The Value of Challenge

15 Jul

 

Almost all parents of highly to profoundly gifted children know quite well that one of the major difficulties in their children’s education is a lack of appropriate intellectual challenge. When Leta Hollingworth suggested in the first half of the last century that highly gifted children waste most of their time in school and profoundly gifted children waste almost all of it, she was making it clear that the primary challenge for these kids in most school situations was boredom. There was little or nothing for their active, questing minds to engage with, little challenge from which to grow and develop their knowledge base, or discover new ideas and to evaluate them, or to learn how to come up with and best express their own important thoughts and judgments. No challenge.

In a blog post entitled “The Right to Struggle,” The Gifted Development Center’s Dr. Linda Silverman poses the situation as a matter of civil rights. “How are egalitarian beliefs served by teaching a student what he or she already knows? Effort is kindled when students wrestle with new concepts—when they have to struggle to learn. Gifted education specialist, Carol Morreale, said that when we give gifted students the same work as all the other students, we deprive them of the right to struggle to learn.” [italics mine]  http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/blogs/bobbie-and-lindas-blog/right-struggle

This lack of challenge or “struggle” is clearly shown in the answer a profoundly gifted teenage girl gave in 2012 when Patty Gatto-Walden and I asked Yunasa campers to respond to a speech made by the then President of NAGC, advocating a move away from the idea that “giftedness” is an innate difference.

“…I started ninth grade when I was twelve—and … there was another girl a couple months older than me who was also starting the ninth grade…the main difference between us is that she was working really, really hard to maintain good grades at the ninth grade level at age 12. She was having a real struggle, she was constantly having to do homework, she had to put a ton of effort in. Whereas, I was sitting in all my classes daydreaming because I still wasn’t being challenged—because the way traditional curriculum is taught doesn’t hold my attention, so I always thought there was an extreme difference between [us]. …seeing this girl’s experience compared to mine when we were the same age in the same grade, …I didn’t really understand much about giftedness, but even at that point I thought, ‘This doesn’t really seem like the same situation!’” (Gatto-Walden & Tolan, 2012 presentation at NAGC)

None of this will surprise parents of highly gifted children or the teachers who understand and work with them to provide either acceleration or intense levels of enrichment (or both) to give them worthwhile learning experiences in school. They need to encounter real challenge.

But today I want to take this idea of the value of challenge in a different, and maybe new-to-most readers, direction.

Bear with me. When I was a child we kids were sent out in good weather to “play outside” and told to be sure to come home by dinner time, or when the streetlights came on. My husband’s and my boys (the next generation kids) were also allowed to go out and play on their own. It was what kids did! They rode bikes or roller skated, played games, invented games, pogo-sticked, walked to parks, libraries, playgrounds. In my case the kids on my block explored the shores of Lake Michigan, across the street from my house. Kids without adults, just being kids.

But something changed in 1979 when our youngest had just turned seven. Six year old Etan Patz, walking the two blocks to his school bus stop in New York City by himself for the first time, disappeared. What followed across this country was the launching of the missing children movement, the practice of putting the faces of missing children on milk cartons, and the idea that all children must be taught about “stranger danger.” Even though we lived in a pleasant residential neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio I remember following the official advice to get our son “dog tags” to wear with his name, address and phone number. Of course, he knew that information himself and could perfectly well find his way home on his own, but news broadcasts reminded parents steadily that “something might happen” to children to keep them from being able to do that. That “something” that loomed over all of us was whatever had happened to Etan Patz. Eventually, of course, the world learned that he had been murdered by a mentally ill neighbor.

But something fundamental had changed in our culture. Over time parents came to think that whenever their children were outside their homes “unsupervised” by an adult they were actually in danger of being hurt or killed by a stranger. Though some (or many) parents knew how rare such events really were, they were still plagued by a fear that such an “almost-never-happens” catastrophe might happen to their child. And it would have been their fault…

Now, closing in on four decades later, parental fear has grown and spread from the possibility of kidnapping or murder to a huge variety of unpleasant experiences that children “need” to be protected from. The media (social and otherwise) bring us a steady diet of warnings, and examples of dangers children may face on a daily basis. And given that highly and profoundly gifted children are often unusually sensitive and different enough to be frequently bullied, they may seem to be especially vulnerable.

It is this constantly growing fear that has created the phenomenon known as the “helicopter parent.” The image this term conjures may seem extreme enough that most parents don’t see themselves this way, but it can be hard to avoid some of the over-protectiveness it suggests. That over-protectiveness has spread beyond individual parents to our society itself, so that neighbors and even strangers have been known to contact police to report children going to a park, a library, even sometimes on their way home by themselves, without an adult to watch over them. It is in response to this level of concern that the “free range children” movement was started to bring childhood at least a little closer to what it was when I was growing up. But the phenomenon of helicopter parenting does not appear to be greatly affected by this press for greater freedom. Usually starting when children are quite small, over-protection continues these days into high school and college.

Recently, my grandson (who starts high school this fall) was talking to my son about where he might like to go for college. Son told grandson that out of state tuition for his first choice university was wildly expensive. “That’s okay,” grandson said, “you and Mom can just rent an apartment there and I can take a gap year and live in the apartment so I can become a state resident.” There followed, of course, a brief and realistic financial discussion!

When I learned of this conversation, I pointed out that I’ve been hearing about helicopter parents who rent an apartment for themselves in the town or city where their child goes to school (in some cases may even buy a house!) so they can live close enough to help their son or daughter choose classes, to feed them, do their laundry, meet all their professors, and arrange regular conferences with any who fail to give the child acceptable grades, etc. My son just shook his head. “In this family we are all looking forward to the time this kid goes off on his own!”

So when I was recently talking to a young woman whose job it is to counsel students who are having difficulty adjusting to college (of which there are apparently an ever-increasing number), I asked if this issue of parents taking up residence in the same town was something this particular school had to deal with. “Not just in the same town! There are mothers who move in with their kids—sometimes even in the kid’s dorm room.” It was in that startling conversation that I first heard the new term, snow-plow parent. “These parents don’t just hover over their kids,” she said. “They go in front of them in everything they do to make sure the kid doesn’t encounter any obstacles of any kind. It’s practically an epidemic!”

These conversations got me to thinking about the whole issue of learning and challenge. For a number of years employers have been reporting that young men and women newly out of college (or even prestigious and challenging graduate programs) seem unable or unwilling to take responsibility and make decisions for themselves. When given a task typical of the job they’ve been hired for they need far more support in figuring out how to do it than earlier generations did. “They want and expect—in fact need—someone to lead them by the hand, tell them what to do and how to do it, and then keep an eye on them to be sure it gets done.” I’d like to think this doesn’t apply to highly or profoundly gifted kids, but given some of the top schools these young people graduated from, one wonders.

So I decided to write this blog in order to ask  parents the question “What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

Years ago I gave a talk at NAGC called “The Problem of Pain,” which was later published in the CAG Newsletter in California and is included in my 2016 book Out of Sync. [https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness] The piece provides what I call a “Nifty Tool Kit” for helping one’s child cope with pain. It is difficult for any of us to watch our children suffer physical, emotional or psychological pain. We tend to want more than anything just to take it away. Fix it. Find a way to keep it from recurring. But no one gets through life without pain. Reaching adulthood without developing any strategies for coping with it is not a benefit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating pain. I’m not a believer in the adage “no pain no gain.” There are many ways to learn important life lessons from positive experiences. And by life challenges, I don’t mean only those that bring pain. It is a challenge to choose a major, a challenge to fulfill an obligation one may have undertaken without fully understanding the work involved, a challenge to walk away from a relationship that is forcing one to camouflage one’s real self, and a challenge to stand up for oneself when one has been judged unfairly. And it is, of course, a challenge to begin accepting responsibility for one’s actions and choices. Those are all part of learning to be a fully functioning adult. And here’s one that highly to profoundly gifted adolescents often struggle with—a challenge to discover not just what one can do, but what gives one joy in the doing.

Life—for everyone—includes difficult challenges like loss, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, disappointment, mistakes and bad choices. If their parents constantly rush in to “fix” any uncomfortable situation, or remove any and every obstacle children or adolescents might encounter, how do they develop the kinds of coping strategies that will be essential in the rest of their lives? We insist that children need to learn at or near the top of their cognitive capacity so they’ll have the intellectual tools they’ll need to reach their potential. It’s equally important to let them stretch themselves to contend with the difficulties they encounter in their personal lives.

Parenting is difficult and scary, and parenting out of sync kids is no walk in the park. We don’t have “owner’s manuals.” We do the best we can. I’m certainly not suggesting you abandon your child in the face of difficult life experiences! I’m suggesting only that you consider that question I asked earlier:

“What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

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