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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.

 

Calling All Readers and Writers!

21 Feb

 

Some of you who read this blog may also see my DeepEnd page or my author’s page on FaceBook and so may already know about the issue that is the focus of this post. But to others of you what I am writing about today may come as news (and probably also a shock, as the discovery was to me).

Many, if not most of you who follow this blog are readers; some of the children and the adults in the highly to profoundly gifted population may also write, or may one day want to write books. And all of you use “devices” and the internet, of course, or you wouldn’t be reading this. I assume most of you frequent libraries as well. So the convergence of books, readers and writers, libraries, and the internet is no doubt important to you.

For the last 40 years I have made my living, such as it is, mostly from being a writer, and mostly writing fiction for kids and young adults, though I also, of course, write nonfiction, both books and articles (plus FB and blog posts) about the gifted. In the image above the top shelf has my fiction and the lower shelf has books I have chapters or stories in, my nonfiction books, some translations and some plays. Physical copies! And all indubitably “mine.”

A few weeks ago, the Authors Guild, of which I’ve been a member for decades, advised its members to check something called Open Library, to see if it was making any our work freely available without our permission, in violation of our copyrights. In those weeks I have learned a great deal, most if which is deeply disturbing, which is why I’m writing this post.

On Open Library I found two serious problems—one was that about a dozen of my books, seven of which are still in print and available for sale, were there for downloading (so-called “borrowing”) for free. On “my page” two of my books were listed as having a co-author named Alex Hill. I had no idea who this person might be—certainly not a co-author. I clicked on his name and was taken to a page where I found the second serious problem. ALL of my books published before 2008, both fiction and nonfiction—including Guiding the Gifted Child, in English and in German, which I wrote with Elizabeth Meckstroth and James Webb,—and including a play, “Bridge To Terabithia,” which I wrote with Katherine Paterson and Steve Liebman. Nowhere on this other page could my own name be found. Everything there was simply listed as “By Alex Hill.”

I contacted Open Library and demanded that they take down from “my page” at least the seven books still in print, and in a second communication demanded that they take every one of my books off “Alex Hill’s page.” They complied with this second demand within 24 hours. It took another day before I got the message that they had taken all of my books down as ebooks for borrowing from my own “page” on their site.

So began my journey through the vast and (for me at least) horrifying world of digital copying. I had not known that my books were available this way, which means my permission was not sought before Open Library’s “parent organization,” Internet Archive had my books scanned and made them available through O.L. for download to anyone who has internet access.  

Once Alex Hill was no longer being credited as the author of my books, I asked how this massive “error” could have been made, and Open Library’s answer to me was that the site is a wiki, explaining that anyone—ANYONE—can change its “metadata” at will. And although they have claimed to me that there is no way the content of a scanned book can be changed by anyone once it has been made available on the site [though the author’s name could be changed any time by anyone apparently] I have reason not to believe them about content, because apparently users can also scan books and have them included in this “catalog,” which is what they call Open Library. They thought this information that they’re a wiki should somehow comfort me. Not! My son discovered that the change of author’s name was done by a “rename bot”—and he thinks the bot could have been created and unleashed “accidentally.” This also does not comfort me. Unlike Wikipedia, Open Library doesn’t have hoards of people passionately trying to make sure the material there is accurate.

The original concept for Internet Archive was a noble one—to scan books that are in the public domain and/or historical documents so that people anywhere could freely access them. But Open Library went vastly beyond that mission and began just scanning any books they could buy or get donated (many, many of which are donated) and putting them up, without asking the author’s permission. 

Copyright exists as a protection against unauthorized copying! There are well over 100,000 public “town libraries,” to say nothing of school and university libraries. These “brick and mortar libraries” buy books or contract for ebooks with the publisher, paying either for the ability to lend them a specific number of times or for a specified period of time. Open Library has no such limitations, though they claim otherwise. 

It’s true that some writers get very wealthy (Stephen King says writing makes him a “good living,”—Yes!) But a recent Author’s Guild survey determined that the average yearly income for a writer is around $20K. The standard contract with a hard cover publisher gives the author a 10% royalty on each book sale. That percentage may go up higher if sales reach certain sales targets. And for ebooks, though all other “subsidiary rights” are standardly shared 50/50 between author and publisher, the ebook percentage for the author is (also standardly) only 25%.

Writers’ incomes have been falling steadily for a decade. Surprise? Every writer I have told to check Open Library has found many, most or all of their books available there, always without permission and most often while still in print. Internet Archive began in 2006 and most of us didn’t know it. Open Library, apparently started four years later, also went unknown from the authors whose work they were illegally scanning. They claim this right to scan whole works under a theory they call “Controlled Digital Lending” (CDL) but it is not actually either “controlled,” or “lending.”

I’m not writing here to bemoan my own loss of royalty income, though that clearly does count some for me. I’m writing here because the ability to scan any book and put it up on line is threatening the entire system of written works and the sharing thereof. Brick and mortar libraries serve a geographical location and people in their area who have library cards—Open Library can reach an infinite number of computer users anywhere in the world, and give them the books. While O.L. claims books are loaned one at a time and for a specified period, in the FAQ published (link below) by opponents of this theory, that claim is shown to be untrue. At the end of the specified time period a “borrower” can’t send the book back to O.L. the way you take the physical book back to the library. It is still in their computer’s cache if they wish to keep it. And each ebook “sent” is a separate file, of which O.L. can make an unlimited number.

Our super bright kids are digitally literate, and this technology has brought many great opportunities into the world, but the“piracy” situation of CDL genuinely threatens anyone’s ability to make a future living writing books—of any kind—so that it threatens not only the kids’ own futures as writers, should they want to choose that path, but also the variety of books that will be available to them. Eventually only the most popular, the most famous, the most mainstream or the most infamous writers would be left creating new works, either of fiction or nonfiction. BTW, I’ve checked the nonfiction works of many writers about the gifted and–surprise–they’re on Open Library, too.  Furthermore, how will it be to use a “library” in which the content or authorship of the books can’t be certain.

I would love to see some of our brightest kids take on the challenge of finding ways to protect information and literature from unauthorized scanning and sharing. My imagination conjures wild ideas like paper that would react to scanning by going dark instead of recreating the images. Or the embedding of digital “locks” in physical books that need a specific digital key to allow scanning access—a key available only from the publisher or author. There must be lots of real possibilities that our digitally literate kids might be able to come up with. And surely there can be methods of compensating the authors somehow when their books are made available to readers. 

We need free libraries—many or most of us writers are among the “people too poor to buy every book they want or need to read” that the folks of Internet Archive and Open Library say they want to serve. I would point out that Robin Hood didn’t rob the poor to help the poor! There are copyright laws for a reason. In the long run they don’t just protect writers, they protect readers as well.

Here are some links for anybody who wants to find out more about this issue:

https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/cdl-appeal-to-readers-and-librarians/

https://www.authorsguild.org/where-we-stand/controlled-digital-lending-cdl/

https://nwu.org/book-division/cdl/appeal/?fbclid=IwAR0IP8MyJ15JPrVn1CvVVYzAN0zoQoB6_NDX-mFZDiDSj_Tp0FCtSHCtmNY

https://nwu.org/book-division/cdl/faq/

 

F

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.”

 

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?”

The Body of Humanity

9 Feb

Those of you who already know my writing know that I am fond of metaphors. So ever since I wrote the last post here, in answer to the questions parents were asking about how to help their children cope with the current political situation, I’ve been trying out metaphors in my mind.

This morning I settled on one. Many years ago I faced, on a personal level, an experience that changed the direction of my life and my spiritual priorities ever after. It came from something quite ordinary—a trip to my doctor for a sinus infection. Since I got those infections all the time, it was just business as usual until my doctor, feeling to see if I also had swollen glands, said “Uh-oh.”

A week or two later that “uh-oh” became a cancer diagnosis. Leaping ahead in time, I assure you that my treatment was successful and I’m fine today. But the pathway from there to here became radically different from the pathway I had been on. The “shock and awe” of the experience led to a confrontation with the meaning of life as a deeply spiritual investigation that would have been unlikely in any other way. It was very far outside my previous intellectual approach to such philosophical questions.

Not long after the diagnosis I encountered Dabrowski and began a correspondence with Michael Piechowski, his principal translator, who introduced me to Peace Pilgrim—a “moral exemplar” whose spiritual development had reached the highest level (Level Five) in Dabrowski’s theory of human developmental potential. I began to read all I could find by her and about her and found this quotation, which I have used often since:  “Your lower self sees you as the center of the universe. Your higher self sees you as a cell in the body of humanity.” The metaphor spoke volumes with a simple image and a few words.

In the U.S., and in the world, the Presidential election of 2016 (as apparently ordinary as a sinus infection) turned into a “shock and awe” experience as intense on the political level as my diagnosis was for me personally. It has essentially changed our nation’s path. November 8th/9th shook our complacency like that “Uh-Oh” and presaged something new, totally unexpected, and—for a numerical majority of Americans—extremely scary. In response there has been a sudden, intense marshalling of forces unlike anything (or at least on a scale unlike anything) we’ve seen before.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about all this that casts the “other” as the enemy, but for me that language is uncomfortable. I am all too aware that the words and images we use carry energy, and just now there is an extraordinary level of hostile energy circulating in our shared space, so without wishing to downplay the seriousness of the current situation, I would rather avoid adding to it if at all possible. We’re all human beings coping with circumstances that are new to all of us.

Considering Peace Pilgrim’s metaphor of the “body of humanity,” each of us represents a single cell in that body. We are not identical, and our differences are essential to its structure and function. I’ve been thinking about how cancer makes its destructive way in the body.

Every cell of our physical being focuses on getting what it needs to function, to thrive, to reproduce—in its own favor, and because of interdependency, at the same time in favor of the health of the whole organism. From time to time our bodies produce cancer cells that flourish briefly, but for the most part are dealt with by our immune system before they cause harm to the body’s structure and integrity. What makes cancer cells different is that they begin to act not as part of the whole, but as the “center of the universe,” for themselves alone. They gobble up nutrition, they reproduce, they take over whatever organ has been their origin and then begin to invade the rest of the body, continuing to expand.

cancer-cells

A dividing lung cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health

Biologically, this strategy over time is a losing one. If the malfunctioning cells continue their expansion and takeover for too long, they kill the body that gave them birth and nourished their ascendancy. We can see that the cancer cell’s strategy is a malfunction in an organizational pattern that normally serves us well—that is, each cell acting for its own immediate survival, taking what it needs to fulfill its function, reproducing at an appropriate level to keep the larger system flexible, adaptable and working. Medical researchers are constantly looking for the reasons cancer cell malfunction occurs, in order to prevent the destruction it leads to, but the immediate need of the body once the cancer is detected is to stop the proliferation and growth, or to remove the offending cells from the system.

We all seem to be pointing fingers just now, blaming the “selfishness” of individuals who put their own needs first, when in fact, as with cancer, it isn’t that initial desire of each cell to get what it needs that has caused the threat to the system as a whole, but the distortion of cells taking more of the body’s resources than they need, expanding out of control, and interfering with the structures and functions of other cells, organs and systems.

For me, I’m thinking that the sudden sharp turn we’ve taken should not be seen as a war started by one “side” or another, drawing battle lines between them, but as a problem in the entire body system that has been there all along, but that we have failed to fully recognize as life-threatening.

Instead of seeing our differences as essential to the functioning of humanity, we have chosen to use the labels “us” and “them” and to compete with each other. Human beings have been doing this for most of recorded history and have managed not to destroy humanity in the process (though we’ve arguably come close from time to time). But there are vastly more of us now and we are interconnected in new ways that could (and often do) lead to greater levels of relationship and cooperation. But the same larger numbers and greater interconnectedness highlights and even concentrates our differences in new ways, too—creating more obvious divisions and greater, more intense competition and hostility.

We can’t deny right now that we are a “sick” society. The sickness is in our faces every day, so much so that it can be difficult to focus on the ordinary requirements of our personal lives, other than defensively—against “others” who would either force us to accept differences that scare us, or take away from us what we so obviously need.

So what do we do about it? The good news is that we are already past the initial “shock” stage of the diagnosis, and our immune system is beginning to function. We have seen its initial stirrings in the protests—the ones that have shown the massive level of resistance needed to combat intense danger to the system, without violence, protests that show an understanding that we are more than individual cells fighting each other. We are all part of a body that requires cooperation and interdependence. There is a greater value at stake than just “us” and “them.” We are a living, breathing system of individuals that make up the singular human species on a planet of interconnected living systems. 

We have seen humanity’s immune system responding, among people who say that we need to listen to each other across our differences, to at least try to find common threads that can benefit more than just one kind of cell, one organ, one structure.

To make this metaphor work as well as I would like it to, I have to go beyond the most common current medical approaches to cancer (radiation and chemotherapy), and into broader ways of restoring health to the body as a whole. Let us imagine using ordinary medical approaches to remove the most immediate danger from the proliferating cells [resistance], but also focusing on a deeper awareness that the body has its own innate intelligence that tends toward wholeness. That intelligence is supported by the incredible diversity of the cells of the body. We need to stop our age-old efforts to make people fit into some box with others “just like them,” and instead celebrate the gifts our differences have given us.

Yes, we have an instinct to cluster and protect—but we also have an instinct to reach out to others, even different others. In times of massive tragedy, people come out to help, and when they do there are always stories that show what appear to be miraculous synchronicities that suggest an unseen order evolving out of chaos. It’s a matter of changing focus.

I suggested in my last blog post that parents find local and immediate ways to involve their children in volunteer efforts to provide help for others–not just others like themselves, but any others whose suffering they may be able to alleviate in some way. We can also stand up and say we will not acquiesce to a system based on the cancer cell’s strategy of putting self ahead of the whole, because that is ultimately a death blow to the whole.

And here’s the hard part—we need to avoid the hatred, hostility, aggression, plus the utter and sole self-interest that is the tactic of the cancer we are addressing. Every individual person who can come to see the self not as the center of the universe, but as a cell in the body of humanity, contributes to the health of that body.

It’s possible to use this cultural shock to re-examine our own paths and so contribute to the shift in direction that can come from it. My cancer led me to a wholly different way of being in the world, and so was a blessing in a (very convincing) disguise. May this time in our history be the same.