My children are smarter than me.
Allow me to define “smart” for my purposes. I am certainly more knowledgeable and experienced than my 9-year-olds. I am better read than they are and more able to find practical solutions to problems, whether academic or everyday. I am far better at explaining complex concepts to people than Misses Giggles and Distractable. My ability to critically examine an argument is currently, at age 36, quite a bit better than J and M’s at age 9.
M and J, however, have always been better at absorbing new concepts than I was at the same age. Their minds work faster and burrow deeper. They see connections and parallels that would have never occurred to me. I have no reason to believe that this general trend won’t continue. As far as I can predict, when they are 36 years old, their brains will process ideas more effectively and deeply than mine does today.
The only milestone I beat them to was reading. According to my mother, I read at age 2. J and M were 3 before they were reading independently.
The fact that my daughters are smarter than me makes me proud. Perhaps if I had fewer academic successes under my belt, I would feel diminished by being outshone by my children. Perhaps if I were less egotistical, I wouldn’t be confident that I am just as smart as I need to be. I’m not in competition with my children. My task is give them the tools, skills, and support to be the best M and the best J they can be. I certainly aim to be the best Sadia I can be.
I am not a trained teacher, but I’m a proud nerd and I love getting others excited about knowledge. When my daughters learn a new concept at school, I often expand on it with them at home. It was while doing this that I confessed to them, for the first time, that they’re both smarter than me.
The children were studying 3D shapes in their regular 3rd grade math class. They told me all they knew about rectangular prisms, pyramids and cylinders. I asked if they knew why they were called 3D shapes.
The “D”, I told them, stood for “dimensional”. They could think of a dimension as a direction that exists in a shape.
- A dot has no dimensions because you can’t move around inside it.
- A line has one dimension because there’s no room to turn around.
- A plane, I told them using a piece of paper to illustrate, has two dimensions. You can go back and forward or side to side. By combining those two motions, you can get anywhere on the sheet of paper.
- If you jump off the sheet of paper, you’re in three dimensions. That’s the world we inhabit. Back and forward. Side to side. Up and down. Ocean creatures experience the three dimensions more fully than we do, being able to move vertically with ease.
- The fourth dimension, I told my girls, was time. That took a little more convincing.
I still had the 2D piece of paper in hand, so I rolled it up to illustrate.
Imagine, I told them, that there was an ant walking around on my sheet of paper. His world is two-dimensional. He’s not aware of what’s off the paper. Whether the sheet is flat or curved until opposite edges touch, he’s moving around in two dimensions. Even if I wave the paper through the air, the ant probably doesn’t know that it’s being moved. His entire universe is that 2D sheet of paper.
We are similarly unaware of moving through time. Right now, we’re in the dining room, playing with paper. Count to three, and we’re in the same place in the three dimensions we can navigate, but in a new second in the fourth dimension of time.
J and M said that made sense. “I’m in a new time now!” exclaimed M. “And now… and now. And I hardly wiggled!”
J took the next logical step. “Is there a fifth dimension, mommy?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I’ve read about theories of physics that argue that there must be a fifth dimension.”
“Show me, mommy!” J demanded. “Explain me the fifth dimension.”
“Little J, I recognize the concept, but I can’t see it in my mind. Without a picture, I have to use words. My best explanation is to say it’s the next logical step in the ant analogy.”
“So the fifth dimension is of the parallel universes, mom!” J realized. “Why didn’t you just say that?”
“I didn’t say it because I didn’t understand it. I can’t see it clearly the way you can right now. I’ll do my best to create a metaphor and picture in my mind, but it’s going to take me some time.”
“Mom! It’s obvious,” J told me, more than slightly irritated.
“Sweetheart, you’re going to run into a lot of people who have a harder time understanding ideas than you. Please be patient.”
“But mom,” J pointed out, “you’re mom.”
“I know sweet girl, but as you get older, you’re going to know and understand more and more things that you’ll have to explain to me instead of the other way around. There’s a lot I don’t know, and a lot it’ll take hard work for me to understand. Some of those things will come really easily to you, and that makes me happy.”
I hope that this confession, made with confidence and without apology, showed J and M that it’s okay to be smart without being smartEST. That was a lesson that I struggled with. It was quite the blow to my ego to realize that I wasn’t the top undergrad at my college. I was “only” in the top 10% based on the very narrow measure of GPA. I’ve since learned that being seen as the smartest person in the room is no measure of success.
Doing my best — that’s how I now measure success, even if that fifth dimension escapes me. And for the moment, I’m doing my best to raise two little girls who are officially smarter than me.