Category Archives: Raising Gifted Children
“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.“
~ Brian Herbert
Dappled light, chattering squirrels, and the softest of breezes wandering through the branches of the surrounding trees – this is summertime in my backyard. The fragrance of sweet alyssum spilling out of the flower pots in the corner of the deck mixed with the perfume of the geranium bushes mounting from the yard down below is so thick as to be almost distracting. As I pause to take it all in, I reflect on the idea that the book I am holding isn’t my typical summer reading choice (I usually go for a good mystery or historical fiction), but it’s the perfect selection for this summer.
Much like the scent of the flowers in my garden, change hangs thickly in the air for my family this year. My youngest is preparing to head off to boarding school for ninth grade, and my oldest has registered for a full course load at the local community college for his final year of high school before he departs for an as-yet-unknown university next year. Our eight years of homeschooling are winding down, and I am eager to add any last-minute tools I can to my boys’ “tool boxes” before sending them off into the world. So, this summer I have been reading the book Learn Better by Ulrich Boser, which I first heard about on a podcast a few weeks ago, in hopes that I will pick up some ideas my boys can use in the next stages of their education.
Within the first few pages I find myself wishing I had found this information years ago – it would have helped immensely in deciding what to look for and what to prioritize as I selected or developed learning materials and classes. It also would have helped me be more effective as a teacher (when the boys were younger) and learning facilitator (as the boys grew older). It’s not too late, though, and Learn Better is also full of information and ideas I can apply to my own learning, too, including changing some of the self-taught approaches that just aren’t efficient (time to ditch the highlighters!). It turns out, educational researchers have discovered that there are better and more efficient ways to learn than the methods many of us use, but most of us, including professional teachers, just don’t know about them. Well, until now that is…
Boser’s book is constructed around six chapters, each delving deeply into the research around one key aspect of learning. What could be a dry recitation of psychology, neuroscience, and research findings, though, definitely is not – he applies every idea to his own learning journey and shares stories of others’ struggles and experiences, too. Even for the non-scientist, this book is entirely accessible and packed with ideas any of us can use. Here are a couple of examples that I think are particularly applicable to homeschoolers:
Learning is hard. And something many of us know intuitively is that it’s difficult to invest energy into doing hard things, like learning something new, if we don’t know why we are learning it, if there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to learn it. On the other hand, if a subject has clear personal meaning, relevance, or usefulness, we are generally much more motivated to put in the effort because we see value in it. In addition, if we also have the expectation that we can be successful in achieving our goals, our motivation to learn becomes even stronger.
So, as parents, what can we do with this information? If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why isn’t my child interested in doing their school work?” or “What can I do to motivate my child to learn new things?”, think about how much autonomy they have over their work and work schedule, or how much freedom they have to customize their work based on their personal interests. Can you give them more opportunities to direct their own learning by designing their own projects or making other choices on their own? It can be scary to loosen the reins, especially for those of us who grew up in traditional, highly-structured educational settings, but as Boser says, “We often need space to find value, and a wealth of research supports the idea of giving students control over how they learn a subject.”
Understanding how to break learning down into discrete steps and ensuring that each individual student is learning exactly what they need to learn at each point along the way (regardless of age or grade in school) is a key aspect of learning. For younger learners this usually means learning basic facts that will form a foundation of knowledge that they can build on as they grow and progress, like developing reading skills and memorizing math facts. Once they have established this foundational knowledge and committed it to long term memory, they will be ready to connect new, more sophisticated learning and skills to this existing knowledge. In other words, targeting the appropriate learning at the appropriate time is key so new knowledge that is “at a level slightly beyond their skills” is connected to existing knowledge.
As parents, it’s helpful to envision memory and expertise not as a linear model, but as a “sprawling network, a system of hubs and links” that expand and strengthen with use. So how can we help our kids build expertise? Here are a few tips:
- Ask them to write down or talk about what they already know about a subject before they begin learning something new (this primes their memory and highlights knowledge gaps).
- Help them learn how to do their own regular, low-stakes assessments like self-quizzing or explaining new ideas out loud to themselves or someone else.
- Coach them to ask themselves “why” and “how” questions like, “Why is this information important?” and “How does this connect to what I learned earlier?”
While the ideas shared in Learn Better are highly relevant and useful for any type of student, this book is not just for those who may struggle with learning. Even for those who are academically strong, who already have a capacity for learning, developing the skills necessary to optimize their ability to learn is important. And yet, this is rarely something teachers and parents focus on. Add to that the notion that willingness to learn is also a key (but often unacknowledged) component of learning, and we see that our self-developed approaches to learning are frequently missing critical elements. Teaching our children to “learn how to learn” is a gift that those of us who are actively involved in our children’s education can give them. And if we start early enough, maybe they won’t have to undo a lifetime of bad highlighting habits down the road!
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director, admissions committee member, and adjunct faculty. She has homeschooled her two boys since 2011, and recently published her first book, “From Home Education to Higher Education”, published by GHF Press in 2017. You can connect with Lori and find more information about college admissions for homeschoolers at: www.uncommonapplicant.com
If you like this post, and would like to see what other homeschooling parents are reading this summer, click on the image below:
He tried to hide it, ducking his head quickly as I walked into the room, but I had already seen his face. He was crying, again, and didn’t want me to see. So I pretended for a moment that I hadn’t, moving through the room and tidying things here and there as I debated whether or not to say something. What could I say that hadn’t already been said many times before? What can a mother do when her child is struggling, and she doesn’t know how to make it better?
This boy, my youngest son, is very much like me. Of my two boys, he resembles me the most in terms of looks, and especially in terms of personality — strong-willed, independent, and often driven by an internal engine that doesn’t seem to have an “off” switch. The latter trait can be particularly frustrating for both of us, especially when we face obstacles outside of our immediate control that prevent us from moving forward — we’re not good at sitting still or waiting. So we have both become very good at work arounds, at figuring out how to get things done in spite of challenges or setbacks, to the point that sometimes other people (even the people closest to us) don’t have any idea how much we’re struggling because we seem to be doing fine. This trait also makes it hard for us to ask for help, because we don’t want to slow down long enough to explain the situation and ask for it, and because we feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own.
Except sometimes we can’t, and by the time we realize that, we’re already overwhelmed and exhausted.
This is the point my son had reached when I walked in on him that day as he was working on a written report. I knew reading and writing were challenging for him, and since they never have been for me, it was hard to know exactly what to do, but I did my best to help him figure out a variety of work arounds, like listening to audio books instead of reading physical books, and typing instead of writing by hand. But sometimes audio versions aren’t available for the book you want to read (which was the case for this project), and sometimes you just need or want to be able to write things by hand. Both of these are very hard for my son, and he has explained to me multiple times that “the words move around on the page” whenever he tried to read, and that he has to focus so hard on spelling words correctly when he was writing, that he lost his train of thought on the bigger ideas he wanted to communicate. I could certainly see evidence of these difficulties in his school work — the simple words and sentences in his papers didn’t come close to matching the depth and complexity of the ideas and questions he could express verbally. This is a kid who barely broke a sweat developing and delivering an hour-long presentation on Hannibal and the Punic Wars when he was in fifth grade, but who cried in frustration as he attempted to hand-write a simple timeline for his presentation board. In short, the gulf between his written abilities and his verbal abilities was wide, and getting wider.
So, as I tidied his room that day, realizing that we were both feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by these issues, I decided it was time to find some help. None of the solutions we had tried seemed to be helping all that much, and it was time to find out why. At first he resisted the idea of visiting a learning specialist and having some testing done, but over the course of a few days and a few more frustrating sessions with his report, he finally relented. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I gave him this time to think it over and to let the decision be his — forcing him to go through an evaluation process would likely have been counterproductive, damaging his self-esteem and undermining his growing sense of independence. Finding the right kind of professional support was an important part of the process, too. Unfortunately, all experts are not created equal, and I had to invest a lot of time in finding someone who could affirm my son’s creative and intellectual strengths, and who could gain his trust by treating him with respect and without condescension.
During my search for professional help, I was excited to find an online tool that gave me a chance to “walk a mile” in my son’s shoes, or, as their web site says, to “experience firsthand how frustrating it is when your hand won’t write what your brain is telling it to.” I asked my son to watch as I tried a few of the exercises, typing, fixing, re-typing, fixing again… the timer ran out every time before I could finish. I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone ever get anything done this way? When my son confirmed that the simulation was almost exactly what it’s like for him, my heart overflowed with compassion and admiration. And then we cried together, but this time out of relief instead of frustration.
So, as we begin this next part of the learning journey together and I reflect on our experiences thus far, I’m grateful that I allowed the extra time for my son to come to his own decision, and for me to find the best learning specialist for our needs. Now that we have a better understanding of how his brain is wired, and why particular activities are harder for him, his whole demeanor has changed. He’s feeling empowered and optimistic, even though we’re still too early in the process to have seen much in the way of results yet. Sometimes just knowing that there’s a path forward, and having someone who is willing to walk it with you, makes traveling even the most challenging of terrain much more bearable.
Thanks for stopping by today! If you enjoyed reading this article, you can find more on this topic here.
I was talking to a new homeschooling mom a couple of weeks ago, helping her work through that “What have I done?!” feeling that so many of us homeschoolers have when we first take the leap. I reassured her that almost all homeschooling parents have experienced that “I just jumped off the cliff” kind of panic, especially at the beginning, and I also told her what I tell everyone who asks me about my choice to pull my kids out of school: It’s the best decision my husband and I ever made.
That’s not an overstatement. My boys are so much happier than they were before, and are truly thriving in a way that I’m certain they wouldn’t be if we’d kept them in traditional school. Other people notice and comment on it, too, even before they know that we’re homeschoolers. I regularly have new acquaintances, or neighbors I barely know, tell me about an interesting discussion they had with one of my boys, remarking on how well they hold a conversation, or how thoughtful and engaging they are. And it’s not just my kids — other homeschooling parents I know have similar stories. I honestly think this is one of the most underrated benefits of homeschooling – kids get to be who they are, and get to relate to other people as they are, without any of the power dynamics and judgments that so many kids experience with adults when they’re in school.
So, I’m a big fan of homeschooling, and will enthusiastically talk to anyone who’s interested about the benefits of this lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. In fact, some days it’s really, really hard. And truth be told, there have been several occasions when I seriously considered sending the boys back to school.
You see, along with the normal responsibilities and challenges that come along with being a homeschooling parent, a few years ago another issue was added to the list: I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. This condition makes me feel like I have a bad flu for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, and when my symptoms are at their worst I run a high fever, my joints ache so much I can barely move, I pass out when I take a shower or stand up for too long, and food… well, even the idea of food makes me nauseous. On these days, helping my older son work through algebra problems, or teaching my younger son how to diagram sentences, are tasks that are nowhere close to doable. In fact, simple conversation is barely possible because I’m totally exhausted and easily annoyed. It’s during these times when the normal challenges of interacting with and guiding two highly-sensitive and energetic boys entirely overwhelm me and make me want to throw in the towel.
I adore my boys, and most days I welcome their higher-than-average levels of emotion and desire for interaction. The difficult part of having highly sensitive kids, however, is that their emotional antennas are so attuned – they pick up on everything, and their highly-active imaginations envision every worst-case scenario. They just need so much reassurance, interaction, and physical touch, it can be exhausting even when my batteries are fully charged. So, on the days when I’m feeling terrible, there’s no missing the worry on their faces the tremble in their voices, and I do my best to put on a happy face (or the happiest one I can muster) and spend precious energy soothing them and trying to calm their fears, insisting again and again that I’m okay, when all I really want to do is yell, “Go away!”
But I can’t, because that would devastate them.
Adding to the difficulty is that I can’t take them to regular music lessons or sports practices — driving is not an option. This means that we’re sometimes stuck in the house together for days at a time, me laying on the couch or in bed feeling like a rusted out old clunker ready for the junk yard, them with minds like race cars revving, ready to go. It’s not a good dynamic.
As the boys have gotten older, though, and as I’ve become more adept at managing my condition, we’ve learned to surf through these difficult days a little more smoothly. We keep our schedule as flexible as possible, not getting too caught up in deadlines or plans we can’t adjust if necessary. They’ve become more independent in some of their work, and focus on the things they can do without my help when they need to. And it’s important to note that there have also been some “up sides” – they’ve learned how to do lots of household chores like cooking dinner, washing dishes, doing laundry, and taking care of the dogs (our version of home economics, I guess).
So, when I’m talking to people about our homeschooling experiences, I’m still honestly able to say that it’s the best decision we ever made. I make sure to let them know that there will be tough days, too, though, and there will definitely be times of doubt, significant doubt, even if they’re not dealing with a chronic illness. Everyone gets the flu or a bad cold sometimes, and there will undoubtedly be other family events that will disrupt things, so it’s okay to just “surf” during these times. You can trust that you’ll get back to a normal routine eventually and, if you’re lucky, maybe your teenager will even be able to bring you dinner!
If you enjoyed this article, check out more on the same topic at this month’s
Tuesday night I had such a vivid and disturbing dream, one that brought up emotions so intense, I was forced to ride the waves of them all day the next day. In the dream I was in a small boat, at night, with an overwhelming sense that I needed to escape. The particulars of the situation are fuzzy, as they so often are in dreams, but there were unidentified people that I urgently needed to get away from. First, though, I needed to find my two boys and get them on the boat with me – I couldn’t leave them behind. Finally, as the three of us were about to take off into the watery darkness, not knowing where we were or where we were going, only aware that we needed to get away, I woke up, heart pounding and mind racing.
Having gone to bed before the official results of the presidential election were announced, but guessing the outcome already, my subconscious had clearly chosen “flight” from its menu of threat responses. As I woke to the sound of rain, the feeling of adrenaline still coursing through my body, my conscious thoughts picked up where my dream left off. We are no longer safe, but where can we go? What can we do? Is it time to make a new life somewhere else? And then sadness set in, thinking of everything we would be leaving behind, all our friends, the boys’ activities, our home. I decided to get up and take the dog for an early walk even though it was raining – I needed to move, to think.
Walking through the streets, passing neighbors out walking their dogs or driving by as they headed to work, I started wondering how others were handling this shocking outcome. I knew there would be some calling out for us to “come together” now that this awful election was over, but that’s not an option I could choose – as much as our divisiveness is hurting so many in our country, I wasn’t sure how to “come together” in an authentic way yet. Likewise, I suspected that others would be encouraging us to “dust ourselves off” and regroup for the next election. As much as I wished I could be, I wasn’t there yet, either.
As I arrived back home, mind still whirling, one of my mentors called me. I expressed my distress to him, my fear of where our country and world are headed, my faltering faith in humanity, and my uncertainty about what to do next.
His advice: “Wind your watch.”
This person is an airline pilot, and he explained to me that when something goes wrong in the cockpit, the first thing he and other pilots are trained to do is pause, to take in everything that’s going on before making any decisions on how to respond. This is his own plan for responding to the current political situation, too – to wait, to watch, and then decide how to respond. So, while I may still decide that “flight” is the best option (or may eventually choose “fight” instead), with time it will likely become more clear which response will be most healthy and constructive. The point is, I don’t have to decide right now, and in fact shouldn’t decide right now.
Wise advice, right? And a perspective I couldn’t have arrived at on my own, especially given the emotional state I was in. My other take-away from the conversation was this: we all need mentors. When we talk about mentors it’s usually in the context of gaining some sort of professional experience, guidance, or connections, and rarely (at least in my experience) about the value of personal or emotional mentors, people who can act as sounding boards, help steady us when we’re lost and confused, and serve as role models. For our children, especially those of us with particularly sensitive and attuned children, mentors are perhaps even more important as our kids work to shape their identity and find their place in the world. As parents struggling to figure out the best way to raise children in our current cultural climate of anger and divisiveness, finding mentors who teach, explicitly and implicitly, the qualities we want our children to develop as they grow into adulthood, and ultimately into leadership roles, is of critical importance. For me, these qualities include tolerance and compassion, first and foremost, and also critical thinking, the differences between facts and feelings, how to listen well, and the importance of reading and educating oneself.
As it turns out, there may be some cause for hope about this younger generation we’re raising. Those who are just a few years older than my kids overwhelmingly voted for a diverse, inclusive vision of our future. So, they’re on the right path, and we can help our future leaders continue to blaze the way. I know that one of my first priorities is going to be connecting my children with constructive personal mentors, people who want to have a positive impact on the world and can help show my boys how to ride their own emotional waves when they inevitably arise and, as Michelle Obama said, to “go high” even when others don’t. And after that? No idea – probably just more walking, winding and watching for now.
If you would like to read more about this topic, click on this graphic to check out related posts at GHF:
Of all the challenges we face in life, finding our community, our “tribe” is one of the most universal and complicated. This has been a particular problem for me through the years, especially when I was younger and my family moved a lot. It’s been an issue for both of my boys, too, in spite of the fact that we’ve lived in the same town since they were quite young. And even when they were still in public school, finding friends that they really clicked with was always hard. As a mom who wants all good things for her kids, I’ve been somewhat distressed about my sons’ lack of friendships for quite some time, but I finally figured out a solution.
I decided it isn’t a problem.
I know – this goes against the common wisdom that kids need to spend much of their time with other kids and to have lots of friends their own age. We’re used to being uncommon, though. As secular homeschoolers we’re already a minority within a minority, and if you factor in that my boys are not like most other boys, especially my younger son with his emotional and intellectual intensity, not to mention his tendencies toward introversion, the pool of kids who are wired like him is pretty small. In other words, the likelihood that he’s going to find other kids his age who want to sip some tea (ginger peach, please) and discuss Hannibal’s strategic errors during the Punic Wars, or the imagery of Hamlet, is so unlikely, we’ve stopped “searching for Shakespeare”.
To be clear, he does spend time with other kids – he sings and plays guitar in a band, and is heavily involved in the local children’s theater community. It’s just that the other boys he meets are more into heavy metal than opera, and prefer to talk Minecraft over Rumi. So, his connections with them are pleasant and friendly, based on a shared interest, but they’re not what you’d call real friendships. Last year he decided he wanted to try to be better friends with some of the other boys in his theater group, and he started spending more time playing Minecraft so he would have something to talk to them about. It didn’t work. For him it was like wearing a coat that just didn’t fit, and he came home exhausted and discouraged. That’s about the time my husband and I began telling him, “You do you.”
I’m not sure where “You do you” came from, but it certainly sounds like something Shakespeare might have said, doesn’t it? It’s become a kind of mantra in our house now, too – my husband and I say it regularly to both of our boys as we remind them not to spend time trying be like everyone else; we want them to focus on figuring out who they authentically are and what they genuinely love, even if this means they might not fit in. In our opinion, as long as our boys are doing this, there really is no problem.
This isn’t to say that community isn’t important, though. We all need a place to belong, a place where we can be heard, understood, and engage in conversations about Hannibal or Rumi, or whatever our interests are. So, if any of this sounds familiar, if your kids are struggling to find their intellectual peers, too, let me share a few strategies that seem to be working for us: reframing the goal, letting go of the rules, and casting a wider net.
In an era where more “likes” and more Facebook friends are at the top of most people’s list of goals, it’s important to remember that quality trumps quantity. One genuine connection still counts as community, so finding someone who shares our particular intellectual passion is the primary goal for members of our family. And these connections don’t have to be with people of the same age, either. That’s a rule we’ve decided to let go of. My sons’ intellectual peers are often adults, usually family members like aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but sometimes tutors or family friends as well. As they develop and their interests change, my job is to cast a wider net to find others who share their passions and can help continue to engage and challenge them intellectually. We’ve already reached this point with my fifteen-year-old son, who loves building things. We talked the local maker space into letting him become a member even though he’s well below their minimum age, and found a community of wooden boat builders who have embraced him thoroughly. I would guess the average age of the people he’s spending time with at the workshop is at least mid-60s, but that has hardly mattered at all to him, or to them.
I’ll confess that there are often times when one or both of my boys are alone with their interests, and these are the times my husband and I try to fill the gap as much as possible with lots of listening, thoughtful questioning, and encouragement. The good news is that these times often involve lots of tea drinking, interesting field trips, and watching of TED talks. I now know more than I ever could have imagined about war elephants crossing the Alps, and have renewed my acquaintance with Rumi. So, not only isn’t it a problem, it has turned out to be a joy.
This post is part of a GHF blog hop. If you liked this topic, you can find related posts here:
My older son began taking an environmental science class a couple of months ago, his first real “class” in a long time, complete with regular assignments and a teacher who provides feedback and grades. As I’ve been watching him do research for his various reports and presentations, I’ve been flashing back to how different it was in the days when I was in school and working on similar projects. Of course there was no internet, nor were there even computers – it was all about library books, magazines, and micro fiche.
Micro fiche! Remember those strips of film we had to feed through those clunky machines, ducking under the shaded screen to read old newspaper articles? It was always kind of exciting, like a treasure hunt, with each advance of the image potentially delivering the golden nugget of information.
Those were definitely different times. For us the struggle was finding any information related to what we were researching, while now the challenge is finding too much information – pages and pages of every conceivable type of article, graphic, or video for any search they type in to their browser. However, as seemingly opposite as our experiences were then from our children’s experiences today, there is one thing they have in common: ambiguity.
Decades ago, the ambiguity we were navigating was the lack of information – if it wasn’t available at the library, we just didn’t have access. Today, navigating ambiguity means wading through an excess of information, much of which is irrelevant, inaccurate, biased, or contradictory. We were trying to find any lighthouse in the fog; they are trying to figure out which light is actually the lighthouse.
Same problem, different conditions.
Developing navigational skills is even more essential these days, too, and not just because of the overabundance of information for tasks like school reports or eventual work-related projects. It’s also important because there are so many more educational choices and career options, and because the pace of change is so much more rapid. Our kids need to determine what information they need, figure out how to find it, assess what’s true and what isn’t, and then select which input is most valuable for them, all while keeping in mind that any of this may change at any moment. So, in this constantly-changing environment saturated with data, ideas, and opinions, how can we help our kids learn to navigate the right course for them? There are three vital navigational tools they’ll need on their journey to adulthood:
- Self-Knowledge: “Where do I want to go, and how do I want to get there?”
Every journey starts with a destination in mind, whether it’s a physical place, an experience, or an accomplishment. And each person has to choose and steer toward their own destination, using their own internal compass fashioned out of their own unique combination of interests, values, and goals. While the destination will likely change from time to time, it’s still important to have one – otherwise they’ll just be lost at sea. As parents, we can help our kids cultivate self-knowledge by instigating conversations about the things they’re interested in and value, and discussing what they would like to contribute to the world, as well as encouraging introspection during moments of both success and failure. In my family we talk a lot about personality types, too, and have fun taking Myers-Briggs and Enneagram profiles every now and then, which always sparks interesting conversations about our individual personality traits.
- The Ability to Work with Others: “Will this person be a valuable member of my crew?”
We all have blind spots and weaknesses. Working with other people toward a common goal can help our kids broaden their perspectives, identify their own biases, challenge their assumptions, and find support when they encounter troubled waters. Teamwork also challenges them to develop stronger communication skills – a key factor in reducing ambiguity. While our children are still young, we can expose them to different types of people across multiple age groups (not just kids their own age), and talk about seeing things from other people’s perspectives, which will help encourage flexible thinking and the ability to see choices and problems through a different lense.
3. Critical Thinking Skills: “Is this worth including on my map?”
As they travel along, our kids will need to analyze and evaluate the wide range of information they have at their fingertips so they can make clear and well-reasoned decisions. Whether they’re considering someone’s research methods and results, the possible motivation behind another person’s behavior, or identifying what information they need to solve a problem, rational thinking and critiquing skills can be the difference between effective choices that keep them on course toward their goals, and detrimental choices that run them aground. There are actually classes available to help develop critical thinking skills, but daily life also provides many opportunities to sharpen this ability — choosing a problem, whether it’s real or hypothetical, and working through it together is actually an enjoyable activity to do together. Asking “Why”, “What else?”, and “What if…” are great ways to jump start critical thinking.
In addition to these tools, there are some valuable traveling instructions we need to make sure they have as well:
- There is no such thing as perfect information. This is hard for our kids to understand sometimes given that it seems all things can be “googled” these days. The truth is that we, and they, still cannot know all things. So, they need to get comfortable making choices with the best information available.
- When in doubt, don’t move too fast or too confidently, even if others are pressuring them to. It’s okay to take some time, to reflect and consider things more deeply, to let others know “I’m not sure, yet.”
- There is rarely one right choice. Usually, there are several good, or at least reasonable, choices they’ll need to choose from. Pick one, and move forward.
- Ambiguity is a good thing. Without it, we would all make the same decisions, do the same things, and end up in the same place. Ambiguous situations keep life interesting, and allow us to get creative.
As parents, it’s important for us to remember that developing these abilities will take time and practice, and our role is to find the right balance between supporting and challenging our kids. Experience is essential, so the best thing we can do is give our tweens and teens lots of opportunities to make their own decisions (as we advise or encourage from the sidelines), especially if they spend a lot of time in structured situations where teachers, coaches, or other adults are telling them what to do. Over time they’ll become much more comfortable dealing with uncertainty and risk, and will hone their abilities to listen to their own authentic voice. They’ll also be less likely to get “stuck” in their lives and, most importantly, will have the skills they need to navigate their way to what truly matters through an ever-expanding sea of distraction.
If you enjoyed this article, check out more on the same topic over at GHF…
When people ask me where I grew up, I cringe a little. I hate answering that question, more than almost any other, because I didn’t really grow up anywhere. Not in any one place, that is. So it’s hard to give the expected one-word answer and keep the flow of conversation going, when the true answer requires a story, or at the very least a rather long list.
You see, my dad was in the Army the whole time I was growing up, which meant that we moved every six months to three years. Well, except for the year I was in first grade – that year we moved twice in six months, so I ended up going to three different first grades. Throughout elementary school I was sometimes in school with other military kids, but mostly I went to school with non-military ones, especially once I entered junior high and high school. While all of this moving around required me to learn how to fit in and make friends quickly, I still ended up feeling like an outsider most of the time.
Being the “new kid” is hard, no matter how many times you’ve done it. And, no matter how hard I tried, I could never have the history, the shared stories and memories, of kids who had gone to school together their whole lives. Add to this that I had been identified as gifted, and was taken out of my classes on a regular basis to participate in gifted courses, and you can see that any hope of feeling part of the crowd was basically gone.
Jump forward to adulthood, and I still feel on the outside much of the time, although for different reasons now. I love reading, especially books about psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and philosophy, but finding people who are interested in these same things and share my enjoyment of discussing big ideas, of delving into deeper conversations, is hard to do. Also, I don’t do small talk well – it exhausts me and I start feeling restless after just a few minutes. In short, I’m usually the mom sitting to the side of the group of moms during gymnastics lessons and swimming practices, reading while the other moms chat and knit. We’re friendly – we’re just not on the same wavelength.
It didn’t occur to me that I might be a “gifted adult” until fairly recently, though, when I learned that my son is also gifted. Somehow the “gifted” label seemed like something that only applied in school, something that didn’t really have any relevance once I reached adulthood. As I see myself reflected back to me in my son these days, it’s so very clear how much he’s like me when I was his age, and how much we have in common even now. We both love talking about ideas, developing new theories about the world, immersing ourselves in our interests. But, most of all, we both feel things deeply, and incredibly strongly. When we’re in sync, it’s glorious; when we’re not, well…
On those days it’s like pebbles have been thrown into our respective emotional ponds, and the resulting ripples collide and bounce off of each other. Sometimes, I’m the one responsible (albeit unintentionally) for throwing the pebbles in his pond, and other days, vice versa. In short, our separate emotions can set the other off, or intensify what’s already there. And it’s these times when I try to remember that it’s my job, as the adult, to recognize the dynamic and try to calm the waters before “those little wave a-flowing to a great big wave have grown.” While it’s not easy to manage my own emotions in addition to his, with intention and practice, I’m getting better at it. The key is to find my own reflection in the ripples, and then to seek the calmer water underneath. Recognizing and allowing – that’s the goal for both of us.
Drop A Pebble in The Water
Drop a pebble in the water:
just a splash, and it is gone;
But there’s half-a-hundred ripples
Circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the center,
flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling
where the end is going to be.
Drop a pebble in the water:
in a minute you forget,
But there’s little waves a-flowing,
and there’s ripples circling yet,
And those little waves a-flowing
to a great big wave have grown;
You’ve disturbed a mighty river
just by dropping in a stone.
~ James W. Foley ~
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Amidst all of the joys and rewards of homeschooling older kids, there are some challenges, too, one of which has been at the forefront for my family lately. No, it’s not higher math and science that we’re struggling with, nor is it teenage angst and mood swings, either. For these we have found classes or tutors, read books, or sympathized with other parents. This particular challenge exists solely, and squarely, in that time-limited space where teens attempt to merge with the adult world.
This challenge is lack of opportunity.
For over a year now my fourteen-year-old son, Sam, has been wanting to spread his wings – he wants to build things, he wants to earn money, he wants to be useful. He wants these things so badly, he’s been like a tiger in a cage, pacing and anxious and, yes, even depressed sometimes. But where are opportunities like this available to a boy his age? He can’t legally work, and he doesn’t have the knowledge or skills he needs to design and build the things he envisions making (he outgrew Legos and got bored with models years ago). He wants to do real things, not kid things, and this is the problem — most adults expect kids his age to be in school all day and, even worse, assume these young adults are incapable of providing much value when they do have free time.
As my husband and I have been wrestling with this issue, I was beginning to think that somehow we were missing something. What are other teens doing? Are we the only ones with a child who wants real experiences?
So, it was with great relief, and more than a few enthusiastic shouts of “Yes!”, that I recently read Marie Goodwin’s post, “A Peculiar Problem of Homeschooling Teens”. She describes this situation (and some of its causes) perfectly, calling this the “mentor seeking” phase, when a young person “begins to find focus in their understanding of the world, is seeking a higher purpose to learning, and is no longer interested in play-based activities. They actively wish to find mentors outside the family for their particular learning aspirations.” Perfectly described. Mentoring, apprenticeships, and jobs – these are what developing adults, and not just the homeschooled ones, truly want and need.
Before compulsory schooling, it used to be that boys the ages of both of my sons (12 and 14) would apprentice with a master of a trade, learning the skills and gaining the knowledge they would need as an adult. Girls would also spend more time with the women in their family, learning the domestic skills they would need to manage families and houses of their own. While this model of gender separation is certainly outdated, the apprentice model is one we need to consider resurrecting. Learning while spending time with adults is a natural way to learn and grow – it’s how children have mostly been raised for thousands of years.
For some reason we’ve decided that a system that locks our young adults away every day is the best model. Even among those of us who have rejected this form of education, many of us still assume that standard curriculum and kids’ activities should be enough until college or adulthood. What so many of us fail to understand is that our teens need more, that much of the angst and rebellion assumed to be natural and unavoidable part of adolescence is not just hormones – it’s the result of limited freedom, of underestimated potential, of separation from what’s meaningful and important in the world.
We can do better.
While I see some hopeful signs that more internships and apprenticeships are becoming available for teenagers (there are one or two small programs in my city), for my sons I’m realizing that my focus will need to shift from directly facilitating their learning to facilitating connections and opportunities. And I’m happy to report that we’ve had some successes. Both of my sons love music and have found a community, comprised of both adults and kids, at our local School of Rock. Their music teachers are really more like coaches, and they set high expectations for the boys (which they’re happy to rise to!) Also, there’s a fairly new maker space in our city that is almost exclusively for adults, but with some discussions and an interview, they agreed to make an exception for my fourteen-year-old. He’s been learning to cut and weld metal there, and will be taking a wood working class next week. Finally, we also found a programming tutor who’s just the right combination of instructor and mentor.
I know there are other families out there who are also struggling with this issue, even if they haven’t realized that this is the issue yet. If yours is one of them, I encourage you to seek out and develop options for your kids. And don’t be afraid to be creative. Just because a special program or position doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to create an opportunity. Sure, you can expect to be met with some confusion and resistance, and you’ll certainly need to do some explaining, but it will be truly worth it knowing that you’re not only supporting the growth and development of your child, but you’re also planting seeds of opportunity for others, too.
In case you missed it last month, there was a new attention-grabbing report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that has caused quite a stir in the college admissions community. Just as many high school students were enduring final exams and simultaneously keeping an eye on the mailbox for college acceptance letters, “Turning the Tide” was released with recommendations that may change the future of college admissions for everyone. At least, that’s what the authors hope… Read More
The Buddhists say that life is filled with 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, and to those of us raising gifted children, this may seem a bit on the low side. I haven’t exactly kept count, but I’m pretty sure that during some of our more intense weeks we’ve hit at least 10,000 of each (maybe even 12,000 on a few occasions.)
That’s what life is like when you live with a race car, er… gifted child. The boy who wakes up grumpy in the morning suddenly turns happy when you serve his favorite breakfast, but is grossed out when the eggs in that breakfast aren’t cooked exactly like he likes them, and excited again when he remembers that his friend is coming over that afternoon, but immediately stressed when he realizes he needs to clean his (very messy) room first, and then he entirely forgets about all of it when the dog walks into the room and he falls all over it, crooning in a soft, husky voice, “Oh, what a good boy.” (Deep breath, another sip of coffee). Then he suddenly remembers something he heard in a history podcast he’s been listening to, which he must immediately tell you about in full, animated detail, dropping in many of his own thoughts and opinions as well.
Mind you, the child has only been out of bed for five minutes, and this is a pretty typical morning.
As demanding and exhausting as our days can be, though, I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything. It’s a full-octane, tumultuous lifestyle that offers plenty of sweetness and awe-inspiring moments along the way. Our family life is full, overflowing with hugs and “I love you’s”, music (so much and so loud, I finally gave in and dedicated a whole room in our house as a music room), adventures to new places, and lengthy conversations about politics, psychology, and the environment. It’s a rich, often hectic, life, and I’m truly grateful for every moment of it.
But I haven’t always felt that way.
You see, it took me a while to figure out that my son was gifted, and that all of the emotional intensity, intellectual curiosity, and creative energy contained in his small body are typical of kids like him. Before that I was wrung out, confused, and increasingly frustrated as I tried to understand why he was such a picky eater, so easily overwhelmed by noise that he was reluctant to play with other kids, and so worried at night before going to bed. Finally, I decided I needed help and went in search of a book, hoping to find something that could help me better understand and relieve his regular bouts of anxiety. As I was rummaging around Amazon, sorting through all of the titles and descriptions, I stumbled on a paperback called “Living with Intensity” by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski. It wasn’t what I thought I was looking for, but as I read the summary, I sensed it was exactly what I needed. When it arrived a few days later, I devoured it, with tears of relief and regret in my eyes.
My world suddenly made so much more sense.
Now I was able to appreciate my son from an entirely different, much clearer, perspective. I could plainly see what I had not seen before – that he was a beautiful, complex package of ideas, emotions, and curiosity. Nothing was wrong; nothing needed to be fixed. In fact, everything was so very right, properly balanced, and just as it should be. I felt deeply grateful. And not just for the “good” stuff that comes from living with a bright, loving, energetic child – I felt just as grateful for the big emotions, the sensitivities, the struggles.
Because I realized that to be grateful for some of it, I had to be grateful for all of it.
This is one of the unexpected gifts my gifted child has given me: a deeper understanding of, and capacity for, feeling gratitude about all aspects of life. The good and the bad, the easy and the difficult, the wished for and the unexpected. Recognizing that all of it together makes life so much more interesting, I can say, and mean, what the Zen master Sono said: “Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.”
Another gift? The opportunity for a “do over.” As the parent of this highly sensitive child, I’m able to give my son what I needed and didn’t get when I was a highly sensitive child – patience and understanding. Emotions and feelings were not comfortable topics in my house when I was growing up, and certainly weren’t considered valuable aspects of life that deserved to be respected. Rather, they were to be controlled, and preferably well-hidden. Now I have a chance to do better for my son, to bring the light of awareness and love to his emotional experiences and, in the process, to learn how to recognize and honor my own.
Genuine gratitude and self-compassion: what more could I possibly ask for?
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