Gifted, But In Denial

I presented recently at the Gifted Children’s Association of BC annual general meeting.

One of the first things I did was ask the group: who likes the term “gifted”?

GCABC AGM presentation

(Insert dramatic music here: dun dun daaaaaa)

Not a single hand went up.

Heads were shaking “no!” People laughed (as if to say “of course not!!”) They looked around, connecting with each other in their negative experiences and dislike of this word.

It’s a loaded word. And a misunderstood concept – this being gifted thing. We all feel it.

Then I asked: how many of you consider yourselves gifted?

Two or three hands went up. And the rest of the room sat there, with their hands in their laps, looking kind of embarrassed. Heads were shaking “no!” again. Some even said “no way!” quietly.

Or maybe I’m just projecting – because I’m sure embarrassed when the topic of being gifted comes up!

Well, I hate to break it to you, but if you’ve got a child who has been identified as being gifted, chances are very high that you are too!

Being gifted is a physiological difference – it’s about how your brain and nervous system functions. And it’s part of our genetics. I mean, really, none of our kids got dipped in vats of radioactive waste to make them this way!

I’ve found it’s an important step towards being the parent my gifted kids need, for me to understand my own giftedness! After all, if I’m in denial about who I am, then how can I expect to successfully support my children as they learn about and value and become who they are?

That whole “do as I say, not as I do” thing has NEVER worked for me! I’ve made a point of inviting my kids to help me see when I’m being hypocritical or inconsistent, so they do! Surprise surprise!

And beyond supporting their growth and self awareness, the hardest part of parenting for me has often been not letting things trigger me! When I react to something my kids say or do, it’s often because whatever is happening is something that resonates with one of my fears. It’s those big red buttons that kids (particularly teenagers) seem to be able to find and push.

I grew up feeling like I didn’t fit in. I grew up learning to bite my tongue and not ask all those questions churning around in my head. I’ve always struggled with overthinking things. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome and worrying that I’m not good enough. I’ve felt like no one loves me and that I’m not worthy of any attention or praise that came my way.

Now, imagine trying to parent a volatile, intense, sensitive gifted kid from that wounded, damaged place. Yeah, it’s NOT pretty!

The most important things we can do to help our children grow to psychological maturity is deal with our own baggage!

Otherwise, we’re likely to just pass it right along, without meaning to. That’s how generational patterns of dysfunction continue on. And that, if nothing else, was something I wanted to stop. This is true for all parents/kids/families, but particularly important for gifted, highly sensitive, intense and creative kids!

I want better for my kids. And that ended up meaning that I had to want/do better for myself. When all is said and done, we can really only pass along what we have to pass along. Intentions and wishes are great, but I couldn’t expect my kids to learn lessons that I had never learned!

So, if you’re insecure about being gifted, being different, being too intense, too curious, too loud, thinking too much, feeling too much – may I highly recommend that you explore those feelings and where they come from.

I found “The Gifted Adult” and “The Drama of the Gifted Child” to be excellent resources for exploring what giftedness means to me.

I summarized much of what I’ve learned about giftedness here: http://www.iwasthinking.ca/gifted-what-does-that-mean/

Dabrowski’s work re: overexcitabilities and his theory of positive disintegration were major stepping stones for understanding my struggles and feelings.

I found immense growth from working with a counsellor who focused not on analyzing my thoughts (when I was already too good at over thinking to begin with!!) but instead got me out of my head and feeling/listening to my body and emotions instead. You can check out this amazing therapist here http://awarenessing.com or look for someone similar in your area! It may take a few tries to find a therapist who “gets” giftedness, but it’s worth the effort!

I’ve always noticed that I self select friends who are also gifted and sensitive and intense, so spending time with friends and talking always helps too.

As much as learning about myself and facing so many deeply painful thoughts, memories and patterns has been difficult, it has also been immensely rewarding! Becoming the parent my children need me to be is what has driven me on this journey, but the personal growth has been the real gift in all this. Once I let myself, I started seeing things this way: my children were sent to teach me what I needed to learn.

And, well, I sure do love learning…

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Remnants of a Gifted Childhood

A funny thing happened to me recently…

I was sitting in a discussion, enjoying the back and forth, the various points of view, the questions being asked and the learning. I spoke up a few time, as I usually do. Also as usual, I was conscious of waiting to let others speak first, trying to ask questions rather than make statements and mostly stay in the background.

There was one point where I thought of a perspective that no one else was mentioning. Again, I waited. And eventually, I raised my hand to indicate my desire to speak. The facilitator made eye contact with me, shook his head, and made a small motion with his hand, pointing around the circle. I immediately knew what he meant – “let the others talk this through – you’ve said enough…” I nodded my head and put my hand down and sat quietly until I could leave.

I have to admit, I was shocked and taken aback, at first. I thought we were learning together and therefore additional points would be welcome/wanted. But I also recognized fairly quickly that perhaps this wasn’t the group for my participation and I could gather my own interested group for more ranging, open discussions. Maybe online (like some book “un-clubs” I had previously enjoyed) or small in-person discussions at somewhere like Caffe Divano.

Later that evening though, in the shower, I thought of that moment and that look/motion and burst into tears! I stood there, probing these feelings – why this was bothering me so much? Why this strong reaction to something that was such a minor thing?

As I pondered, I realized how familiar that look was – I knew immediately what was meant. How often, in my life, did I get reprimanded for saying too much? Lots! Particularly in high school! It varied from subtly directed looks that no one else in the group was probably even aware of. To the high school algebra teacher who called me aside after class and bluntly said “I know you know the answers, I want to hear from the others. Stop putting up your hand in class.” I walked away that day in tears too. “But I have questions!” I thought. “I actually want to learn and he tells me to shut up?? It’s not fair…”

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That, I believe, is the crux of this matter – I love learning. I can’t help myself, I’m curious about darned near everything. My mind rapidly makes connections and recognizes similarities. I see possibilities and different points of view. I leap forward, put together conclusions and connect dots. In an environment focused on learning and moving forward as much as possible, I can move the group forward quite quickly.

In work/consulting situations, where the goal is to solve a problem or come up with a design as quickly and efficiently as possible, I’m a great contributor. I don’t mean that I always have the answers, but I consistently move thinking and discussion forward. Sometimes only to rule out options, but that can be just as valuable for a team!

But in school, where a teacher has planned a set of lessons, with goals and learning objectives, I realize as I ponder, leaps aren’t helpful. If I jump forward to three lessons from now, then I’ve short circuited the planned learning path of the other students. The teacher has determined that the best way to learn a particular lesson is to step through a process, learning one concept, then layering another on top, then the next, etc… Just because I can see that path and jump to another level, doesn’t mean all the other students in the class can.

I feel like a flea amongst a class full of ants. Just because I am built to leap great distances, doesn’t mean I can take the ants with me. They learn in their way, just as I learn in mine.

Here’s the thing about being a gifted learner though – people so often assume that the kid putting up their hand is just showing off. There is a connotation of arrogance, of being a “know it all.”

As I stood in the shower, those tears that came were borne of a thought – that, once again, people think I’m trying to show off, that I’m wanting to prove myself superior to those around me. And that’s simply not true! I just love learning.

Why should my learning be short circuited to allow others to learn? What makes their learning more important than mine? Yet, this is the reality of gifted learners – that their learning and potential takes a back seat to the needs of the rest of the class.

As much as I support inclusive classroom philosophies, there is a thoughtfulness that is sometimes missing. No, we should never isolate or segregate children simply because it’s more efficient to do so, or because it’s easier/cheaper, or out of prejudice. Everyone benefits from classrooms and a society that embraces everyone’s strengths, that values every human being as worthy, that reaches out to include and learn with/from everyone. And we should also recognize that it’s impossible for every student to be able to learn and grow in every situation!

I’m now 46 years old and I still carry wounds and fears from growing up out of synch with the people around me. I still hold back, bite my tongue and try not to look like that “know it all.” By all systemic measures, I was highly successful in high school – I learned to do what was expected of me, to exceed expectations just a little, to produce the required work. I had the top mark in BC on my English 12 provincial exam. I won scholarships. I won awards and got high marks/letter grades. And yet, what could I have done/learned/produced if I had been encouraged to explore, to go at my own pace, to self reflect, to understand myself?

What if I could have learned with other “fleas” – all of us making these great leaps? We would have needed the freedom to explore questions, to move at a different pace than expected, to research tangential ideas that arose. The teacher would have to be able to “let go” of lesson plans and work with larger picture objectives instead, or even no plan at all! We would have needed an environment more focused on the relationships and social-emotional supports than on a “set” academic curriculum – since our ability to move forward as a group would require tolerance and an ability to communicate well, to articulate ourselves, to care about bringing along the others on our journeys, and yet still be ourselves too.

An “ant” would be just as uncomfortable and unable to learn in that classroom, perhaps, as us “fleas” feel in most “traditional” learning environments. The ants would likely feel lost. As it is, the fleas feel stifled. We would all feel like there’s something wrong with us…

This is my greatest regret – the many years (and ongoing struggle) to try to feel worthy, capable, strong and most simply “good enough.” It took me the better part of 20 years of adulthood to start to figure out what I wanted and who I am, instead of what others wanted from me. These are the remnants of growing up different, of growing up “gifted” and not knowing what that meant. And ultimately, this little example is only one facet, one way, that I got the message that I was different and didn’t fit in (as a bad thing, not as a “Steve Jobs” kind of genius).

This is what I want to be different for my children (and all children!) – that we provide them with the supports and environments to be themselves, to thrive, to grow and learn their own ways. Every child deserves to deeply know and feel that there is nothing wrong with them.

And this is why we need to recognize these diverse learners as early as possible, and provide them with environments that foster their differences instead of expecting them to “fit in” and “be fine” in the current system.

As I’ve said before, no, gifted learners aren’t going to “be fine” – they need something different. The damage being done by cutting gifted programs and forcing inclusion in the regular classroom for all learners is sometimes seen, but too often internal and has a lifelong impact. They need adults who understand them (and are probably gifted themselves!) And they need like minded peers – other “fleas” to make cognitive, creative and social “leaps” with. Not because they are “special” or deserve “more” – simply because they need something different…

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Touching Bottom

I remember being a kid and playing in my friend’s pool. For the longest time, jumping in the deep end scared me. Heart pounding, I’d try to touch bottom. But I couldn’t. I’d run out of air, or my heart would feel like it was going to beat right out of my body and I’d panic. So I’d give up and kick myself back up to the surface again.

But there came a point when I was finally able to touch bottom. I remember the triumph!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that feeling.

I’ve been thinking about the feeling as I jumped in, feet first, and drifted down. Holding my breath. The bright aqua blue of the water as the sun broke through the surface. The silence.

I remember how the buoyancy of my body would slow my descent more and more, the deeper I went. I could feel my heartbeat in my temples as the blood pumped slower. My lungs would start to burn. Sometimes the urge to give up grew as I started to doubt myself or run out of patience.

Is the bottom there yet? Is it near? How much longer? Could I make it? And would I have enough time left to kick off the bottom and make it back to the surface to take a fresh breath of air before I exploded?

Now?

Just about.

Or now?

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Then I’d feel the bottom of the pool beneath the tips of my toes. I’d drift down a fraction of a second more, as I bent my knees. Instead of just my pointed toes touching, I’d feel my entire feet planted on the concrete, feeling increasingly firm and steady. And then, in a great rush of bubbles, I’d push off back towards the surface with a giant smile on my face!

Relief. Exhilaration. Joy. And what I’d now call a wonderful sense of self efficacy. I can do it!

As many who know me also know, the last few years have been really hard. Increasingly hard, in fact. Just when I thought “Okay, NOW things are going to work out…” then something else would happen. Or something wouldn’t happen that I’d expected. Really, it’s incredibly hard to have a moment of hope and then lose it again. It’s always darker after a flash of light though, isn’t it?

Just like drifting down in the pool, it seems to just get harder and scarier the further down I get. My progress slows. I question myself and my progress so far. I want to give up and find an easier route. Maybe all this is just too hard and I can’t do it after all…

I’m not there yet, I still have to hold on a little bit longer. I’m afraid to hope again.

And I’m quite certain that “almost there” is the hardest part.

The silence of this space though, the waiting, is providing me pause to reflect. In my life, the financial pressure has magnified, but the personal struggles my kids and I have gone through are easing. In every area except finances, I feel stronger and more solid and sure of myself

Once my boys both started attending Windsor House School in September, our relief was palpable. No longer did I have to fight with them every morning, to try to force them to go to school. Now they were trying to rush me, so they could get to school earlier.

No longer was I fighting a system that I feared didn’t fit my kids. No longer was I constantly feeling like I had to explain myself and why I was parenting the way I was. I didn’t have to convince anyone of what I felt my children needed. Now I was in a community that held the same beliefs and, even better, had 40+ years of experience putting them into practice! For the first time ever, I found support all around me, instead of having to find the strength to continue. I don’t know I can even come close to expressing the relief I felt, or the weight that fell from my shoulders!

It’s really hard to do things differently than most people. To go against conventional beliefs. To always have to be strong and not need external validation and not feel understood. Frankly, I wouldn’t have chosen that path – I prefer to “get along” with people and had created a life that at least looked successful from the outside. I chose a relationship and even created a career mostly built on my ability to pick up on what people wanted or needed, then making that happen. What did I want or need though? I had no idea…

Then along came my children.

I wanted more for them. I didn’t want them to be “pleasers” like me. I didn’t want them to shut themselves down in order to be what everyone else wanted or expected of them.

Despite all the mistakes I’ve made, all the balls I’ve dropped, all the failures and even despite the people I’ve let down or hurt – I simply can’t bring myself to regret the choices I’ve made so far. I wish I could have done better, of course. Been stronger. Figured things out sooner. Been capable of more. But I’m not – I did the best I could in difficult circumstances and I’m trying to forgive myself for that. So that I can keep doing better instead of beating myself up.

Right now though, in this moment of silence, while my lungs feel ready to explode and I’m not sure I can make it, at least I can see each of my children growing and learning. They are alive. We have more and more moments of joy. We love. We are whole and imperfect. And every day, my heart swells with gratitude for the blessings they are in my life!

It’s still not easy, but they are more self aware and emotionally capable as children/teens than I was at 40! My daughter’s insights into herself and others regularly blow me away. And both of my boys are increasingly open and articulate about their mental and emotional processes.

Now it’s just a matter of continuing on this journey with them. We have a foundation to launch up from. The other struggles feel manageable from here, I think. I hope. Although I still want to give up sometimes and I’m afraid it’s too hard to crawl out of this hole I’m in, it most often at least feels possible now.

I think, maybe, my toes are finally, just barely, touching bottom.

Posted in Live, Love and Learn | 2 Comments

The Big Shift

There are some things that, once you truly see and understand them, they change everything. Not that you change everything you say and think and do overnight. But frankly, once you see, you can’t “un-see” – and you start to notice this “thing” everywhere.

When we talk about changing education and transforming schools, there’s one big shift in mindset that we have to recognize and articulate – something that changes our lens on everything.

Children are not “lesser than” adults.

Well, yes, children are smaller than adults (at least until they turn into teenagers) – so, in a physical sense, they are “lesser than” us. We can pick them up, carry them, hold them back, push them forward, etc…

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What I mean is that, as a society, many of our beliefs, actions, parenting strategies and school systems are rooted in a fundamental contempt for children.

That may sound a bit extreme, but think about it.

There’s one question that I’ve found changed my entire approach with kids – I started asking myself “Would I act like that/say that/use that tone of voice/etc… with an adult?”

And on the many occasions when my internal answer was “No! I wouldn’t dare!!” – I had to ask myself “Then why would I do that with a child?”

Our “automatic” responses, reactions and strategies are based in an (often) hidden belief that our mandate is to control kids, to make them mind, to make sure they do as we say – in other words, that kids can’t and won’t control themselves, that their thoughts and ideas don’t matter, and their “job” is to listen and comply with the adults. Ultimately, maybe it comes down to a belief that what adults know and want for kids is more important than what kids know about and want for themselves.

Now, of course there are times when we have to direct, teach, guide and even control kids – to keep them safe, for example. It’s the attitude shift that’s critical though: from needing to control kids to trusting and respecting them as whole human beings, with valid thoughts, feelings and ideas.

When we believe kids are worth listening to, it’s amazing what they start to tell us.

When we treat kids with respect and value them as human beings, they learn to respect themselves and others.

Or on the flip side, when we control kids, they learn to try to control others – it’s always someone else’s fault… I see that everywhere. People (adults included) telling others what they’re doing wrong, trying to change spouses and co-workers and employees, while seemingly unaware of their own contributions to the problem. I don’t think that’s a coincidence!

As you interact with kids, I challenge you to pay attention and question your underlying beliefs! Try asking yourself (again and again) “Would I treat an adult that way?” and let yourself notice the shifts you can make. And pay attention to how kids shift in response to your changes – it’s quite amazing!

Kids are worth it!

Posted in Kids and School, Parenting | 1 Comment