SFP 175: Early Bloomers

Parenting an early bloomer comes with its own set of challenges. Those of us who have precocious children know this well. Today, we are discussing the ins and outs of early blooming from a child development perspective. And I’m sharing more about my personal experience parenting an early bloomer and being an early bloomer myself.

Early Bloomers – Episode Transcription

Hi there. It’s Episode 175 and we’re talking about Early Bloomers. Back in Episode 164 on the podcast, I interviewed Rich Karlgaard, the author of the book, Late Bloomers, and we talked at length about just that, late bloomers. As a mom myself, I have a late bloomer and an early bloomer and I think that early bloomers come with their own sets of challenges.

I recently had a request to do a podcast episode on early bloomers, which was kind of a no brainer since I’m parenting one and I was one/I’m one myself. In Episode 164, my guest Rich Karlgaard and I, discussed late blooming and what that means and how society views kids that bloom a little bit later. We all know that society pushes us to be better, faster, stronger, sooner. In many ways kids who reach their milestones later, and when I say milestones, I’m talking about anything from walking, talking, reading, finding their way in their career. Our kids that do this on a later, possibly slower timeline, they can sometimes end up feeling like they’re not enough.

Kids Develop on Their Own Timelines

The truth is that we’ve known for quite some time from the research and from clinical observations that children develop on different timelines, and we can all nod and appreciate that but I’ll tell you that when you’re the parent of an early bloomer, it’s easier to accept this fact than when you’re the parent of a late bloomer. Now you might kick food that parents of early bloomers have nothing to worry about, they can rest easy. And if you’re the parent of a late bloomer, you might feel a little bit envious of these parents who have kids who are reaching their milestones earlier.

First let’s talk about how we measure early blooming. Now, for the purposes of this podcast, we’re talking about recognizing early blooming from a parent perspective. We’re not talking about any kind of physical or psychological assessments, we’re just talking about parental observations. And if you have come to the conclusion or maybe your pediatrician has hinted, or someone around you tells you that you have an early bloomer, a kid that’s doing things ahead of the typical timeline, it’s probably in some way, shape or form based on comparisons. Your kid is being compared to another child of a similar age and their abilities are being ranked.

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

And we all say we shouldn’t compare our kids of course, but it happens. We compare our kids to each other if we have more than one. We compare our kids to the neighbors, to their cousins, to the other kids at school. Although it’s not ideal, it’s almost impossible to avoid. If you think you have an early bloomer, it’s probably because you’ve read the books of when kids are supposed to do things and your kid is exceeding the expectations. You’re probably comparing your child to other children that they’re around, and drawing your conclusions informally through that.

As parents who are sort of ranking our kids with a naked eye, we’re attracted to certain things at certain times. In the first year of life, we’re going to be ranking or comparing our kids based on their physical development, because that’s really what’s at the focal point at this age. When are they crawling? When are they walking? Once they reach these milestones in the second year of life, third year of life, when they start to develop language, we start to compare and to rank our kids based on their language abilities. How many words do they have? How fluently are they speaking?

Then once they have their language pretty well down pat, you start to sort of compare based on cognitive abilities. How well are they making connections? How is their problem solving? How is their reasoning skills? Because we tend to focus on different areas of development, sometimes we call these domains. When now focusing on different domains of development at different times in our children’s life, they might look more ahead or more behind. That’s because most children have some type of asynchronous development. That means their different developmental domains, their physical development, their cognitive development, their language development, those don’t all proceed at the same rate.

An early bloomer is going to be someone like my daughter. She walked at nine months, so at nine months she is way, way ahead of the game for walking, so automatically she gets this label of an early bloomer. Once she got to be in her second year of life she talked early and talked pretty fluently, pretty quickly. Yes, she’s definitely still an early bloomer. Now that she’s in her third year of life, I see her making a lot of connections.

Last week I was carrying her into my son’s karate class and she was looking at her fingernail and said, “My fingernail is a crescent moon.” Now, while that seems like a small comment, I obviously thought she was kind of a baby genius because understanding what a crescent moon is and having the vocabulary to say crescent moon, is pretty advanced for a three-year-old. And then making the connection that her fingernail actually grows in the shape of a crescent moon as well, even though she wasn’t looking at a crescent moon at that time, that felt like some pretty advanced stuff for a three-year-old.

I’m kind of celebrating in my mind, I have a baby genius, my kid is so smart. Not only does she know what a crescent moon is, but she also knows that her fingernail grows in the shape of a crescent moon. Most kids are working on circles and squares and rectangles at this age, but my kid knows crescent. Insert, pat on the back for Denaye.

Then she promptly proceeded to punch me in the throat because that’s her job, to humble me every single day. Now, if you haven’t ever been punched in the throat by your kid, I might say that you just haven’t been a parent long enough or haven’t had enough kids yet. I’m kind of joking, but also kind of not joking. But I’ll say that after my first child, I thought for sure I was doing all of the things right because he was so kind and so gentle and not at all impulsive, exercised great self-control. Could sit still for long periods of time, pretty much always happy. Never ever, ever hurt a fly or another soul. Never swung an arm, never threw a toy, which of course I took all the credit for.

But I can assure you that after my daughter was born, that I was very quickly humbled and realized that, yes, there’s a whole lot of things that we can do right as parents, but there’s also a lot that goes on within the brains, within the development of our children that is outside of our control. And impulsivity, which is a hallmark trait of three-year-olds is outside of my control. She’s a work in progress and she does occasionally punch me in the throat or kick me when she’s swinging her legs around wildly when I’m trying to put her shoes on her. She just kind of has these spasms with her arms and legs. It’s not always, sometimes it’s aggressive, but it’s usually not. Usually it’s just impulsive and sporadic. Okay, so I digress, I’m way off track here.

What is Asynchronous Development?

What I’m saying is yes, my child speaks very well. She’s very physically able. If you meet her and you talk to her, you would be pretty impressed but you also might be surprised to know that she really doesn’t socialize with other kids very often. She’s just maybe in the past couple of months started to show some interest in socializing with other kids. She really prefers to play by herself and she can also be pretty emotionally volatile.

Now, I’m telling you those things because this is an example of asynchronous development. The outward apparent things that you see when you meet a kid, their language, their physical abilities, those things seem to be ahead of the game. But some of the other character traits like their social development and their emotional development might be actually a little bit behind or just at their stated age. Very rarely do you get an early bloomer who’s blooming across the board in all the domains.

More often, you get an early bloomer who’s blooming in one or two of the domains. Maybe they’re very physically able, they walked early and they talked early, but emotionally they’re probably still a messy two, three, four year old, whatever it is. That’s what we call asynchronous development. They’re developing ahead of the game in some areas, in other areas, they’re just average, maybe even a little bit behind average.

An asynchronous development is totally normal. Now of course there are kids who exceed the normal range, perhaps they have very, very, very delayed social skills and very, very advanced cognitive and language skills. And sometimes when there are huge discrepancies like that, these kids will need special types of therapies or supports to help them to be more balanced and to help them to fit into a natural environment in the school system or in daycare, that sort of thing. But most of the time asynchronous development is normal. There’s some amount of it that happens in all of our kids.

Having an early bloomer can be a blessing and a challenge. For me, the one thing that has been a blessing is with my first, he was a late bloomer and I worried a lot about him. And having an early bloomer, you don’t necessarily have to worry as much about your kid’s milestones, but here’s the challenge of having an early bloomer. Let’s say you have an early bloomer who is very tall and physically able. I actually have a friend whose son is an early bloomer and he is really, really tall and very athletic.

Early Blooming comes with its Challenges

When he was three, he looked and moved like a six-year-old. You see this kid in the grocery store and you think he’s a six-year-old. You’re like, “Why aren’t you in school? You’re six years old, what are you doing at the grocery store?” And then he has a huge tantrum and he really barely talks yet, because he’s only three. What do you think the people around the grocery store are thinking? Not that it matters, but they’re seeing this kid thinking, “This kid can barely talk, he’s having a tantrum, he’s too old to be doing these things.”

A kid who’s an early bloomer physically can sometimes get expectations put upon them that are not age-appropriate, whether this is from strangers in public or from their parents. We have to constantly remind ourselves that even though you look like you’re six, you’re only three and you’re only going to act like a three-year-old. Your emotions and your frustration tolerance is that of a three-year-old even though you look much older. This is also something that crops up very often with early language development.

You might say to your three-year-old who has advanced language skills, “We just had a full conversation weighing the risks of running in the road and discussing what could happen to you, yet here you are running in the road.” We can place really high expectations on these kids as well because it seems as if they are much older, cognitively, intellectually, language-wise. They can have these full conversations with us. They seem to get it but they don’t really get it and their behavior reflects otherwise.

If you have a kid with really advanced language, you might just post up signs all over your house that say, “He is only two, he is only two.” Because otherwise, you start to assume social and emotional skills that are much more advanced than that age. Because remember kids who are early talkers or early walkers and have certain areas of development that they’re advanced in, are generally not advanced completely across the board in all the domains of development.

The not so obvious areas like emotional development and social development are often the ones that go sight unseen and then we underestimate the importance of. My three and a half-year-old has really advanced language skills. I would say she probably speaks more like a five-year-old and she tends to not use manners and she makes demands. And I have to remind myself that even though she has really advanced language, she doesn’t have the socialization or the rationalization to use those manners the way that a five-year-old would.

Just because she has the capability of using the words and she knows the words doesn’t mean that she’s going to reliably do it. When I’m placing expectations on her, I’m expecting her to speak to me and to behave like a three-year-old, not like a five-year-old. But it takes a lot of self-talk. I have to constantly remind myself of her age and reassess my expectations.

Now, if I’ve learned anything in parenting, it’s that as parents we often take on too much blame or even maybe too credit when it comes to parenting our children, because our children are not born as blank slates. There’s much to be said about providing our children with an enriched environment and by an enriched environment, I mean an environment that has a lot of language, that has adults who are talking to them, that involves reading books, that involves socializing with other peers.

Yes, do all those things. Definitely enrich your kid’s environment, that will make a difference. But the rate at which our children’s brain develops is not something that we have much control over. If you have a late bloomer and you’ve been blaming yourself like you didn’t do enough to stimulate his development, or you didn’t enroll them in enough baby classes or put them in little soccer league before it was time, all that stuff, stop blaming yourself. Much of this is outside of your control.

And on the flip side of that, if you have an early bloomer who was walking early and talking early and do all the things, stop giving yourself credit because maybe, he did a lot of really great intentional things. You are not a better parent than the parent of the late bloomer. You just have a kid whose brain is ready to learn those things at a different time.

Can we make a difference as parents and should we try to enrich the environments of our children? Yes, for sure. But there is a balance of nature and nurture. We can nurture our children, but we can’t change their nature. And I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that my late bloomer was born to be a late bloomer and my early bloomer was born to be an early bloomer. There was very little that I could do to change any of that.

I’ll take you back to my early blooming story now. If you don’t mind coming back to 1983 with me when I was born, I was an early walker, so I started walking right around eight or nine months and I did pretty much everything early. I walked early, I talked early, I read early. Now I can’t speak to my early social and emotional development because those sort of things are harder to measure and I recall that I did okay. Nothing really stands out in those domains for me though.

All throughout elementary school I was a very high achieving kid. I was always scoring 99 percent and I was in all the standardized testing. I was in the gifted program, but still wasn’t challenged enough. In fourth grade, my teacher approached my parents and said that they thought that it would be a good idea to move me ahead to the sixth grade at the end of the year to skip a grade, which was pretty unusual or almost even unheard of in public school.

Early Bloomer’s Face Different Challenges as they Grow

I did. I skipped from fourth grade to sixth grade. That put me in sixth grade as a 10-year-old, I was the youngest in the grade. And what I didn’t know then that I know now is that there’s this really important leap that comes around the between the ages of 10 and 12 in child development. And that leap is the leap that takes kids from thinking very concretely, thinking about things literally, reading a book and interpreting literally what the book says versus thinking analytically and thinking critically, and drawing interpretations, reading a book and guessing what the author might mean.

Reading a book and drawing conclusions about what the author might mean based on the context and the historical period of the book. Reading between the lines, knowing what the author is saying without saying it. When parents come to me and ask me about putting their kid in kindergarten early, “I think they’re ready for kindergarten, they can sing their ABCs and they know their one, two, threes. They’re checking all the boxes.” It’s okay to start kindergarten a little early, right? Sure, sometimes it is and sometimes kids are ready.

Sometimes no problems will crop up until they get to this age range between 10 and 12 when their brain is asked to do things that it’s not quite ready for. Now, it might not take until 10 11, 12 years old to see this. Sometimes we’re asking kids to do things their brain isn’t ready for much earlier. A six-year-old’s brain is often not ready to hold still and sit down. A seven-year-old’s brain is sometimes not ready to read yet. There are some things we just can’t push our kids ahead to do, and for me that was analytical thinking when I was in junior high.

I started to encounter a lot of work as I entered junior high and high school that required me to think critically, and my brain just wasn’t ready for it yet. And I floated, I flew under the radar. I was doing work the best that I could and not really understanding a lot of the things in most of my classes. I would say that my critical thinking skills lagged behind way through college, probably until my late junior or senior year of college, and I should mention that I started college full-time when I was 16.

I was a 16-year-old trying to do college-level work. I was super motivated and willing to study, willing to do the work, but my brain was still very much 16 years old, it was very much still developing. If I had to do it again, would I? The answer is, no. If one of my kids was an early bloomer and advanced in many areas, I wouldn’t skip them ahead a grade. I would try to find ways to engage their brains and to challenge them otherwise, but I would be leaving them with their peers, their same-age peers and letting them engage in curriculum and coursework that was really meant for their age.

Because although we do occasionally have these, like 14-year-old Doogie Howser is going to college, sure, that’s the exception and pushing our kids ahead to do that sort of thing often ends up with nothing more than anxiety. And I can tell you that firsthand, although I never felt pushed, for me I was always the one doing the pushing, pushing myself. And I think this push, pushing myself followed me throughout the rest of my life and really pushed me into a position where I have been forced to slow down and forced to find a simpler way. Hence where I’m at today with Simple Families, and my journey towards simplicity.

When it comes to early bloomers, there’s a lot we can do to enrich our kids’ environment but there’s also a lot that’s outside of our control. The brains of our children are all going to develop at their own pace, and the best thing that we can do is to stand by and watch, offer support, and let things unfold naturally and constantly reminding ourselves that early isn’t necessarily better.

Thanks so much for tuning in, I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. If you want to stay in touch with the podcast, hit subscribe so you can get the new episodes downloaded right away. And if you want to stay in touch with what’s going on with Simple Families, the best way is the email list. Go to simplefamilies.com and leave your email address and you can stay in touch with what’s going on, on the blog, on the podcast, and in the community. I appreciate you tuning in and have a good one.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.