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This is an E-Ticket Ride! The Rollercoaster that is Parenting Gifted Children
I was born and raised in Orange County, California, home to the famous Disneyland. Until 1981, admission to this beloved theme park included shopping coupons, labeled A through E, for specific rides. E-vouchers were always the most requested (and were more expensive) because it was your ticket to the most thrilling, adventurous, and heartbreaking experiences in the park. Unlike the A tickets which were “baby” rides, if I remember correctly. If you’ve just learned (probably confirming your deepest hunch) that your child is, in fact, gifted, you’ve just found yourself on one of the most exciting roller coasters in parenting. A journey loaded with anticipation and anxiety, valid worry and moments of pure bravado – this is an e-ticket journey!
In case you haven’t already noticed, gifted children are intense. What I mean is that gifted children are INTENSE! A good day at school becomes “the BEST day of my life”; something built from LEGO is “the most incredible creation” and can never be taken apart; while an argument with a friend and, suddenly, “EVERYBODY HATE ME”!
The life of raising a gifted child is a life on a rollercoaster of extreme highs and agonizing lows. It’s ironic that parents of the gifted are often accused of “pushing” their children when, in fact, most are hanging on for dear life! How do you “push” in this scenario to hold on to what you can or try to die? Seriously, though, the parents of gifted children I’ve met and worked with don’t live vicariously through their children’s intellects, they don’t get the attention of the media or whoever whatever else. They have very real issues and very real concerns that are easily ignored by friends and family. After all, their children look normal.
So your daughter comes home from school and, in the safe cocoon of the kitchen where you’re busy whipping up something that will pass for dinner before rushing off to take everyone to their respective sports lessons and practices, she wants to get away from it all. dwell on and on about how every single man, woman and child she’s met now hates her, her clothes are stupid (because Katie said so), her classes are too boring (or too harsh or too stupid) and, oh, by the way, she likes to pierce her navel over the weekend because Jamie did it and at least she tells you in advance (unlike Jamie). Inhale. Exhale. Got that seatbelt fastened?
New Rules: Yes, you’re here to hear about all the trials and tribulations your child faced that day, but first they must strike up the conversation with between one and three positive comments about their day. We sometimes forget to share our joys with each other and instead wallow in commiseration. A positive memory of the day can turn the conversation around.
She must also learn to measure the words “everyone”, “all classes”, “all my clothes”, etc. with more accurate accounting of how many, exactly who, and precisely what. By the way, you should appreciate the fact that your daughter puts the misfortunes of the world on your lap – she trusts you and appreciates your contribution. She is safe with you. This could very well be the basis of a lasting relationship of trust that will survive when the going gets tough: adolescence. Your daughter needs you to stay the course, rock solid, no matter what she brings home.
With my own children, it’s those last moments in bed at night that open the doors to fear, worry, stress, and utter panic. Maybe that’s when they can really guarantee they have my full attention. Or maybe it’s a way to extend the inevitable bedtime (never a hard and fast time in our house anyway) by a few more minutes. However, it is typical for gifted children to reveal their deepest feelings just before falling asleep, as this is when emotions surface, preventing sleep or even a relaxed state. Whatever the motive, the safety of the bed and the goodnight cuddles seem to bring out the darkest memories of the day for my kids or the fears and worries of the next day. I can’t bear to send them off to dreamland with all this worry, so I let myself go. At least for a bit. I insist on revising the evaluations: Really? The worst day of your life? I thought the moment (fill in the blank) that happened was worse than that. I try to offer some perspective on the overall review of the day’s events, reminding them that tomorrow is another day, what looks extremely awful right now can be resolved by morning, etc. I never take their emotions, or the very real feelings they have, lightly, I only ask that they balance the assessment of the various disappointments with the genuine devastation of these events. Sort of a “big picture” view, if you will.
Roller coaster of our own creation
Be sure to avoid creating a roller coaster with your gifted children. For example, if you know your child reacts negatively to large crowds or loud noises, don’t insist on a family trip to a crowded mall or a large amusement park. You will likely engage in temper tantrums and frustration. Read your kids’ cues about what they can handle when it comes to noise, lights, crowds, and other stimuli, and respond accordingly. If your son knows that a crowd of screaming kids will cause him great anxiety and make him want to hide under the table or cling to your leg, he should turn down the birthday invitation to Chucky Cheese. Perhaps he could instead offer to have his
best friend for a private party. Help your children come up with creative ways to circumvent situations that lead to stress and discomfort. A private lunch and play date will likely be better remembered and can be a nice way to express birthday wishes while avoiding the noise and chaos of a public restaurant.
When my eldest was a baby, he cried at the sound of the dustbin or the vacuum cleaner. So, I always made sure my husband or I could take him outside or walk him around in a stroller while the other took care of any offensive chores that needed to be done. My mother would tell me that I was coddling myself and acting way too overprotective, but I knew in my heart that the extreme noises were actually painful for my son’s little developing ears. In fact, many gifted children experience heightened sensitivity to sound, they don’t just cry for attention. Some very intellectual children feel the sensation of light more intensely than others. And some gifted children experience tremendous tactile discomfort with clothing tags or socks that aren’t the same height on each leg. (Look for Hanes® and other brands that have eliminated labels altogether.) Do some research and be sensitive yourself (pun intended!) to the very real sensations your gifted child experiences; these extreme feelings and reactions are not unique to this population.
Gifted kids love to build and create, whether it’s with prepackaged toys like LEGOs or K’Nex, or just a roll of tape and recyclable materials. Most have an emotional attachment to their creations and find it very difficult to throw them away. If you have found yourself in a collection of fire hazard inventions and artwork that your child is deeply connected to, you can try starting a scrapbook. A picture of the world’s greatest creation can easily be stored in the pages of a photo album, along with many other memorabilia, for later review and enjoyment, allowing you to toss those passage-blocking items down the halls. There will probably be a big debate about what to keep and what to throw away, but a scrapbook can make the process easier.
Brothers and sisters
Research from the Gifted Development Center (www.gifteddevelopment.com) shows that 36% of siblings are within five IQ points of each other; 61.5% are less than ten years old. If you have a gifted child, you can almost count on the fact that the others will be gifted as well. There is probably no more volatile relationship among gifted children than that between siblings. If one gifted child is intense, justice-oriented, and sensitive, then two are exponentially harder to live with. Add a third or fourth child to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster! One technique I’ve discovered to end rivalry between extremely frustrated children is to pull out the digital or video camera. Sounds terrible, I know! Who wants to photograph for posterity their darling child ready to throw something at their brother or to give him a blow, right? But it works ! The moment they realize they’re about to be scrapbooked (one of my favorite hobbies), the action stops. It takes a while to calm down and be able to laugh at what mom almost filmed, but it can turn even the ugliest arguments into play. You can actually feel the mood of the room changing as the frustration dissipates and the cameramen appear in all their stupidity and clumsy smiles.
Where does it come from?
“The apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Parents are usually within ten IQ points of their children. As an adult, you’ve probably managed to temper your reactions to noise and light, moderate your reactions to slights from others, and respond “appropriately” to loss and disappointment. It is now up to you to guide your children in their answers. As your children approach obstacles, remember from your own experience growing up how you would have liked to have been treated or received, and offer that comfort and support to your children. We all remember the devastation we felt when we were snubbed by a member of our peer group or received a lower grade than we had worked for. Don’t dismiss or minimize these episodes in your children’s lives.
Be a good role model for your children. Demonstrate acceptable responses to situations and support them in these seemingly uncharted waters. Show them how to politely navigate situations that could create anxiety, and instead make alternative choices that won’t leave you and them feeling stressed.
One of the gifts you can and should give your child is to recognize and appreciate your own giftedness. If your child was an accomplished athlete, her skills would be applauded. But American society constantly encourages us to hide our intellectual prowess and blend in with our class and age mates. Gifted children are the square pegs that find it difficult to fit into such holes. Make your home and family a safe place to receive gifts; a place where intellectual pursuits are applauded and rewarded, where stimulation abounds and opportunity abounds. Indulge your children’s passions as much as possible, while honoring their sometimes fleeting but ardent quests for knowledge, knowing that another tangent is inevitable. Delight your children and let them rejoice in you. You have a lot to share with each other.
Then fasten your seatbelt, as this is an e-ticket ride!
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