Raising Gifted Children: Rules to Live By

imageI discovered this unpublished post this morning and thought it might be worth sharing. These are a few of the rules I’ve learned to live by raising gifted children, who tend to be high intensity, high engagement, and – sometimes – highly frustrating. These are a few of the things that worked for me:

Always explain why there is a rule so that kids understand it isn’t just arbitrary. (Even if the reason is because I’m frazzled and can’t take any more. If kids know why, they’re more likely to acquiesce.)

On rules that really matter to you (pick a handful), don’t EVER give in. If you finally give in, what your child will learn is that it takes 483 times to get mom to cave and say yes.

Keep it unemotional. Don’t put your kids in charge of your emotions. If you’re crying, yelling, or out of control, your kids will feel out of control and won’t be nearly as likely to comply.

Negotiating and Bribing aren’t always bad, and sometimes they are the most expedient path to a desired result. If it is the only tool you use, it will lose its power, so use with care.

My eldest, now a fine arts major in college, freaked out about textures and buttons on clothes when she was small. I decided it wasn’t something I wanted to fight on a daily basis, so for about 5 years, her clothes were all a specific type of material and did not have buttons. She now is nicknamed Crayola because she wears the entire spectrum of colors and textures at once. I’m so glad I didn’t expend energy creating a power struggle over something that didn’t matter in who she became as an adult.

So my question is why is it so bad for your kiddo to play with figurines in bed?

Isn’t the goal for him to be confined to his room so that he can unwind and not bug you anymore for that night? I am convinced gifted kids need or at least get less sleep. Their little minds go a mile a minute and take longer to unwind. The rule in our house has always been about going to bed and staying in the bedroom except to go to the bathroom. If the bathroom trips became excessive, then there was a warning that if another bathroom trip happened that night, then the next day something would be taken away arbitrarily. The fear of not being able to weigh whether it was worth a specific item being taken away for one more foray out into the family area almost always worked.

My little guy used to do full-out Star Wars fights all by himself in his room, complete with light sabers. As long as he didn’t come out, I didn’t bother him. Once he started school, we did add a rule that the light had to be off by 9 PM. Half his bed is filled with figurines, and I hear him talking in the dark many nights.

As to the nuancing of rules, as in the “you didn’t say to do it TODAY”, I’ve definitely had my share of that. I’ve handled it two ways. I’ve learned to get very specific, because it really does help. And I’ve also called my kid on the carpet for evading something by pretending it was my fault for not being more specific with a comment like, “If you want to try to play me, go ahead. But know that you are still just as responsible for what I asked you to do. If you continue to do this, I’ll add more responsibilities to give you more practice until you decide you want to respect what I’ve asked you to do.”

On Protecting Our Unique Thinkers

Man With UmbrellaSo the story goes that when someone once asked Einstein why he didn’t try harder to memorize his own phone number, he replied, “Because I have no intention of calling myself.”

Had he been born today, enlightened behavioral scientists and child psychologists would have labeled Einstein as twice exceptional – someone bearing both an exceptionally high IQ and documented learning disabilities. The would have likely thrown words around like Autism Spectrum, Aspergers, Memory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia, and Dysgraphia. But with or without a diagnosis, most of the misperceptions which plagued Einstein would still exist today. Teachers and doctors would still wonder if he was mentally retarded when he didn’t start speaking until age nine. His failure to learn how to spell along with his inability to memorize random data such as times tables or names on a map would still result in most teachers thinking Einstein needed to focus on these failings to “catch up” with his peers. And for those teachers who actually saw the spark of genius behind the learning disabilities, many of those would believe he was playing them and lying when he tried to explain how he lost yet another assignment. They would never believe that someone that smart could be that forgetful.

It seems Einstein’s bane was keeping up with an umbrella. He lost them everywhere he went, and stories are recorded about his wives complaining about him constantly losing things.

So why am I writing about Einstein? Because I can’t understand how we can celebrate this man’s quirks as part of his obvious genius and contributions to society – and how we can understand that in great part his genius was because his brain was created so uniquely – and yet we persist in trying to shove all of our unique thinkers of today into the same box that people tried to fit Einstein in. How is it that our education system hasn’t evolved to the point that when a teacher sees these same quirks in a child today – the forgetfulness, the gaps in standard skills like spelling and memorizing, the out-of-the-box answers – that there isn’t this lightbulb that goes off that maybe, just maybe, we have the gift of another “Einstein” for this generation?

In the course of the past few months, I’ve received emails from my child’s teachers accusing him of not making enough effort to memorize important material for a test, of purposefully “playing” the teacher – that no one could forget an assignment that many times in a row, of being lazy (that one might be a bit fair; he’s a teenager). But my favorite has to be the teacher who told him to get help so he didn’t “turn in the same kind of crap” he did on his last assignment. That’s right. There is a teacher certified to teach special education that believes that this is how we should be talking to our students. All I can say is that he has no idea how hard my son tries. I watch the hurt in his eyes, and I see him being tempted to give up just a little more every day – and because I see the brilliance of his mind and the possibilities of what he can contribute, I get just a little more frustrated every day. My son is lucky. He has parents who see him for all he has to offer, and he has a few in the school system who are advocating for him (and for those I am so grateful; they make it bearable). But all in all, it is disheartening that this is what we are doing to our children in our public schools. Mine is just one of how many who face this every day?

If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend listening to the TEDxABQ talk this year by Alix Generous, a brilliant thinker of today whose mind has generated such unique approaches to current problems that, barely in her twenties, she has already addressed international audiences with her insights. She advocates more eloquently and effectively than I ever could for the need to protect – not “fix” – the unique thinkers of our day.

Klingon As A Second Language

20121118-144303.jpg“I don’t think Mrs. H likes Klingon.”

This is the first thing my son shared with me after arriving home from school earlier this week. And with an intro like that, I wondered what was coming.

“She asked us if any of us knew a second language, and I raised my hand. When she called on me and asked me what other language I knew, I told her I’d taught myself Klingon.”

I wasn’t sure which question to ask: when did you teach yourself Klingon or what did she say? I opted for the latter.

“She didn’t believe me, even after I told her there was an online academy and several websites where you could learn it. So she told me to prove it by saying something in Klingon,” my son said.

Note to teachers: unless you plan to lose control of the class, it is likely not a good plan to ask a kid to start speaking in Klingon … for any reason.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I told her HIja’, tlhIngan Hol vIjatlh jIH.” His words pushed out in rough, guttural grunts. “It means I speak Klingon.”

“What happened after that?” I asked, dreading the answer and whether it might be leading towards a visit with the principal.

“Well, the rest of the class all died laughing and started trying to say things in Klingon. And then once everyone quieted down, she just told me it was nothing to be proud of.”

Oh, she is wrong there. My kid taught himself a language online instead of vegging out. He ought to be really proud of that. And, who knows. If we ever meet any Klingons, it might come in very handy.

Living Like Snow White

Having listened to one too many kitchen table debates, she opted for the sweet release of sleep promised by the poisoned apple.

Sometimes I feel like Snow White.

Not because I have alabaster skin or mesmerizing beauty that could survive being encased in glass for time on end – at least, not without a whole lot of formaldehyde. I don’t have an evil step-mother, nor do I have high hopes for a Prince Charming to rescue me from all my troubles. And the only time I talk to birds is to yell at the pigeons which still refuse to accept the eviction notice I served on their current abode of our upstairs deck. In fact, when I come to think of it, Snow White and I have very little in common.

But I can seriously relate to her frustrations of living in a household of men. Since my daughter moved out last year, I am the only female in the house. There is no one left who empathizes with mom being the only one working in the kitchen (guys just pretend they don’t notice and hope like crazy you’ll let them get away with it). There is no one to tell me my new sweater looks pretty or ask me how my day was. And dinner conversations that used to include topics like family news have been completely overrun with academic discussions about antimatter and play by play analysis of the latest football game. The nice part, I guess, is that there is no longer any temptation whatsoever to talk with food in my mouth in order to share an exciting thought before the topic moves on. In fact, there’s little motivation to talk at all. I recently experimented with the possibility of interjecting comments that might lead to new topics, but most have been met with blank stares and awkward pauses before the men around the table once again dive into their highly stimulating debate about whether time is an actual object or a man-made tool. I spend more and more time during meals with that lady in my head; we talk about new recipes I’d like to try, and she never fails to ask about how my day was. She’s a pretty good listener, too, so it works out.

I think the thing that drives me the most crazy about living with men is just how literal they can be. I am convinced that if I stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled for my son to rush out of the house because of a fire, he’d stand at the top of the stairs while slowly tying his shoes and asking a series of questions. How do I know it’s a fire? Do I know what caused the fire? Why am I assuming the best path of egress is the stairs? Have I considered the option of jumping off the deck? Did I start the fire to chase off the pigeons? And then the older one would come out of his room to see what commotion woke him up. He’d jump into the debate and tear apart the younger one’s theories and explain his own theory of how the fire started and how, if we developed a new system for harnessing the energy of fire, we could use that energy to build an eco-friendly super car. The two of them would still be debating the viability of their ideas when the firemen arrived and physically hauled them out of the burning house. And when I had the audacity to complain to my husband, he would be far more interested in their theories than in my frustration that our sons couldn’t just believe me when I said that there was a fire and that they needed to hurry down the stairs.

It is no picnic living in a land filled with Captain Literals.

I have a theory of my own. I don’t think Snow White’s evil step-mother gave her that apple. I think it was all Snow White. She found out about an apple that would give her blessed sleep and escape the incessant sports chatter and science debates that were driving her crazy. She cooked up the recipe, chomped on the apple and fell into a peaceful sleep. I imagine it took a bit for the Dwarves to even notice she’d fallen face-first into her plate. And I bet it took even longer to decide it was more important to investigate Snow White’s sudden change than to finish their debate.

I still have some apples left over from my last baking spree. If any of you have the recipe for a magic apple, I’m all ears.