to motherhood, but to an educational agenda:
- Gifted kids are manufactured
- Consistent, targeted, direct instruction is the best way for young children to learn
Neither one of these theories is true.
Giftedness is a neurological construct, the way a child’s brain is wired from birth.
Yes, neural pathways are decidedly plastic, but no amount of practice or drill will change the latent potential of the brain. To push the educational benefits of direct instruction on young children isn’t just over overkill, it’s harmful to both typical and atypical kids.
Each child who comes into this world has a unique, unrepeatable purpose. As parents, it is our job to facilitate that – not by force, but by genuine love and support. Children have a magnificent way of communicating their needs and their interests. Our attention to this is what makes the difference, not reliance on flashcards or classes.
In two decades of teaching, I’ve met too many desperate teens, heading off to a degree plan or college not of their choosing but of the perfect plan for mom and dad.
That pattern doesn’t happen overnight.
Your Gifted Toddler Just Needs You
You have a child, not a specimen. This child has been given directly to you. Flashcards, classes, testing, and enrichment experiences don’t matter. What does?
Your love, your presence, your receptivity: your willingness to follow her lead.
Mama, trust your instincts
Evaluating a toddler can be tricky and traumatic, and really, you don’t need proof. Besides – what does it matter what other people think about your child? You know her best, and you can offer intuitive support.
Spend time playing with your child
Truthfully, it is the best way for a child to learn. In Einstein Never Used Flashcards, Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek puts it well:
“Children with loving parents who enjoy them, play with them, and offer guidance and suggestions as they explore their environment will be healthy, emotionally well-adjusted, and psychologically advanced.”
Play is a child’s first language. It’s how he negotiates his world. Play leads to advancements in literacy, mathematics, and the sciences, to say nothing of social and emotional skills. Relying on flashcards instead of play takes learning out of context. Our children end up in a sterile box.
Follow her lead, especially down rabbit holes
Let your child’s interests dictate what you do. Embrace the rabbit hole philosophy, the practice of exploring every facet of a subject or an interest. Doing so from the beginning will help cultivate a love of learning and encourage his creativity.
Finally, enjoy the ride
When it comes to your gifted toddler’s development, you don’t have to tick boxes off a chart. His development will be all over the place, and that’s totally normal. He’ll need you to support his burgeoning abilities, whether they are advanced, on target, or a little slow.
Like every child, a gifted toddler is his own little person.
Raising him won’t get any easier, any less weird, or any more rational. But there is great beauty in that fact because he is precisely the little human he was created to be.
He doesn’t need training or pressure or practice or flashcards.
He just needs you and your love.
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