Fancy Pants Academy for Special Flowers

Dear WOM,

I have a two-and-a-half-year-old who is incredibly smart and curious. He already talks in full sentences and wants to understand how everything works. Yesterday, I found him in the dishwasher trying to figure out how the water gets in and out. I’m worried that he’ll be bored in a traditional school where he is stuck with kids his own age. I’m thinking about sending him to a school that encourages his curiosity and lets him learn as fast as he wants. But the school is expensive and would really stretch our budget. Is it worth it?

—Einstein’s Mom

Dear Einstein’s Mom,

And so it begins. This is a debate you are going to have—in one form or another—until your child is launched into the adult world: is the good-enough option acceptable or is there Something Better? And is that Something Better worth the trade-off for your family? Other parents—most of society, in fact—will conspire to convince you that Something Better is always the right choice. “Good parents,” they’ll say in so many different ways, “parents who really love their child will always choose Something Better.” They’ll gloss over the costs of Something Better: the fees that require working extra hours or eat into retirement savings, hours spent schlepping through traffic or sweltering on the side of a field in some distant suburb. “Good parents,” they’ll say overtly or in subtext, “aren’t selfish. They don’t mind the compromises, like never sleeping in on weekends or frittering time on pancakes, movie marathons or other things that bring you joy.”

When my son expressed a passing interest in soccer, well-meaning friends informed me that the travel team was the only way to go. “The coaches in the rec league don’t know what they’re doing.” Suddenly, my weekends—all year—were spent wandering the aisles of distant WalMarts, killing time between soccer games. Is your child into drama? Check out Theater for Thespians; they rehearse five days a week, but one of their graduates is a back-up dancer on Broadway! Does a child enjoy drawing? Forget buying colored pencils: sign up for Picasso’s Place all the way across town. When it comes to proving our love for our children, there’s no dabbling, no exploration, no good-enough allowed: just a constant Something Better arms race.

(A caveat: I have to acknowledge this is a problem of privilege. Many, many parents are focused on the second job required to put food on the table, not special enrichment activities.)

The beautiful thing is that, at age two and a half, the risks and benefits of choosing between Good Enough or Something Better are minuscule. Microscopic. Infinitesimal. I know it doesn’t feel that way, but later, when you are deciding between superstar soccer camp or replacing your tires or weighing charter vs. private vs. public high school, this angst you’re feeling will seem adorably unnecessary.

For the next few years, the entire world is Einstein’s classroom. Left alone with a paper towel roll and rubber band, he will fashion a working catapult. He will take apart your modem just to see how it works. He will write stories and build castles and read any material left in front of him. So don’t worry that you are cramping Einstein’s development by not paying tuition for a highly curated learning environment. Right now, he just needs lots of love and a big pile of cardboard boxes, some washable markers, and mud to form into pies. He will learn anywhere.

But someday—in a year, or three, or ten—you will have to make a decision about school. You’ll have to weigh the potential benefits of Fancy-Pants Academy for Special Flowers against those of Mundane Normal School. If Einstein is deeply curious, he will learn in either setting, but possibly very different things.

At Fancy-Pants, he may learn coding in kindergarten, physics theorems in fifth grade, or art from an acclaimed artist. He may learn to quote Nietzsche or Dickinson, or build a working hovercraft. He will likely get a wonderful academic foundation that increases his likelihood of getting into Fancy-Pants University (assuming, of course, you can still afford Fancy-Pants University after paying for Fancy-Pants Academy) and then a job at Fancy-Pants, Inc. There are many advantages to this choice, not least being that your son—and you—will likely be granted society’s stamp of approval as a success.

At Mundane Normal, Einstein may not be quite as challenged academically, but don’t think he won’t also learn important things. He may have teachers who don’t understand him, and possibly aren’t as smart as he is; someday, he may have a boss like that. He may share space with kids whom no one thinks are special flowers, who have to hustle to get what comes to him naturally, or who give up; someday, he may find a workplace full of them. He may learn that his peers can be smart in ways he is not, even if they sometimes get Ds on the tests he aces; someday, that may help him assemble a group that accomplishes something amazing together. The benefits of these lessons might be harder to explain to your mother-in-law or your neighbor who gushes on about her little bunny’s 5.0 GPA, but they are also real.

Regardless of what you decide, there will be a time—in a month, in a year, in a decade—where your precocious little nugget isn’t so precocious. Those dullards at the playground who do nothing but drool and grunt? They may catch up. They may have an easier time than your bear cub printing legibly, working in a team, understanding geometry, or navigating complex social situations. Little Einstein is showing his superpowers now, and someday he’ll encounter his Kryptonite; it happens to every human who leaves their bubble to interact with the world.

If—when—that happens, you need to know that it’s not because you didn’t buy the right educational toys, or because you chose the wrong school, or that you are in any way a bad parent. Everything (and many people) around you will pressure you to regret and second-guess and howl to the skies, “If only….!” Do not fall in this trap; be kind to yourself.

But for now, stock up on paper towel rolls and wooden blocks, guard any valuable electronic devices, and enjoy your little Einstein’s superpowers.

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