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.
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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…
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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