My best parenting and educating tips arose from a tragedy on a cold January night 36 years ago. Suddenly and irrevocably, I became a young widow. One moment we were planning parenthood; the next moment I was writing an obituary. Life rolled over.
When your sleeping partner and your dreams disappear together, your heart pumps hard to fill the void. You lie awake, alone, feeling each heartbeat as a testament to life, breathing each breath as holy act, a miracle.
Seasons of grief slowly yield to seasons of life. Seeds germinate, flowers bloom, even in unlikely places. I remarried, bore three children, watched them grow, became a grandmother.
But grief never completely disappears. Its silver lining––a deep appreciation of life––comforts survivors and colors their reactions, philosophies, and decisions, even decades later. My own appreciation of life, amplified recently by Stephanie Tolan’s May 7th essay No Less Than the Trees and the Stars and by young Karina Eide’s May 9th passing, inspire me to share deeply today.
Tip One: Apply Sideways
Even for families of young children, I highly recommend Chris Peterson’s brilliant MIT Admissions essay, Apply Sideway. Peterson understands the value of life and passions. He attempts to convince parents that children’s lives are for living, not postponing. He writes:
Applying sideways, as a mantra, means don’t do things because you think they will help you get into MIT (or Harvard, or CalTech, or anywhere). Instead, you should study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion, because then you will have spent high school doing all the rights things, and, as a complete side effect, you’ll be cast in the best light possible for competitive college admissions.
Peterson’s “study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion” advice is pure–untainted by mention of grades, test scores, or class rank. In regards to studying hard, he advises students: “Take tough classes. Interrogate your beliefs and presumptions. Pursue knowledge with dogged precision. Because it is better to be educated and intelligent than not.” Peterson wants students to enjoy life, not tick boxes.
Tip Two: Slow Down
My grandparents would barely recognize the hectic lives of many families today. How many children today spend long, lazy days outside making up their own games and enjoying the sounds, smells, and sights of nature? How many children enjoy long, lazy hours moving their bodies in tune with their imaginations and letting their minds wander aimlessly? How many families, whether by reason of poverty or choice, spend more time surviving life than appreciating life?
Education philosopher John Dewey wrote in Art as Experience (1934): “Like the soil, mind is fertilized while it lies fallow, until a new burst of bloom ensues.” I love Dewey’s idea of allowing children’s minds to lie fallow, to wander, to imagine.
I also love the ideas expressed in Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming (2013) by Rebecca L. McMillan, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Jerome L. Singer. This quote in particular speaks to me:
For the individual, mind wandering offers the possibility of very real, personal reward, some immediate, some more distant. These reward include self-awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion [citations omitted].
In lieu of measuring children’s success primarily in terms of school-recognized criteria, why not measure children’s success in terms of their personal goals? Why not slow down the parts of life based on external criteria? Why not give our children more time to appreciate and plan their own lives?
Some children’s lives demand new paths. Benchmarks listed in baby books, state mandated curricula, and college degree programs simply do not apply to these children. For whatever reason––learning disability, intelligence level, personality, or any combination of those––some children’s lives improve when they are allowed to explore beyond traditional school paths.
I recommend Lisa Rivero’s book, The Homeschool Option: How to Decide When It’s Right for Your Family, not just for parents deciding whether to homeschool their children, but also for parents willing to learn more about the place of education in children’s lives. How well does a particular school setting meet a particular child’s educational, social, and emotional needs? What is actually happening in the child’s mind and heart during hours spent in the classroom?
All children need adults to appreciate, not denigrate, their differences. All children need recognition of their worth and dignity, no matter what life-affirming paths they choose to follow.
I recommend that parents, educators, and children plant a variety of seeds, both literal and metaphorical. Planting seeds in soil allows children to experience life in action with all their senses. Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the United Kingdom encourages schools to introduce children to gardening:
New research published by the RHS shows as well as helping children lead happier, healthier lives today, gardening helped them acquire the essential skills they need to fulfill their potential in a rapidly-changing world and make a positive contribution to society as a whole.
I recommend that parents, educators, and children check out the RHS Campaign for School Gardening and its impressive collection of online resources. By browsing those resources and lovingly planting a few seeds, children can enjoy the wonder of life.
In The Sense of Wonder (1965), Rachel Carson recounts experiencing nature with her young grandnephew on the rocky coast and in the forests and fields of Maine. Carson “reminds us that the child intuitively apprehends the truth that most adults have forgotten–that we are all part of the natural world.”¹
Carson believes that children need to feel “a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love.” That sense of wonder then creates a hunger for knowledge. She writes:
I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
I recommend that parents and educators plant a wide variety of “thought seeds” in the minds of children who wish for knowledge. Children with active minds crave ideas, debates, answers. Their minds benefit from a well-balanced diet of thoughts from a variety of sources. Introduce children to popular as well as unpopular thoughts. To limit their minds is to limit their spirits.
Children naturally ask deep questions. I recommend that parents share their religious beliefs, their philosophies, and their stories. When children are sufficiently mature, I recommend that parents share their doubts and fears, and share how adults handle doubts and fears.
Why wait until the death of a family member or close friend to share the sorrow of death? Many children, even preschoolers, can benefit from stories that gently introduce them to the unknowns of death. Hoagies Gifted Education Page has an impressive list of resources on grief and mourning. Some of the resources are suitable even for very young children.
Tip Six: Examine Carefully
Encourage children to carefully examine all that life presents–textures, foods, music, plants, art, animals, arguments, authors, formulas, statistics. Careful observations lead to appreciation. Increased use of senses and reason leads to increased appreciation of life.
Children are born to carefully examine the world around them. When my son was two months old, child development experts taught him to distinguish sandpaper from velvet. He would move his tiny arm aside to avoid a touch of sandpaper, but stay still to enjoy a touch of velvet.
Far too often school curricula are unfairly squeezed into measurable formats demanded by legislators. Few of those formats honor the sensory-filled process of learning; most focus almost exclusively on content. I recommend that parents and educators choose school experiences that honor life, not inhibit life.
The more parents and educators give children time and opportunity to appreciate life, the better their lives will be. We owe children freedom to enjoy their senses, their curiosities, and their childhoods.
Notes and Credits
¹Lear, Linda. “Introduction.” Sense of Wonder. Rachel Carson. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1998.
All the photographs are mine, taken in the Village of Thorpe, Surrey, United Kingdom, during the past year.
I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and elsewhere for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the May 2014 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.
I’m uncomfortable using the g-word in public. Why? Because many people outside of gifted education circles react to the word in a negative fashion. In his 1869 essay, “On Liberty,” philosopher John Stuart Mill noted a similar reaction to the concept of genius:
People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think that they can do very well without it.
Although I can’t control the reactions of other people to the word “gifted,” I can and do carefully decide when and where to use the word. More and more, I use the g-word only with others who understand the nature of individuals with high intelligence.
I have two versions of my resume—one freely sprinkled with the g-word, and one scrubbed clean. I was happy years ago when job-hunting gurus started saying resumes should be limited to one or two pages—that limitation made g-scrubbing even easier.
I have no set method for determining who is gifted and who is not. In Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
I feel that I know giftedness when I see it. Sometimes my recognition of another’s giftedness comes simply by noticing the quickness of a reply, the leadership of others, the novelty of a solution, the “getting” of a joke.
I accept that a negative result does not always equal “non-gifted.” Giftedness is not always as apparent as the color of a flower. I respect my psychologist friends who use careful, validated, and respected methods for making g-word determinations.
I feel anger whenever someone thinks it is fine to have a child sit through a lesson that the child already knows. Sometimes my vision narrows and my pulse pounds when I see children forced to sit in inappropriate education environments. Which leads to my next confession.
My caring for individual students is sometimes excessive. By “individual students,” I mean all students.
My work with g-word kids has spurred me to revere the uniqueness of all children. But sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible task of differentiating lessons, assignments, and assessments to meet the needs of all students. I feel the heavy burden that weighs on teachers who care.
I feel conflicted whenever asked to advocate for money for gifted children rather than for money for all children.
Yes, I do advocate for gifted programs, but in some public education spheres where money is limited, I prefer education finance plans free from labels. I prefer plans targeted at moving education forward to a future that will include individualized education experiences for all children and easy ways for teachers to facilitate those experiences.
Sometimes I turn gifted causes down. A few times, I have purposely decided to forgo advocating for funds for gifted children. Take for instance when we lived in one of the poorest Ohio school districts—a district where some children had to ride the school bus for two hours each morning, where teachers sometimes had to buy paper and pencils for children, and where my husband, a science teacher, collected roadkill and other specimens for his biology classes.
In extreme poverty situations, the mere thought of advocating for diverting general school district funds to gifted pull-out programs feels immoral. When I first felt those feelings of immorality, I moved from local level advocacy to state-level advocacy on behalf of not only the gifted children in that district, but all children in that district. No child deserves a deficiently funded education. Ever.
I never want to tell a child “you’re not gifted.” Full stop.
I realized that public education systems require some sorting of children in order to come close to meeting their individual needs. I admire those in the trenches who make the hard decisions of which children fit the criteria for admission into a gifted program and which children do not fit the criteria. But I count my lucky stars that I have never had to tell a child, “you’re not gifted.” There is no version of that sentence that does not sound wrong.
I enjoy the irony of people wishing their kids were among the most g-word kids in the classroom, but the same time disliking the idea of anyone recognizing that intelligence levels differ from person to person. You cannot both want the cake and dislike the existence of the cake.
I love it when small, scrawny, g-word kids grow up, become valedictorians of their medical school or law school classes, and watch those who despise the g-word flock to their waiting rooms and pay big dollars for their services. The old saying “success is the best revenge” comes to mind.
As a board member of the former National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the United Kingdom, I fully supported its decision to drop the g-word and change its name to Potential Plus UK. The vote was unanimous. I am proud of our decision.
Although I am 100% happy with the name change here in England, I suspect that not all of my g-word connections in the United States are proud of my vote. Which brings me to my final confession.
I wonder whether it’s time to drop the g-word.
I recognize that the g-word has a positive connotation among gifted education professionals and among families served by the gifted education programs in the United States. Decades of research, literature, and conferences attest to the power and poignancy of the g-word among people of high intelligence. The g-word has positively affected my life and the lives of thousands of people I’ve met during my years of gifted advocacy.
Advocacy, however, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Advocacy for additional funds to serve the unique needs of children with high intelligence requires interaction with people for whom the g-word lacks a positive connotation. I’m beginning to sense that among the general population, the g-word now carries a negative connotation.
I recognize that politically sensitive words and phrases that label people pass through phases of “ok,” to “questionable,” to “banned.” Negative connotations invariably attach themselves to innocent words, dragging them down into the realms of non-political correctness. I sense that the g-word has become politically incorrect.
A New Word?
But what new word should we adopt, if any? My preference would be for a word relating to what brain researchers see when they examine brains of highly intelligent people. Or perhaps a word that psychologists use when describing the psyche of those of high intelligence. Or perhaps simply the phrase, “people with high intelligence.”
If we drop the g-word, we remove several bug-a-boos from conversations with the general public. First, we avoid any idea that high intelligence is a gift bestowed by one’s chosen deity.¹ Second, we change the conversation from “gift or no gift” to a conversation about levels of intelligence that might change throughout an individual’s lifetime. Finally, we buy ourselves time; we give ourselves a few decades before negative connotations attach themselves to the new word or phrase and inevitably drag it, too, into the realms of non-political correctness.
Think about it. Do we want to avoid speaking of high intelligence as an immutable characteristic bestowed by a deity? Do we want to change the conversation to better match recent discoveries by brain scientists? Do we want to use words not yet dragged down into the realms of non-political correctness?
I’ll let you decide.
Notes & Credits:
¹I first read and loved the wording “[any]one’s chosen deity” in young Madison Kimrey’s excellent blog article, “Being Gifted is a Beautiful Mess,” where she wrote,“We don’t need anyone’s chosen deity to suddenly miraculously help unwrap us like presents. We need real solutions both inside and outside the classroom to help us reach our individual potential, better understand ourselves, and find our place in the world around us.”
I took all the photos on April 26, 2014 on the grounds of the Polesden Lacey UK National Trust property in Surrey, England.
This blog is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page inaugural Blog Hop on The “G” Word (“Gifted”). To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_the_g_word.htm
I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions. Please click on the graphic above (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants. Please click on the graphic below (created by Tara Hernandez–thanks!) to see the titles, blog names, and links of other Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop participants.