He’s a late bloomer

late-bloomer-quoteMy son graduated high school a year late.  This was mostly due to the large chunks of time when he was hospitalized, which created gaps in his academic life.  He got his driver’s license years after most of his peers.  When he’d envision himself driving his own car, he’d feel anxiety sitting like an elephant on his chest.  It also took him far longer to get his degree at community college than he expected it would.  He’d enroll and begin classes and sometimes become so overwhelmed he had to pare his course load down to one class.  He did it, though, a handful of credits at a time.  Better late than never, I’d say to myself.

I fervently wanted these milestones for him and was (mostly) patient as they slowly happened.  But I worried.  Sometimes it was like watching paint dry or grass grow.  You are pretty sure it’s going to happen but the wait seems interminable.  And I’ll admit that while I waited, there were times when I had my doubts and wondered if he would actually accomplish these goals.

One day a relative said to me, “Relax, he’s just a late bloomer.” A late bloomer?  No one had ever said that before.  We lived in the land of therapeutic frameworks and mental health shop talk.  I thought every day about his mental health diagnosis and how to minimize its impact. I thought about challenges and mentally outlined strategies to overcome them. Late bloomer?  This was a new way, a refreshing way, to think about these things.

We live in a time of early achievers and routinely hear about people who are millionaires by age 30.  Parents enroll their children in carefully selected preschools, trying to ensure they will have a stellar academic career.   In the midst of this celebration of those beating the curve and young people achieving goals far before their peers, late bloomers are getting some attention too.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker titled “Late Bloomers” and points out that “On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure.”  Others have written about famous late bloomers including Alexander Fleming, who discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, at age 47 and Harlan David Sanders who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken at 65.  The lesson?  You can’t always tell how well someone will do in adulthood by simply looking at their early years.

When we say someone is a late bloomer, it is often more of an observation than a judgement.  I like that.  It takes a lot of pressure off and recasts slowly checking off your milestones list into a “we’ll get there when we get there” kind of thing.

The attitude behind it can vary too.  Your aunt at the summer reunion can call your child a late bloomer and then compare him to others in the family who turned out just fine.  It makes you feel like it’s a family trait similar to a love of fishing or a knack for cooking. Your co-worker can label your child a late bloomer and you might hear a hidden question such as, “How are things going?” behind the term but they don’t actually say it.  You can point out that your daughter is a late bloomer and imply that wonderful things are yet to come.  It’s not clinical jargon.  It can have dozens of meanings and implications.

Inherent in the definition is the idea that most late bloomers eventually catch up.  I like that, too.  My son got his diploma and his degree in the same order as his peers.  It just took him longer.  Okay, significantly longer, but that was just right for him.

Like the rest of us, some late bloomers burst into incandescent flower and people take notice, while others have more modest achievements.  The range is pretty wide, so I could slot my son right in.  Late bloomers, bloom, that is, they arrive, get there, make hay, pull it off and wind up okay.  It’s just on a different, maybe slower, timetable.

I’m not the first to say we tend to pathologize our children far more than we need to.  As parents, we learn to speak the jargon and frame the issues in the way we need to make the system cough up what our children require.  Most of what’s been written has focused on the tendency to look at normal restlessness or distraction in children and diagnose or medicate it.  For those of us who have children already clearly diagnosed, it’s pretty easy to apply that clinical framework to things that might actually be normal.  If any child missed as much school as my son did, for instance, that child might very well graduate late.

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. In Gladwell’s article, he compares two artists, Picasso and Cezanne.  Picasso was the early genius whose art took the world by storm.  Cezanne was the opposite and his best paintings were done at the end of his career. Both have paintings in world famous museums and have paintings on the 20 Most Expensive Paintings List.  Picasso has several on the list while Cezanne’s lands at #1.  Because his success came far later in his life, Cezanne depended on patrons to support his work and believe in him.  Many late bloomers, Gladwell notes, depend on the same two things – the support and belief of others.   Sounds like a parent, doesn’t it?

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8 thoughts on “He’s a late bloomer

  1. I LOVE this article! My sons were born 6 weeks early and globally delayed from birth. Throughout their lives, they have acquired skills later than their peers. I always have “normalized’ this for them by explaining that they had been born early and their bodies are still trying to catch up. As they are almost at the age of legal adulthood and they are learning to self-advocate, I am always trying to explain that I don’t really think that they are “disabled” but, in order to get the services they need, this is the word that I have to use. It is particularly uncomfortable to have them at IEP meetings when I have to focus on the negative to get needed services.
    Though my sons are 17, I have major concerns about their abilities to drive in a safe way. I keep explaining that I believe that they will eventually gain the necessary skills but, just need a little more time to catch up. After reading this article, I am going to start using the “late bloomer” analogy, it makes the message so much more positive. Thank You!

  2. I love this. I have repeatedly told my late bloomer that he can do it, it will just take more time (especially than his ‘gifted’ brother). He has decided that college is not his thing as he enjoys manual work, especially cleaning in a car shop (his current part time job). I keep my hopes alive by reminding myself that he has to do it himself so he can learn, though he currently does need the reminders and redirection from me. I listen for his hopes and dreams, and try to help steer him towards things that will make them come true. Time will tell where it all goes.

  3. Great article! I agree when we step away from the jargon of pathology and can envision a future we contribute to its creation. At one point when I was discouraged by my son progress or apparent lack of progress, I remember a good friend saying, ” in your minds eye see his doing well, happy and contributing his gifts.” My late bloomer has far exceeded all my expectations and is indeed happy, healthy and contributing his gifts. At thirty two he is all of these things. At twenty two it seemed it might never happen…. but I imagined it, then I began to believe it, then I began to see it actually happen.

  4. I love this blog as well and agree that kinder, gentler images and metaphors are powerful. The one thing I would add is context. So much of what is said about kids and people in general who struggle or are trying to catch up, puts the entire focus on the person. Our environments and contexts continue to be woefully under-attended. My son is 28 and is mourning all his delays. He about to be 28 and was just fired from his new job due to attendance issues. On a more positive note, this is the third job he has found on his own and he has done better at them than I would have predicted. He has tremendous insights – and works hard to have those insights help support positive change. But the pressures of life are huge and the negative lessons he learned growing up (because of being different and not learning in expected ways, not “fitting in” – his context) have taken a heavy toll. There are ways that my son is a later bloomer. There are also ways that he is mature and insightful beyond his years. thanks for the blog!

  5. I really enjoyed reading about the benign “late bloomer” concept. How helpful and hopeful to embrace each person’s positive achievements no matter what the timetable.

  6. Great article!
    I remember when it hit me that my child was “on a different time frame” than most, but I knew in my heart that he would get there. It made life MUCH better for both of us when I stopped looking at the expectations of the age, and focused on the successes of the little steps along the way. I realized that he might be 25 before he had the maturity that his brother had at 18. But that was OK, he would get there. I was grateful when he didn’t make any effort to drive, even though he had talked about it since 14.The extra time was exactly what he needed, and I’m so proud of the man he has become. We need to believe in our kids so they can believe in themselves, and they will certainly surpass what we expected.

  7. This was manna for me! I am watching paint dry and grass grow currently with my 22 year old. I know she has everything there, strengths, talents and heart, I just keep reminding myself that as long as she’s moving forward, she’s still on her way. My brother was in a horrendous car accident a year ago and I have learned so much from this experience. His traumatic brain injury sent me into a realm of brain science, function and recovery grounded in the surviving the ICU and months of the heartbreaking micro steps of healing and progress. Even in the world of Traumatic Brain Injury rehabilitation my brother has just been admitted to slow stream rehab. His brain is protectively healing, like my daughter’s, setting the pace.

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