When you completely misunderstand what’s going on.

When you completely misunderstand what’s going on.

My third child is eight years old. It’s a wonderful age, but the girls’ night moms agree: it’s a hard age.

This child is quite different from our older two. She’s spunkier, she’s bouncier, she’s a little more musical. She delights in the ridiculous. She has strong opinions and she loves to express them … strongly.

She has a summer birthday, which means she’s been eight years old, all school year long. That’s third grade around here. And ever since she entered third grade last fall, she’s been saying she never wants to be a fourth grader, because fourth graders are bratty.

Will and I weren’t overly concerned. It’s exactly the kind of preposterous opinion she delights in proclaiming loudly at the dinner table.

But as the end of the school year approaches, she’s been saying it more often.

You’ll love your fourth grade teacher, we say. Your friends will move up to fourth grade, too. Those fourth grade boys you turn up your nose at will all become fifth graders. You’ll make a terrific fourth grader.  

We were having the same conversation about this in the car last week (of course). I kept repeating the same things: You’ll love your fourth grade teacher. Your friends will move up to fourth grade, too.

Lucy finally cried out in exasperation: But four is bratty!

Wait a second.

Four is bratty? I asked.

YES!! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!

Moving forward on a hunch: What’s three?







Um, kind of stern-faced. 

What color is Tuesday? 

She didn’t hesitate: Orange.




Bright blue.

What color is April?


Since the fall, we’ve been trying to figure out what lay at the root of Lucy’s objection to fourth grade. We wondered if she was uncomfortable growing up, getting another year older. Some kids are like that. Or if she didn’t want to write a certain essay, or read a certain book.

We wondered if she was being contrarian for its own sake.

But that’s not what’s going on at all. She has synesthesia, or at least gives a darn good impression of having it. The scientists call this “a perceptual condition in which information between the senses is blended.” No one else in our nuclear family has it (no surprise; though it does run in families, only 4-5 % of the population has it). I’ve wished I had it since I was a kid. I had several friends along the way who did, and I envied their ability to quickly, reflexively describe why Tuesday is navy blue, or how 9 looks like a grumpy brown bear.

As an adult, I read and loved scientist David Eagleman’s book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. My favorite tidbit is when he explains that many of the world’s best memorizers of data—like those who can recite thousands of digits of pi—are synesthetes. Their brain does more than catalogue a long stream of numbers; thanks to their synesthesia, they can remember a story. Each number has a color, shape, and personality, and stories are much easier to remember than abstract streams of data.

I have no idea what this means for Lucy’s future, or for her impending rise to fourth grade. (Although I know some people I can ask.)

I do know that the problem is entirely different—and much more interesting—than I understood it to be last week.

I’d love to hear your tips, advice, stories, and all about what color Monday is for YOU in comments.  

P.S. When you’re good at overcomplicating things, and 8 paradoxes of creative people.

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  1. Heather Braun says:

    I see colors as flavours. My sister hears music as colors.
    We have other fun ways of seeing things as well. I like it.

  2. This is so interesting! From 2nd grade through 6th grade, it would take me longer than normal to do math problems because of the mixing personalities. I had to figure out how the numbers were relating to each other in each problem.

    Also, I had an elaborate system for making up stories in cookbook recipes. Each recipe would describe a different family. The first ingredient would describe the main character’s appearance. Based on how many words were in the title of the recipe, the main character would have a spouse and children. “Baked Mashed Potatoes” could turn into Betty, her husband Matthew, and their daughter Paula. Odd numbers in the amount of ingredient made the character female, and even numbers were male. If there were more ingredients than words in the title, the extra ingredients became the family pets. 1 was a cat, 2 was a dog, 3 was a rabbit, etc. . . I started doing this at the age of 4. I’m 20 now, and I still have a hard time looking through a cookbook without seeing each recipe as a family.

    Does this sound like synesthesia, too?

  3. Margaret says:

    I teach high school psychology, and we talk about synesthesia, so I am familiar with this topic. How fun to have a synesthete child! I hope it’s a rewarding lifelong experience for her, even when there are bothersome numbers or colors (like 4) 🙂

  4. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for mentioning Lucy’s current developmental phase–I thought it was just me, feeling that mothering an eight year old was a challenge!

    (Though now that I think of it, eight was a tough year for my older son, too. At the time I thought it was because his teacher was not a good fit and because we were traveling a lot during my husband’s sabbatical…)

  5. Trish says:

    No one in my immediate family has this unique trait, but due to their Montessori education all of my children associate numbers with a color and parts of speech with a colored shape (e.g. nouns are black circles). It’s fascinating. I’m glad you were able to get to the root of her concerns!

  6. Meghan says:

    My son came home from school today talking about a picture book they read about Kandinsky, who was a synesthete. He heard colors (the book is called The Noisy Paint Box). It’s interesting the topic’s come up in two different places today!
    I haven’t read A Mango-Shaped Space, but I adored Wendy Maas’s Every Soul a Star, about a solar eclipse. Not related to synesthesia, but the other comments recommending her other book have me wanting to throw in my supporting vote 🙂

  7. Gracc says:

    I have two types of synesthesia; color/word and color/sound. I have a ‘soundscape’ in my mind, where I can see a type of music. It’s one of the reasons I like listening to Dubstep 😀

  8. Guest says:

    This last year I was doing a project for work about the neuroscience behind learning and two of the books I used as reference had snippets about synesthesia. Make It Stick and How We Learn: The Surprising Truth both have interesting anecdotes about how it impacts memorization for those who have it AND how those of us who don’t can improve our storage and recall of information.

  9. Leah says:

    My lifetime best friend has synesthesia. I used to have fun just asking her what color different objects and words were all the time. My name to her is a silvery-blue. Also, I read “A Mango-Shaped Space” when I was growing up and loved it.

  10. Wow. I definitely do not have this, but it is fascinating to see. My oldest is a 7.5 year old girl, and I am slightly afraid raising her is going to kill me. So it’s good to hear other people think it’s a tough age for girls.

  11. Pamela says:

    I remember being on bed rest with baby #2 and sending my husband on a frustrating shopping trip to the grocery store because I was desperately craving something that tasted purple. For me, colors have flavors and smells too. I like things to smell green or white but never orange, which does not smell at all like the fruit.

  12. Jenn~Henn says:

    Fascinating! I used to pretend that odds were bad guys, and evens were good guys, and who won depended on the answer. But mostly thinking for me is like listening to me talking to myself, and even when trying to visualized things I just “hear” the description.

  13. Huh. That might explain why I thought the security number on the back of my credit card was very yellow.

    I also visualize the year on a clock, but my year goes counter clockwise. Glad I’m not the only one!

  14. Stacie says:

    Do you still homeschool at all? I am curious as to how you would deal with this new development and/or if you would change your curriculum choices?

  15. Tammy says:

    After reading this post, I asked my 7-year old daughter what color school was:
    Black (she doesn’t like school…)
    Reading? Blue (her favorite color, and she does like to read)
    Tuesday? Blue
    Wednesday? Pink (I asked her why for this one, and she said it was a fun day.)
    I asked several other days and numbers and she had a color answer for every one. I’m not sure if she has synesthesia or was just being creative….I know that I wouldn’t have had an answer for any of those questions when I was little or even now! And she had no context either, I just started asking her. Very interesting.

  16. Kylie says:

    How fascinating! Not to mention, what a wonderful way to look at the world. Lucy sounds lovely! I have a seven-year-old daughter, currently in year two and it always amazes me how different her experience of school has been in comparison to my two older boys. My Cameron is a lot more fiery and spunky than either of her brothers. She’s very opinionated and independent and loves to try new things. She’s also a lot more social than the boys and cares much more about the opinions of her peers. I just hope as she grows and matures that she learns to listen to herself a little more and realises the importance of doing what makes her happy.

    Also, I have to add that in my short time as a pre-service teacher, I have very much loved being in classes with years three and four. Although all years have their ups and downs, there is just something about those kids that is a bit magical. They’re not quite the big kids of the school, but they’re no longer the little kids. They’re fun and honest and make me glad to be learning along with them!

  17. Jamie says:

    I noticed Mango Shaped Space was already mentioned. With that story in mind – my memories of the stressful experiences that child experienced – have you considered allowing your daughter to move to fifth grade?

  18. Carrie says:

    My older daughter has hypoplasia of the corpus callosum, which means that the nerve bridge between the brain hemispheres is much thinner than normal. Interestingly, in some of these people, those nerve fibers are present–they just run from front to back instead of sideways. This increases connection within each hemisphere. I have long suspected some sort of synesthesia in her, but have never been able to confirm it. If I ask about the colors/smells/tastes, she looks at me like I’m crazy. But there are strange absolutes that she shows, and they seem completely random to an outsider. She has an uncanny ability to remember locations and specifics in a way I haven’t observed in others. Very interesting to read about your experiences!

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