Read an Excerpt
From Is This Your Child?
I scan the yard, searching for my son. Ms. Johnson, his first-grade teacher, points toward the far corner. Under a maple tree, as far as you can get from all the other kids: a splotch of blond in the dark grass, a faint tangle of pale, skinny limbs. Ms. Johnson shakes her head.
I turn to her. “Are you worried about him?”
She nods. “A little.”
I watch her face, her furrowing brow, the flecks of green in her narrow eyes. “Hmm . . . ,” I say, nodding back. Then I run across the yard, past the kids on the jungle gym, the kids in the sandbox, the kids playing ball on the field. My son sees me and springs up.
“What were you doing under that tree?” I ask as we head out the gate.
“I was dividing seven into twenty. With seven it starts repeating after the sixth decimal—2.85714285714285714, and so on.”
I smile in awe at my seven-year-old boy.
“And did you play with anyone today?” I ask, patting his white-blond head.
“Not really.” He looks up at me with his large, clear-green eyes and smiles.
This book is about a type of bright, quirky child who is often misunderstood and under-appreciated in today’s world. To understand, appreciate, and nurture this child, it helps to begin with a fresh, nonjudgmental label, and the one I prefer is left brain. But I don’t intend this term literally; that is, I don’t wish to imply anything about the activity of brain hemispheres. Rather, I’m using the term left brain in the everyday sense, to convey a specific collection of traits that include thinking abstractly and logically; analyzing and systematizing; processing things linearly (one at a time); attending much more to verbal than to than nonverbal communication; preferring to work independently; and being shy, socially awkward, and/or introverted.
And I’m contrasting all this with the everyday connotations of right brain: thinking holistically, applying intuition and emotion, processing many things simultaneously, being sensitive to nonverbal communication (e.g., facial expressions, gesture, and tone of voice), being gregarious, and preferring to work with others. These contrasting bundles of traits, regardless of the underlying brain biology, arise together frequently enough that it’s useful to draw a dichotomy between right and left-brain personality types.
The British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes this dichotomy in terms of Systemizers versus Empathizers. Systemizers (leftbrainers) are captivated by rules, patterns, and how things work. They prefer nonfiction to fiction, libraries to parties, strategy games to games of chance and, in general, doing things alone to doing them with others. They are bad at reading facial expressions. They find social situations confusing, dislike small talk, and have trouble putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Empathizers, by contrast, are attuned to others’ emotions and thoughts, they’re skilled at reading them rapidly and correctly, and they tend to respond with care and sensitivity.
Of course, most people aren’t so easily classified as one personality type or the other because their traits are moderate or inconsistent: a person may be somewhat intuitive and somewhat analytical, or sometimes social and sometimes not. My focus is on those children who, along most of these dimensions, consistently come out as left-brain.
How large is this group? Perhaps the best evidence comes from the thousands of people who have taken Baron-Cohen’s online Systemizer Test. Approximately 18 percent of male respondents and 8 percent of females score as “very high” Systemizers. This suggests that left-brainers constitute somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of the population, and include significantly more boys than girls.
In school, they are the five-year-old who won’t put down his science book and join the kindergarten circle; the eight-year-old who insists on doing group assignments on his own; the ten-year-old who solves math problems in her head instead of chatting with her classmates; the sixteen-year-old who writes long, thoughtful essays but finds class discussions too chaotic and intimidating to participate in. As adults, they are our mathematicians, scientists, engineers, computer programmers, economists, linguists, lawyers, analysts, and research associates. Some are talented writers, poets, visual artists, and composers, but create their work using strategies that, in comparison with their fellow artists, are much more analytical than intuitive.
I am the mother of three left-brain children, each of whom presents a different array of challenges and eccentricities. I am also an educator, having taught left-brain subjects like math, computer science, linguistics, expository writing, and English grammar to students from second grade into adulthood. (I’ve spent time not just in American classrooms but in classrooms abroad as well—in France, as a student, and in China, as a teacher.) This book is the culmination of six years of research, visiting classrooms, interviewing parents and left-brain children, and studying trends in education and popular psychology. In the process, I’ve discovered pervasive misunderstandings— here in America—about left-brain children, and significant biases against their behaviors and inclinations. And so I’ve written this book, above all else, to help parents and those who work with children better understand, appreciate, and nurture our young left-brainers.
Though left-brain children are in the minority, and though they present real challenges for parents and schools, they also possess wonderful gifts, and they greatly enrich the diversity of our schools, homes, and communities. However, their very particular learning styles include idiosyncrasies that our culture seems increasingly reluctant to accommodate. Left-brainers are also often aloof, awkward, and shy, so they struggle socially both in and out of school. Parents are often left wondering if there isn’t something terribly amiss, and feel increasing pressure to submit their children to psychological testing and medical diagnosis. My hope is that this book will help parents see their kids, with all their strengths and weaknesses, as fundamentally okay. I also wish to offer, to parents and educators alike, strategies for nurturing left-brainers and advocating for them in a world that can often be hostile to their traits and temperaments.
A QUICK ASSESSMENT
By now, you’re probably getting a sense of whether the term left-brain fits your child’s behaviors, inclinations, and learning style. Here’s a longer list of the common characteristics of left-brain children. If many of these characteristics describe your child, this book is for you.
Common Characteristics of Left-Brain Children
• Shy, aloof, and/or socially awkward
• Prefer to play and do schoolwork alone
• Tend to keep feelings to themselves
• Interact more easily with adults than with peers
• Have trouble reading facial expressions and body language
• Easily distracted by sensory clutter
• Detail-oriented; difficulty organizing large amounts of material all at once
• Learn better from abstract symbols and concepts than from hands-on activities
• Good at math, science, verbal argumentation, and foreign language grammar
• Good at calculating numbers in their heads
• Need and strive for precision
• Weak in handwriting, graphic arts, and/or visual representations
• Highly critical, skeptical, and argumentative
• Difficulty adjusting to new situations
• Deep, all-absorbing interests or seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of particular topics
• A tendency to lecture or “talk at” others
• Not subject to peer pressure; don’t feel compelled to do what the other kids are doing
• Sometimes suspected of having selected mutism, social phobia, Nonverbal Learning Disability, or Asperger’s syndrome