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Young minds are smarter than you think

Young minds are smarter than you think
While it's so easy to obsess over creating the smartest kids, they're the ones who can ultimately teach us a thing or two.

When my boys were babies, unbeknownst to them, they had a “synapse checklist.”

Having been an education reporter for over a decade, and an avid consumer of parenting books during pregnancy, I knew that much of what separates kids who do well in school (and possibly even later in life) from kids who don’t is “exposure.” I read, and internalized, that from birth to age 3, the variety of things that children are exposed to helps create little connectors in the brain that if they don’t get those experiences will never, ever form.

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And so, I became just a tad bit obsessed. I created a list of things the boys needed to see, do or experience before turning 3 and I referred to the list often, so I wouldn’t forget. (I’ll take Things First-Time Parents Do, for 500, Alex.)

However, the first year of having twins is simultaneously like a three-ring circus, a goat rodeo and a slightly nightmarish episode of “Punk’d,” so I hardly ever went anywhere with the baby boys in tow. Which meant that by the time they turned 9 months, I had convinced myself that my hermit behavior had ruined them. I imagined their dull, lifeless synapses just lying limp in their little baby heads and I Freaked. Out.

I immediately charted out a schedule for synapse-building. “On Monday,” I wrote, “we’re going to Port Discovery... We purchased an annual zoo membership… I sent e-mail inquiries today to administrators at our local Y, to ask about swim classes for infants, and also… to see about tumbling classes for them.”

They were still in diapers, crawling around in footie pajamas and chewing on stray lint they’d find on the floor, but that didn’t stop me! They would have synapses if it was the last thing I did!

By the time the boys turned 2, it occurred to me that they were two-thirds of the way to age 3, the synapse finish line. And I Freaked. Out. (Again.)

I drafted a new list for the boys, including gems like “Go on a hayride,” and “Pick some fruit at an orchard. Bring it home and help Mommy make something out of it.” [Ha! 2-year-olds helping! Bwahahahaaaa!]

Anyway, fast-forward two years to after the birth of my daughter. All that freaking out had taken its toll on me, so I purposely tried to adopt a somewhat old school, laissez-faire way of parenting. Which meant that she did not have a synapse checklist. (What is, Things that she will blame me for in therapy later, Alex?)

This seemed like a fine idea until I read a new parenting book that said:

Between ages 1 and 2, the cerebral cortex adds more than 2 million new synapses — the connections between brain cells — every second… By age 2, your toddler will have more than 100 trillion synapses, the most she'll ever have in her life. This period of "synaptic exuberance" can last until age 8, but it's also accompanied by the constant pruning of unused synapses. By the time your child reaches adulthood, more than 50 percent of those neural pathways will be gone.

What? They create synapses every SECOND? And what happened to age 3??? Now we needed to have exuberantly created all the connections by age 2 or her limp, lifeless synapses would DIE?

As you can predict, I freaked. Out.

She was 8 months old and yet I lamented: My daughter eats tissues that she finds on the floor. She doesn’t know her left from her right. She doesn’t know any Arabic! I’ve ruined her!!

Well, people. Last week, she spotted random numbers on a T-shirt in a store. “Look, Mom,” she said, “the Fibonacci sequence!” We also had a conversation, at her insistence, about the ozone layer.

One of my 9-year-old sons reads The New Yorker in the living room in his underwear. The other one assembled his brother’s brand-new slushie machine when neither of his (college-educated) parents could figure out the directions. “Well, I could just see that this gear was supposed to fit into this one,” he said, pointing helpfully.

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Meanwhile, twice a week, I forget where I parked my car in the office garage. I just read an article about the aging brain. “Memory loss can happen even before we hit our 50s,” it said.

I would’ve cried, but I forgot to buy Kleenex when I went to the grocery store.

Come to find out, all this time, the synapses I should have been obsessing about were my own.

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