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My Son, The Genius

My Son, The Genius

I know what you're thinking, but my son really is a genius.


The day (or should I say "days") I was in labor with my son, I knew something was up. After 36 hours of hee-hooing and enough IVs to push a moose through a water slide, he'd decided, "What? Me move? I don't think so!" So, there he stayed, gleefully.

Now, with the threat of "Labor" Day looming to weeks, my doctor sensitively suggested: "Either we do an emergency C-Section, or you'll give birth to a long pointy head." I jump-waddled onto the surgical bed. If not, I'm sure he'd still be there, swigging a Coke with one hand, and e-mailing me to swallow an IPod with the other.

And so "my son, the genius" entered the world. And I learned – late – this gift comes with a curse.

As an adult, with an intense full time career in criminal justice, I knew bupkes about babies, never mind weird ones. (I assumed "swaddling" was a type of medieval torture.) I had no expectations, no comparisons. What I did have was terror. Not just normal new mom mishegoss, like nailing everything other than strained peas onto the ceiling. No. I was the Empress of Mishegoss. When my Seth was diagnosed with a hernia, I had my dentist in the operating room ... to assure me it wasn't cancerous. I saw his chart. In bold, the pediatrician wrote: "MOTHER: LUNATIC!"

At nine months Seth was attaching magnetic letters to the fridge in alphabetical order– while sounding them out.

The "positives" gave me yet another title: "Crazeeyenta." At nine months, I noticed Seth, playing by the fridge, was intently attaching magnetic letters in alphabetical order– while sounding them out.

I frothed. Spewed liquid naches, like a maddened beast. All my clinical degrees,sense – lost in transformation over my progeny's magnetic letter miracle. My metamorphosis to Mama-loon was complete. What's the first thing Mama-Loons do? Call "witnesses," doling out solar filters for the event. No matter how "cool" a Jewish mom seems, "Is he smart!" makes us "kvell" like "Now this kid's a future quarterback!" to anyone else.

After an exhaustive search, I found an "Institute" with a system to teach infants to read -- and do calculus. (I'm hiding– in shame.) Games were flash cards. By 14 months he babbled "Pee-bah!" when I held up a "Peanut Butter" card! Delirious, we all "pee-bah'd" in our pants. By two, he could ID hexagons and octagons. From there, Seth made faster connections than Sprint. The only thing faster, was our ability to "spread" the news – and that included strangers.

Which is why I couldn't understand why no one wanted to "play" with us. Instead of singing "Wheels on the Bus," other moms wanted to throw me under one. "Maybe you should quit carrying the cards ... and the abacus," suggested a friend ...gingerly. In fairness, private school in Manhattan is de rigeur. The Big Kinderlekh Competition starts at age three when "King of the Hill" means being "Top of the Prep Track" bound for Harvard. If your babe, thumb in mouth, says "wee wee" in the testing room, Boom! He's stuck in a second-rate Pre-K, and, at 18, doomed to Knish U-- on line. Need a tutor to teach your toddler to draw an isosceles triangle? Call 212-anything. All Manhattan-ites have the 411, or know a couple who paid a tutor, then needed Prozac when their progeny "failed" triangles. As for Seth ... when the tester asked him to name two animals, he said, "Two ‘hippopathamuses.'"

Ah. And so we hit the core of the 155 I.Q. gift-cursed. At nine, he landed the role of young Nathan in The Rothschilds, understudied in Lost in Yonkers, taught himself piano, started composing at ten, and wrote analyses of Plato at 12. But my bragging rights had developed a definite wormhole that got bigger with age (his, and mine). It started to dawn that the clinical term for "genius," could also include "Emotional Deficit Disorder."

I eventually learned that many of these kids actually think differently. I call them "doughnut-hollers" after the genius who went "Eureka!" when looking at the deep-fried inner tube, and said, "We'll sell the holes and make a fortune!" During second grade, Seth's teacher, confused, called me. They'd returned from a class trip to a hoo-ha parent's glass factory. When the children were entering the grinding room, they were instructed to put on goggles. Seth politely asked, "What about the other five holes on my face?" And sweetly sat out.

At eight, "My son, the genius," was a terrific techie. Unfortunately, one of his experiments blew the school's entire computer system. (I'm still paying for that one.)

By fourth grade he spent his time at the Public Library – instead of doing homework -- intent on learning to stop any impending apocalypse. During his "Ingmar Bergman" phase, when I asked him if wanted juice in his lunch box, his answer? "In a thousand years will it make a difference?" Oy.

I learned that: genius is a marvelous "poseur" for maturity and can sandbag it. If a child can talk like an adult, it's easy to assume he has adult judgment. Wrong! Worse, he thinks he does. Which is how he wound up driving from New York to Nashua, New Hampshire, at 14, to "rescue" a girlfriend he met at his college – for adolescent geniuses. (Now that was genius -- putting 100 tweenie geniuses together – in the woods -- and us sending him there. The only thing missing were assault weapons.) I'm also still paying off the taxi meter.

I learned that: "success" came way too easily. At seven, Seth scored #1 in his school in a national science aptitude test. And got zero in "words." How is that possible? Just run through, skip a box and throw off the rest of your answers – because you're not bothering to listen. Failure wasn't on his radar, or his "fault," any more than the need to care and endure. Like child stars who crash on adolescence, child "geniuses" can only coast as children. As he grew, he saw less "gifted" peers, who struggled, embraced mistakes, and connect emotionally with the world, succeed. And was left behind – agonized and lost.

We both learned that such a generous human gift, places the recipient in danger of losing the very humanity it's meant to serve. "Genius" easily becomes you, the measure of all worth. And what use is genius – without heart? Without understanding and empathizing with the pain and joy of the human struggle.

He has a way to go. But, at 28, he's finally on the path, doing brilliantly academically, and tutoring others. Perhaps, like late bloomers who take longer to blossom, the very gifted may demand more time to "grow" into their intellect. Meanwhile, I thank Hashem that Seth hasn't ended up like some – the smartest philosopher on Skid Row. That he's learning the true meaning and responsibility of his gift. And that I've quit being an "admirer" and become a real parent to an already difficult child I'd helped create, so he could find his neshuma (soul).

I humbly say to all new parents, especially those whose progeny have unusual gifts: the job demands teaching neshuma, not shepping naches. No longer lost, Seth can now access his "genius," tempered with humility, humanity, and endurance that comes from challenges, failure, pride in the trying.

"My son, the genius," "My daughter, the dancer," "My son, the painter," "My daughter, the beauty," means nothing, when compared with "My child, the mensch."

August 16, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 18

(18) Anonymous, May 11, 2016 4:36 AM

Thank you, Marnie. I could relate, from your son's perspective. Beautiful article. Sigh. Thank you - helped me realize that this is still very much an issue for me. Much hatzlacha to you and your son.

(17) Richard Marcus, April 24, 2012 7:43 PM


Thisparent of two brilliant sons agrees entirely. Very well written and thoroughly enjoyable...and true!

(16) Talmidah, May 23, 2011 2:01 PM


I have not one, but two exceptional children! One way we handled teaching them humilty and caring was by teaching Torah, Pirket Ovot, and Martial arts. We homeschooled, so even at an early age they did not see right away they were different. As they grew they earned the privalidge to teach, as 11 year olds. They had to nurture others, under supervision. They learned to appriciate all kinds of learners and to live out both compassion and naches for their students. It wasn't all about them. I think that giving them Torah learning and opportunities to teach others has gone a long way to keeping humble, and showing them that even if every thing is "easy " for them, it isn't for everyone; and it is their responcilbilty to help the others to do their best.

(15) Anonymous, August 30, 2010 8:00 PM

I was a child not on your child's level

Check out Iggeres HaRamban. The Rambam's Hilchot Deot is something that should be frequently read also. Remember humility is the finest of the character traits, and ironically having those accoutrements that others praise make it all the more challenging to be normal. The middle path is what we're commanded to follow. Mother's who have gifted children: don't stifle your children, and don't also feed their egos, deal with them honestly and truthfully. G-d is the master of the universe and these 'gifts' are simply the vessels in which G-d can pour his blessings, blessings which are intended to better the world, and sanctify His Name. Again the Rambam Hilchot Deot which focuses on character traits, and Iggeres HaRamban. Iggeres HaRamban ideally should be read daily, in the morning. The Iggeres HaRamban cannot be lauded enough. The leading sage of a generation bearing in a letter to a son he will never see again how to live one's life both in this world and the world to come. I suggest buying the pocket edition from ArtScroll. Hatzlacha Rabba --- really everyone should read this.

(14) marnie (the author), August 21, 2009 6:22 PM

From "The Chosen"

Here's a marvelous excerpt from Chaim Potok's "The Chosen." "The Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me. When my Daniel was four I saw him reading a story ... how that man suffered! Daniel enjoyed the story. What a memory he had ... . A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!” — The Chosen (1967), Chaim Potok.

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