A new normal



When my daughter Juliana was little, she was weird. We didn't want to admit it, but it was true.

She never wanted to hug or snuggle, and when we tried to embrace her she'd stiffen and squirm away. Her way of showing affection was to come up behind us and sniff us, rapidly, with her nose buried in our clothes. And the only way she'd let us return her affection was by sniffing her back.

When she met a stranger, she stared at them unnervingly, the way a cat stares at a caged bird. She used to chew on pieces of meat, then tuck them into her cheeks and keep them there for hours at a time. And even though her language skills were fine, she sometimes refused to speak, communicating in little grunts and animal noises instead.

We wondered if we were raising a daughter or a small, carnivorous mammal.

Then her preschool teacher called a meeting to discuss Juliana's "problem." She suspected some kind of "sensory processing deficiency," and recommended that we hold her back from kindergarten for another year. You can imagine where our minds went.

We imagined her becoming a misfit, an outcast, a playground pariah. Decades later, we'd have to shield our faces from the crowd of TV cameras outside her trial. "We don't know what happened – she was such a sweet child. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims …"

Such are the nightmare fantasies of the modern parent. We've gotten so good at naming the ways our kids aren't normal, it seems like every quirk is a defect – and a potential diagnosis.

Don't get me wrong – I think our growing awareness of conditions like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia is incredibly valuable. It allows us to identify kids who need help early on, and do something about it. But in the process, we have raised the bar for what counts as normal, and a lot of parents freak out because they're not sure their kids are making the grade.

The truth is, the range of normal weirdness in kids is enormous, especially when they're young. And most of it is cause for celebration – not panic.

Imagine what Einstein's parents would say if he were growing up today. "His grades are terrible. The teacher says he's lost in a world of his own. He doesn't see things the way normal kids do."

Or Thomas Edison. "He gets into everything. Yesterday he took apart our espresso machine and made it into a robot. We had to use the French press."

And how about Leonardo? "He's good at art and science, but we worry. Last year, he dug up our neighbor's dead cat and dissected it, then painted its digestive system on our ceiling. That's not normal."

It makes you wonder how "normal" got to be so prized. After all, it's not our normalcy that defines us, it's our quirks. And the kid who veers off in their own direction often ends up happier, more passionate, and a lot more interesting than the kid who sticks to the well-beaten path. The mainstream of our culture has a strong current, and it's full of sharks. That's a tough place to learn how to swim.

The truth is, normal isn't as common as you'd think. Call up your parents and ask them what you were like as a kid. There's nothing like a little self-examination to remind you that weird doesn't always turn out so bad.

For example, I refused to be alone on the second floor of our house until I was 11 years old. I wore the same pair of jeans every school day for the entire third grade. And in every family photo until I was 8, my face is streaked with tears.

If a child of mine cried and carried on every time someone took their picture, I'd probably drag them to a therapist to explore their self-image and poor self-esteem. My parents, on the other hand, told me to quit whining and suck it up. And I did. And eventually, I grew out of it.

These days, my daughter is a happy, "normal" teenager. She's still a little quirky, but in a charming, endearing sort of way. She swallows her food now, and sometimes she even lets me hug her. But she doesn't sniff me anymore. And guess what? I miss it.

Sometimes, if she oversleeps, I wake her up in the morning. I look at her, burrowed under her quilts like a little animal, and I remember how she used to be. And sometimes, before I wake her, I lean over with my face a few inches from her shoulder, and I steal a little sniff.

Don't tell her, though. She'd think I was weird.