Am I smarter than a five-year-old? I used to think so

My son’s brain is now filled with things I never knew or have long forgotten

About 15 years ago there was a British quiz show called, Are You Smarter Than a 10-Year-Old? Hosted by Noel Edmonds, it was a show where (according to IMDb) “a series of contestants return to school to find out if they are smarter than a 10-year-old.” I never actually watched it because I mean … come on. I’m clearly smarter than a 10-year-old. I don’t need Noel or any other Edmonds to tell me that. No wonder the show didn’t last long.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. All this time I thought I was smarter than a 10-year-old. I’m not even smarter than a five-year-old.

A little while ago we were in the back garden admiring how high the grass had grown. I was grateful to each one of the (possibly hundreds) of dandelions because their presence meant I could once again procrastinate in cutting the lawn for a few more weeks, guilt-free. Pottering about aimlessly I saw a daddy-long-legs, so naturally enough I said excitedly, “Look! A daddy-long-legs!” The children came over and my son laughed. “That’s not a daddy-long-legs, that’s a crane fly!”

A what now? I am fast approaching my fourth decade on Earth and I never knew they were called crane flies. How is that possible? Have I just been calling any insect with long legs a daddy-long-legs?

My son’s brain is now filled with things I never knew, or have long forgotten. Flicking through one of his nature books I ask, “I wonder what the difference between a tortoise and a turtle is.” I say this not expecting an answer; more as a thought said aloud because it’s something I’ve always meant to look up. “A tortoise has feet and a turtle has flippers,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yeah. Tortoises live on land, turtles live in water.”

My mind is blown. It’s all so obvious in hindsight. And it never stops. Do you know what the most poisonous lizard on earth is? I sure didn’t, but my son told me: the Gila monster. So now I know the most poisonous lizard on earth is the Gila monster. These are the sort of facts I want to know. I used to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of dinosaurs. Now I couldn’t tell you a thing about them. I can barely spell triceratops. Where did all that good stuff go?

Childhood weirdness

We often hear of the sadness in losing our childhood wonder as we grow older, and while that’s true, I also lament the loss of childhood weirdness.

Watching a film, my son abruptly gets off the couch and lies down flat on the floor like a mannequin, and begins to laugh. When I ask him what’s happening he says he had to lie down on the ground to make sure he’s not in a dream. I’m not sure about you, but feeling solid ground beneath your body is as good a way as any to make sure you’re not in a dream.

On an afternoon walk my daughter pauses, raises her face to the sky and sniffs thoughtfully. “Hmm,” she says, “Can’t smell anything because it’s Sunday.” It’s an interesting point.

Another thing we often hear: secondary schools should spend more time teaching children practical life skills. Things that can actually help them out in adulthood like money management or how to rewire a plug. Nuts to that. Teach them about black holes and supernovas. Teach them about blob fish and vampire bats. Teach them about lost cities and unexplored jungles. Keep the wonder alive for just a little longer.

Have you ever seen a child’s reaction to finding a ladybird? It is as close to unbridled delight as it’s possible to get. Children are in tune with the world around them in a way that adults are just not. Before the complexities and trivialities of life fill their heads they see the world as it really is: full of wonder.

In this simple yet profound way, they’re smarter than all of us.