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On Competition

6 Aug

I’m writing about this subject because recently I was given a piece of (unasked-for) advice from a very wise person. I was told that I should give up competition.”

The advice shocked me. I don’t think of myself as particularly competitive. But the advice was given so powerfully that I had to at least consider it. Yes, I try to do my best at what I do, I thought, but I’m not really particularly

When I got just that far in my mind, it came to me with genuine surprise that I’ve been competitive for as long as I can remember. My siblings were older, but I not only wanted to do everything they did, I wanted to do it better. At school I didn’t just want to get good grades as demanded by my parents. I wanted to be first in my class. As an adult I’ve defended competitiveness as a good, even necessary motivator of real effort even though in some cases, when I thought I might not be able to win I would just refuse to participate at all. Sometimes, especially among friends, I was competitive only in my head, so they wouldn’t suspect. All right, yes. Guilty as charged.

We live in a culture that supports, encourages, even demands competition. Schools give grades, create honor rolls, name valedictorians. There are spelling bees and math contests and History Day competitions. To say nothing of sports. I’ve been just as caught up in the pattern as anyone.

A few years back a family member managed to get me hooked on “America’s Got Talent,” and it stuck. I now record every episode (so as to fast-forward, because I hate commercials). As I write this post, the 2019 show is in the “Judge Cuts” part, where each week 18 acts have to be winnowed down to 7. Eleven acts get eliminated by the judges out of sight of the cameras. The remaining 7 go on to the “live show” at the end where they compete with each other for votes from the viewing audience.

This show is ALL about competition! Only one act can win, can be awarded a million dollars and a “headline show in Las Vegas.” First it is the judges who decide, but in the end, after the live show, it’s a matter of who gets the most votes from the viewing public.

Our world is full of such things—one person wins the major tennis matches, one team wins the World Cup or the World Series, or the Super Bowl. One jockey—on one horse—wins the Kentucky Derby. One person in each category wins an Academy Award, one children’s writer the Newbery. They’re seen for the moment at least, as “the best” in their field or sport. There may be runners up, the winners of the lesser version of the award—Olympic silver or bronze medal, Newbery Honor [this is the one I got]. But among truly competitive types, runner up can be felt like a kind of failure. [Just to let you know, I had that feeling only briefly!] But in America’s Got Talent there is no runner up.

And here’s the very big catch in the show’s structure. There is no way the various acts should be competing with each other at all, because who could possibly say whether a magician, a singer, a dancer, a “danger” act, a choir or group of adorable kids from an impoverished country who have managed to come together for an amazing act of some kind, is the best act of the season. The competition is between the proverbial apples and oranges.

One could say that no matter how engaging, the show is actually a competitive farce. Many of the competitors are completely brilliant at what they do, and they’ve worked very, very hard to be the best they can be. The back-story of each act is told in some cases to get the viewing audience emotionally involved with a particular person or act, because it’s a popularity contest. One reason the show is so enticing is that there is almost no way to predict which act will prove most popular, or for what reason. One of them will certainly get the enormous ‘award,’ but everyone else no matter how talented, how hard-working, how determined, and how accomplished will be a “loser,” (except, of course, for the publicity value of having been on the show.)

How does this relate to the gifted? In recent years a group of educators and theorists who think of themselves as gifted specialists have made the claim that the goal of gifted education should be to create “eminence.” That feels very like suggesting that the goal of anyone supporting or coaching a talent act should be not merely helping the performers develop their talent, but creating the AGT winner. Becoming “eminent” in any given field is in significant ways like winning AGT. It depends on many factors that cannot be guaranteed by excellence alone. Indeed, the effort and determination to be “the best,” can also lead a person down any of a variety of highly questionable paths. One has only to check on the number of retracted scientific journal articles to see the pitfalls of intellectual competition.

What life lessons might be involved in assessing one’s inner level of competitiveness? It can help us see how we feel about ourselves and others, how we choose friends, make critical life choices, how we feel about our accomplishments or lack thereof. And also how we judge—or treat—other people.

It is enormously difficult not to be competitive in our culture. But once we start thinking about it there are great benefits from trying to walk away from competition. It allows us to see ourselves, our friends, family, coworkers and even enemies as individuals who are, like the acts in AGT, unique. When we take competition out of the mix, it can help us stay balanced and begin to see more clearly what each individual may have to offer. Sometimes a “winner” is just that—a person who happened at one particular moment, to win—perhaps but not necessarily, a better, more worthy, or more admirable person. And it can be wonderfully freeing to judge our own intentions and efforts instead of solely our accomplishments.

No matter how old you are, or how young, there has never been another you in the world and there never will be. You are the one and only you, now or ever. So there really is no competition, except with yourself. Once you let go of the idea that someone could beat you at being you, you become free to decide for yourself how best to go about being who you want to be. You will almost certainly disappoint yourself sometimes, as we all do, but you can then choose a way to move on from that. Because nobody else can get there at all!

It comes down to the quotation that I have used for years at the end of nearly every speech I give—a quotation I’ve been seeing in a new light ever since that wise being told me—talking directly to me, specifically—to “give up competition.”

Here’s the quote: You are not accidental. Existence needs you. Without you something will be missing in existence and nobody can replace it.

Our culture doesn’t support that idea very well, but for yourself and for your kids, for all of us, it could be the key to the greatest reward of all—a truly authentic, and meaningful life.

 

Who Are We?

2 Aug

Tomorrow is the one week anniversary of a sudden and unexpected death that has rocked the gifted community and has brought a deluge of memorial messages that the writers surely hope will assuage their own shock and grief, and comfort both Jim Webb’s family and all those who have benefited over the last 37 years from the work that he (and SENG) did to bring attention to the needs of gifted children and families. In addition, of course, there is the plethora of books that he published in the field, from the first days of Ohio Psychological Publishing (initial publisher—1982—of Guiding the Gifted Child) to the era of Great Potential Press.

As I have read those messages, I have been aware that the Jim Webb those writers describe is not the Jim Webb I met in 1981, nor the Jim Webb I knew during the approximately 20 years thereafter during which he and I and Elizabeth (Betty) Meckstroth discussed and sometimes attempted to write a second edition of Guiding. We never managed it because it turned out that she and I, by then both members of the Columbus Group, no longer were in agreement with what he wanted to say about giftedness. (When I was doing the writing part of Guiding, I found in his notes the statement that a gifted child was a child first and “gifted only secondarily.” so I called him up and explained that Betty and I did not agree with that statement. He acquiesced. The book’s theme became pretty much the opposite—giftedness, certainly extreme giftedness, is inborn.) Because our Guiding contract did not allow Jim to engage someone else to write the revision, the three of us finally gave up on revising it. After that his and my interactions dwindled to social events at various conferences, so I didn’t know him at all well in recent years.

But because I am among those in the gifted community who knew him “almost from the start,” I have been contacted to share for publication my thoughts about him and my feelings about his passing. I decided to write here instead. Of course, I was as shocked as anyone that he should leave the world so suddenly and so “young.” He was only 3 years older than I, so we are of the same “cohort” as it were. Too young, in other words! And I’m as aware as anyone of the enormous impact his work—his speaking and publishing, and the work of SENG—have had on the world’s understanding that the complex population of gifted kids, adults, elders and educators is of vital importance to humanity. I did post a couple of comments on the FB pages of others.

But the requests for comments, and the reading of what others have been posting in social media, got me to asking “who are we?”– we individual humans. The profile photo on my own personal Facebook page is not one anyone except my family would recognize as me—I was a blond, pigtailed child of eight at the time it was taken. Who I was then was an “annoying” kid (according to some of my teachers—and maybe my parents, and probably my older siblings). There was no such thing as a gifted, much less a highly gifted kid in my world at the time.

Back in the 70’s when Jane Piirto did her study of successful women writers, of which I was one by her study’s standards, as I was in the Directory of American Poets, and worked in the Poets in the Schools program, I actually claimed (because I believed) that I had “loved school.” I got good grades, after all. (psst: it’s called repression.)

It wasn’t until the conference in Nebraska to honor Leta Hollingworth (in 1989, seven years after the publication of Guiding!), when I heard Leta’s poem “The Lone Pine” in a documentary, that I confronted the very new truth that I had been a highly gifted child who loathed and despised school except for a very occasional teacher. (I think there were 5 or 6 between Kindergarten and college.) I could add that my teachers did not like me either, to put it sometimes mildly. I literally cried the whole second leg (Chicago to Albany) of my flight home from Nebraska and then wrote obsessively for six hours afterwards, uncovering a veritable dump truck load of painful memories. So it’s a tricky question.  Who was I before and after that conference?

I wrote a great deal about parenting gifted kids before I ever knew I had been one—though my husband’s extreme giftedness had been unmasked when our son was identified. My mother-in-law explained the shocking truth that the one year of elementary school he remembered—when he got to ride a trolley to a special school (a school he thought was for “difficult” kids) was actually a pilot program for the highly gifted. I remember all too well his horror that he hadn’t accomplished more as an adult—he was “only” a theatre director with a Ph.D. after all. Who was he before and after?

I interacted with Jim regularly for years. When SENG conferences began I spoke at them. But when a friend of mine who headed a national organization that had financially supported one of them took me to dinner at the conference and asked me about stories he had heard from other speakers about Jim lowering contracted speaker fees at the last minute with a threat to take them off the schedule if they didn’t sign the new contract, I told him that it hadn’t bothered me because I had just corrected the amount on the contract to the amount I’d been promised, initialed it, and signed. He asked me further questions, and I answered truthfully with whatever facts I knew. The organization never again supported SENG and I was never again asked to speak at Jim’s conferences.

I was born in 1942 and grew up in a world where most women stayed at home and few professions were open even to bright and accomplished women. And I spent some time (5 years) in higher education, where my male office mate, with precisely the same credentials as mine, made one fifth more than I in salary. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was “the way things were.” There was a huge power imbalance in our world, we knew it, and we pretty much put up with it. When Jim promoted Guiding as his book, Betty and I used to call each other “Et” and “Al,” which was the most common representation (when we got any) of our participation. Once I even saw myself listed as the author only of the “Open Letter” chapter, https://welcometothedeepend.com/an-open-letter-updated/ which I had copyrighted in my name so that I could use it elsewhere, as above and in Out of Sync https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness. But I long ago forgave him. The book gave me my work with the gifted, for which I am enduringly grateful.

In this era of “#Me, too” I’ve sometimes been bothered when men who have had long and successful careers, sometimes doing important work for the common good, can essentially lose everything when it is revealed that they previously used their power in ways that are now recognized as inappropriate, sometimes decades ago, at a time when the whole culture turned a blind eye to their behavior. Except for actual crimes (and even some crimes have statutes of limitation) I wonder, in spite of those who want to insist on truth, whether it is just or fair to judge a person for “who they were then,” when it is at least possible and maybe probable that they are not that person any more. I know, the culture needs to truly change, but still…

In the many comments I have read about Jim’s kindness, his caring, his deep friendships and unstinting emotional support, I recognize that these people, many of them friends and colleagues, knew a more recent and very different person than I ever did. I honor their experiences because it is very, very easy for me to remember myself treating other people when I was younger in a way that would pretty much horrify me now. I would not wish to be thought of as that person today! In a world where caring and kindness, inclusion, deep listening, and efforts to understand those who disagree with us or have less power than we do are getting vanishingly rare, and desperately needed, I remind myself that we never, genuinely never, fully know someone, perhaps even ourselves, the only one whose mind we inhabit. So today I mourn the Jim Webb those people are mourning.

And having survived some terrible losses myself, I send deep and heartfelt condolences to Janet and his family!

 

Celebrate Giftedness; Consider Success

18 May

New Zealand is choosing to celebrate giftedness in its annual Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, with the theme “Catalysts of Success.” So let me first celebrate celebration—remember this song? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GwjfUFyY6M

Unusual intelligence can feel like more of a burden than a gift, but it’s all in how we choose to see it. We who are gifted and we who care for and work with gifted kids, have a very great deal to be grateful for and it is really important for our own well-being to remember that. The song in the above link says “celebrate good times,” and what many people don’t realize is how very important it is to first notice, and then celebrate the good times. If we focus always on what is not working and our ferocious (and admittedly sometimes unsuccessful) efforts to get those things “fixed,” we can get into the habit of seeing only negatives—only bad times—and ignoring or taking for granted the good ones. It is hugely important to recognize and remember that giftedness itself provides us with vast and out-of-the-ordinary internal resources. Celebration is a truly important positive attitude. And a positive attitude not only leads to success, but can become itself the very definition of success.

So that brings me to the theme:  “catalysts of success.” The first essential for me here is to define success. There are plenty of people who define it in terms of achievement, usually achievement in terms of money, power and fame. I would never suggest that money, power and fame are not worth having, but I do suggest that they are not the definition of success. When I began writing (and publishing) novels and they did not immediately shoot to the top of the best seller lists, did not get lucrative movie deals, in fact did not make me a living that could even measure up to the salary of a first year teacher almost anywhere in the states, it would never have occurred to me to consider the fact that I was able to write them (writing was, after all, what I had wanted to do since childhood) as success. More than that, publishers were willing to publish them, and children and young adults were reading them and writing letters to tell me so. However tricky it was to raise a family on the modest income provided by two adult human beings “doing art” in the U.S., my husband and I were both doing what we loved most to do. When I look back on those times, I wish I had understood then how important gratitude and celebration were. And how grateful we both should have been, no matter the difficulties, that we were “gifted” with the ability and the opportunity to do what we loved, what fed our souls.

Now for the definition of “catalyst”:  An agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. We all know that things are not ideal for gifted kids in the educational world no matter what country or continent we represent, so since change is inevitable, we can be certain that “significant change” in a positive direction is always to be desired. Whether you are one of the gifted population, a teacher, a parent, an administrator—any or all of the above—I could suggest a whole list of catalysts you can cultivate to help provoke and/or speed significant change. Effort, determination, purpose, intentions, goals, preparation, willingness, persistence. I am sure you can add a few more of your own. But for me (some of you may remember an article of mine called “In Praise of Pollyanna,” which can be found in my book “Out of Sync”: https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness ) Pollyanna’s focus on looking for things that made her glad is worth adopting. The single most important catalyst is gratitude. Well—that and celebration!

 

Deep and Deeper

13 Apr

“All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. This we know: Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.”–Chief Seattle

“When we try to pick out something by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”–John Muir

It has been an absurdly long time since I wrote something for this blog. But today it’s time. Last month I did a workshop for the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship program’s annual seminar, sponsored by IEA, the Institute for Educational Advancement. The theme of this year’s seminar was “Intersections” and my workshop was titled “From Indra’s Net to the Internet: Intersections, Reality and Consciousness.”

To prepare for the seminar it was suggested that the attendees watch this TED Talk about “multipotentialites”:

https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_callingIf you don’t have time to watch the talk (though I highly recommend it), let me explain that Wapnick uses the term multipotentialite to describe a person who can’t relate to the idea of finding “one true calling.” If they commit to a job or a subject matter, as soon as they have learned or mastered it they need to move on to something else; there are always lots of other paths (interests) pulling them to explore. Many of “our kids” will recognize themselves in this talk.

Watching it, I realized that I am an “elder multipotentialite.” My 6th grade teacher told my mother that I would never amount to anything because I was interested in “too many things.” Miss Shreve deeply believed in the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” She was not, you may be sure, one of my favorite teachers! I am lucky, though. I’ve managed to have the best of both worlds. I do have one true calling, but it is writing, a calling so broad and varied that there is no limit to my ability to follow it for a lifetime and yet avoid boredom.

Most of you who read this blog came to it because you share, for your own reasons, my personal passion for serving the needs of super bright kids and adults. This blog and much of the rest of my nonfiction, along with much of my public speaking, has been about extraordinary intelligence, and what I’ve written and talked about on this subject is best known in the gifted community.

But many of you also know some of my fiction for kids and young adults. Certainly Welcome to the Ark and Flight of the Raven, along with my much earlier novel A Time to Fly Free, are specifically related to highly gifted individuals, but I write other kinds of children’s books as well. And my plays, most of them written in collaboration with Katherine Paterson—author, among many other award-winning novels, of Bridge to Terabithia—are meant to appeal to a broad audience of kids.

Most recently my interests and my life experience (some of which I’ve written about here) have led (or pushed) me in a new direction, the first book from that path being my book Change Your Story, Change Your Life. Some of you may have found it through my websites http://www.stephanietolan.com or www.storyhealer.com.

I expect more nonfiction writing will come from the spiritual perspective that the losses in my life forced me to discover and that the current chaos in the world we all share continues to test and expand.

The theme and title of this blog refer to the metaphorical “deep end” environment that mermaids (unable to survive long on dry land) need to survive longterm. But since I created the blog, the term has taken on a new meaning for me—has become, if you will, even deeper. I will not lose interest in the subject that led me to begin it (how could one get bored in the realm of the gifted mind—as broad a territory as writing itself?) but the new depths that interest me may not appeal to everyone. The title of my CDB workshop refers to both the mystical image of Indra’s net and the material world reality of the internet, two very different ways of perceiving intersections, the connectedness of all things. What I will be doing here in future is exploring both kinds of “deep.”

And meanwhile I’ve begun the intense work of writing the third book of the “Ark Trilogy,” Within the Dark. Because, of course, fiction is a fundamental part of my “one true calling.”

 

A Message from New Zealand…

21 Nov

Back from NAGC in Charlotte, and intending to post a blog about the final panel of this year’s convention, I am instead sharing what Rosemary Cathcart (the newest member of the Columbus Group, whose Reach Education online course won an award this year from NAGC’s Professional Development Network–and who flew from the other side of the world to receive it) posted in NZ yesterday. This message is needed around the world wherever people assume that giftedness is not innate to the individual, and equates with achievement.

“I can do it. Anyone with persistence and hard work can do this.” 

Is mindset a basic truth, or a damaging fallacy, or simply muddled thinking? How does it really relate to giftedness?

[First posted on the tki gifted community forum (New Zealand) on November 20 2017]

There has been a good deal of discussion on this site in recent days about Jo Boaler’s concept of mindset, and it’s evident that many people are feeling somewhat confused about this whole subject, and just where it fits in relationship to giftedness

That’s very understandable. We all know that some degree of effort is required to master any skill, from the simplest to the most complex. We all know this from the daily experience of our own lives. It’s true for every human being, and as David Attenborough and other wild-life experts have shown us, it’s also true for every animal and every bird on this planet. Even insects and spiders: as the story of King Bruce and the spider reminds us, mindset is hardly a new human discovery. Not only practice but the will to maintain that practice until competence is reached is a fundamental life skill for all living creatures.

It’s also true, of course, for gifted individuals. They are not somehow exempt from the universal need to practise to achieve. They too need persistence to keep going when success or competence does not come immediately or easily.

So what’s the issue?

Jo Boaler’s argument is that the stronger the will and the more sustained the effort, the higher the level of competence eventually reached. Because, as a general statement, that’s demonstrably true, she has gone on to claim that this somehow disproves the notion of giftedness. Her assertion is essentially that what we call giftedness is just people who’ve tried harder and longer and with more persistence to achieve. The implication is that any individual who has the will and the determination  – the “grit” to use the term commonly applied – can reach a gifted level of performance.

But here’s the flaw:

Achievement is dependent on two qualities: sustained effort–AND innate ability level. This latter reality also sets boundaries to what can be achieved.

Perhaps it takes an extreme example to best show how thoroughly misleading Boaler’s argument is. At the NAGC convention I’ve just come back from, Stephanie Tolan in a presentation on asynchronous development spoke of a child aged less than four months who was already talking in groups of up to three words and who was able to greet a surprised visiting doctor by saying “Hello” as he peered over the edge of the cot. As Tolan said, this child’s hugely precocious speech can hardly be put down to months or years of practice or “grit”! (As a matter of fact, I myself have a niece who was speaking at four months – it happens, generally leaving parents feeling thoroughly gobsmacked and wondering “What on earth do I do now???”).

You and I, as people who work with gifted children, also know this from our experience with them, even if not quite to that extreme. We see the child who not only grasps concepts so much more fully than age peers but who generates questions which go far beyond the boundaries of the regular curriculum. Routinely we find ourselves working in an entirely different conceptual landscape from that of the regular classroom. (I’m thinking, for example, of a local four year old who wanted her kindy teacher to explain the difference between infinity and eternity…..).

You and I also see how gifted children are often denied recognition, not only of their innate ability, but also of their need too for sustained practice. Regular school work just doesn’t require the effort, the sustained struggle, that builds persistence. It’s a double whammy for them, and Boaler’s misguided attempt to make all human beings fit the same simplistic model seriously compounds this issue.

Why did the mind-set theorists get it so wrong?

My own guess is that the underlying issue here is the narrow focus Boaler and the mind-set people and also the talent development people and all too often our school systems have on quantifiable achievement. If what primarily matters about a child is how far up the scale they can get, then you simply don’t have that depth of understanding which would enable you to recognise the complex inner experiences which shape the responses of the gifted child and which so significantly differentiate those responses, not just in quantitative ways, but in fundamental nature from those of most age peers.

It’s not, and it never ever has been, about one child being “better” than another. It’s about recognising and celebrating the wonderful and exciting diversity of human ability and accomplishment. Don’t you agree?

 

Dr Rosemary Cathcart
Director, REACH Education
www.giftedreach.com 

Parenting, parenting, and then one day…

10 Oct
HC20677

Newborn

 

Many of you may have seen a recent research article: 

High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities

 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289616303324 

And you may be forgiven for saying, “Well, duh!” This research shows what those of us who are and are raising highly intelligent folk (“cheetahs” or “mermaids/men”) have known all along. There are downsides to this “gift.”

When our kids are little and driving us crazy with their messy rooms, or forgetfulness, or endless arguments, or intensity, or sensitivity, or the scary downsides that the above article addresses, we may wonder about upsides. This post is a celebration of upsides, and a follow up to an earlier one, (Feb. 12, “On the Lighter Side”) in case you missed it.

If you’ve never read it, you might want to take a moment to go up to the top right hand side of this blog and click on “An Open Letter….” When I was in the trenches, learning about high range giftedness and coping with school issues and asynchrony (which hadn’t been named yet), nobody told me that it might not be a good idea to “out” my child to the larger world—so when it was decided to make the open letter I had written to my son’s teachers a chapter in Guiding the Gifted Child, 1982, it didn’t occur to me to hide his identity. Luckily, he didn’t seem to be hurt by this (except for the embarrassment of having the words “Gifted Child” as an on-screen caption during an interview with me on the Today Show when he was an adult working in New York City).

“On the Lighter Side” tells the history of the Applewhites books, including my idea (back in 2012) to ask RJ to collaborate with me on the third book my editor had been urging me to write. He agreed, amazingly soon came up with the initial plot outline, and so we began to write, discovering in the process that neither of us was entirely thrilled with the need, sometimes, to let go of a brilliant idea of our own to embrace the brilliant idea of the other. It wasn’t all roses and sunshine but thanks to its being about the Applewhite family there was a lot of laughter. And then the book got sidelined by family tragedy in 2013. It didn’t come to life again for a very long time. But finally it called us back to our keyboards. Laughter had won out!

So we will have a great celebration party next Tuesday, October 17, at Books of Wonder (18 West 18th Street, New York, NY), when Applewhites Coast to Coast is officially launched. It is impossible to fully express the joy of working together, sharing the ups and downs of life and of the creative process. And the fun of celebrating this birth together!

tolan-and-tolan-42.jpg

Mother/Son Selfie

 

 

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?”