School is Irrelevant

Often families who are beginning to homeschool feel nervous about making sure they cover the school curriculum, state standards, and courses that will prepare their children for college. This is especially worrisome for parents of children who are in middle or high school and just beginning to homeschool. I work with these families to help develop curriculum that will allay parental fears, while still allowing their child to follow his or her passions. I try to reassure parents that the state standards and school curriculum are irrelevant to their child's success. The main goal of homeschooling is giving their child the time, space, and support to pursue their burning interests.

As parents, we want to make sure our children know how to function in society, translate their passions into a workable career, be a good citizen of the world, and find love and happiness. There is no standard curriculum for that.

Here's what I recommend:

• Talk to your children about what is happening in the world today. Help them relate current events to historical foundations. Use books like Howard Zinn's "Young People's History of the United States" or Chris Harman's "A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium," which tell history from multiple perspectives, including those which are traditionally overlooked.

• Support them in the areas they excel, help them pursue their passions, whatever they may be. Facilitate exposure to experts in the field, find ways for them to experience hands-on opportunities, support them unconditionally. You don't know where their passion will take them or how they will connect to that energy. George Lucas literally dreamed the plot of the star wars saga, figured out characters from writing long lists of sci fi names, and fleshed out details through drawing fantasy pictures.

• Teach them how to convey their thoughts coherently. Don't worry about handwriting or even typing speed. Get them a voice recognition program and let them speak their minds.

• Read a wide variety of work. Let them learn to be good writers through reading work by talented writers of all genres.

• Get involved in something that matters. Model for them what enthusiasm for social justice, a green planet, well cared for animals, food for every child, a non-toxic world, slow food...reconnect to whatever moves you to action.

• If math is not their passion, let them use math authentically, integrate it into their real world projects. Let them play with math, an amazing amount of math can be learned through playing and exploring with games like Lego and materials like Magnatiles.

• If science isn't their chief interest in life, make sure they get to explore nature, experiment with physics or chemistry at a science museum, see a planetarium show, and know how their bodies work.

• Show them how to pursue a question, originate a thought, create something new.

• Teach them how to organize themselves, how to break big projects into manageable pieces, and schedule their time and energy.

• Help them learn to collaborate, to be both a leader and a follower, as needs be.

• Show them how to persuade, debate, and argue democratically.

• Give them the freedom to decide their path. We cannot know what their world will require of them or how they might contribute to that future. I think Kahlil Gibran sums it up perfectly in the first two stanzas of his poem, "On Children"

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

Apocalypse

My daughter sees herself as a survivalist, not a creepy, guns-in-the-woods kind of survivalist; but rather the preparedness and planning kind. The other night we were watching “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” and they were discussing the apocalyptic scenarios attached to 2012. My daughter has always had a fascination with end of the world predictions. She has studied the Mayan long count calendar, Leonardo da Vinci’s flood prophecies, and Nostradomas’ quatrains. We have watched many programs on end of the world scenarios and she has never been freaked out, just quietly determined to prepare. We may be one of the few households in our neighborhood that have Survival Straws (for water purification) and ThyroSafe Potassium Iodide Tablets (to be used in the event of nuclear fallout). I have helped her put together a great earthquake kit, complete with medical supplies. We have back up water storage, extra warm clothing, sleeping bags, and kits for the cars. All this preparation has helped her feel secure. That is, until we watched “Decoded.” This program sent her into a panic. Perhaps it got to her because she respects the three investigators on this program. They are skeptics who don’t substantiate theories without plenty of evidence. This particular "Decoded" focused on what has been happening with the world’s weather in the past couple of years: droughts, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, melting ice caps, and so on. The investigators interviewed scientists who said that basically, we have already done irreparable damage and what we are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Coupled with this dire news was the investigators’ report on NASA’s solar storm warning for 2012 and the possibility of life without electricity for many months. Oh, and for good measure they threw in the highlights of the past years’ global financial meltdown, political upheaval, and ongoing wars. They capped it all off with survival experts discussing how people “go animal” after four days without food and water. All in all, a pretty grim picture.

At the end of the program my daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, I don’t want to be 11 when I die.” I want to hug her tight and tell her not to worry about a thing; that I will protect her and keep her safe, but I can’t. You can’t use platitudes and parental omnipotence with our kids. They know better. I try to explain that throughout history, even in the most horrific scenarios, sometimes human kindness shines through. I tell her that maybe her generation will figure out a way to stabilize our world. I even tell her that there are things worse than death. I am scrambling to comfort her but failing miserably, because I feel the same way she does. I want to run away screaming. We have messed things up pretty badly and her generation will bear the brunt of ancestral sins. It is times like this that I wish my kids weren’t so smart. I would like her to experience the bliss of ignorance. Childhood shouldn’t be filled with worries about the end of the world.

I could have kept her from watching "Decoded" and we might have avoided this pain, but short of living in a bubble, I don't think there is any way to keep our kids from finding things out. They are dangerously curious. Even something as seemingly innocent as a trip to the Academy of Sciences or reading Stephen and Lucy Hawkings children's book, George's Secret Key to the Universe, is loaded with potentially frightening information. Their advanced intellectual state drives them to discover things their not-so-advanced emotional state can't handle. It is a perpetual worry. How to help them balance their insatiable desire to learn with the responsibility of knowing? I would be so relieved if the toughest questions I had to field were, "Where do babies come from?" or "How does Santa fly around the whole world in one night?" We have lived in the land of lost innocence for a very long time. They know I don't have all the answers; but I sure wish I did.

Quzzing and Questioning

There is no shortage of quizzing and questioning at our house. Living with my son is like being trapped with a maniacal game show host. His greatest joy is finding obscure questions to stump us. “What is the name of the intersection of Interstates 25 and 70 in Denver?”

“Who were the youngest and oldest Chess Grand Masters to ever compete against each other?”

“Which country consumes 40% of all the eggs produced in the world?”

“What is 1, 2 base 5 divided by 3 base five?”

“What was the original number assigned to the Devil?”

“How many queens can you put on a chessboard without any two attacking each other?”

I feel like I am perpetually trapped on a really hard version of Cash Cab.

My daughter fires questions at us regularly too, but hers aren’t rhetorical. She really wants us to ponder along with her. She wonders constantly. She is the mini guru of the family. You can’t just plod along with her around. She will question you out of your complacency.

“If time is different for each person, do you think we could develop the ability to control our own time?”

“Mom, if something happened to one of us when you weren’t here, do you think you would know the instant it happened?”

“Are humans the only mammals that kiss to show affection? Why is kissing a sign of affection?”

“What really determines whether or not you are living a good life?”

“Why do they call sinks, “sinks?”

“Why is an eighteen year old considered an adult?”

I am suffering from question overload. I find myself automatically responding with, “Hmm, I don’t know,” more often than I should. The other day in class, my professor asked me a question and “I don’t know” popped out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about it. By the end of most days, my head is swimming and I can’t wait for the quiet, off switch that comes with sleep.

On the upside, I don’t need to buy any hand-held devices to keep my brain active. If daily mind exercises help stave off Alzheimer’s, I shouldn’t have to worry about that affliction. And, if we ever actually find ourselves jumping into the Cash Cab, we would win big.

Living Your Dreams

Gifted people often take a life path that doesn’t fulfill theirpotential. Our world isn’t always a supportive place for them. Lack of social skills can take away your opportunities. Displaying your brilliance can make you unpopular. Expecting too much of yourself or others can lead to rejection. Boredom and lack of opportunity can shut you down. Feeling like an imposter can immobilize you. Uncertainty and fear can be paralyzing.

Discussions about helping their sons or daughters reach their full potential is a painful conversation for many parents. They recognize in themselves the lost possibilities. Along the way, something severed them from their true passion. They tell me their stories and I understand how they feel. Even though I hold an advanced degree and work in a respected professional field, I feel like I missed my calling.

A few years ago I was talking to my niece, who had just graduated from high school. She was considering going to college for a degree in fine art and asked me if I thought she could make a living as an artist. I looked at this girl, so full of raw talent and promise, and implored her to pursue her art, even if she had to be a starving artist. As I talked to her, I got very emotional. I realized that I had been standing at her same crossroads many years ago and hadn’t followed through with my dream.

Since then, I have thought a lot about why I didn’t pursue that passion for art. It certainly burned as brightly in me as it does in my niece. On the surface I had lots of reasons: I didn’t have money, didn’t know how to get into college, and didn’t have support at home; but I think the real reason was fear of failure. I was a perfectionist. I could never produce art work that I felt was good enough. Despite plenty of outside validation that my work was excellent, I never saw myself as a talented artist.

I still dream of being an artist, but I always make choices that push it to the back burner. Some of them are legitimate. I am homeschooling my kids, taking care of my home and family, and running my own business. Some of them are deliberate. I just started working towards my doctorate in education. Yet no matter how busy I get (or make myself) the little art spark never dies. Maybe I will eventually be brave enough to fan the flames. I mourn the loss of that life and wish I had mustered the courage back when I was eighteen to push through the perfectionism and pursue the artist’s life.

I think that is what drives me to support my children as they explore their passions. I try to be their guide and show them all the ways they can accomplish their goals. I try to be their cheerleader and tell them they can do anything they want to in life. I try to be their taskmaster and teach them to work hard for what they want. I try to be the lens through which they see their true abilities. I try to be their fairy godmother and provide them with opportunities to practice their craft. I hope my efforts make a difference. I want them to feel like they are living their dreams every day of their lives.

Knock Out the Bad Behavior

I received the following response to my “Oral Hygiene” blog from someone I will call Walt. Walt had the following advice for me: “Where is this boy's father?  The problem is clear in your post and it has nothing to do with Giftedness - the boy is not being properly socialized.  A father or grandfather can do that for him.  On top of that your treatment of him is making his behavior worse. There's so much wrong with this story I can't go through everything. 

You need to assert your dominance as the leader and make the boy comply.  He relies on you for his survival and he needs to know you are in charge.  Instead you're letting the boy run wild.  This is bad not only because he is running wild but also because your lack of control is freighting him.  If you cannot show leadership that he is forced to follow then you are letting him know that the person he relies on for survival is not up to doing the job of keeping him alive.

Do not baby your boy too much. He needs to learn to be a boy. Do not over-protect him. He needs to explore and learn to be independent. You do not want to raise a flighty, paranoid child. When he acts afraid of something that he should not be afraid of, do not pick him up and ooh and ahh over him. Simply tell him it is okay, and show him the object, person, etc. Your confidence will make him a confident and dependable child. If you feed his fears, he will become a snappy and untrustworthy boy. He's already showing signs of responding to fear with aggression.

Knock out the bad behavior now else things will only get worse when he is a teen.”

While my first impulse was to bang my head against my computer screen and scream, “Why doesn’t anybody get it!?!” I maintained control and wrote a nice reply back to Walt. I hope he has many wonderful experiences in life, including the chance to parent or grandparent a 2E kid.

Actually, I am grateful for Walt's comments, because they perfectly illustrate most of the wrong-headed notions people have about our kids. But I'm not being entirely honest, what I really wanted to say to him is the following:

(Warning: If you are expecting a professional, advice-filled column, don't read this. It is a reactive rant that reflects the week I've had.)

  1. Our kids are shrieking and flailing about at any given public event because we have not asserted our dominance/control over them. They are just wild children of lazy parents who have not put forth the time or effort it takes to properly raise their child.
  2. Our children do not give or reciprocate the correct social reponses because we have not socialized them. Again, apparently we just can’t be bothered with teaching our children. We would much prefer to be constantly embarrassed in public, have a very restricted social life, and be bombarded with advice on how to be a more effective parent by people who have no idea what they are talking about.
  3. Our children’s behavior has nothing to do with Giftedness. Really?!? Oh wait, maybe it is our parenting; after all, we created these little monsters with our lazy, no good ways. If we attended the Walt School of Parenting our children would be model citizens, gifted or not.
  4. You can “make the boy comply” in the middle of a shrieking and flailing episode. Short of netting and darting him, I’m not sure how. I really have tried every sort of threat, bribery, and physical hold. Prompt removal from the situation has been the most effective so far, and I have the bruises to prove it.
  5. Your children will behave if you just show leadership and force them to follow you. Hee, hee, hee, haaa, haaaaa, haaaaa…stop, stop my sides are hurting.
  6. Our children are freaking out because they think that their parents, who they rely on for their survival, are not capable of doing the “job of keeping him alive.” I only wish Walt could see what we really have to do to keep these kids alive…special and complicated diets, various expensive therapies, careful planning of activities, heroic efforts to get them to sleep, endless answering of questions, extreme watchfulness when they are out in public, extreme watchfulness when they are at home doing stupid things…actually, we should get extra credit for not killing them ourselves.
  7. When he acts afraid of something that he should not be afraid of, do not pick him up and ooh and ahh over him. Simply tell him it is okay, and show him the object, person, etc.” ROTFL! If only I could just simply tell him it is okay and have him snap out of it. Oh Walt, if you had any idea of what we have tried.
  8. We baby and overprotect our children thus creating a flighty, paranoid child.” Hmmm, I wonder if I could just give him a magic potion that would instantly give him power over bullies, mean excluding kids, rude misguided adults, bewildering situations, and shame.
  9. That we are feeding our kids’ fears…why would we do that!?! They come up with plenty of fears all on their own. They don’t need us to feed and multiply them.
  10.  Screaming and flailing are an aggressive act designed to inflict harm. Does Walt know how hard it is for our kids to cope with a staggeringly misfit world? I wonder how Walt would react if we dropped him into a maze filled with his worst fears, made sure he didn’t quite understand any of the facial, body, or verbal communication directed at him, and told him at any moment something awful might come around the corner. Add to that self-shame of knowing he is doing something wrong, but can’t quite understand what it is or how to cope with it. Then we will make sure that know-it-all, busy-bodies are constantly haranguing him with their good advice. Let’s see if Walt becomes a snappy and untrustworthy boy.”
  11. That we should “Knock out the bad behavior now else things will only get worse when he is a teen.” How can we do that? I am assuming Walt didn’t mean to actually physically knock out the behavior. I’m pretty sure that regular beatings would not produce a trustworthy, socialized, well-balanced child. So if beating is out of the question, what does one do to knock out bad behavior? Sure wish I knew. I’ve tried every restriction and currency known to man (or boy) and he just doesn’t care. Take away his computer, okay he’ll play chess. Take away his chess, okay he’ll read. Take away his books, okay he’ll do math. Take away math, okay he’ll lay there and think. Take away thinking…oh wait, I can’t do that.
  12. That it takes a father or grandfather to socialize a boy. (Take a deep breath) While I am fully versed in the developmental needs of children and would be the first in line to make sure boys get a chance to interact regularly with loving, dedicated adult males, I must strongly disagree that an opposite sex parent/grandparent/relative/friend cannot properly socialize a child. It takes love, patience, understanding, and mutual accountability; all things I think a woman could provide to a boy. I believe Walt thinks that we are coddling, overprotective mothers who won’t let our children explore and learn to be independent. He must not know the women I know. Everyone in my village is fervently working towards, and waiting for, the day when their kid is independent. When I can set my boy out into the world, knowing I have given him every tool in my arsenal (to the point of utter and complete depletion), and he can successfully and independently live a happy and fulfilling life…HALLELUJAH!

So to all the Walt’s out there, thanks for your well meaning advice; but next time, please walk a mile in my heavily weighted corrective shoes before you pass judgment.

Cycles of Life

I had to buy my daughter real bras a few weeks ago. As I stood in line at the cashier, I felt suddenly unready for this phase of her life. She is cycling into womanhood as I am cycling out. This girl who has always been so intellectually and emotionally mature, now her body is catching up with her soul. Her development hints at the woman she will become. There will be powerful influences on her as she navigates life. How will I help her, protect her, encourage her, and let her go? The ghost of her childhood is beginning to drift away from her; I clasp at it and come up empty handed. I have to learn to be with who she is now.

I am not ready to let the childish spirit go. She represents what I longed for in my own childhood. She is the joyful realization of a dream. She is the essence of carefree happiness. My own battered soul longs to protect her from all that she will face in life; but I know she would reject my efforts. I am forced to look inward, to anticipate my next cycle and all it will bring. I want to weep for the death of what was, to mourn and thrash at the change that is forced upon me.

Yet, I also celebrate who we might become. The next few years will bring unimagined opportunities for both of us. I cling to the idea that she and I might be friends. I anticipate adventures we might share. I think I might learn a great deal from her as she grows. I want to hold her close enough to share her life without intruding. I want to shield the invisible cord that binds us, make it time and distance proof.

Many of my friends have teenage daughters and as I listen to their stories of angst and indifference, I am steeling myself for that phase. I don’t want to be at best an annoyance, at worst an adversary. I weep at the thought of my girl rejecting me or turning on me in disgust. Can it be prevented? Should it? Do I, in my greater age and wisdom, look at her battle with understanding and remember what it felt like to break through that barrier? How can I help her navigate that path and emerge as a woman without bruising the two of us too painfully?

For now I will hold her close. I will inhale those moments of pure sweetness that are still given. I will solemnly promise to be her greatest champion and ally. I will tearfully help her pack her bags for her journey and then I will let her go.

Oral Hygiene

My son does not believe in oral hygiene. Even though he has an intellectual understanding of the necessity, on some gut level, it is something that he thinks should just be eliminated. His interpretation of the nightly routine is an agonizing session of sensory overload. When he was two we let him pick his toothbrush, toothpaste and allowed him to brush however he desired. When he got to the point that was not overwhelming we started brushing his teeth a bit ourselves, with just a regular toothbrush. Finally at four we began touching the electric toothbrush to his teeth for a second or two and gradually building up to a minute of brushing. I am now able to brush and floss his teeth every night, even though flossing creates white knuckles and facial expressions that are usually only seen on torture victims. He will brush his own teeth in the morning, but only with a manual toothbrush. Trips to the dentist have been an exercise in extreme patience on the part of the dental staff. When my son was younger, he usually refused to open his mouth, let alone submit to a cleaning and exam. The hygienist would wait and wait as I tried all my tricks to get him to submit. At one point my dentist suggested we might want to go to a pediatric specialist that could put him out to do the exams and X-rays. I decided not to go that route. Instead, I increased my efforts to help him be comfortable with the process. We played dentist. When I brushed his teeth, I had him lay down and I gave him fake exams and hygienist cleanings. He finally got to the point where he would willingly sit in the chair and open his mouth for an exam, but I had to sit next to him and hold his hands so he wouldn’t grab or push the hygienist’s hands away. As he got older, the check-ups got better, he would open his mouth and let them do a quick cleaning, but X-rays were still problematic. He flat out refused because he felt that they were dangerous. Last year, for the first time, he agreed to let the hygienist do X-rays, until she actually tried to put the too large, uncomfortable contraption in his mouth. After several tries, my son burst into tears and jumped out of the chair. I decided the X-ray wasn’t worth it and we opted to go another year without an X-ray.

Consequently, I wasn’t prepared for the problem that appeared at the next visit. I had a moment of pure dread when our dentist proclaimed that my son had a tooth that needed to be extracted. It had cracked, (nightly anxiety induced teeth grinding I suspect.) The new tooth was ready to come in, but the cracked one wasn’t loose enough to come out on its own yet. So she recommended we make an appointment to have it extracted. My son told the dentist he would pull it himself.  She told him that he could try wiggling it every night and see what happened; but her parting words to me were, “Don’t let it go too long. If it abscesses, it could get ugly.” On the way home I told him that the dentist was concerned that the tooth could abscess if it didn’t come out pretty soon. I casually suggested that we should just go ahead and get his tooth pulled. Armed with our dentist’s suggestion that this could be a DIY project, he replied, “No Mom, I’m not doing that, I’ll pull my own tooth out.” I started to work up my arguments but, in truth, I didn’t want to go through an extraction either. So he wiggled and I waited.

In the vain hope that he would actually pull it off, I let it go too long. Two months later, while brushing his teeth I discovered the dreaded abscess. Filled with guilt and worry, I dug out the referral to the oral surgeon.  They agreed to see us first thing the next morning for an emergency extraction. I spent that evening trying to prepare my son for the visit. I explained to him how dangerous an abscess can be, what they would need to do, and that it would be over pretty quickly. We researched on-line about abscesses and tooth extractions. I tried to reassure him the best I could, given the circumstances. He was nervous but seemed to understand the necessity and was willing to get it done. When we arrived the next morning, I pulled the doctor aside and gave him a quick run-down of my son’s issues. The doctor reassured me that he had lots of experience with kids like my son. “Don’t worry, everything will be just fine.” I had my doubts, but I was willing to give him the benefit of positive thinking.

His twin sister and I followed him back into an exam room. The nurse was able to successfully talk him through standing still for a panoramic X-ray! Hurray, we were off to a great start. Then they took my son to another room next door. I left his sister to wait and went with my son. The doctor sat my son down in the chair and proceeded to explain everything they needed to do. He was kind and reassuring. He told my son that the extraction would take less than a minute and wouldn’t hurt because the nerve would be deadened. Viola! My son opened his mouth, everything was looking good. Then the doctor told me I could go back and wait with my daughter. My first reaction was that I should stay, but the other room was right next door and I knew his sister was worried. I told my son that I would just be right outside and the nurse would come and get me if he needed me.

About a minute later the nurse came and got me. I walked into the exam room to find my son wild-eyed with panic, a male nurse holding his hands, and the doctor with a very large shot needle hidden behind his back. When he saw me, my son tore his hands loose, ripped the cotton packing from his mouth, and jumped out of the chair. “I don’t want a shot!” he shouted. I hugged him and tried to calm him down. I reassured him that the shot is just a quick pinch and it would deaden the nerve so it wouldn’t hurt when they pulled the tooth. I tried to get him to sit back in the chair. I promised I would hold his hand and stay with him. He wasn’t having any of it. I could tell the doctor was getting impatient. Finally the doctor asked me to step outside. He told me that he had other patients waiting and wouldn’t have time to do anything more that day. He said he wanted to put my son on antibiotics for the weekend and then reschedule on Monday. His plan was to give my son a sedative he could drink, and once he was semi-conscious they would give him the shot and pull the tooth. I asked the doctor to tell me everything they would do, step-by-step, so I could prepare my son and give him time to process it all.

On the way home I told him everything the doctor had told me. I reassured him how easy Monday would be. He would come in, drink some medicine, get sleepy, and when he woke up it would all be over. My son just kept repeating that he wasn’t ready. I’m ashamed to say that I scolded him. I was frustrated that we weren’t able to just get it taken care of that morning and afraid of what the abscess might do. I was worried about the extra expense of another visit and prescription. I told him that he was old enough to take responsibility for his health and that sometimes we have to do scary things to make sure we stay healthy. My son started to cry and said he would cooperate on Monday. He said he hadn’t been able to do it that morning because everything was unfamiliar and happened too fast. Then I felt even worse. I had let my own fears and frustrations get us into a situation that was doomed from the start. I added to the problem by not following my instincts and staying with him. When we got home, I gave him a hug and told him I was sorry for being cranky. I reassured him that we had all weekend to prepare and by Monday we would be ready.

Finally, Monday morning arrived. Despite the early wake up and not having food or drink for 8 hours, my son seemed remarkably calm. My stomach was in knots and my head was pounding, but I hid it well as we drove to the doctor’s office. We had a nice discussion with the receptionist about the merits of various chess moves and then headed back to the exam room. My son seemed ready to go. I was even starting to feel my blood pressure decline. Then the doctor walked in with a shot needle in his hand. He turned to me and said, “You know, I have been thinking about this all morning and I really feel he would do better with a shot of ketamine.” My son shot out of the chair, “I thought I was going to drink something to make me sleepy,” he shouted, panic rising. I stepped toward him, “We have to do this, your tooth is abscessed and it can be really dangerous if we don’t get the infection cleared up!” Too late for reason, he bolted for the door. I grabbed him and tried to pull him back into the room. By now he was wild-eyed and struggling like a trapped animal. No amount of calming or comfort was going to help.

The doctor motioned to a bed in the hallway and I dragged my son to it. A nurse helped hold my wild boy down while the doctor quickly administered the shot. As the medication began to take hold, his fighting slowed and he began to droop. I rocked him and fought back the tears. “I’m sorry we had to hold you down, but you have to get this done,” I told him. He looked at me with panic in his eyes, fighting the anesthesia. The doctor patted me on the shoulder, “Don’t worry about it thing. It will all be just fine.” I wanted to shout at him, “No, it won’t be just fine! I have betrayed my son’s trust. I will be dealing with the fall-out from this for a long time!” Instead, I smiled numbly and nodded. While we waited for the anesthesia to take effect, I tried to comfort my son. The doctor told me that he was in a dissociative state and even though he seemed conscious, he really didn’t understand what was going on, “He’s not really hearing anything you say. You can go to the waiting room, this won’t take a minute.”

“But I promised him I would stay with him,” I told the doctor.

“I’m sorry, I don’t operate with parents in the room,” he replied as he firmly escorted me out the door.

I sat in the waiting room feeling sick about my role in this mess and sad for what my son was going through. About fifteen minutes later, the nurse came to get me. The smiling doctor came out of the operating room and told me that everything had gone very well. “Don’t worry about a thing, he won’t remember any of it,” he assured me.

I brought my groggy, nauseous boy home and put him to bed. After a few hours sleep he woke up, glared at me and said, “I was conscious and I remember everything.” He then proceeded to give me a blow-by-blow account of the entire episode. His recitation ended with the heart wrenching words, “You are my Mom, you are supposed to protect me!” He was conscious and he did remember everything. I wished I had a video of that conversation to show to the doctor. I want to tell him that he should really listen to the concerns of parents with special needs kids. We know our kids better than anyone else and we work very hard to try to ensure a successful outcome. I’m quite certain that from the doctor’s point of view it was a successful surgery.  I‘m sure within a few days he will have forgotten the incident. However, I doubt my son will ever forget it!

Mother's Day

I’m writing this on Mother’s Day, a week late due to a Disneyland trip, two emergency vet visits, and a major flood in our kitchen due to a burst pipe. I’ve recovered enough to enjoy a day of reflection and happiness that I can celebrate this day as a Mom. We tried for fifteen years to have a baby. I never believed it would happen; but after three years of intensive infertility treatments (which are more expensive than a daily crack habit) we got two for the price of one. My daughter jumped into bed this morning, hugged me tight and wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. She has been super affectionate and loving today. She gave me a handmade coupon for a “movie out with a friend,” helped her Dad and our next door neighbors put on a lovely Mother’s Day meal (complete with a cool table centerpiece made of little animal moms and babies), and took over many chores so I had time to read, relax, and even take a nap. She is a lovely child.

My son did not wish me Happy Mother’s Day, give me anything, hug me, or give me any extra help (in fact he had to be forced to help his sister clear the table.) What he did was spend half the day creating a special Game of Life pattern to show me, follow me around the house telling me all about his best Scrabble words, most interesting 4-D theories, and recent math formulas (completely oblivious to the fact that I was trying to read and relax.) But every moment he sat by me talking non-stop and tapping a pattern on my leg, I was filled with happiness. This complicated boy is also a lovely child.

My husband put their birth picture as wall paper on the computer today. I am looking at that moment and remembering how I was hoping and praying they would be okay. After a risky, frightening, hospitalized pregnancy, they were finally here. My son is scrunched up, eyes tightly shut, and obviously trying to avoid this new loud, bright place. My daughter (all three pounds of her) is wide-eyed and taking in the sight of this exciting outside world. That snapshot captured their personalities pretty accurately. My son is still cautious and prefers to avoid the outside world. He loves his little boy-cave cocoon, the safety of his home, and the loving protection of his family. My daughter can’t wait to get out into the world, commune with everyone she meets, and experience LIFE.

Here we are ten years later, time has simply evaporated. I can’t believe we have already been parents for a decade! As I watch my half grown children mature into unique individuals, I think the world is lucky to have them. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I am grateful every day for the chance to experience life with my kids.

Math Mentor

My son can, and does, talk about math for hours. Hiking through the woods he will discuss the Fibonacci sequence versus the Lucas sequence in nature. Driving in the car he will lecture on speed and velocity. While fixing dinner I get quizzed on prime factorization. Math is what turns him on. Out of love for my son and respect for his passion, I make sincere efforts to participate. My son is good at explaining what he is thinking and calculating, so I can usually follow his basic train of thought. But at some point, as I struggle to keep up my end of the conversation, I invariably experience brain freeze. It is an understatement to say that I have an aversion to math. I know that somewhere in me is the ability to understand and love math, but it was drilled out of me in school. I have bad memories associated with math. I was not able to keep up in math. I just didn’t understand most of it, no matter how many times it was explained. The fear stays with me to this day. As I embark on my doctoral program, I am not the least bit intimidated at the idea of writing hundreds of pages of dissertation; but I am terrified of taking the requisite statistics class.

My husband is more comfortable with math and can generally hold up his end of the conversation better than I can. However, when our son launches into his understanding of some recent math theory he’s reading about, it goes over my husband’s head too. A few years ago, we realized that we needed help.

That’s when our Super Math Shero swooped in to save the day! By a true stroke of luck, we found Professor Sue VanHattum through a homeschool network. About two years ago we heard of a monthly math salon and decided to check it out. We arrived at Sue’s house to find all sorts of cool math games and activities laid out, yummy snacks, and a warm and welcoming host. My son immediately began to play, explore, and talk. He warmed right up to Sue. He was among his people.

After a couple of math salons, I could see that Sue would be the perfect math mentor for my son. She was comfortable with his free flowing learning style, shared his passion for math, and was fun to be around. I asked her if she might be interested in tutoring my son. She happily agreed and a wonderful partnership was formed.

It is a joy to watch her interact with my son. When he is doing math with Sue, he is lit from within. I am humbled and amazed to see her kindness and skill in teaching my son how to apply his knowledge and test his theories. She gets him to let go of his perfectionism, to challenge his thinking, and to find elegant solutions. Sue calls him Professor Hayes and truly treats him as an equal math mind. My son loves her. I love her! Thank you Professor VanHattum, you are a true friend and mentor.

Sue’s wonderfully fun and highly informative blog can be seen at www.mathmamawrites.blogspot.com

Reluctant Reader

My daughter did nothing but lie in bed and read all day yesterday…and I am thrilled! I didn’t think I would ever see the day that she would read a chapter book to herself, let alone finish it in an all day reading marathon. She is a fourth grader and has been a struggling, reluctant reader until just a few months ago. Then, as if someone flipped a magic switch, she became motivated to read to herself. She began with my library of favorite picture books left over from my elementary teaching days. They were familiar old friends that I had read to her many times. Once she exhausted those few shelves, she asked me to take her to the library. She checked out beginning chapter books to read to herself and more advanced books to listen to on CD. In the space of six months she progressed from picture books to chapter books written for fifth or six graders. Hallelujah! When my daughter started kindergarten she was very worried about not being able to read and write. The night before her first day of school we overheard her little voice tremulously reciting how to spell her name. Like many gifted children, she is a perfectionist with high anxiety about failure. I think that is what ruined reading for her at such a young age. Her twin brother taught himself to read at about 18 months of age and by the time they were three he could read Magic School Bus books flawlessly. Since she was just starting to sound out words, she was very frustrated by his seemingly effortless ability to read. Once when she and her Dad were online ordering unusual plastic animals for her collection, her Dad told her he didn’t know how to spell “okapi.” She sarcastically said, “Why don’t you ask Mr. Smarty-pants?” She refused to let her brother help her sound out words and wouldn’t practice reading if he was anywhere around. She didn’t want to hear my little encouraging speeches about how everyone has different abilities and developmental stages. She was just plain mad that he could read better.

Things got worse when they started kindergarten. They were in the same class and everyone commented on her brother’s reading ability. She didn’t compare herself to other children who were at her level of learning (which was completely developmentally normal); she compared herself to those who could read better. As the year progressed her stress level escalated and she began to refuse to do any work in school. Her teacher had her stay in at recess and worked with her one-on-one, but since she is highly socially motivated, this was more like punishment than support. I asked her teacher to gather up her unfinished work and I picked it up and brought it home every day. I struggled to help her get through it each evening, but she was not motivated and it was painful and exhausting for both of us.  

At the end of that first year of school we decided to homeschool our children. Since the typical learn-to-read programs were not working, I decided to chuck them all. Instead, I designed one that I felt would develop her love for a great story without the pressure of reading it herself. I began by reading her picture books that I knew she would love. We snuggled up on the couch with something delicious to eat and a pile of great books. I read as many as she wanted me to read and often times we read so much that my voice would start to crack.

I exposed her to many genres and tried to find ways to make her experiences with literature exciting. We read the junior version “Man of La Mancha” and then watched the "Wishbone" version on TV. “Where the Wild Things Are” was followed up with a visit to the book-themed play area at the Metreon. After “Treasure Island” we made maps and searched for buried treasure. “Brighty of the Grand Canyon” prompted us to include the Grand Canyon on our next vacation. In short, we did everything possible to bring reading to life.

As she grew I began to read books with increasingly sophisticated story lines and made sure that she saw me reading and enjoying books. I started a book group for her and read her book aloud to her each month. I taught my daughter and her friends how to discuss and analyze their selected books. Each meeting’s snacks and games revolved around the story. When we read “King of the Wind,” we ate Arabic food and learned to write our names in flowing Arabic script. “The Dark is Rising” meeting turned into a major metal working session where the kids designed and crafted their own magical medallions. I taught a weekly integrated art and writing class to her homeschool group. We emphasized creative writing and exciting art projects. We did comic books, twisted fairy tales, and alternative endings to classics. We ended each year with an art gallery that included reading from their best work. I tried to make books the center of fun.

I was also very sneaky. I worked phonics into online computer games, board games, and in teachable moments when she wanted to write a note to friends or titles to her pictures. I helped her write her own stories and plays by typing her dictation. She was extremely motivated to read her own stories to others or direct them in acting out her plays. She likes to cook, so I pretended to be the master chef and as my apprentice she had to read and follow the recipes. From first through third grade, this was how she learned to read and write.

I worried constantly that it wouldn’t be enough (my nagging inner teacher said we weren’t covering all the language arts standards and benchmarks.) Every few months I attempted to get her to do a spelling program online or a grammar work book, but every time I did, I could see the spark go out. I knew her vocabulary was amazing, her oral stories creative, and her knowledge of author’s craft advanced. So eventually I just let conventions go and sent my inner teacher packing.

This past fall, my daughter started reading some of the chapters of her book group books to herself. Then she was given the first “39 Clues” book for Christmas and she read it on her own. Her self-directed reading program began to take off. I don’t know if she would have become a good reader anyway, she might have. It is possible that my home reading program might not have worked. I may have had a twelve year old who couldn’t read, but I doubt it. I believe that kids have an innate desire to learn; especially skills that will help them navigate the adult world. Given opportunity and support, kids will learn. The experiment paid off. My daughter’s vocabulary, reading fluency, and comprehension are significantly beyond her grade level. She would pass any fourth grade reading test with flying colors. But most important, my daughter loves to read.

Life Coaching Our Kids

About a year ago, my daughter and I created what she called a “dream board.” She wanted to make a collage, so we went to the library and got armfuls of random magazines from their free stacks. It was cold and rainy, so later that day I curled up by the fire with her and began to leaf through those magazines. We pulled out pictures of everything that struck our fancy. We weren’t looking for anything specific, just chatting and cutting, and as the afternoon wore on our stacks grew pretty deep. When we laid out all the pictures for the collage, I began to see that these pictures represented more than just what we thought was funny, beautiful, or interesting. These pictures provided insight into our deepest passions, hopes, and dreams. We had inadvertently created a great tool to add to my life coaching repertoire. I often have to utilize life coaching skills in my professional practice. Many gifted kids are extremely talented in several areas, which can make it hard to choose which talent to pursue professionally. When I am working with middle and high school aged clients, I am often asked to help them identify where to focus their educational efforts. When I meet with these clients, I work to help them uncover their authentic self. I use various tools that are designed to utilize both sides of the brain and help them make discoveries and connections.

I have conducted brainstorming sessions where we roll out long sheets of butcher paper and write down everything they have done, love to do, or plan to do, and then try to find connections between those items. We circle and color code items, draw lines between ideas, elaborate on original thoughts, and eventually a pattern emerges. Sometimes the results are surprising. We find connections that allow them to combine their passions or links that lead them to a new way of thinking about their future.

Another approach is to interview them about how they spend their free time, what types of books they read for fun, which movies and TV programs they watch. I ask them questions: What would you do if you had a windfall of cash? What do your friends like about you? What is easy/hard for you? If you could change anything about your life, what would it be? What are your pet peeves? What do your value? If you could go anywhere, do anything, what would you do? What do you think needs to be changed in your community?

Sometimes I push them out of their comfort zone. I might have a left brain thinker draw a five line self portrait or write a 10 sentence story of their lives. I might have an artistic right brain thinker make a sequential list or graph their activities. I might put them into an imaginary parallel universe that doesn’t have any limitations and ask them to rethink their life. When our sessions are finished, my clients often make insightful discoveries about who they really are and what they truly want out of life.

When we have finished our brainstorming sessions, we put together a plan to take classes, pursue apprenticeships, find mentors, and gain experience. I have seen kids go from barely motivated to racing out the door, once they figure out what they want to do and what it will take to get it done. The key is to help them figure it out for themselves. This is one of those decisions that needs to come from the soul. It requires them to sift through a great deal of daily life clutter to get there. They have to be free to separate their own desires from those of their parents. They have to learn to be their own life coach.

We all want our children to discover and safely navigate their path to a happy life. While this is our ultimate goal, we sometimes lose sight of it along the way. We are bogged down by the minutia of daily life. We have to make endless decisions and deal with the repercussion of those decisions. Work and money issues cloud our view. Pressures from family, school, or society put us off track. We forget that we eventually have to let go. Many of us have had to put our own passions on hold. We may have even lost touch with what really makes us happy. Consequently, we don’t always provide a good role model of how to follow our dreams.

The ultimate result of my off-the-cuff dream board session with my daughter was my application and acceptance into a doctoral program. My passion for education is reignited, my desire to be a social entrepreneur is refocused, and my daughter has a mother who is still engaged in making and meeting life goals. If you want to help your child discover their own possibilities, first take some time to reconnect with your own. Then put on your life coaching hat and watch the wonders emerge.

Secrets to Success

In the spirit of getting the most out of our shiny new year, I would like to share some wisdom from Dr. Robert Sternberg, eminent psychologist and expert on giftedness. In his book, “Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life.” Dr. Sternberg lists twenty characteristics and attributes that successful, intelligent people share. I have paraphrased his list below:

  1. Successful people are self motivated, even if their environment doesn’t provide many external motivators. Parents often make mistakes in trying to motivate their children. They push too hard, do too much for them, or try to steer them down paths that more closely resemble the parents’ dreams.
  2. Successful people learn to channel their impulses into productive problem solving and decision making. Those of us who live with gifted children often wonder if our children will ever learn to control their impulses; but with continued practice and first-hand consequences, they can learn to think before they act.
  3. Successful people know when to persevere. They have learned when it is prudent to try, try, again and when to cut their losses and look for another solution.
  4. Successful people know how to make the best of their abilities. They can make an honest self-appraisal, acknowledge their weaknesses, and capitalize on their strengths and passions.
  5. Successful people act on their ideas and they aren’t afraid of hard work. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspirationOpportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
  6. Successful people are product oriented. Our schools use a consumer model for the majority of instruction. Students spend their days consuming prepared information and produce work that simply proves they have consumed the expected information. Although most of our society is equally consumer oriented, successful people focus on producing rather than consuming.
  7. Successful people follow through. They break big projects into manageable tasks and finish each task until the whole project is complete.  
  8. Successful people are initiators. They don’t wait to be told what needs to be done. They look for opportunities, they make things happen, they build relationships, and they act on possibilities.
  9. Successful people are not afraid of failure. They realize that failure is an integral part of ultimate success.
  10. Successful people don’t procrastinate. They learn to manage their time to ensure things get done and done well.
  11. Successful people accept fair blame for their actions. They step up to the plate and take responsibility for their mistakes; but also know how to stand up for themselves when they are unfairly blamed.
  12. Successful people don’t feel sorry for themselves. If they feel they have been wronged, they try to remedy the situation, not wallow in self pity.
  13. Successful people are independent. They rely primarily on themselves. As my husband’s Grandma used to say, “The best helping hand is at the end of  your own arm.”
  14. Successful people surmount personal difficulties. They keep life in perspective and realize that everyone has problems. Overcoming problems is part of life.
  15. Successful people focus on their goals. They concentrate on what needs to be done and create the circumstances needed to achieve their goals.
  16. Successful people don’t spread themselves too thin. They have a good idea of how much they can take on at any given time and still be successful.
  17. Successful people can delay gratification. They don’t need short term rewards to see the big picture and they can wait a long time, if needs be, for their ultimate reward.
  18. Successful people see the big picture. They can see the forest and the trees. They can focus on the details without losing sight of the ultimate goal.
  19. Successful people have a reasonable level of self confidence. They know what they can and can’t do. They aren’t afraid to say what they can take on or when they need help.
  20. Successful people balance their analytical, creative, and practical thinking. They adapt their thinking in each situation to best utilize their whole brain.

We all want our children to achieve their full potential and I believe Dr. Sternberg has given us a comprehensive list of what it takes to turn potential into reality. Here’s wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and successful New Year.

Holidays

My son hates Christmas. Not in a selfish, Scrooge-like way, but in an I-can’t-stand-the-consumerism kind of way. Year after year he repeatedly asks us not to give him anything. We have really pared down, but can’t quite stand to give his sister presents while buying nothing for him. He is steadfast however, and the few presents we buy sit unopened under the tree. He removes himself from celebrations and refuses to be sucked into the seasonal hype. Christmas is not singled out. He also hates Valentine’s Day (stupid excuse to buy junk) and St. Patrick’s Day (stupid excuse to get drunk). Easter holds no appeal. The egg hunt was wasted on him. While everyone else hunted for eggs, he chucked the basket and went off to investigate how the water fountain worked.

How about Fourth of July? Too dangerous, too loud. The first time we bought “safe and legal” fireworks, he got hysterical and tried to pull his twin sister away from where we were lighting them. He was screaming in panic and she was screaming at him for pulling her away. A whole different kind of fireworks happened that night.

Halloween? He refused to wear a costume and wondered why we would support a holiday that encourages kids to go around begging candy from strangers. The only costume he ever willingly put on was his Captain Underpants costume. He was going through a Captain Underpants phase and while he wouldn’t wear it for trick or treating, he wore it everywhere else for weeks.

I thought he might accept Thanksgiving. What could be wrong with gathering your family, being thankful, and eating a meal together? In a word, excess. He hates the burgeoning table, when so many world-wide go hungry. He hates that a living creature has been reduced to the centerpiece of a meal.

This year he finally agreed to join us for dinner. He put some yams, bread, and broccoli on his plate and we began to eat. It seemed like we might have a congenial meal together. Then someone gave the dog a bit of turkey and said, “This is a day for all creatures to be thankful.” To which my son replied, “What about the turkey? It’s a creature and I don’t think it’s very thankful.” I looked at the carcass of what was once a happy, free range, organic Diestel turkey and sighed. Somehow this carefully prepared, highly anticipated dinner wasn’t going to taste as good as I had hoped.

So here we are back to Christmas again. As I look at my daughter’s very long list, I feel the stress begin to creep across my shoulders. What can we buy him that he might actually use, that allows us to feel like he had a Christmas, but will still honor his wishes? We are not crass consumers; our Christmas is usually modest. Each year we spend a good portion of our Christmas money on a charity that each child gets to choose. Despite everything, I just can’t quite bring myself to get him nothing at all.

I’m mulling it all over when he walks into the room and hands me a paper. On it he has written a website address. He informs me that he would like the V-tech 5x5, 6x6, and 7x7 Rubik’s cube set for Christmas! I am stunned. I recover and tell him thanks for giving me his Christmas list and he skips out of the room. A big grin spreads over my face. My son is doing something so normal for a nine year old boy. I’m really, really happy! Maybe our holidays might start to resemble my fond childhood memories after all.

Then my son pokes his head back in the door and says, “Mom, I want to have those Rubik’s cubes as soon as UPS delivers them. I think it is stupid to hide them and wrap them up and make me wait till Christmas morning to open them.” Sigh…

Educational Evolution

In recent weeks there has been a lot of media coverage of how broken our schools are and what we should do about it. The movie, Waiting for Superman, came out recently and provides a scathing view of our schools. The Today Show and Oprah featured educational topics for an entire week. Multiple newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts are featuring education as our latest hot topic. Obama has come out with plans for “Race to the Top” funding, even though he acknowledges that the problems in our educational system cannot be solved with money alone. According to Time magazine’s September 20, 2010 issue, there hasn’t been any real change in academic performance over the last 30 years, despite a 123% increase in per-pupil spending and a reduction in average class size from 22:1 in 1970 to 15:1 in 2007. Why not? Some of the comments I have heard and read over the past few weeks talk about poor teaching, dismal facilities, low expectations, lack of funding, inadequate materials, and lack of student motivation as basic problems we need to overcome. Some of the solutions offered range from longer school days/years, better teacher qualification standards, more focus on math and science, more parent participation, and more student commitment. Most of these are not new ideas. They have been recycled for many years and haven’t yet offered a solution. I don’t see a willingness to scrap the old way of doing things and figure out how to move education into the future.

We have a world of information at our fingertips; yet our school districts are still paying millions each year to textbook publishers. We have sound research on how children learn; yet the majority of teaching doesn’t incorporate that research. We say teaching is one of our most important professions, but we underpay and disrespect those doing the work. We know that students have multiple learning styles; yet our curriculum is designed primarily for auditory learners. We understand how integral play is to whole brain learning; yet a playful approach to learning has been sacrificed to the testing mania. There is a great need for people who are specialists in their fields; yet we continue to produce generalists with our general education model.

Has anyone bothered to ask the children what they want? What they need to succeed? I would imagine their answers would differ greatly from the majority of the solutions proposed by the top level education experts across our country. Why can’t we support children in discovering their individual passions, in staying true to their authentic selves? Why can’t our schools offer an individualized approach to learning? Technology has rapidly outpaced current learning models and has the potential to offer individualized learning to each and every student across our nation. Teachers could harness the power of the internet to mentor their students and facilitate learning that might actually prepare them for something they want to do in their adult life.

Sir Ken Robinson has said that our current educational system is modeled on the fast food industry. I agree, it is highly standardized, has a limited menu, the food has little connection to where it came from, and a steady diet will kill you (or at least your love of learning.) It focuses on a student’s weaknesses, rather than on their strengths. It teaches to the test; which forces teachers to cover so much material that students don’t obtain true understanding of what or why, just how to regurgitate memorized facts. This model is more about grades than learning. It dislocates students from their natural talents and abilities. It leaves little time for creativity (for both teachers and students.) Children who have diverse, specialized needs simply cannot thrive and achieve their full potential (socially, emotionally, or intellectually) in this environment.

We need a dynamic, individualized learning model, something more like the slow food movement. It should be diverse and ever changing, your menu would match your individual tastes, there would be a direct connection to the food source, and a steady diet would enrich your (intellectual) health. For gifted children, this may be the only learning model that works.

There are some private and charter schools that are providing a dynamic learning experience for their students, but the place it is seen most often is in homeschooling. When people find out we are homeschoolers, I hear questions like, “What about the STAR test? What about demonstrating mastery of the curriculum? What about their socialization?” Statistically speaking, homeschooled children score significantly higher on standardized tests than their traditionally schooled peers. Most of them are schooled by parents who don’t hold a teaching credential, yet they learn and retain more information than many of those taught by professional teachers. They tend to be better at empathizing and socializing outside their age group than the average instutionalized schooler. Is it any wonder that homeschooling is growing at such a rapid pace? Children and their parents are discovering that you can do amazing things when you get to do what you love.

Children often exceed our expectations when they get to have a say in how, when, where, and what they learn. Homeschooling is creating deep thinking, passionate learners. Universities are beginning to recognize the value of these homeschooled kids. They have a great deal of real world experience in a subject they love. They are intrinsically motivated and have experience in higher level thinking, creating, and producing. They know how to do research and can take a project from concept to completion. I read recently that Stanford accepts a greater percentage of homeschoolers than traditionally educated students each year. They understand that the best students are those who know how to think critically and work passionately.

But this free learning environment comes at a price. As a homeschooling parent, I can tell you that it is a time consuming, energy consuming, and money consuming occupation. Most of the homeschooling parents I meet went into homeschooling by default; there just wasn’t anything else out there that would meet their child’s needs. This isn’t right. We homeschooling parents pay our taxes too. Where is the fair and appropriate education for our kids? Why is our school system so rigid that it can’t adapt to meet the needs of all our children? Why can’t we create schools where all children are free to learn as they see fit? Why do we continually underestimate what our kids can do?

Kids can and do learn a great deal without direct adult instruction. I recently heard a TED talk by Sugata Mitra about his Hole in the Wall project http://www.ted.com/search?q=hole+in+the+wall+project. He set up computers across a large number of rural villages in India and left them there for anyone to explore. He then regularly visited the sites where his computers were installed and found that, even in villages where everyone was illiterate, the children could teach themselves how to use the computer and access the internet. He found that after only a month or two, these children could read and understand basic computer commands. When he visited the villages after a few months, many of the children were power users and were requesting faster, better computers. He observed that, “an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge.”

Is it really so difficult to be truly visionary when looking at how to educate our children? Can’t we find a way to foster individual interests and potential? To respect children’s right to pursue their passions? Give them time to play and create? Help them explore and discover their talents? Support their belief that they can be anything? Let them do meaningful work? Connect them to the world outside the classroom walls? I think we can. The key to successful schools is to fill them with motivated learners. All great learning develops naturally from authentic questions and ideas. Kids want to learn, but they have to see real value in what they are doing. We need to include kids as trusted equal partners in their own learning. We need to let kids dream of what they can be and then give them the power to achieve it.

Teletubbies

My son is obsessed with the Teletubbies. He wasn’t always that way, in fact, back when he actually watched the Teletubbies; he could take them or leave them. I wasn’t too crazy about them when they came out either. Why would they make a kids show with characters who had a TV in their stomachs, were unintelligible, and frankly irritating to watch? I thought we were done with them when the show went off the air and they retired to a box under my son’s bed. Then, like a bad penny, they returned. During one of my recent organizing efforts, we found the Teletubbies among the junk under his bed. Dylan pulled them out, dusted them off, and put them on his bed. The next day he started to talk about the Teletubbies. He said that he had gone on the Teletubby website and read all about the Teletubbies. He reported that he had read the parent information pages and the program was designed to develop language through playing with sounds (so that’s why they say “eh-oh” for “hello”!) He researched how long the show ran, what countries it was broadcast in, and how many episodes were created. He downloaded and watched every episode, sometimes in several languages. Conversations with Dylan became centered around the Teletubbies. He refused to get up unless you greeted him in Teletubbian. He had us watch episodes he found on Youtube. He asked us Teletubby trivia questions. He quizzed us on the names and characteristics of each Teletubby. Teletubbies became the focus of his days. Grandma, who usually withheld comments about my parenting or my children’s choices, began to wonder about the depth of Dylan’s interest. One day she couldn’t help herself and asked, “Isn’t he too old for Teletubbies?” I have to admit, I had my worries too; but for the most part, we all indulged Dylan’s new obsession and tried not to admit that it seemed a bit weird.

After about a month of playing with Teletubbies, Dylan began to say he was the Teletubby's Dad. He identified with the fatherly voice at the end of each episode that tells the Teletubbies it is time to go to bed. Dylan began to put the Teletubbies to bed each night and get them up every morning. He sat them in front of his computer and played Teletubby episodes for them. He made them a car and a bed out of cardboard. He began to take them with him where ever we went. For example, on a recent outing to the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Teletubbies came with us and participated in all of the workshops and activities. I saw a few raised eyebrows from the teenage volunteers at the sight of this nearly five foot tall boy (who looks about 12) playing with and caring earnestly for his Teletubbies.

Dylan has never demonstrated much of an awareness of other’s emotions, initiated hugs or kisses, or seemed too concerned with other people’s feelings. Much of this behavior has to do with his sensory issues, so I have focused on empathy training and social development from the time he was very young. While I have seen incremental growth in this area, I’ve learned not to expect too much response to my efforts. So I got a pleasant surprise the other day. One of Dylan’s friends was having a meltdown (which usually makes Dylan run the other way) and while I was trying to comfort him, Dylan came over and gave him a gentle hug. A few days later he threw his arms around me and gave me a spontaneous hug. The next night when I kissed him goodnight he didn’t vigorously scrub the spot where I had kissed him. Then he told his sister that he loved her. A few days later I was sitting at the table trying to roll the kinks out of my neck and I felt a little hand rubbing my shoulders. I turned, expecting to see my daughter, and was surprised to see my son. “Are you okay Mommy?” he asked. (This is the same boy that demanded I play with him, completely oblivious to my tears over my Mom, and said he was mad at me when I told him I was too sad to play.) I turned to him and said, “I’m kind of tired tonight, I’ve had a rough week.” To which he replied, “I’ll help you Mommy,” and started to rub my shoulders. Wow! Something was happening! He seemed to be experiencing rapid growth in his emotional and social awareness.

As I hugged him tight a light bulb went off in my head. He is just now at the stage where he is emulating his Dad, pretending to be a parent, and experimenting with role play – all of which are necessary steps in developing healthy emotional and social behavior. I knew he was developmentally behind his age in those areas, his asynchronous development is acknowledged and supported here at home; but I had just not realized how large the gap was until the Teletubbies came into play. As I thought back over the last few months, it all fell into place. I shouldn’t have been surprised that this developmental stage happened at nine, he was still saying he wanted to marry me when he was seven. I don’t know why it took so long to click into place; but once it did, I felt such a deep sense of gratitude that I had not done anything to discourage his playing with the Teletubbies. Until now, I had not recognized how important to his emotional health and future social standing this past few months’ play has been. The Teletubbies have been pivotal in helping my son begin to recognize his feelings, empathize with others, and demonstrate his affection. So I take it all back! Here’s to you Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po…I owe you all a “BIG HUG, BIG HUG, BIG HUG!”

Egocentric Future Mother Teresas

(Names and situations have been changed to protect privacy.) I have an eight year old client, Anne, who is profoundly gifted and loves to perform. I was recently invited to her end of the season awards dinner for her theater troupe. The dinner was to celebrate the completion of a successful season with students and their parents in attendance. Anne’s parents were the directors of this troupe and their daughter has been raised in the footlights. She is used to seeing her parents as teachers and directors and quite often they are the center of attention. To begin the celebration, her mother gave a short introductory speech and then everyone began to eat and visit.

About half way though dinner, Anne stood and clinked her knife on her glass to get everyone’s attention. “Excuse me,” she stated in a high, clear voice, “I am finished with my dinner and would like someone to play with me now.” An awkward silence ensued followed by a few giggles from other children. Anne’s mom pulled her down and whispered in her ear. Anne yanked her arm away and said very loudly, “But I need someone to play with right now!” Anne’s mom tried to grab her again but Anne dodged away from her and began to run through the dining room. Mom tried valiantly to catch and remove her, but Anne was too fast. Finally Mom cornered Anne and began to talk to her in a low voice. Anne began to yell, “I don’t want to talk about his right now in front of everyone!” and “You are embarrassing me!” In desperation, Mom grabbed Anne and dragged her kicking and screaming out of the room.

I recently had experience with this behavior on a personal level. My son likes to play a game with me, similar to 20 Questions, where he asks me random questions to see how many I can answer. A few months ago, I had a phone call that brought me some very bad news. My son walked into the room, oblivious to my tears, and asked me a question to start his game. I told him I wasn’t feeling like answering his questions right now because I had just received some really bad news. My son looked at me and said, “I’m mad at you. I wanted you to play with me!” When I told him I couldn’t, he began to throw things and have a raging tantrum. At times like these, it is hard to be benevolent about my son’s special needs. I want to scream at him and tell him to stop being so selfish. I want to inform him that he is not the center of the universe. I want to lock him out of the house. But I know from past experience, if I yell and criticize him, he will be crushed and looking into his wounded eyes, I will feel like I have just hit a puppy.

So what is behind this seemingly selfish behavior? According to Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration as a theory of moral development, this egocentric behavior has to do with sensitivity, asynchronous moral development, and overstimulation. Dabrowski believes that humans progress through levels of integration with their world. In a nutshell, moral development goes like this: Level 1, Primary Integration, is all about the self. Children at this level have little concern for others, in their eyes they are the center of the universe. Level 2, Unilevel Disintegration, children are no longer totally self-centered but their interactions with others are motivated by what others think of them. They struggle to obtain approval and are critical of themselves when they don’t get it. Level 3, Spontaneous Multilevel Disintigration, child begins to develop an inner core of values and may suffer from internal conflicts because they feel dissatisfied with who they want to be versus the reality of who they are (perfectionism really rears its head at this stage). Level 4, Organized Multilevel Disintegration, children have now learned to adjust to personal ideals and can live according to those ideals. At this stage, they have strong personal values but are able to live successfully with themselves and others. Level 5, Secondary Integration, individuals have now reached their ideal, inner conflicts are resolved, and life is characterized by living according to the highest and most universal principles of regard for humanity (very few of us actually reach this level, think Mother Teresa).

Obviously, progressing through these levels is not easy and can be emotionally painful for the average person. The most difficult transition usually occurs between levels three and four; a level which our gifted children often have to contend with at an emotionally tender age. When you throw sensory issues into the mix, you have an incendiary combination. Young gifted children have often moved on to level two at a very young age and are trying to please others while their peers are still egocentric. They can move into level three by the time they are only five or six years old. This advance is compounded by the physical lack of ability/fine motor skills to work at the level they feel they should. Frustration and self loathing can be the result of a body that doesn’t do what the mind envisions. On top of this, they are trying to learn how to handle their emotions and deal with the negotiations of daily life with other people. All the while, they are struggling to cope with a world filled with relentless sensory stimulation. It’s a tall order for anyone, yet there is very little empathy from others when your child is the screaming center of attention.

Dabrowski believes, “Those individuals with strong emotional, intellectual, and imaginational overexcitabilities seem to have the greatest potential for attaining the higher levels of moral development with the emotional and intellectual overexcitabilities being the most significant.” So there is the silver lining to this cloud, while our children struggle and suffer the most in making the transition between levels, they also have the greatest potential to reach the highest moral development.

So how do we help our kids move through those tricky levels?

First and foremost, home should be a respite from outside stresses. Children should feel they are loved and supported for who they are, not for what they can do or may become. It is not always easy to love and support an out of control kid, but they are depending on you to model how to behave. Be creative; brainstorm solutions with your child, be flexible, and open to unusual solutions. Tune out the relatives’ judgments, reject society’s norms, and stifle your inner critic. Respect your child’s right to be both true to themselves and master the ability to live successfully in our society.

Second, we should avoid putting them in situations with more stimuli than they can handle (yes, that can include school). Take their ability to handle stress on a day-to-day basis. Their coping skills can and do change, sometimes from day to day. As they grow and mature, they can be taught coping strategies to help them stay in control, even in stressful situations; but this takes time, patience, and help from caring adults. Our kids’ behavior can be unexpected, embarrassing, and puzzling. We are often left scratching our heads as to what caused the latest meltdown. But overall, most parents know their child’s biggest stressors and what situations to avoid. We have to walk a fine line between exposing them to daily life, so they can learn to cope in a variety of situations, and pushing them into too much too fast. Books, articles, and websites can provide many strategies on helping your child cope (Hoagies Gifted and Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum are two very informative websites that come to mind). Psychologists, who are trained in working with gifted children, can also be a wonderful source of information and support to parents and children as they work through these stages. Socializing with groups of similar peers who truly understand you and your child’s struggles can be less of a pressure cooker and can help normalize your child’s experiences and feelings.

And third, when a meltdown happens (despite all your best efforts), try to resolve it in a way that does not escalate the situation or embarrass your child. I know that our children usually appear to be the embarasser rather than the embarassee; but our kids are often hypersensitive to disapproval and far more aware of their social gaffs than we may think. They want desperately to fit in, even when they are isolating themselves through their own actions. If at all possible, find a way to get them to a private area and help them through the meltdown without an audience. It helps to be proactive; be observant and responsive to their needs, even if it means you won’t be able to relax and enjoy yourself. Families might develop some private signals or secret code to use so your child can tell you discretely when they need your help or you can signal unobtrusively when their behavior is out of the norm. It is also helpful to practice coping mechanisms ahead of the event and on arrival take time to walk through together to find a private spot to repair to if needed. It can be very helpful to give your child a preview of what is expected of them at the event. If they do lose it, there are good social autopsy programs that you can work through together to return to various social events and see what led to their stress and how they might have handled it differently.

It requires a great deal of work to help our children successfully navigate their moral development, but this developmental phase doesn’t last forever. If you are a parent of a young gifted, egocentric child, your goal of having a socially functional, empathetic child may seem all too distant and unobtainable. Yet, one of these days your hard work will pay off and you will see them successfully mitigate one of those dicey situations all on their own. Then they will turn to you with a big smile on their face and you will feel like you just won the lottery! Take heart in knowing that many have gone before you and their love, respect, and tenacity have enabled them to raise happy, functional gifted children.

Vacation

Ahhhh, vacation. Rhymes with relaxation, rejuvenation or…frustration, alienation. Prying your son’s fingers off the doorway and dragging him screaming through the lobby of a four star hotel does not endear you to the staff or fellow guests. We don’t often stay in four star hotels, but a couple of years ago a dear person gave us a weekend at the Four Seasons. We were understandably excited to experience a few days of posh R and R. We carefully prepared our son for the upcoming trip. We showed him pictures of the hotel online, we played “hotel” at home, we talked about all the cool things there were to see in the area. We even drove there virtually on Google maps. All in an attempt to give him a preview, reduce the scariness of the unknown, and hopefully ensure a smooth transition. All to no avail, the minute we stepped into the lobby he froze, cocked his head for about two seconds, and then ran out the door. After we had wrestled him to our room, hog-tied him to the bed, and calmed him down, we found out that the buzz of the lights in the lobby freaked him out. Nevermind, that you would have to have a dog’s ears to hear the buzz, it was enough to set him off. We were okay as long as we stayed in the room, but if we ventured out the freak-out’s ensued. Needless to say, we didn’t get to enjoy many of the amenities outside our room, but we did enjoy the room service. Our vacations require masterful planning, unending patience, and lots of time for preparation. We wanted to go camping in Yosemite a few summers ago, so we erected the tent in our back yard a month prior to the planned trip. At first our son would not even go into the back yard. Eventually his desire to swing overcame his aversion; he would stand at the back door psyching himself up and then run in a panic past the tent looking like he expected it to swallow him up at any moment. After the first week he could calmly go into the yard, but continued to give the tent a wide berth. Meanwhile, his sister had been using it as her own personal campground and she and her Dad had already had a campout. This ultimately proved be helpful, because being his twin, she cuts him no slack and refuses to be sensitive to his “weirdness.” One day as he walked innocently by, she hi-jacked him and pulled him into the tent. She was not expecting the human whirlwind that erupted, flinging her aside, and nearly pulling down the tent in his exit. While the immediate result was painful for all of us, over the next few days he did agree to willingly put his head through the door and look into the tent. Then he was willing to sit outside the tent and listen to me read to our daughter inside the tent. Finally, he sat in the tent to hear a story. After many stories, he eventually spent the night in the tent and we were ready to go camping…until he found out that we were going to MOVE the tent SOMEWHERE ELSE!

The first trip we took that required flying found my son researching the safety of flying, which planes were least likely to crash, where to sit in the plane to have the best chance of surviving a crash, statistics on how and why planes crash and on and on. By the time he was done, I was a nervous wreck and haven’t been able to enjoy flying much since then.

Yet, every year hope springs eternal. This summer we rented an RV to see the wilds of Canada and take in a family reunion. I figured it was a good move since he would have the consistency of his “room” traveling with him. We did all our normal preparation, even letting him help select the model of RV we rented. When we took possession of the RV he brought all his books and special things to set up his own home-away-from-home in the bunk over the cab. He thought it was really cool that we had our own traveling bathroom and that you could actually use the restroom while driving. He seemed to be settling in nicely, was happy with his little space, and excited to see the places we had mapped out on our itinerary. Then he found the instruction manual provided by the RV rental place. He spent the first two hours of our journey reading it cover to cover. The next few hours were spent checking the equipment, the panels, and quizzing us on what to do in various situations. I guess my husband and I didn’t pass the quiz, because for the entire trip our son harassed us about our lack of proper knowledge and conduct with the RV. It was like traveling with a bossy, annoying father-in-law, who thinks you are an idiot that can’t do anything right. I look forward to the day when he is old enough to actually take over those duties rather than nag us about it. Maybe then I could have a relaxing RV holiday.

I keep trying new vacation ideas and telling myself that these life lessons are important, that someday he will thank me for them, and that eventually he will learn to enjoy travel. In the meantime, I will continue to grit my teeth and pay through the nose for trips that take weeks to recover from. On second thought, maybe I will take my adventurous, fun-loving, ever-so-adaptable daughter on a “girl’s-only” get away next year.

Thanks

I would like to thank Lisa for giving me a “Blog With Substance Award” on her blog, “The Joy of Learning.” It’s so nice to know that she feels my blog has worthwhile content. I am motivated to write this blog because I see these unique kids (including my own) and their parents (including my husband and I) struggling to figure it out on a day to day basis and I want to help if I can. Per Lisa’s request, I know of several other blogs that I would consider substantial:

Math Momma Writes at www.mathmamawrites.blogspot.com (fabulous blog for playing with math)

Little Homestead in the City at www.urbanhomestead.org (for all us dreamers)

A Year of Slow Cooking at www.crockpot365.blogspot.com (great crockpot recipes for busy families)

Urban Chicken at www.urbanchickens.org (yippee for pet chickens)

Orangette at www.orangette.com (wonderful cooking/foodie blog)

Eepybird at www.eepybird.com (coke and mentos fun!)

Hobart Shakespeareans at www.hobartshakespeareans.org (wonderful teacher who really gets it)

Mysterious Benedict Society at www.hachettebookgroup.com/features/mysteriousbenedictsociety

In My Kitchen Garden at www.inmykitchengarden.blogspot.com

That’s all my favorite blogs that I can think of right now. Hope you enjoy them too.

Downloading Life Experience

My nine year old son is really smart. He has a photographic memory and an insatiable desire to learn. Consequently, he is much smarter than I am in so many things. His mind is stuffed with random facts. He can describe the flag of Lesotho and recall the atomic weight of Berkelium. Just for fun, he reads books like, “The Art and Craft of Problem Solving” and each year’s copy of “The World Almanac.” He is a walking computer. My husband and I joke that we need to get him on a game show to make some extra cash. The problem with having a smart kid is that he knows he is smarter than I am. He’s lacking that sense of awe most kids have when confronted with their parents’ vast storehouse of knowledge. I can’t dazzle him with my brilliance or ensure his cooperation by telling him something he doesn’t know. For example, we were having an argument the other day about why it is important for him to go to bed at 9 pm.

Me: Son, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, your growing body needs 10 hours of sleep.

Son: Actually that finding is based on a sample population of 493 subjects in a study done by the University Children’s Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland and the results can’t be generalized to the entire population of the world.

Me: Well, um, their findings must apply to some degree because all growing kids need sleep.

Son: Yes, but the amount we need varies from person to person. Each individual has their own circadian rhythms.

Me: Well okay, I agree everyone has some individual differences, but we aren’t meant to stay up all night.

Son: Mom, circadian rhythms are endogenous and they can be affected by zeitgebers like daylight, but with the invention of electricity we gained the ability to manipulate the earth's 24-hour light/dark cycle to suit our needs.

Me: What the…..?!?!?

I have the sinking feeling that I am on the losing end of this argument, so I rely on my trump card: life experience. He can’t top my 50 years of life.

“You know son, I have lived on this planet 41 years longer than you have and I KNOW some things about life. For example, I KNOW children who keep their parents up all night have to live with the consequences of irritated, tired parents.” I see the wheels turning in his head.

“I KNOW that the majority of the humans on this planet sleep at night because they have to be awake in the daytime to go to work and school.” I’m really getting worked up now.

“I KNOW that if Dad and I don’t get enough sleep we can’t go to work and if we can’t go to work we can’t pay for the life to which you have become accustomed.” It’s beginning to dawn on him that parental power might have more to do with income than intellect.

He grudgingly replies, “Well I wish you could just download your life experience to me!”

Aha, light bulb moment for me. I gleefully retort, “What do you think I am doing every time I try to teach you something?” He gives me a dumbfounded look as reality dawns on him. He has been outwitted by his old Mom. I have turned the tide in my direction, I can download at will and he can’t complain. After all, he asked for it!

Clutter

My son’s room looks like it could be on an episode of Hoarders. Every flat surface is piled high with junk. Stacks of papers, boxes of deconstructed household items, electronic cast-offs, and contraptions in various stages of construction cover the floor. His bed is overtaken by books he is reading. Drawers are full of parts of things and walls are covered with calculations, photos, and articles. Going into his room makes my fingers itch to purge and clean. I am a self-admitted neat freak who ruthlessly combs through and eliminates items I deem no longer necessary. I feel weighed down by clutter and have told my children that when I am old, my house will be a Zen retreat with nothing but the necessities inside. My son and I have vastly differing views on clutter and it is a stressor in our relationship. He has forbidden me to throw away anything in his room and has dealt with my “something in-something out” rule by refusing to buy anything new. I am not alone in this, many of my clients and friends share a cluttered life with their kids. One good friend’s son has a room he calls “electronic death row” where various cast-off appliances and machines wait to be rebuilt into something new. In all fairness, he does build amazing things from these parts, including a working computer and a hover craft that successfully zooms around with his little sister on board. I’m trying hard to emulate her tolerance and willingness to look the other way when walking by the piles, but the specter of obsession lurks in the back of my mind. What if I don’t handle this right and my son ends up one of those old men who dies in his junk-filled home and they can’t find his body? What if his compulsion to collect and keep everything impedes his ability to live a normal life? I know that compulsive behaviors often go hand-in-hand with profound giftedness and that knowledge keeps me fearful.

On the other hand, I am the first to realize that tinkering, deconstructing, building, experimenting, and creating are essential to the well being of my son and others like him. To me the gold foil off his chocolate Easter bunny is something to be wadded up and tossed in the recycle bin; to him it represents a material that can be used in everything from kinetic sculptures to atomic models. I liken profoundly gifted children’s learning style to standing in the eye of a hurricane. This hurricane of information constantly swirls around them, allowing them to pluck out bits and apply them as they learn and create new concepts. So it shouldn’t surprise me that my son’s physical environment reflects his learning methods. I’m just not very good at living happily in the eye of the chaos.

My daughter is also very messy. She is a constant hub of creativity. Wherever she is, whatever she is doing, a mess is being created. She cooks, paints, sculpts, writes, builds, and plays with equal intensity and abandon. While I admire her ability to lose herself in the process, I find it hard not to point out the mess. She is like a hurricane in her own right; moving through her day leaving a trail of clutter in her wake. And I am the nagging regulatory committee that follows along trying to impress upon her the importance of putting things back where they belong.

She is also reluctant to part with materials (garbage) that flows through our house. That plastic box the blueberries came in will make a great green house for starting her guinea pig grass. The box from Costco can be painted and made into a funky doll table. The Halloween candy wrappers become a collage. I feel I am waging a losing battle to de-clutter our house; not only am I trying to find space to store the raw materials, but also the finished products. I have boxes of paintings and drawings, shelves of sculptures, and various other masterpieces on my walls and bookshelves. I envy my daughter’s ability to produce so much art. It takes me months, perhaps even years, to produce one painting; so storage of my work has never been an issue. I have resorted to photographing her work, putting it in an electronic gallery, then asking her to select her favorite pieces to keep. I feel guilty tossing out the originals that she doesn’t select, but I don’t know any other way to manage the volume. Yet every time I throw a pile of work away, I wonder if Van Gogh or Cassatt’s Moms faced the same dilemma. I’m not saying I think my daughter will be a famous artist, but you never know. Can you imagine what a childhood drawing by Renoir would be worth?

Despite my fears, guilt, and misgivings, I continue to wrangle the clutter at my house. I recently cleaned out my art studio and purposefully did it on a day when my kids weren’t home. I knew that nothing would make it to Goodwill if they had grabbing rights. While I fully support my kids’ interests and abilities, I have to draw the line somewhere. After all, I have to live in my house too. In the end, I suppose I will just have to hope and pray that my clean freak tendencies don’t stifle, damage, or otherwise impede my kids’ potential. See you on a future episode of Hoarders!