Breaking trail
Goodman, L.
Highly Gifted Children
Open Space Communication
Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 39-41
Winter & Spring 2000

This article by Laura Goodman, parent of a profoundly gifted son, shares her perspective of her "parenting trek" as her son enters his teen years. "For parents with extremely gifted children, what seems to be the accepted norm just isn't normal in their houses." Goodman does not offer advice on what is right, rather she makes the case that what is generally accepted as right may not be for her gifted teen.

There stands my son, and as I look at him I shake my head and wonder, as do so many moms, how it happened right under my nose that my little boy just isn't one anymore. He's closing in on fourteen. In the last year he pulled even with me in height and has continued the upward push till he's the one now draping a casual arm around my shoulders. And as he's grown taller, his voice has lowered. Phone callers no longer confuse mother and son; the confusion now is whether it's him or his father answering. Not long ago there came a request for a razor. These are just a few of the physical indicators betokening our presence in the land of adolescence. We also have the perpetually closed bedroom door and a teen-monopolized phone line, a boy who is embarrassed over seeing a movie with his parents on one day and then who cheerfully suggests going to one together the next. I know moms who are uncomfortable or unhappy or even frightened over finding themselves in this new territory, but I must admit that all these typical early adolescent physical and behavioral measures are reassuring to me. Having a child who's matched up with precious few developmental milestones along the way has made ours something of a singular journey. As we used to say in my adolescent days, this kid's a trip. Raising him has been one, too.

Unquestionably, it's true that every family's trek is unique, but generally there do seem to be a fair number of commonalties among lives lived, and sharing in those with other parents can be reassuring and helpful. The job's tougher, though, when the uncommon points are fewer and parents realize that what presents as usual for the many is not at all what they've got themselves. The usual approaches, they find, aren't always effective in highly unusual circumstances, and the way is seldom straight-forward. For parents with extremely gifted children, what seems to be the accepted norm just isn't normal in their houses. At least that's how it's always seemed to us in this journey with our son, one uncommon, and very gifted, individual.

We spent our first few parenting years figuring out where in the new territory we'd landed, then spent several more searching for clarification and direction--in "guide" books and articles on gifted children, from other parents out here in our general sector and from a long string of professionals. In those years we certainly became deeply knowledgeable about children with exceptional intellectual gifts and entertained any number of specific suggestions for our son's upbringing and education, implementing several. Yet, so often looking to others for assistance and answers, we still couldn't find what we believed we needed: definitive information on what would be best for him--that clearly marked path. No matter what, it always seemed we were breaking trail. So we finally gave up looking for the main road or hoping for much help from the outside. We accepted that we were out without a map with a child who didn't fit any descriptions or prescriptions, and that we'd have to do the best we could navigating on our own. Not a bad way to go, once you get used to it.

Because each one of these children is so different from every other one, I'd hesitate to even try to characterize a very gifted young adolescent or think that there might be one sure-fire method to successfully parenting one. However, I do think good comes of sharing experiences, not as how-to lessons but as a broad base of potentially useful reference points for other parents breaking their own trails. Here's the terrain we find ourselves crossing these days and how we're managing it.

Not unlike many young people his age, our son lobbies most strenuously for expansion in two areas of his life: independence and autonomy. And not unlike many parents, we believe these to be crucially important for his becoming a successful adult. We absolutely want him to have more independence and be more autonomous, both in appropriate measures. That's where the tricky part comes in.

What is the appropriate measure of independence for a boy of thirteen whose intellectual functioning clearly puts him on a plane far beyond that of his age peers? No easy answer to that question.

Never much of an academic, our boy trains his formidable intellect and incredible drive on his primary interest, skateboarding. That must sound like an ordinary enough pursuit for a boy of 13, but that's where any semblance of ordinary ends. Skateboarding is not this young man's, hobby or casual pastime; it is not ancillary to his life --it is his life, as he will tell you. What we have is a gifted child who's propelled his passion into the adult realm. He's worked relentlessly to improve his skating and has gotten himself sponsorships and won competitions; he is a wonder of self-promotion, having produced his own video which he sends out to solicit more sponsorships; he's gotten himself involved with a skateboard shop, for which he works both in real life and on their cyber site, and they're training him to be their next webmaster. He travels--around the city, around the country. His friends and fellow skaters, his true peers, are generally two to six years older than he, which means they, among other thing, drive cars, enjoy greater freedom and have much later curfews. Between his "professional" drive and the culture among his peers, he constantly wants to go farther, do more, be out there more on his own. He was a baby born with a full sense of himself, conviction and purpose, and through the years he's done nothing but refine and solidify those traits.

What do we do about all this? How do we handle a young teen who sees himself more as man than boy? Besides some nail-biting and plenty of careful, specific scrutinizing of the contexts of his life, we practice what I think of as The Fishing Line Approach. It goes like this: He asks for more privileges, greater freedom, permission to widen his sphere; we take a good, long look into what he's asking for, consider how he's currently handling his responsibilities--his household duties, his studies, his following of house rules; his attitude in general, and if it seems appropriate, we payout the line, granting his request. We put him on planes and let him spend time with the skate shop crew or at a skate camp across the country; on these outings we entrust him with the video equipment and digital camera; we let him take the bus to skate-parks in distant towns and stay the whole day. What we expect of him is clear, and for his part he does very well. Sometimes, of course, because he's human and learning and hasn't had but his few years on the planet, he stumbles, makes poor decisions and mistakes. At those times, we reel in the line and bring him back, examine what happened and which were the missteps, implement consequences if appropriate and keep him closet to home for a while. Then we start again.

Is it easy? No. Is it right? For this child it is.

And how do we handle his ever growing desire for autonomy, his not wanting to be seen in public with his parents, his wanting to do only what he wants to do? Again, we rely on a version of The Fishing Line. We observe certain basic family rituals; some of these are small things, as simple as eating daily dinners together, or not so simple as when he plans and prepares some of those dinners. There's required attendance on family outings; some he might choose, some he never would, but he comes. If he's been away a lot or often out on his own skating and filming and in the constant company of The Guys, several all-family outings seem to crop up out of nowhere in the schedule, "reminding" him that he's not yet the man of the world he wishes he were or believes himself to be, but rather the boy who is learning and becoming one.

Some people think our ways with him are frighteningly lax, while, others tell us we're too controlling. I guess it's how you look at it. What we know we are is lucky. Lucky to have this great child and to have figured out how to see him for what he really is and listen to him and find a way that best lets and helps him grow and learn and mature.

Our path isn't laid out before us, but it's clear our progress is forward. One of the ways I know we're headed in the right direction is that when I find myself looking at our boy, I don't shudder at thought of his being a teenager now. As a matter of fact, I often find myself thinking that it's much better, not nearly as hard and much more fun than I ever expected.


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