The COMT and Me

I got a call from the school today, and was told that my son was complaining of a stomach ache. He didn’t have a fever but kept saying he wanted to come home. He’s had his flu vaccine, but I rushed to school anticipating any number of imminent gastrointestinal issues that would be better managed at home.

I got there, and he came out of the clinic. I noticed him try to hide a smile, but since he sometimes smiles when he’s shy and I was talking to an office staff member, I let it pass. When we got home, he proceeded to go to his toys and asked to eat the rest of his lunch. Hmmm.

I asked him how his day went.

“Did anything new happen at school? Is your belly still hurting?” I told him it was okay if his belly wasn’t hurting. I snuggled with him a bit (to soften his steely “No really, I’m sick” reserve ).

He started to cry and said he missed me. (Mmmm hmmmm.) I asked again what happened at school.

He said that he was sad because he “messed up” on his writing test, on the word “like.” He said he was taking his time and he ran out of time, and then his teacher told him he didn’t write the word the right way.

I asked him to tell me what other words he wrote on his test, and write them down for me. He wrote: “kile,” then he erased it and switched it to “like.” I just kept asking “what other words?” and he wrote: can, go, see, to, you, we, play, am. Some basic sight words taught in his Kindergarten class. He’s known how to spell them for a while now, the trick is to write them down, I guess. And he did, all within a couple of minutes.

I told him that I can’t bring him home from school if he’s not sick or if it’s not an emergency. I told him that if he’s sad because of something he’s working on at school, that’s okay, but he should try to remember that there’s not so much to be really sad about, especially since he fixed his “kile” to “like” at home and did not feel sad. He said he understood and that he’d go to school tomorrow like he normally does.

Now here’s the thing: last night over dinner with my husband (the kids had eaten earlier but were eating a bit more with us, and/or playing nearby) I described to him this fascinating story published in The New York Times yesterday about why some kids get stressed out over tests and some do not. Read it if you have the time — it’s excellent. The bottom line:

Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

We talked about how we were as teenagers. My husband? He likely holds the “worrier” variant of the COMT gene. He hated the time pressure of standardized tests, and did not do well on them when he was very young. Me? I likely hold the “warrior” variant. I LIVED to be tested. I still remember my sixth grade teacher sputtering in disbelief when he told my parents what my scores were on whatever test we took back then.

The article was so perfectly timed. I read it that afternoon, and later in the car ride home our second-grade daughter told me about a test she took in the computer lab, how she almost cried because she was running out of time. I suggested to my husband that perhaps our girl was a bit more like him, but that there are ways to help her learn to manage that stress and use it to her advantage, with:

a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” [Johnson] continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

Now, all the while we were talking, our son would interrupt to tell us about his toy, or his song he’d sing at the Valentine’s concert next week, things like that. But he was listening to us, too.

Is our five-year-old a Worrier or Warrior? At this point, I’m not sure. I only know he’s a Player. He played me like a fiddle.

He’ll go far. I’m sure of that, too.

5 thoughts on “The COMT and Me

  1. Okay, I’ll read that NYT piece. And try to be more patient. I think I’ll be more successful on the former than the latter. This sounds so commonsensical and so time-consuming: “You tax them without overwhelming them. ‘And then allow for sufficient recovery,’ [Johnson] continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.”
    And yet, that’s exactly what you did with his repeat, low-stress, at-home spelling test. Isn’t it?

    1. Why yes, it was. That article gave me hope–not for the worrier kids I may have, but for me, a likely warrior, who needs to figure out how to chill out and help her kids find the fun in timed exercises.

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