Why We Should Stop Worrying if Other People Like Our Kids

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Here’s a thought:

It is not our job to make our kids likable by conforming to others’ expectations but to help them blossom within their own uniqueness.

Think about that.

Do you realize how liberating that is – how much guilt it removes when you’re able to do what your gut is saying is right for your child instead of what you know someone else is judging you for doing or not doing?

I remember when my oldest was a toddler. I wasn’t that far removed from being a kid myself, and so many of my decisions about how to raise my children were a constant vacillation between what my instinct was telling me was right and caving in under the weight of well-meaning advice and unspoken judgment of others who believed me to be in varying circumstances too harsh or too permissive, indulgent or strict, or too controlling or lazy in my parenting. I didn’t know it then, but my daughter is what is now called Twice Exceptional (and, no, that does not mean my kid is twice as wonderful as yours). A child who is Twice Exceptional qualifies for special education under at least two distinct and different diagnoses, with one of those exceptions being a gifted IQ (130 or above in most places) and the rest being some cocktail of learning disabilities.

Raising a Twice Exceptional child (or more than one) is usually a daily adventure into the unknown, especially when a child is young – because the exceptionalities are rarely identified that early, leaving parents a bit off kilter as they struggle to understand their child’s unique approach to life. All three of my children were on high speed from the time they awoke until they fell asleep – and they spent far less time asleep than did the children of my peers. They were intense, driven learners – and this usually meant that they wanted to do things that were far beyond their development level, which, in turn led to high frustration and meltdowns. I can say from first-hand experience that there is nothing  quite like a toddler’s meltdown in a museum (or zoo, store, or library) to entice complete strangers to negatively judge your parenting skills.

It wasn’t until I finally hit the wall with an exceptionally bad experience that I finally found my real footing as a mother.

I remember the day well.

My youngest – also Twice Exceptional – was in second grade and just newly accepted into special ed with a long list of learning disabilities including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and auditory processing disorder – although it would take three more IQ tests over four years to finally get him qualified for gifted as well. My son’s teacher that year leaned more towards the highly organized, rigid style of teaching, and it was a terrible match for my kiddo who failed miserably at helping her meet her self-defined goal of curing my kid of his ‘bad habits’. She spent many a day yelling at my son for his forgetfulness and messiness and sent angry emails home every Friday to report another failing grade in spelling. I was still a bit insecure, trying desperately to find ways to help my son learn to memorize his words and feeling guilty as a mother that I’d failed to find a solution that would work.

But in our last parent teacher conference of the year, with my little 8-year-old sitting beside me, the teacher began ticking off one complaint after another. She pointed out every one of his failings with great emotion. And as she detailed each failing on her list, my son sat quietly by my side, swinging his legs and rolling his little dinosaur over and over between his fingers. He did stop and listen as she reported his state test scores but never spoke a word.

When she finally ran out of breath and stopped, I looked at her and quietly asked, “This is all of your feedback?”

“Yes,” she said, still visibly upset.

“Nothing good to say about my son?”

She looked surprised for a moment and then, with a tight jaw, said that no, there wasn’t.

“Not one good thing?” I pushed her again to reconsider.

“No,” she said. “You son is difficult. He doesn’t do his work like the other students. And he says things in class that challenge my authority. He questions what I say – right in front of the other kids. He argues with the facts I share in science. And he is the student. He should be learning from me. Your son is a problem.”

I ignored her and turned directly to face my son. I put my hand under his chin and lifted his head until his eyes met mine. I said, “Do not listen to her. You are not a problem. You are wonderful and unique, and you will one day do amazing things because of your special gifts. Do not listen to her.”

We walked out of the meeting, and my legs were shaking so much I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the car before I broke down. I buckled my son into the back seat, climbed in our minivan and prepared myself for what I believed would likely be one of the most painful conversations I would have to endure – helping heal the wounds inflicted by his teacher’s words. I gently asked, “How do you feel about what your teacher said in there?”

“I was excited!,” he replied, much to my surprise. With a bit more prodding, he explained. “Did you hear what she said? I was at grade level in reading. Finally!”

It was in that moment that I realized my responsibility to my son. It would be my job to make sure that he learned the lessons life required of him, but that those lessons happened so that my son could embrace his own unique gifts to decide for himself what his contribution to this world might be.

My son is a teenager now. He’s already done some amazing things with his young life. He’s launched his first business. He helped his friend as she organized the first Teen Startup Weekend by teens for teens … the first in the world. He’s designed a plethora of mini games in Minecraft that his friends want to buy, and he’s created several of his own musical compositions. And yet his teachers, for the most part, continue to focus on the problems – his inability to conform to their specific process of turning in papers or his input in class which feels disrespectful or disruptive. One of his teachers recently sent an email asking about my son’s grip on reality – because the teacher just assumed that a child who still can’t spell a word the same way twice in one sentence – much less the correct way ever – could never  have the ability to launch a business at the age of 13 and must be bragging about things that didn’t really exist.

While I am all for teaching our children to respect authority, learn discipline and responsibility, I have also come to understand that it is so not my job to make my kid feel defective because he doesn’t fit in the right box. There are a long list of leaders across multiple industries who all rose to those heights in their careers by not fitting in a box, by not being the “easy kid in class”. While I won’t tolerate bad morals or bad behavior, I am completely over apologizing to anyone for my kid not being some bland version of himself so that he’s easier to manage.

When I stopped worrying whether someone else was comfortable around my kid or liked them, I discovered something pretty magical. I discovered I genuinely like my kid. Just as he is. So I’m pretty sure that I’m the one who’s ended up on the lucky end of parenting.

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The Day My Ego Trip Derailed

I remember one fleeting moment when the results on my kids’ first IQ tests came back – a screening at the mid-school to determine if they were eligible for advanced math placement. Both of the older kids qualified (the youngest was still a wee toddler fighting Darth Vader and not yet ready for the world of IQ tests and advanced math).

And when I found out both of my kids scored in the gifted range, there was this big moment of pride I had as a mom.

I reveled in the fact that my kids were advanced. Woo-hoo. My children were going to be valedictorians and doctors and admired and respected by their peers and their peers’ parents and their teachers and, heck, everyone else, too. When I went into teacher conferences, I’d be showered with accolades about how amazing my little geniuses were. It was easy street for me from that point forward, because my kids were going to do their homework on their own and make up new problems just for the fun of it. They would start (and finish) major projects the day they were assigned, seeing as my kids now had test results to prove they were too smart to procrastinate. They would love school and bask in the glory of their own genius. And I’d bask in the glory as well, since they were half of my genes. I mean, seriously, I helped make geniuses. How cool was I?

Yeah. I had a real “moment”, one I’m not in the least proud of. And, as you might suspect, my ego trip derailed with a phone call from the school brought me back to reality.

“We need to have a conference with you about your son.”

Was he up for some award already? “Sure. What time works for you?”, I asked.

“This afternoon. The sooner the better.”

It must be some big award.

It was most definitely not some big award. It was pretty much the opposite. I arrived with my younger son, light saber in tow. While he twirled in a corner of the room, the school counselor and several teachers informed me that my son was failing not one but every single one of his subjects. And not by a little bit. He was failing on a grand scale. As in zeros across the board, in every single class. Oh, except band. He had an A in band.

I left that room a very defeated mother. I had failed my son, and I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it. I’d dropped the ball and bought into the whole pop-culture assumptions about kids with high IQ’s.

When he arrived home, I was waiting. At first, I thought the whole ranting, angry mom routine was called for, but somehow I managed to stop myself. Instead, I asked him to sit down and talk with me. And I told him of my meeting, of the shocking news I’d received from his teachers.

To my surprise, a little smile tugged at the corner of his lips. It seems some teacher who, like me, thought that a high IQ meant that the understanding of all subject matter came easily, had chided him and embarrassed him in front of the rest of the class. We’d just moved to a new home across town, so these weren’t students who’d known him for years. These were new kids, and middle school kids at that. They’re like vultures when it comes to someone being different.

“He told me I was too smart to not know the answer to his question,” my son explained. “He kinda made fun of me for not knowing, so I decided to teach them all a lesson about just how dumb I was.”

“So you just quit doing your work?” I asked, incredulous at his logic.

“Oh, no. I did all of my work. Every problem. I just made sure I got every single answer wrong, and you know, that’s not easy. If you don’t really know the material, you can mess up and get an answer right by mistake.”

So my dear, sweet, smart son had purposefully chosen to do all of his work wrong. And not a single teacher noticed that the answers were all filled in, and that simple odds would tell you that some of them should have been correct.

But once your kid has zeros in all of his classes, convincing the school that your child actually needs tested for the gifted program, is, well, pretty laughable. And that’s what the counselor did when I asked her to begin the screening process.

“Are you kidding me?” she asked, almost offended at my audacity.

“No, I’m not. He isn’t doing well in his regular classes, and while I thought he would fit into the class better than this, he isn’t. So now it’s time to begin testing so that his needs are better met,” I said.

“I’m sorry, but gifted classes are for those kids who are doing so well that they need challenged more, not for students who are failing their classes. This doesn’t seem like a solution, since it appears this is more of a parenting issue.” Her smile was tight. “I can provide references if you would like to look into some parenting classes or family counseling.”

I waited a moment until I was calm enough to talk. “I believe that what I learned in college where I studied special education is that the definition of special education is to provide appropriate services for students whose needs are not able to be served in a regular education classroom. Gifted is not a reward; it is a necessity.”

Her tight smile never wavered. “You cannot imagine the number of requests I receive every year from parents who desperately want their child to be gifted. But the testing is rigorous, and it is the kids who are crushed when they are unable to make the scores that will make their parents happy.”

I actually laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. “Are you serious? There are parents out there who would wish being gifted on their kids? They obviously don’t know what they’re wishing for, because as much as I wouldn’t change my kids since they’re amazing just the way they are, I promise you, being gifted is not a ticket to easy street. It usually means a whole new set of challenges and struggles to deal with.”

She looked genuinely horrified.

I opened my purse and pulled out a piece of typed paper. “This is my written request to have my son tested. I believe under state law, the school has 90 days to comply. Please let me know when the testing is scheduled so that I can make sure my son is prepared and rested.”

She didn’t wish me well as I gathered up my little Darth Vader and left her office. It was okay with me. I don’t I wished me well right then, either. I’d failed to see the signs and let my son dig a hole for himself because I’d assumed he was doing ok. Here’s a hint. Your kids are never doing ok. They always need you nosing up in their business and asking about grades and homework and friends and life. They need to be parented, no matter how awesome they are.