Archive for July, 2012

The ‘Other’ E in STEM

I wake up today having so much hope for our future.

At first glance, this sentence seems bizarre. After all, we live in Colorado, literally next to Columbine High School, and I attended University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. I was a resident on call at an area trauma hospital the day the Columbine shootings happened, and I lived through the media frenzy every day of the hospital trying to care for some of the victims who survived. Yesterday, again, a person in Colorado has destroyed too many lives, much too soon, for reasons unknown.

And yet, I have hope.

I spent yesterday at the last day of a GT camp offered by our public school district for two weeks during the summer. The final day is the day parents come to see all of the projects the kids have been working on for the last few weeks. Our kids were so excited to show us what they had done.

My son took a robotics class because he thought it sounded like fun, and discovered an intellectual passion. Like most of the robotics classes, it used Lego Mindstorms kits to introduce the kids to the concepts of robotics and how to build and program small robots. He was as excited to show off his team’s robot as he was to see the other amazing creations built. He also asked if I would like him to build a robot that would massage my back (and his). We both laughed.

His intellectual intensity was in full “on” mode yesterday : he was flapping his arms, explaining things excitedly with his eyes locked on mine, and talking loudly to the other boys in the class. Towards the end of the display time, the teacher called them over, and they all sat, motionless and attentive, while she spoke. It was so unusual that I took notice, and then it clicked. The teacher had given them an outlet for their intensity over the last few weeks – robotics knowledge and supplies – and they listened to her every word with respect.

Her next sentence, though, is what gives me so much hope. She explained to them that it was time to take apart their robots, and acknowledged they were going to be emotional about this, and that this was normal. She asked if parents would help them take down the robots and support the emotional process.

I was in awe. This teacher they clearly respected gave them permission to be emotional about their robot creations. In public. For my son, who lives in a world that tries to crush his emotional intensity most of the time, this was a true gift – doubly so in a highly STEM-centric setting. She added an extra ‘e’ – emotion – to a STEM-class moment that could have been treated very methodically, very mechanistically, and it made a world of difference for him. He quickly helped his team take down the robot and re-assemble the kit to turn back in. And then he cried in my arms, letting out the emotion of the last few weeks. No one stared, or thought it was weird. It was just normal, and it was wonderful.

Why do we need programming specific for GT kids? So they can develop relationships with teachers who understand them, help teach them empathy, and model how to deal – in a healthy way – with the the intense emotions they experience. We need programs to help them find and develop their intellectual passions so they can steer their boundless energy towards creations to help make this world a better place. Not destroy it.

Today I have hope for my incredibly intense son. And I thank that teacher who showed it to me.

The Diamond Age

I had a very interesting exchange with a friend on Facebook this week, who was – rightfully – bemoaning the high cost of good daycare, and irritated that more than half of her paycheck was gone just to take care of her child while she was at work. She made a comment regarding the fact that this seems to be just another cultural universal in the modern day, something everyone contends with, and as a long stream of her friends and acquaintances chimed in with their agreement, I felt like I owed a voice to the conversation.

“Not everyone,” I said, “uses daycare.”

The immediate response was a mass eyerolling – silence your mind, and you can practically hear the sclera rolling slickly in a million sockets with an unpopular post – and some rock-throwing, including questioning whether we had a nanny, or parental help, or simply had children old enough to be at home on their own.

“None of the above,” I replied. “We watch our own kids. Simple as that.”

When we fired our nanny for good in 2007, having experienced a string of nanny experiences that would turn your hair white, we decided – at that moment – that we were done with the concept of outsourcing our children’s care. From that point on, it would be us, with the attendant challenges that created. So we threw everything we had on the table, Apollo 13-style, and attempted to build a new life going forward.

First to go was the idea of two full-time careers outside the home. Home was to be the primary venue for raising our kids, so we weren’t interested in having our children grow up in full-day Accenture summer daycare, for example, or coloring listlessly in an office all summer, shushed at every ring of the desk phone.  So part-time and home-based work became the planks for this new life; I cut back my consulting practice to focus on distance work and local client on-site projects only, while Kath cut back her patient hours and switched to a flexible position. Together, we could just do it – with some expense-cutting and heightened fiscal scrutiny.

It started, though, with a very specific perspective: building from the family up to our careers, rather than building down from our careers to our family. It wasn’t a case of ‘this is what we do for a living; how can we accommodate three gifted and intense children within that framework?’ It was ‘these are our family realities; how can we make a living while respecting our kids’ needs?’

Something in our life, we decided, needed to be a diamond; it should cut all other things. And not everyone has options in choosing their diamond surface; for some of us, a Diamond Age is thrust upon us – we’ve got a serious illness of our own (or that of a parent) to contend with in our lives, or perhaps our kids have special needs (2E or not 2E, that would be the question). But for those of us lucky and blessed enough to have broad familial health intact, the next step is deciding what the diamond surface is in your life. For us, the growing level of intensities in our house, and the specific needs that each of our children was beginning to show us, made the choice an obvious one.

When we positioned our family as the diamond surface in our life, other things got cut – literally and metaphorically. Vacations have a lot more laughing in the tent, and a lot less beachhouse rent – and the TV we bought five years ago seems to be holding up fine. Monopoly, it turns out, has an ageless quality of fun, and stroking your daughter’s hair while she reads pegs the happiness needle; no objects or debit cards required. What’s interesting is that the cuts are visible ones; I can see, in our bank account, every place that earning less and spending more time with my family impacts us. They’re easy cuts to see, and maybe that’s a dangerous thing. The fact that they are so obvious, so quantitative, makes me doubly sure that those cuts would be happening somewhere else if we’d made something else – career, self, hobbies or collections – our diamond surfaces. But those cuts, I fear, wouldn’t be nearly as easy to spot. Some of them, I’m confident, would have been made on my childrens’ hearts.

As the Diamond Age unfolds in our household, I find that I don’t have the life that society tells me I should have or want, and that feels strange sometimes. Things are just different for us, and I have to shrug that off occasionally. Our decision has been our own, and it doesn’t always lead to the easy, tangible reward or the societally-blessed lifestyle. I’ll probably post more about those feelings as they come up.

But right now, I’ve got to go. E’s got a hotel on Boardwalk that she just can’t wait for me to land on.

Parenting to Intensity

When Kathy and I agreed to contribute a blog post on the challenges of gifted parenting to SENG’s blog tour, the first question we asked each other was ‘where do we start?’  There’s  no shortage of challenges for the parents of gifted children, especially during the summer, when it seems that we’re constantly on the go – arguing minimum-age requirements with summer camps, prying children out of books to go and enjoy the outdoors, and always, always, dealing with intensities.

Intensities are omnipresent in our household this summer, jostling for attention not just among our kids, but within them. As I write this, the kids are involved in attempting to do a shot-for-shot remake of the first Harry Potter movie (shot on iPhones!), and the intensities are all on display. H fears rejection in contacting the local Melting Pot to see if they can film there, her emotional intensity on full alert; what if they say no, Dad? But, at the same time,  her imaginational intensity can’t conceive of how the production could possibly go without footage of the restaurant’s excellent interior. (It’s rumored to be haunted, too, and that turns every dial in her intensities to 10.) E cannot reconcile her intellectual-intensity theater director’s soul, which knows she’s the perfect Draco, with her imaginational-intensity actor’s soul, which badly wants the role of Luna Lovegood. Meanwhile, A is here, there, and everywhere in the production, his psychomotor and imaginational intensities in top gear – despite playing the role of Baby Harry at the outset. No discussion of robes can go unchallenged by competing sensory-intensity positions on how they should feel (let alone look); no scene setting can be finalized until every participant’s imaginational-intensity vision is present in the final version. And when emotional and imaginational and intellectual intensities clash in deciding how to film a shot? We can almost feel the psychic temperature rise in our house.

What else would we write about for this guest blog post, then? Intensity it is. In particular, with SENG’s mission in mind, we want to address the role of accepting intensity – and even parenting to intensity – in raising emotionally healthy children. I’ve dealt with the issue of how intensity is sometimes treated within the gifted community in another post, so I won’t revisit those comments in detail, other than to note that Kathy and I have both experienced the viewpoint that intensity is something to be governed and minimized and managed – and disagree with it. ‘Gifted is wiring,’ we are taught; and if that is true – and we believe it to be – then attempting to stick one’s hand into the wiring closet and pull out a fistful of sparking leads, hoping we’re improving the situation, is folly. All that wiring is in there for a reason; it makes up who your child is. Loving and accepting your gifted child can’t be a cherry-picking exercise, unfortunately; we’re not allowed the privilege of accepting intellectual capacity without the ‘extra’ wiring that goes along with it in the form of intensity.

So, instead of parenting to the intellect and attempting to manage intensity, what if we elevated intensity to become the equal of the intellect? What if we parented to intensity, just as we parent to the intellect? What if we fed both aspects of our gifted children equally in our parenting actions?

The very idea of parenting to intensity runs counter to most of our parenting instincts at least twice; it’s more difficult to do, and it’s less societally accepted to try. It’s more difficult to do because intensity comprises the louder, more boisterous voices in our households. These are the ragged sobs of feelings dealt blows too hard for young and emotionally-intense hearts to endure; they are the frustrated exclamations of momentary defeat for intellectually-intense children who cannot quickly master tasks meant for hands much older than their own. These are the voices that spiral ever upward in volume, one kid’s outburst a decibel louder than the one just before, and about to be cut off by one a decibel louder still. What we want to do is calm these waters, not go rowing out into them; we want the louder voices quieted, and not necessarily embraced. That’s not a criticism of our skills as parents; Kathy and I struggle with this every day. It’s so much easier to praise a gifted kid when he or she is nose-deep in a thick new book, or quietly coding a Mindstorms robot prototype; those acts look and feel ‘good’ to us as parents, because we’ve been taught that they have ‘productive outcomes’ in their later lives. But those acts are not our kids in their totality; intensity is just as much who they are as intellect is. We need to acknowledge that we’re dealing with minds and hearts that traditional parenting wisdom – and reflexes – simply don’t speak to.

Accepting that idea – that our kids are intellects and intensities – isn’t easy for societal reasons, too. Our culture wants the Enlightenment Mind from gifted children – pure cerebral horsepower, devoid of quirks and idiosyncrasies. Intensities are often viewed as encumbering drogue chutes, constantly slowing down the workings of an otherwise-remarkable mind. They’re medicalized, referred out for therapy, given acronymic titles and mouthful-of-jargon terms, most of which end with the word disorder. We’ve been told, over and over again, that was is to be celebrated and honed about our children is their raw intellectual capacity, while what is to be controlled and mitigated and medicated are the intensities they display. Psychomotor, we’re told, can be calmed with ADHD meds; imaginational intensity can be curbed with focusing exercises, while emotional intensity is best consigned to the abrasive world of ‘toughening them up.’

Parenting to intensity is neither the easy path nor, necessarily, the enjoyable one. Intensity is intensity, and a full day of dealing with one child’s solitary intensity can be enough to make a couch and a pair of headphones look very attractive; three children with multiple intensities apiece makes that subjective day even longer. But parenting to intensity, rather than to intellect, accomplishes one vitally important task: it communicates, without ambiguity, that children are loved and accepted for the whole of their being, and not just whatever intellectual contribution they might one day be able to make to society. Parenting to intensity says, clearly, that gifted is wiring, and that who you are as a gifted child is who you are, not what you do or are capable of doing. Our cultural archetype library readily categorizes other forms of monolithic parenting as short-sighted and self-centered; prodigy parents in sports and music are assigned a certain level of craziness for their manic focus on sharpening the skills of their children, but parents of gifted children who focus to exclusion on intellectual development often aren’t. (This is a strange reversal of the cultural norms for the children themselves, by the way; we tend to celebrate the athlete and the musical prodigies themselves while excoriating the parents, whereas for academically gifted children, the opposite is often true.)

But choosing this path can often lead to confusing convergences of action that are unrelated to motivation. H and E are both partially homeschooled, both attending online courses relevant to their ability levels, and on the surface, that would appear to be a monolithic decision applying the same logic to both. In reality, we’re addressing intensities in both cases. E’s intellectual intensity is such that she wants to run as far as she wants, as fast as she wants; she’s a classic Stephanie Tolan cheetah, and restricting her intellectual environment is a sure route to apathy and boredom. What E needs from homeschooling is space and time. H, on the other hand, has emotional intensity at a level that causes her to take on water simply sitting in a classroom surrounded by 26 other baskets of intensities. The emotional level of the room is just too ‘loud’ for her to get any real learning done, so she benefits from a calm learning setting; what she needs from homeschooling is quiet and focus. A, by contrast, is something of an extrovert, and school is a great track for him right now. Homeschooling him would deprive him of something he needs – so we’re very careful not to ‘group him into’ a decision-making process that doesn’t address his individual intensities.

Intensities are usually the first ‘filters’ gifted children perceive their worlds through – the exposed nerve endings that first touch the world. To deny intensities their role in how our children understand the world around them is to blind and deafen them, to force them to find their way through their lives with unfamiliar secondary senses, echoes and reflections of their environs. Parenting to intensities is exhausting, and the urge to limit, to confine, and to quiet them is, at times, undeniably alluring. But the way out, as with so many things involved in gifted parenting, is the way through; acknowledging intensity, embracing it in our children, and allowing them to use them to define and understand the world around them is the surest route to loving the whole child – and, in the long run, to allowing children the means to harness and control their intensities, rather than live at the mercy of them.

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(Bath) Bombing My Intense Kids

My children normally take showers. On a typical day, by the time Dave and I force them to put down their book/Star Wars figure/sibling, there’s only time to coerce three children to take showers, brush their teeth, and get to bed. Plus they decided at some point that baths were for babies, so they wanted to take showers.

My six year-old-son, however, had developed a permanent stain on all of his toenails, apparently from the brown dirt at the camp playground this week. I thought this might warrant a soak in the tub. So I helped him get the tub started and asked if he wanted a bath bomb.

A: “It’s a bomb? Is it going to explode in the water?”

Me: “Well, yes it’s called a bomb, but no it doesn’t…”

A: “Cool!”

He was slightly less excited after I explained what actually happened, that you dropped an enormous round ball in the tub and it fizzed. But, he was cooperative and got in anyway. H and E, his older sisters, heard the commotion and demanded a bath bomb experience as well. I handed each of them a “Lush” bath bomb, and between both tubs in the house, everyone got their turn in the water over the next hour.

As a background, our family is always more relaxed in water. We spend a great deal of our time swimming year-round, and the surest cure for our cranky, irritated family is to get in the pool. (The ocean, interestingly, has the opposite effect – too much imagination – we like to see the bottom of where we are swimming.)

I was interested in how much the entire experience served as a balm to their various intensities. The process of floating in the tub, watching the bath bomb fizz away to reveal some inner secrets, and the sensory immersion of the water and the aroma, was intensely enjoyable to them. They were more relaxed than I’ve seen them all week.

These two weeks are some of their favorites of the summer: they are all at a GT camp during the day, where they can explore and excite their intellectual intensities in a really fun way, with other kids like themselves.  The downside, though, is being constantly around other intense children all week. It puts my kids’ emotional and psychomotor intensities on overdrive. And makes my fuse pretty short.

We spent the rest of the Friday night relaxing after their tub soak. They definitely smelled a ton better, and A’s feet were clean, too. They could finally calm down enough to tell us more about robotics, poetry, science and Harry Potter.

So I think I’ll bomb them again next week, too.

The Grass Canvas

We have so many great parks and playgrounds by our house. One of my favorite things in the summertime is to take the kids to the park after dinner. It’s still sunny, but the weather has cooled off a bit, and we can run and play and get our energy out before bedtime. No better recipe for our psychomotor intensities.

One thing I’ve had to get used to is that we are not going to the playground. When my kids were little, I pictured myself in a few years among the parents with slightly older kids, talking and sipping on my Starbucks latte, while my children ran around the playground with other children. A few years later has come, but the wonderful, well-thought out, primary-colored playground with all kinds of ‘cool stuff’ is not interesting to my children in the slightest. Even the woodchips aren’t enticing. They race out of the car, sail past the playground, and make a run for the grassy areas. I also used to think they wanted to play soocer or football, so I would haul some balls along with us. Silly mom.

My kids apparently view the large expanse of grass like a blank green canvas for their imaginary life. They want to make up elaborate games with even more elaborate rules, examine blades of grass or shapes of clouds, and talk – literally- constantly to one another the entire time. All at once.  The process takes some getting used to. I had a healthy imagination as a child, but I was a very quiet kid.  So while the talking and imagining together is a little foreign to me, I love to see them lost in their own worlds for hours at a time. When they are running around the grass in the setting sun, talking and arguing and discussing everything, it makes me truly happy to be their mom.

I still look over from time to time at the crowd of parents with the lattes and smile. I should have known then that things would be different for us in a wonderfully surprising way.

And I can’t say I miss the woodchips.