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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]

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. [] 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?”

Out of Sync

21 Mar

Announcement, announcement!OOS (Imagine a flourish of trumpets!)

On March 3, 2016, my new book, Out of Sync, Essays on Giftedness came out from Royal Fireworks Press, the publisher that brought the Columbus Group’s book Off the Charts to the world. Here is the link where you can check it out (and also buy it):

This book is both new and old, because it’s a collection of my writings that have been published over more than three decades. Many, though not all of these pieces have been available for a number of years on my website, . Consequently, some of you will have read some of them already. That’s the “old” part. The new part consists of an introduction to each piece that provides a personal and cultural context.

My journey as a parent led from my husband’s and my concerns about our son’s schooling to concerns about American education, the definition and meaning of giftedness itself, the complexities of human intelligence and the reaches of the human mind, as well as how the differences we call giftedness affect one’s whole life trajectory. These are some of the subjects I’ve written about over thirty-plus years as my life and focus changed, in essays that are included in this book.

Unusually bright children are “out of sync” developmentally from birth, and will remain out of sync in one way or another throughout their lives, but they will only be children for a short time (one that can seem long in the midst of it, but like the blink of an eye at its conclusion). So in this eye blink from my perspective (1982 to the present) many parents who found my work helpful when coping with giftedness in their children (and themselves) have taken a journey from worrying about play dates for their kids to helping them choose graduate schools, or plan weddings. And yes, some are now becoming grandparents to a whole new generation of out of sync kids.

Sadly, the “old” stuff isn’t out of date, as I so wish it were. The same issues keep coming up. I see daily on social media questions from parents just beginning this journey that are exactly the same as the ones I faced and then worked (and wrote) to help answer. Last spring at a state gifted conference, I asked the audience of teachers and parents how many of them had read “Is It a Cheetah?”—my single most well-known piece, and the one I’ve been told has had the most success convincing educators that there really is a need to provide different nourishment for the different beings in their care. Only a few hands in that audience were raised, and it occurred to me that a new generation of parents and teachers is embarking on this journey who haven’t found the “old stuff” that can continue to provide a helpful guide to the obstacles out there, and some useful answers to the same old questions.

So that’s why this book—now one can get the pieces that readers have told me were the most helpful to them in one slim volume. (And BTW, the feet in those out of sync socks on the cover are my own!) Yes, I’m still out of sync, too.



 “The flowers and the candles are for protection.”

18 Nov

flowers-candlesI myself was protected last weekend by being out of touch with television and the social media at the NAGC convention in Phoenix.  I was lucky enough to see not a single image from Paris until I got home on Sunday night, by which time memorials had sprung up at every site of the violence.

The title of this post will be readily recognized as a quotation from a video interview that went viral—with more than 14 million views on social media. In case you haven’t seen it, a father and his very young son were being interviewed in Paris at one of the sites where those lost in a bombing on Friday were being memorialized with banks of flowers and hundreds of candles.  The boy was very much afraid of the “mean people with guns.”

“We have flowers,” his father told him. The boy began to protest about the effects of mere flowers, but the father assured him that they were protection. Flowers and candles. The boy looked for a time at the banks of flowers and candles, and gradually his face relaxed. “For protection,” he repeated. When the interviewer asked if that idea made him feel better, he nodded. “I feel better,” he said.

In a powerful way, that father was right. The purpose of the terrorists is to spread fear, and at first, for that child, as for so many others, they had succeeded in their mission. The little boy wanted to move to a new home, a place safe from mean people with guns. “Paris is our home,” his father told him, and said that there are mean people everywhere. But in telling him that the flowers were protection, he showed his son the absolute truth that there are many people—vastly more than the paltry number of terrorists on this planet—who care.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said that his mother told him when he was a child and upset (as so many sensitive kids are) about news from some disaster, that instead of paying attention to the disaster, he should “watch the people who come to help—there are always people who come to help.”

A great many of the children we work with and care about are deeply empathic, feeling the pain of others, and easily overwhelmed by news of man’s inhumanity to man, of images of what “mean people” do in the world. How do we help them (and ourselves) deal with the chaos we see around us? Far more dangerous to a child than the possibility of a terrorist attack is an ingrained fear of other humans and a world of random violence. How do we protect them from the terror that is being purposely unleashed in our world today by people who themselves are terrorized by what they perceive to be massive world powers ranged against them?

By seeing, really seeing, under, over, past and around the images of death and destruction that the media insist on pouring into the atmosphere of this interconnected world.  By focusing on the vast majority—on the helpers, on those who bring candles and flowers.  We can think of every candle as “the light of truth” and every flower as a symbol not just of love and caring, but of the beauty of life itself.

When fear is being ratcheted up around the world not just by the terrorists and their guns and bombs, but by the news media that continually push those images on us, warning us that this sort of horror could happen anywhere at any time we can focus differently, and use our very good minds to support us. The numbers are on our side!

There’s an Allstate ad that says, “Man-eating sharks live in every ocean, but we still swim. Lightning strikes somewhere in the world, but we still play in the rain. So many things can happen. However, bad things in life can’t stop us from making our lives good. People live for good…”

While we tend to think of insurance companies intentionally frightening us to get us to buy their product, consider for a moment the principle on which that industry was created in the first place—that there is more “daily life” than catastrophe.

At this time in the history of the world our countries still respond to guns with guns, to bombs with bombs, to killing with killing.  But that father, pointing his son’s attention toward the flowers and candles, was giving him more protection than any gun or bomb ever could, by showing him that there are more people who care than who kill.  More people who help than harm.  He is giving his son faith in the deep, natural tendency of humans to help each other, and softening his fear.  It is fear the terrorists want, fear that becomes a deadly viral infection if we can’t look away from the killing and focus on the caring.

When parents ask me how to protect their super sensitive children in a chaotic world, I tell them to focus their own and their children’s attention on what there is to be grateful for, to notice every sign of life, of love, of caring. The more we look for it, the more we see. We need to know that what we pay attention to expands in our world. Yesterday in an article written long before these most recent attacks, I encountered a quotation attributed to Plato:  “Even the God of War is no match for love.”

Notice the flowers and the candles.

Strands of Light

2 Nov
Hurricane Sandy

It has been a long time since I have had the time, combined with a strong need, to write something for The Deep End.  This week provided both, when the fury of Sandy-the-Super-Storm shut down a surprising amount of what passes for normal on our continent.  Yes, lots of us –most of us—were outside the storm path, but given the importance to our country of the Northeast coastal states, there has been something of an enforced pause.  Many people who meant to fly somewhere ended up somewhere else, or not flying at all.  The power grid that we so fully depend on proved once again to be fragile in the face of wind and water, and the edges of our country that looked one way on Google Earth one day looked very different the next.  It isn’t a disruption that can be ignored.

“What passes for normal.”  It’s a phrase that the storm washed up in my mind the way it washed boats onto railroad tracks and shoved cars into a tangle in lower Manhattan parking garages. As a person who now looks for what there is to be grateful for in any given situation, I am still hugely challenged by the Big Bad Events that are occurring with apparently greater and greater frequency on our planet.  One can, of course, be grateful that any one of those events hasn’t happened to us personally (not only did the storm pass us by, but our kids and grandkids in New Jersey and NYC came through it okay).  Still that doesn’t feel enough in the face of images of people who very much are NOT okay. 

In the thirty-plus years I’ve been paying particular attention to extremely bright kids, one of the things that I’ve noticed and written about is their tendency to question what passes for normal, often because what passes for normal (the expectation about who they should be and how they should function for instance) doesn’t work for them.  But that isn’t the only reason they question it.  They notice that what passes for normal doesn’t work for others, either. 

One of the reasons super bright kids are at risk for an early experience of existential depression is that they’re able to conceptualize how the world ought to be, and are aware, from their own observation or the daily news stories, of how far from that ideal it really is.  They may see that adults—the people who “run the world”—either somehow don’t notice the gap between ideal and real, or don’t care enough or aren’t smart enough to fix it.  That can be really scary.  From global issues of war, poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, animal cruelty to unfairness in the classroom and bullying on the playground, these are all, to one degree or another, considered normal and the kids are aware of and upset by that. 

When far away catastrophes happen, child psychologists are often quoted in the media, advising parents to assure frightened or upset children that those bombs or that earthquake or those wildfires won’t come near them, won’t take their houses or their loved ones or their pets.  But even very, very young highly gifted kids are not frightened and upset solely about themselves!  They are upset for those these catastrophes really are happening to. Many of these children feel connected to the other beings in the world, from people to animals and plants.  They seem from the beginning to “get it” that when one strand of the web of life is stretched or broken, the whole web is affected.

For this reason I have often called these children the “necessary other,” the individuals in our species who are able to perceive in new ways, invent new possibilities, demand changes in what isn’t working, because they see and feel what isn’t working.

But the other night, when I was lying awake worrying about how the city of New York and the northeastern states faced with such immense destruction were going to be able to make things work again, an image came into my mind of strands of light reaching from person to person all across the country, gathering in all those places affected by the storm and providing more light and warmth in that cold darkness.  Some strands were very, very thin, no more substantial than spider webs, some were larger and brighter.  But there were a great many of them–millions

It came to me quite clearly that human beings are social animals by their very nature.  When we see images of other beings in pain, we have an innate impulse to reach out, to help, to share resources.  The images that come to us from the devastation of something as massive as that storm are not just images of destruction, they are also images of people helping each other.  Some of those helpers are workers who have chosen to be the first responders to trauma, but many—probably most, many of whom don’t get on camera—are just people who see a need and choose to help. 

Maybe it isn’t so much that these super-sensitive kids are “other,” but that they develop those deeply human impulses early and powerfully, and insist on expressing them.  As with the other over-excitabilities, their empathy is aroused by a smaller stimulus and affects them more deeply over longer periods of time than is true of other kids, or even of many adults. 

During the cold war when there was a great deal of fear in this country about a possible nuclear war with Russia, it was discovered that children’s fears could be alleviated a bit if they saw their parents or caregivers taking some kind of action, however small, in favor of cooperation and peace.  This is a time to do whatever we can to show that we are “doing something” to help the people whose lives have been devastated.  For some of us it can be contributing money to relief agencies, or helping to organize fund-raisers.  Kids can help with any and all of this and get a sense of empowerment. 

But there are other ways of “doing something” as well.  One way is to reframe the whole story for our children.  We can point out all the examples of people helping people.  We can assure them that even though what passes for normal among humans may have flaws and compromises, this species they belong to has a deep impulse to cooperate, to share, to care!  When a strand of the web is broken there is always a rush to repair it.  Not every single individual may be willing to put another’s needs first even when catastrophe occurs.  But many do, and the light of their willingness to help, like a single candle in a big, dark room, pushes back the shadows a bit.  Every “strand of light,” of caring, that reaches from one person to another is real and has an effect, even if we can’t always see it.  As The Little Prince tells us, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”