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She was savvy even as a toddler, with apt facial expressions to match—the knitted brow, narrowed eyes, faraway gaze, puckish grin, chin in hand. When she was three, I asked her to her face if she was the Buddha. She demurred.

And so it went through years of parenting a socially astute, logically shrewd child.

A new mother and new father inherit notions of proper parenting from culture and family and friends. It takes a while to realize you’re not always getting good advice. There is no one-size-fits-all parental guidance because there is no typical kid. Even if ‘Love and do what you will’ is the advice, love shatters into a dozen varieties of loving, and each iteration of love becomes peculiar to specific children in particular situations.

What should you know as the parent of a precocious child?

Consider these approaches:

Your disciplinary tactics must be elastic. This kid can produce logically cogent ideas why the discipline you propose is excessive, unfitted to the offense, and a reflection of your own inadequacies. For a while, you’ll defend your reasoning, even as its vigor deteriorates with every sentence you compose. At last, you’ll be like the juror who has fallen under the spell of a rigorous attorney. You’ll see the asinine quality of your adamantine rules. You’ll admit to yourself that your laws don’t make great sense.

Then you’ll agree with the child about a ‘proper penalty’ for the offense under review. This kid is bound for the theatrics of a courtroom drama. She’ll star as a hyper-eloquent attorney who gets whole juries to knit their ears to her deathless prose. She’s very likely the reincarnation of Clarence Darrow and Percy Foreman combined because, after all, the infallible mechanisms of karma are ever inscrutable.

As to social perspicacity, the child is half a hundred years ahead of her peers. She espies the real issue with a fellow fifth-grader who hogs the playground swings. She delves twenty feet beneath the psyches of eighth-grade bullies. She anticipates every twelfth-grade utterance as if she sat in each senior’s heart. And she can even see why your middle-aged friend just bought a Fiat 124 Abarth Spider to wheel away toward Albertsons and back home again.

The child’s humor is surgically tooled and sharp at the points and sides. She can wield this weapon with skill but does not offend the authority of manners. She may make light fun of you, but in such a way that confirms her love for you, as she says in effect, “You, my dearly beloved, can take this joke at your expense.” And she gets your jokes and generously ornaments them with a horselaugh or a wickedly knowing smile.

There is a risk you will confide in her, because her grasp of the issues rivals your own. But you cannot confide in her. She’s too young, and you’ll end up divulging confidences you should have stalled in your heart and kept secret. She has no business knowing the peccadilloes or felonies of your larger family and in-laws. Resist unburdening yourself to this child.

As to her love life, when she starts to date, realize she’s too smart and self-possessed to put up with a jerk. And so the person she stays with for more than a few months has been vetted by the highest magistrate—herself. Ease up on your anxiety. You were a teenager once and you were smart, but you weren’t this smart.

Her talents could take her in any direction. Don’t hustle to choose her occupation or steer her into your pet career. If you want a doctor or an engineer in your future, re-marry and make such a person your spouse. Don’t insist your bright child becomes these things. Maybe she’ll do something you never imagined. Maybe you are indeed a painter with too few paints on your palette. If you suspect you are, load her palette with a complete array of colors, not just two. Then set her free to select the hues she prefers. There’s nothing better than the undecided major in college.

Finally, breathe in and breathe out. Enjoy, for several decades hence, your clever, precocious, darling, darling, darling child.

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...

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