Tag Archives: milestones

He’s a late bloomer

August 1st, 2016

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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