Raising gifted kids may seem like a luxury, but I’m here to tell you that it can be challenging in many ways! It is not a piece of cake!
Raising Gifted Kids Is A Piece of Cake (NOT!)
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How many of you could tell me, without stopping to think about it, what’s the lowest and highest two-digit number? How about the lowest and highest three-digit numbers? Or the sum of 59 + 59? Or what (30 + 30) – 30 equals?
(In case you have to stop and think, the answers are 10 and 99, 100 and 999, 118, and 30.)
I don’t have to stop and think about these things, because they’re some of the math facts my five-year-old has blurted out in the past 24 hours.
I also know how many states’ abbreviations contain consecutive letters of the alphabet in ascending order (Delaware, Hawaii, and Minnesota – DE, HI, and MN). And what makes fruits (seeds) botanically different from vegetables (no seeds). And that if you were to write a letter to Mars, you’d have to add not only your country but also “Planet Earth” to the return address on your letter.
These things I know from overhearing recent conversations between my 5-year-old first-grader and her big sister, age 7, who’s in third grade.
Not Your Average Topic of Conversation
Having gifted kids isn’t something most people can easily talk about with other parents, unless their kids are also gifted:
- We’re afraid others will think we’re bragging.
- We’re afraid others will think we’re whining if we mention the challenges (what could possibly be hard about raising really smart kids?).
- We’re afraid others will judge us for wanting what’s best for our kids.
- We’re afraid others may think we “bought” our kids a “gifted” label by paying for tutors that could help them ace the “gifted” test.
Yes, there are many blessings to having a child who is academically gifted. But raising a gifted child also involves unique parenting challenges.
And since our kids are only 5 and 7, we’re still relatively early in this journey.
This Life UnEdited “Living With” post will cover my own family’s experiences. I’ll also reference challenges that other families I know have faced in raising their own gifted children.
The Unique Challenges of Parenting Gifted Kids
You’re Raising an Energizer Bunny (Or Two or More)
The wheels in a gifted kid’s mind are always turning. ALWAYS. Often in multiple directions at once. (Unless they’re totally engrossed in something, like reading.)
This means that many gifted kids (though not all) sleep less than the average for kids their age.
Knowing this when my kids were infants – and knowing that they would both later be diagnosed as gifted – would have been helpful.
I thought there was something wrong with me, and/or my eldest, when she got by on nine hours of sleep per 24-hour period, from age 2 months to age 4.5 months.
As in, that much sleep TOTAL at night (even though she was still waking for a feeding or two). And no naps.
Sometimes I could get her to fall asleep in my arms. But as soon as I put her down and went to take a shower, she’d wake up and start howling before I had the water turned on.
She gave up naps entirely the summer she was two, right after her younger sister arrived. I envied parents who got stuff done while both children napped; mine NEVER napped at the same time. (And the other also gave up naps entirely shortly after her second birthday.)
Now that they’re older, it takes my eldest forever to “turn off” her mind at night and go to sleep. We’ve tried relaxation/deep breathing, massages, yoga, you name it. She still tosses and turns.
Your Child Needs Constant Stimulation
The fact that their minds are always going means that they need constant engagement, and are very high-energy in general.
Fortunately, with two of them, they’re now old enough that they can entertain each other. Unfortunately, they’ll create ten messes in ten different rooms in no time flat, if I don’t keep a close eye on them.
Starting new projects – say, “Paint/Magic Marker Your Sister” or “Let’s Do A Science Experiment In The Bathroom” – is easy. Finishing them is hard. Before something is “done,” they’re bored and ready to move on to the next thing.
Days we can get out to a museum or a park are great, though it’s challenging when there’s just one adult to keep up with two of them. Days when the weather is subpar, or the adult’s health is subpar (I’m coming off 6 months of no driving due to a broken foot), are torture.
If all else fails, running around in circles is always an option. My five-year-old came down on one recent school morning, minutes after waking up, fully dressed and with her bed already made. She began running laps around the stairwell at the center of our house, “to get ready for phys ed” that afternoon.
If they’re NOT being sufficiently stimulated by their surroundings, they might do things they know they shouldn’t. Like act out in church and Sunday school. Or graffiti classroom furniture with their crayons. Or apply scissors and artistic license to their hair, their clothing, or whatever is within reach.
Yes, lots of kids are “high energy” and need constant stimulation. But my kids have been known to exhaust not just relatives who know them and spend time with them regularly, but also teachers and child-care providers who are used to spending time around kids the same ages as ours.
“Asynchronous Development” Is Real
One of the first things you learn about, when you find out you have a “gifted” kid, is “asynchronous development.” This means that just because your kid is years ahead of their peers in, say, reading or math, DOESN’T mean they’re “advanced” in all areas.
In fact, there are probably several areas in which they’re behind the curve, their peers, or both.
In our kids, this has been most evident in gross motor skills and social skills. Our kids were talking in full sentences shortly after their first birthdays but didn’t walk until several months later. By the time each of them ditched the diapers, they were well past their third birthdays and had been working on this skill for over half their lives.
And it’s easy to forget that a kid doing 2nd-grade work (as our girls were in pre-K and kindergarten) may well have the social skills and work habits of a preschooler.
We struggle to cope with asynchronous development on a daily basis, and have since our girls were born. At first, it was mastering developmentally-appropriate physical skills, from riding a bike to learning to write legibly. These days, it’s helping them keep up with the workload and social demands of being a grade or two ahead of their classmates academically, even though they’ve each moved up a grade already.
We constantly have to remind others (and ourselves!) of our girls’ chronological ages. It’s easy to forget when they’re so far ahead in some areas, but not others.
You’ll Need to Teach Them Social Skills
One other side effect of asynchronous development is that your kid may not have a lot in common with most kids their age. This can make even the most basic social interactions impossible for them, without a lot of adult help.
Most young kids, if thrown together with other kids their age (say on a playground), will spontaneously start playing together. Mine, not so much.
Nowadays, preschool is essential for getting kids academically prepared for kindergarten. And working parents who can afford to, choose a daycare program for its academics as much as anything else.
For us, our main goal with preschool was getting our kids to interact with their age-peers.
Even the basics of “parallel play” were beyond our kids in preschool. They had no problem playing with kids several years OLDER than them, or kids several years YOUNGER.
But put them together with kids the same age, and it was like magnets repelling each other. They just weren’t interested in doing what kids their age were doing, and couldn’t relate to them at all.
School Is A Battlefield
We have been so blessed with our local school district, which operates under policies that require accommodating gifted children the same as kids with other learning differences (aka learning disabilities). And yet we’ve still had to work through
- kindergarteners who graffiti the classroom and “help” their friends do their worksheets out of kindness,
- first-graders who wander off when the teacher is teaching because they “already know that,”
- second-graders who refuse to do their homework because it’s “boring,” and
- third-graders who forget their homework at school because they’re distracted by a good book at pack-up time.
Don’t get me wrong; we know how fortunate we are. Our district has a gifted program PLUS a support system for gifted education, and already knows that moving kids up a grade or two (“acceleration”) does more good than harm.
My friend Keisha’s first-grader hates school and tries to stay home most days. His teachers know that he’s bored, learned to read before kindergarten, and currently does third- and fourth-grade math at home. But their county has a law prohibiting acceleration and other forms of differentiation (giving the child more challenging schoolwork to accommodate his needs), so the teachers’ hands are tied.
Nire, another friend, struggles to pay her kids’ parochial-school tuition. Their district eliminated gifted programs in public schools a decade ago, for budget reasons. Though it’s a challenge to meet the modest tuition, the private school’s small class size means the teachers accommodate her kids’ needs more than their public school would.
And then there’s my friend Jan, whose profoundly gifted son is in seventh grade. He’s been in the same school district since day one. But every fall, she has to spend the first two months of school arguing with the district to ensure they accommodate his learning needs. She works as a freelance writer, partly so her work schedule is flexible enough to afford her time to do this every fall.
Practice DOESN’T Make Perfect
Gifted kids are also particularly susceptible to perfectionism and problems with self-esteem. One in five gifted children take perfectionist tendencies to an unhealthy extreme. They are so used to things coming easily to them the first time around, that they can’t cope when this doesn’t happen.
What does this look like? In a preschooler, this can mean flying into a full-blown tantrum as soon as they face a challenge, as my kids used to (and still do). In school-age kids, as countless friends of mine will attest, this can mean procrastinating on a big project because of fear of failure, or overly-high internal expectations. (Or a false assumption that they will breeze through it, just like everything else.) For kids who sail through elementary and secondary school, this can mean crashing and burning when they get to college, or flunking out of grad school.
Some gifted kids develop severe anxiety from trying to live up to their own high standards. Others become anxious for other reasons. My friend Sadie’s kid is currently the only second-grader in his school’s gifted program. He’s already becoming an anxious perfectionist in his own schoolwork. Fortunately, his gifted program includes lessons on how to cope with these tendencies. Unfortunately, he refuses to go to the gifted classroom most days. Why? Because he feels “singled out” and doesn’t like being “different” from the other kids. At age 7, he’s already in counseling.
When Your Kid Is Twice Exceptional, Things Can Be Twice As Hard
About 1/7 of gifted children also have learning disabilities. These “GLD” kids, also called “twice-exceptional” or ”2e,” face an uphill battle in getting all their learning needs met. School districts that accommodate all of 2e kids’ learning needs are rare.
My friend Mary’s son is in an amazing district with a strong gifted program and a solid track record of identifying 2e kids. The district works hard to mesh his gifted accommodations with his ADHD and his autism-spectrum needs. Yet she still struggles to make sure his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) both accommodates his needs AND is followed by all his teachers.
Michelle’s son, a high-school junior, is thriving now. But two years ago things looked very different. Trying to adjust to high school as a gifted ADHD kid on the autism spectrum drove him to multiple suicide attempts.
These kids are the lucky ones, in schools that try hard to meet all their learning needs. Others never get this far in the gifted program, if their school even has one.
My younger brother Evan graduated third in his high-school class, and was in more college honor societies than I can count. This, despite being so profoundly dyslexic that he could barely write a coherent sentence when he started high school. He was in the gifted program until middle school, when the middle-school teacher kicked him out because “dummies” didn’t belong in the gifted program.
So yes, having a gifted child is full of many happy moments and blessings. But it’s not a piece of cake.
Want to know more about gifted kids and how to raise them? Then check out these links:
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