The Highs and Lows of Gifted Parenting: Little Lawyers

I sometimes joke that lawyers should know better than to breed with one another — the inevitable result is highly argumentative children who endlessly negotiate every single point. While it can be fascinating to watch reasoning and logic abilities develop from a young age, and it is sometimes enjoyable to engage in debates on interesting issues, it is probably the aspect of gifted parenting that I find the most challenging.

My husband and I are both lawyers.  We are both logical, rational personality types who are always gathering ideas and information with which to formulate arguments in our own minds (or to deliver as a spontaneous lecture on any topic which might come up, in the case of my husband).  It should have come as no surprise that we would have children who are equally adept at marshaling evidence, recalling prior testimony (i.e. remembering everything you ever said, and using it against you), zeroing in on the key issues, and, more effectively, on the weaknesses of the opponent (generally me).  Not only are they adept, but they surpass my own well-honed litigation skills and leave their opponent (again, me) sounding like a blathering idiot, spewing ad hominem attacks and making emotional responses rather than logical ones.  I’m never ready when the argument hits, despite the fact that this happens innumerable times each day.  There is never time to review my notes, pause to consider the evidence over a court recess, practice my final arguments…or even to take a deep breath.

How did it come to this? They were honestly born that way — I cannot remember a time since they began to speak when they weren’t incredibly strong-willed and verbally precocious.  I imagine there are effective ways to deal with this, although on some level I respect the fact that my kids are so sharp and so willing to stand up for what they believe in (even if it’s just about why they shouldn’t have to go to bed at a particular time).  Any correctional approach that stamps out that spirit might have short-term appeal, but I can’t in good conscience consider it (not that I think it’s really possible to change this sort of nature).  I have read many articles about argumentative children, peaceful parenting, spirited children, etc., but when the time comes to use any strategies I may have read about, they are gone.  Just gone.  The emotional rollercoaster of parenting exceptionally gifted children has seemingly altered my brain.  I am not the capable and in-control person I was before I had children, and I don’t know where she went (hopefully someplace warm and sunny, where they serve margaritas by the pool).

I adore my kids, and I think they have a vast amount of potential.  But I dislike the many inadequacies they bring out in me.  I am used to being gifted myself.  I am used to being good (maybe even the best) at what I do.  I am used to being in control and getting things done my way.  Correction: that is what I used to be used to.  In the last 15 years, I am more used to feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and sorely lacking for the task at hand.

I am envious of the unschoolers — those who place no limits on their kids, and therefore, presumably, don’t face any conflict or arguments (at least, that’s how I imagine their world must be like).  Yet, I can’t entirely yield to that, however easy it might make my life in the short-term.  My need to be somewhat authoritative in my own family, and to set boundaries, prevents me from just letting them rule the roost.

Someday I know they will make me proud with their persuasive verbal skills.  It just may be difficult to applaud them from inside the straight-jacket I will likely be wearing.

How I feel when I’m doing battle with my little lawyers. Photo courtesy of Ann Althouse.

This article is part of the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop.  Please click on this link to enjoy more posts.

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Convictions and Conflictions

It’s been years since I’ve blogged, and I’m sorry.  Those cute little kids in the header photo are taller than me now, and have mouths full of braces.  When I started blogging, I was fairly new to homeschooling and felt inspired to share our particular journey.  I had it all figured out and I was keen to share my successes and insights with everyone else who might be heading down this path.  This seems to be the way with a lot of new homeschoolers and bloggers — everyone has advice on how to do this thing which they have only just started doing themselves, despite having no idea how on earth it will all turn out in the end!

That became disconcerting for me, particularly when I went through a long period of homeschooling where I was far less sure of myself and what our outcomes might be.  There were so many days when I just wanted to give up and put my kids back in school, where I could be sure that they were covering what they were “supposed to” and so that I could get a break from all of their intensities.  I stopped blogging because I didn’t want all of you to think that I had all the answers, when I so clearly did not.

We pushed through, however, and here we are.  Still homeschooling.  Still wondering if it was the right decision some days, and still wishing to throw in the towel from time to time.  One year has never looked like the next.  Each child fluctuates between being incredibly frustrating and deeply concerning, to being ever so impressive and awe-inspiring.  Then they switch back — sometimes in a single day.  It’s terribly hard, and it may have taken years off my life.  It’s wonderfully rewarding, and I wouldn’t trade it (except for all the times when I would, indeed, trade it).  See why I stopped blogging?  I haven’t known which end is up for a long time.

My eldest child, SciGuy, is now 15 years old.  Homeschooling has been really good for him, in hindsight.  He has always been a quirky, intellectually-curious kid, and being outside the system has allowed him to thrive.  Our approach with him has been to allow him to take the drivers seat with his learning, certainly up until the past year or so when we needed to start turning our minds to university prerequisites.  With him, my role has been to facilitate his own self-directed learning, to line up courses in areas of interest (or, more recently, that I think he needs), to help keep him on track and bolster his executive functioning skills (as much as he dislikes my involvement), and to keep an eye on the end game and help steer him there.  For him, the end game is to put him in the position where he can get into a science and/or engineering program at university, while still maintaining those qualities that make him most interesting.

Some things he has done over the years include teaching himself how to program and developing a very popular ‘mod’ for Minecraft — it was reviewed favourably by several YouTube personalities and therefore reached millions of people.  He is hoping to invent or program The Next Big Thing, and make enough money to do something really interesting with his life, like Elon Musk, or Bill Gates did.  That’s the plan.  The fallback is to study science and robotics at university, and to that end, he is enrolled in a science class at our local university this year (while still being considered a high school student).  It is going very well so far, and we are pleased to have had this option.

In addition, he has been taking online courses with Online G3 (which has spawned a nice little community of very bright and keen kids from across the continent and beyond, who get together on Skype to debate, discuss, or just be silly), with Math and Music Studio (taking Calculus this year), and with Lukeion.  He loves his online courses.  He also has local native-speaking teachers in Spanish and German, which he is enjoying learning.

BioBoy is now 13 years old, and continues to be inspired by the natural world.  He has become a recognized young birder and naturalist, and has a vast knowledge of ornithology, herpetology and other related studies.  Homeschooling has allowed him to pursue his passions without negative judgment (something he is increasingly conscious of, whether it exists or not), to run around outside as needed to satisfy his boundless psychomotor overexcitabilities, and to find novel and somewhat more inspiring ways to learn things with which he would rather not bother (basically, everything other than nature and biology).

Together, they have gone twice to the Global Finals with their Destination Imagination team, which I have enjoyed (and sometimes hated) coaching.  We have also been running a bi-weekly teen learning and social group at our home, which has been a wonderful way to solidify local homeschooling friendships.

I will probably continue to keep fairly silent with this blog, for the same reasons that I went quiet in the first place.  I am not sharing with you the things that have frustrated me about homeschooling, or my children, because they are teenagers who are entitled to privacy and respect.  (Of course, they were entitled to it when they were little, too, but as with most bloggers, we become more acutely aware of this when they grow old enough to read what their parents write about them!)

We will probably continue to homeschool, at the end of which I will be both greatly relieved and terribly saddened.  Those feelings, which likely all parents experience to some degree, seem magnified for the homeschooling parent who bears such a monumental responsibility for their kids’ success, and feels such deflation and undoing when things hit a rut.

So, soldier on homeschooling parents.  We will all stumble through this and find, in the end, that in spite of the ups and downs and the daily grinds and struggles, we have nurtured pretty amazing young adults.  Of this, I am absolutely certain.

The Type-A Homeschooler

We’ve all heard this comment when people find out we’re homeschoolers:  “I could never do that.  I don’t have the patience.”  Sometimes I just smile modestly, leaving the commenter to believe that I have some divine gift of unlimited patience that allows me to enjoy the company of my delightful offspring without the respite offered to normal families with the daily arrival of the school bus. 

Sometimes, especially if it’s someone who actually knows me, I have to ‘fess up:  I have been called many things, but ‘patient’ has never been one of them.  I’m generally pretty intense, opinionated, aggressive and assertive.   In my past life as a lawyer, I thrived on deadlines and demands and believed I could out-work anyone.  I always set the bar high for myself and had goals to work towards.  I wasn’t terribly patient with others, and I most certainly wasn’t patient with myself.  I also needed to be in charge and fully in control of my life at all times. 

When kids arrived, I did manage to morph into a slightly less aggressive and more maternal version of myself, but the underlying traits are still there.  There is no question that the skill set I have is far better suited to a courtroom than to a rarefied example of motherhood. 

It surprises no one more than me, given this state of affairs, that homeschooling has been going as well as it has and that my children are generally happy and flourishing in this environment.  That is not to say that we don’t have days we wish we could start over, or times when I would dearly love to plop them at the threshold of the local school and announce that these kids are someone else’s problem now!

Despite those occasional hiccups, most of our days are pleasant and relaxed.  Yup, pleasant and relaxed.  (Even I had to make sure I read that right!) 

Having kids who are intense, strong-willed, opinionated and assertive (gosh, where’d they get THAT from?) with an incredible internal drive to learn has played a big part in our success, strangely enough.  I simply can’t get away with being a control-freak, or, I’m objective enough to realise, I would completely kill their love of learning and might just as well send them back to school.  Their intensity effectively balances out mine.  Yes, sometimes that intensity, well, intensifies, to the point where you risk electrocution from the bolts of negative energy zapping around our house, but we try to keep that to a minimum.  Even my uber-difficult 8 year old is starting to understand that we have built a profoundly deep, connected, and loving relationship with each other over these last few years of homeschooling, and it’s simply not worth it to get angry with each other over little things (or, if we do, we get over it pretty quickly).

Much of the controlling that is done these days is of my own self.  That’s not to say I don’t have relapses into deep Type-A territory, but I tend to get out of them before too much damage is done.   When I am in control of myself, I do not bark out requirements or make unrealistic demands.  Instead, I find ways of inspiring the kids to do the things that I want them to do.  Our days are always pleasant and relaxed when I can adhere to the “inspire, not require” method of homeschooling.  (More on the Thomas Jefferson Education method in another post – I’m just beginning to explore this.)  Indeed, one thing I can control is my own education and understanding.  I have spent countless hours researching and learning about educational methods, innovations, trends, and failures, as well as how the gifted mind works and what it needs to thrive. 

Another thing I can control is the educational path for my children.  No, I’m not envisioning a particular school or career for them – that’s entirely for them to decide.  I DO know that I want my kids to arrive at the end of their homeschool career firmly entrenched as lifelong learners.  I want them to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, creative thinkers, self-disciplined, innovative, and able to appreciate and understand the beautiful works (literature, art, science, music, etc.) created by humans throughout history.  I want them to be able to make connections across disciplines and draw conclusions as to the kind of world they want to play a part in shaping as they venture into adulthood.

I can control the educational path leading to those goals by providing the kind of learning environment that encourages them to flourish:  surrounding them with great books; inspiring them with learning materials that offer a “profound engagement with the world” (thanks to Michael Clay Thompson for those words of wisdom); giving them time and support to pursue their passions; spending time with them out in nature every day, or as often as possible; encouraging them to make beautiful music; showing them, through discussion and character study, what the best qualities are to be found in a human being; encouraging them to reach those ideals and endeavouring, to the extent possible for a flawed character such as myself, to model those characteristics every day.  

Where my Type-A nature comes in handy is in making sure that I have found the most suitable materials for them, given their interests, abilities and learning styles.  I’m also pretty firm about making sure that they put forth their best efforts at the things they undertake.  While “inspire, not require” is my ideal, that doesn’t mean that nothing is demanded of them.  They have daily chores to accomplish and they are expected to apply themselves to their studies.  I do work with them to set out goals, whether in projects they are undertaking, or in their core subjects, and then try to find ways to make it enjoyable to pursue those goals.  I DO expect my kids to learn certain things, but I want it to be done in a way that excites and inspires them.  Not only will they retain it better, but their love of learning will continue to be preserved.     

If you’ve read this far, Dear Reader, you obviously have the gift of boundless patience.  I wrote this piece to serve as a reminder for myself on those days when I have forgotten who, exactly, needs controlling, and for when I’ve strayed from my homeschooling mission.  I suspect I will be reading it often.

Reigniting the Joy of Learning

Small children have a natural desire to learn.  That’s how they figure out how to walk and talk and do the myriad other things that we adults take for granted.  They are little sponges who soak up knowledge constantly, seeking even more answers with their endless “why” questions.  I think all children are like this, but gifted children are even more inquisitive and curious about the world and their place in it.  For these kids, the need to learn, understand, and make connections is a fundamental need, ranking somewhere up there with breathing.

When they turn school age, we tell them how wonderful it’s going to be at school — they’re going to learn so much!  With their little backpacks and lunch pails in tow, they trundle off excitedly into the world of formal education, only to find that, sadly, their boundless excitement, questions and inquiries really aren’t welcome.  For gifted children, there is often very little to learn that hasn’t been learned already.  Attempts to take their learning in a new direction, or to a higher level, are met with roadblocks by teachers and administrators who are insistent upon uniformity.  The excitement about school quickly wanes and some children begin to associate all learning with the unstimulating stuff of worksheets and busywork that they find in school. 

Sometimes behavioural problems develop, as the child is not having a fundamental need met — the need to have his brain stimulated.  Teachers generally do not seem to understand this about gifted children.  They do not suddenly become gifted at grade 5 when pull-out programming is available.  They are gifted in Kindergarten, they are gifted in grade 3, and they are gifted in grade 5 on all of the other days of the month that “gifted programming” is not available.   Gifted children need to learn and they need meaningful work, not extra sheets of drill designed to keep them quiet at their desks.

As behavioural issues intensify, the gifted child is further marginalized.  Not only are his basic needs not being met, but his self-esteem is being driven into the ground because he is constantly being told that he is a problem.   There is no hope of more meaningful work being provided at any time in the near future, and the work that is put in front of him was mastered years ago.  Any adult would find this situation untenable, yet we expect young children, who haven’t yet mastered their emotions, to simply accept this state of affairs without a whimper, and wonder why they have behavioural issues.

Such is the lot of many children whose parents find themselves becoming “reluctant homeschoolers”.  There simply is no other realistic option for having their gifted child’s needs met, so they take on this daunting role themselves.  Yet, in many cases, the child comes back home already scarred somewhat by his horrible school experiences.  How should a parent help their child to get through this? 

The general consensus from parents who have been there is that children should be given some time to “deschool” — to find their love of learning again and separate the idea of school from learning.   It may take a matter of weeks, or even months, for them to get past their bad experiences, depending on how long they were in school and how much damage was done.

During this period, it is recommended that no formal curriculum be introduced, and, in fact, no routine that looks at all like school be imposed.  This is a time to regain lost ground and bring back that curious child, so flexibility and fun are key.  Days could be spent on enjoyable outings to museums and parks, nature hikes, reading anything they like, playing games, building with Lego, getting lots of hugs from Mom, toodling around on the piano, drawing pictures, or whatever is of interest.

The parent’s job is to have fun alongside their child, give them lots of love and support for who they are, and listen carefully to what they say.  Answer their questions.  Help them research things they are wondering about.  Wonder aloud about some things yourself, then show how you go about finding out more.  Keep notes on things they seem to be interested in, and gradually, and without pressure, start to encourage that interest.  Are they noticing some beautiful birds in the back yard?  Why not get a feeder and a bird identification guide and have fun figuring out what’s there.  Interested in the stars and planets?  See if you can go to an observatory and use the big telescope, and maybe trying photographing Saturn through the lens.   Trips to the library could follow, getting out some books on topics in which the child has begun to express interest. 

Eventually, the old spark will come back and your child will regain his or her love of learning.  Then, if you think it appropriate, you could begin to introduce some required learning, but make the child a partner in that.  Let him express his opinion about what he thinks he’d like to learn and how.  If something isn’t working, it’s okay to change it to something that does work.  In all things, strive to keep the learning meaningful and stimulating.  Your gifted child (and, frankly, ANY child) will be grateful to you.

It has made my heart soar to hear my children thank me for bringing them home and for keeping their love of  learning alive.  As you can read in my previous posts, I am always adapting my approach (from schooly at the outset, to a comfortable balance now), and I expect that will continue.  What works one week or month may need to be changed for the next week or month, but that seems to be par for the course with gifted kids.  It’s worth it though, because when their brains are stimulated, they are happier and easier to get along with.  That child with the bad behaviour at school will likely become a whole new kid at home when he gets to be who he really is.

Changing Education Paradigms

This is the animated version of a thought-provoking talk by education guru, Sir Ken Robinson. It is well worth the 11 or so minutes.

What do you think, Readers? Please consider this an open post — how do YOU think we can foster creative thinking in our children? Is the fact that homeschooled children are not in the “system” enough to preserve their natural curiosity and creativity? 

To get the ball rolling, here are some methods that I think help to facilitate creative thinking:

  • Project-based learning is a great way to give creative control to the learner (assuming that they themselves determine the inquiry and the output.  I’ll talk more about this in my next posts.)
  • Having regular discussions with children about thought-provoking topics (current events, social justice issues, philosophy, etc.) allows them to engage and share their views.
  • Using Socratic method to assess their understanding of a topic, rather than giving them a test, encourages more creative thinking as it lets them demonstrate what they know, yet pushes their knowledge to its limits and perhaps opens up a new line of inquiry that they hadn’t previously considered.
  • When assigning projects (as opposed to letting them design their own), give them a “real-life” problem to solve and see what happens.

None of these things is easy to implement.  Probably all of them require the parent or teacher to step outside of his or her own comfort zone.  There seem to be few resources on the market that encourage this type of approach, meaning there is no crutch for us to lean on.  (There is no “answer key” for Socratic questioning.)  Most approaches require the mentoring parent or teacher to have at least as much knowledge of the topic as the child (which can be very difficult, indeed!).  For these reasons, I am attempting to introduce these elements into our homeschool, with some modest success, but it isn’t easy and I find my own self to be creatively challenged (perhaps a product of my education?).  Yet, listening to Sir Ken, it certainly seems that fostering creativity is absolutely critical to the future success of our children in the 21st century economy, and perhaps for the greater good of society.

I love Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas, but he hasn’t given the world a roadmap as to exactly HOW one keeps that creative genius alive in our children.  Despite being critically important, it’s left up to us.   I do think we homeschoolers have a unique advantage, in that we can tailor our kids’ education any way we wish. 

Any thoughts on where we begin?

The Sacrificial Frog

The boys were asked to choose a project to work on, and BioBoy, not surprisingly, chose to do some animal dissections and study the differences between a variety of specimens. 

In order to prepare himself, he worked from The Zoology Coloring Book, which gives college level descriptions of animal anatomy in a colouring book format.  I’m not sure who the target audience is expected to be, but it works great for an advanced 8-year old biologist-to-be who happens to enjoy colouring.

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He has also been using the Digital Frog software, which shows videos of actual dissections, along with the opportunity to do virtual dissections.  Fall 2010 192

After arranging his new dissection kit with surgical precision, he was ready to begin.

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Not the least bit squeamish, he dove into the project with great enthusiasm.

 Fall 2010 180 Fall 2010 181  Fall 2010 183  Fall 2010 186    

He pulled out all of the organs, including the eyeballs, for further study and dissection. 

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Still sitting on my desk, awaiting their fate, are a mouse, a perch, an earthworm, a lizard, a massive grasshopper, a couple of cow eyes and various other delightful specimens.  Indeed, the faint smell of formaldehyde is wafting over to me as I write, intermingling with the aroma of my tea.   It’s all worth it, though, to watch his passion in action. 

Project-Based Learning

Our homeschool has been gradually getting back in session now for a couple of weeks as we continue our efforts to disentangle ourselves from the school calendar.  The boys are actually quite happy to be back to a bit of a routine, having enjoyed a week of nature camp and a week at engineering camp, along with several weeks of just relaxing.  We still have a camping road trip to go on next week, following which we will be fully back in the saddle, just like the rest of the local school kids.

Their idle time this summer wasn’t without learning, of course.  SciGuy may have to change his moniker to something like History Buff, after spending the last several months utterly obsessed with all things historical.  He has been reading voraciously, playing Civ City Rome and Age of the Empires II on the computer, and delivering spontaneous professorial lectures to whomever will listen (usually Mom) on various historical topics.  Even a swim in the backyard pool evokes a historical turn of phrase, as he queries whether he should “cross the Rubicon” and leap out over the cold water, unable to turn back.

I had once harboured the notion that I would introduce history to my kids chronologically, so that everything would be contextual, thorough and orderly — not in the piecemeal fashion in which I remember learning history in school.  We had started at the beginning, with the Big Bang, and were happily, but slowly, working our way through the centuries, until SciGuy decided he was really interested in history.  Being a visual-spatial learner, SciGuy doesn’t really want to learn things in an orderly way.  He wants the Big Picture.  He wants as many facts as possible from as many angles as possible.  He wants to jump around all over the world and throughout all of the centuries, and he wants to start making connections and drawing conclusions about it all.

My two years of homeschooling have taught me that when my kids are passionate about something, that’s when I have to back off and move into the role of facilitator.  My job now is to listen carefully about the direction his thoughts are taking him, provide resources to help him dig deeper, and suggest new areas for him to branch out into. 

He has been thinking a lot about empires lately – how do they form, what elements are required to develop one, what makes them successful, why do they all ultimately fail – and his thinking (mostly out loud, as is his wont) has gotten me thinking about how to focus his inquiry and generate some sort of output that is meaningful to him, not just in history, but in all of the boys’ subjects.

While we could largely unschool most subjects, and let them just read and process information as they see fit, I feel uncomfortable with the lack of focus that sometimes ensues.  Sure, they’re obsessive about a topic for a bit, but then it leads them to another topic which they rush off to research, then another, then another.  They flit about filling their heads with all sorts of interesting information, but I have a hard time knowing if they have actually processed anything, or completed an inquiry.  Like the empire questions SciGuy raised, for example – has he come to a satisfactory resolution of them in his mind, or has he simply jumped on to another time period in his quest to soak up all knowledge the world has to offer?

I have come to the conclusion that project-based learning is an approach that could work well for us in addressing this issue.   Unfortunately, the difficulty with so many products on the homeschool market (including unit study packages, as well as many history and science curricula) is that, while they usually do a good job of providing information and suggesting supplemental resources to look at, they fall down on the output (as far as we’re concerned).  They demand busywork (lapbooks, crosswords, crafts, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, etc.) that don’t take the learning anywhere close to the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (evaluating the information gathered). 

Using sites like this one, on Inquiry-Based Learning, I have begun pulling together projects in various subjects, and across the disciplines, that are designed to take the boys on a journey of research and inquiry that helps them to truly address the questions they have asked (or, in some cases, that I think they would ask if they were introduced to the topic).   Their output might consist of a Socratic discussion, a presentation, a blog entry, a book (complete with cover and binding – fun in itself), writing about a historical event from the perspective of a particular participant, etc.

I feel like I am reinventing the wheel a little bit, although I realize that there are some teachers and homeschoolers who are using inquiry-based or project-based learning.  Blogs like this one and this one are instructive and inspiring.  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a package of “projects” that cover the subjects we’re interested in and meet our needs entirely, so I’m simply going to try to create them myself, as time-consuming as that may be.  While the kids’ interests will provide the framework for many of the projects, I plan to introduce new topics in the same manner.  While there is an inherent structure to get them started (a list of resources, websites, questions to ponder and a suggested method of output), it is my intention to remain flexible so that the process satisfies them primarily, not me.  If they want to use the project as a stepping stone to something else, so be it.  If they come up with other burning questions, go for it.  If they excitedly announce that they want to produce a movie, rather than an essay, to share what they’ve learned, that’s fine by me.  I just want to help them pull it all together and introduce them to some new areas of thought.

As I come up with these (and if I think they’re good enough to share), I’ll post them on my blog.  Wish me luck. 

BioBoy — always inquiring about the natural world.