What to Do If You Meet a Gifted Kid in the Wild

You’ve seen them on tv – Reid on Criminal Minds, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Young Sheldon, the brothers Crane from Frasier. Gifted people, geniuses in layspeak, full of quirks and visible differences. We laugh, we marvel, we love their character… yet we rarely encounter people like them in our every day lives.

… or do we?

Statistically, no, there aren’t a whole lot of gifted people running around, forming packs in the library and taking over the local comic book stores. But they are out there, roaming, usually fairly well camouflaged. They don’t give away their locations with the tell-tale bowties and glasses you’re looking for, oh no. They’ve adapted and taken on a new form in order to better blend in with their surroundings – human being.

They look like regular people, regular kids even. They wear shirts that don’t button down and aren’t (usually) carrying briefcases, so it’s pretty hard to tell from a casual glance over the plain which solitary figures are the gifted ones. If you see a person running towards you, it’s a pretty good idea to step out of the way whether they’re carrying a travel chess set or not. It’s gotten pretty hard to spot the gifted kids, so it stands to reason that it’s gotten even harder to know what to do should you encounter one. That’s where this handy little guide comes in.

So, what should you do if you happen upon a gifted kid in the wild?

Freeze. They can’t see you if you don’t move.

Totally kidding.

Say hi. One of the reasons their human costumes are so effective at camouflaging the gifted is that they actually are human. They’re people. They’re not superhumans, they’re not freaks, they’re not innately arrogant. They’re people. They have friends and flaws and faults. They won’t ignore you if you don’t start the conversation off by quoting Stephen Hawking, so just say hi.

Since gifted kids can smell blood within a 4-mile radius, make sure you’re not approaching a gifted person without all wounds having been dressed. Also kidding.

Don’t quiz them. Seriously. If you know a kid is gifted, don’t make them prove it to you. They’re not endless trivia fountains and they don’t know everything. Giftedness has more to do with how a brain works than what a brain holds. Those brains can hold an awful lot of amazing stuff, though it’s usually not at all what you’d think to ask them about.  Converse, don’t quiz. My kids aren’t novelties, they aren’t there for your entertainment or your tests. Let them be more boy than brain or more girl than gift.

Get to know who they are instead of poking around for what they know. 

Immediately feel threatened by their gifted label. Also kidding, though this seems to be a horribly common reaction. Recognizing giftedness in one child does not negate the abilities or gifts in another. Gifted is a category, in some cases a diagnosis. It relates to IQ score and asynchronous development, not competition and elitism. The intellectually gifted are not an aggressive species, so there is no need to defend yourself or your children upon an encounter with one of their kind.

If you meet a gifted kid in the wild, don’t expect them to behave like Reid, Sheldon, or even the gifted kid you know next door. Because the pool of gifted people is so small and characterized by being so far removed from the intellectual norm, they’re all vastly different from one another. There are characteristics that can be recognized as typical, but remember that you are dealing with an atypical group. They don’t travel in pods or have a secret handshake. They can struggle. They can have learning disabilities, mood or personality disorders, sensory issues, physical disabilities, or none of the above. Some gifted kids get along fine in life and others wage internal battles. Some gifted kids get all A’s and some fail classes. Some love museums and some are so overwhelmed by anxiety that they can’t bear to visit one. Giftedness doesn’t look like a stereotype, so brace yourself to be surprised by the person you encounter.

Do not, under any circumstance, utter the phrase, “Every child is gifted”. This will be interpreted by the mother of the free-ranging gifted kid as a sign of aggression. Yes, every child is A gift, and yes, all children have gifts, but no, not every child is gifted. This would be akin to saying every child is dyslexic, every child is diabetic, every child is tall. Giftedness is a label applied based on IQ and how often it occurs relative to the norm. It is a quantifiable deviation, a measurable difference, and by definition cannot apply to everyone. Acknowledging the giftedness of a child is not an affront to your own precious jewels at home. Giftedness does not make a child better or worse than the neurotypical kid next to them. It’s just how their brain works, and it’s who they are. To dismiss their uniqueness by applying it broadly to everyone is to ignore the black-and-white data that proves they are different. And to be honest, gifted kids are one of the most underserved populations in schools, often dismissed as having no real needs or being “smart enough” to adapt themselves that they can be sent to a corner with a book and a high five. Gifted parents are tired of having to fight the stereotypes and feelings of elitism that get applied to their kids’ unique needs, so they’re likely to turn on you if you get snippy or dismissive.

Treat them normally. No really. Gifted kids are, in reality, kids. They get excited about stuff like Minecraft, princesses, farts, and candy. They also get excited about physics, coding, art, literature, architecture, engineering, paleontology, trains, plains, automobiles, and in my kiddos’ case, various local laws and ordinances surrounding exotic animals in the US. The odd duck still waddles like a duck. They’re not a typical kid, but they’re still kids. Intellectually they may be decades ahead of their age peers, but emotionally and socially they may be a little behind. Just because a kid has an adult brain doesn’t mean they have the capacity to know what to do with it. Imagine getting a Hennessey Venom GT as a newly-licensed 16-year-old (car reference provided by the automobile-obsessed kid). It’s a powerful, fast, expensive car that will catch a lot of looks and do a lot of stuff, but you, the inexperienced and even timid driver don’t know just how to handle it. No matter how cool and different your car is, you’re still a teenager who isn’t that great at driving it yet. These kids are in a similar seat – so much power under the hood, but little capacity to harness it yet. Let them be kids. Don’t scoff if they mess up or turn your nose up if they make a fart sound under their armpit. Having trouble tying their shoes or regulating their emotions doesn’t make them imposters, it makes them kids.

Seriously, don’t be threatened. I can’t stress this enough. While not all entirely docile, they’re also not predators. The way the gifted brain is wired means that emotions and sensations are experienced differently, intensely. Whoa. There is no disappointment, there is devastation. There is no jolly, there is elated. These kids are intense, but they’re not threats. They’re not out to make you or your kids look bad. They just are what they are, and if a child makes an adult feel insecure, then the adult is who needs more self-examination. I can’t say it enough – they’re kids. Not threats. They don’t need to be taken down a notch or knocked off any pedestals. Don’t make it a personal mission to add gifted kids’ self esteem to your trophy room. Whatever they are is not representative of what you or your child isn’t – it’s just who they are.

Don’t armchair diagnose or assume different = disorder. Yes, there are a huge number of gifted people who are twice exceptional – who are gifted and have a learning disorder, mood disorder, or some other type of hurdle. A person can have an IQ of 170 and be dyslexic, hyperactive, autistic, or even incontinent. Gifted people are not immune to the misfirings and crosswirings of the brain. But they are also not all coping with additional diagnoses. I’ve been asked more than once, “What’s wrong with him?” Apart from your rudeness, not much. My profoundly gifted child is quirky and he has struggles that make some tasks or situations hard or even unbearable for him, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. I’m really just beating around the bush – all gifted people are not autistic. Lots are, but not all are. It does an immense disservice to the autistic community to assume different always equals autistic, or autistic always equals quirky. You can’t lump a bunch of stuff together you don’t relate to and call it autism. For every time I’ve been asked what’s wrong with my child, I’ve been asked 30 times if he’s been evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. Yeah, 4 times now. Nope, 5. If autism is an interest or a concern for you, then please educate yourself via the immense resources and willing families available now. If you want to understand more about what makes a different person so different, ask them. If a child has a diagnosis, that is his family’s journey and not one you’re entitled to. Explore instead of stereotype. Get to know someone for who they are and not any labels that may pop up.

While not endangered or protected, please refrain from making a gifted child a trophy. Remember, they’re kids, not novelties.

I hope this guide proves helpful as you resume your interactions among the people around you. Remember that all people are people, all kids are kids, and all should be treated accordingly. The gifted children sprinkled around the edges of the herd are no danger to you, so allow yourself the opportunity to appreciate them in their natural habitat – childhood. Take in their creativity and ability to think outside of the box. Note their intense emotions and, while they can prove mercurial at times, how they inspire change and empathy and passion. Drink in their humor, their sarcasm, the language that far exceeds their years. It’s okay to laugh when one trips and falls, kids do that. But let yourself appreciate just how beautiful and unique and cool they are the next time you find yourself face to face with a gifted kid in the wild.

 

 

Pause. Take a Breath. And Choose a Child’s Life Over Irritation.

I’m taking my own advice many times as I write this. It’d be entirely too easy to be accusatory, snide, and even downright rude when discussing food allergies and the classroom. I could quickly fall into my own emotional reactions and simply pen a piece that would only serve to anger the parents I’m trying to reach (though would definitely get some rousing applause from the parents who can relate). So I’m pausing. I’m breathing. I’m repeating.

Peanuts.

No other legume is so hotly discussed, so feared, almost legislated as the peanut. It is the stuff of lunches, candy bars, cookies, and dreams. It’s a cheap protein, an easy meal, a no-bake staple. Creamy, crunchy, mixed with chocolate… there really is no way to ruin peanut butter, AMIRIGHT?

It’s also absolutely deadly when combined with many, many children.

This is the time of year when millions of children are headed to school, many for the first time. Backpacks are being bought, teachers are being met, and, in some schools, policies are hitting parents smack in the face: no peanuts allowed.

Not every school is nut-free. Not every class is, either. But my plea is to the parents who find themselves surprised by this news: Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over this irritation.

I live in Texas, where the phrase “try and stop me!” was basically born. We’re a stubborn, proud, independent bunch, and we instantly bristle at any rule by nature. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Believe me, the parents of the allergy kids are frustrated, too. They dream of pb&j lunches, peanut butter candies, and Cracker Jack. You’re not alone in scrambling to find equally easy and affordable lunches to send, it’s hard for sure. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

I know, I know, back in our day kids didn’t have all these allergies and rules. We ran the streets and ate whatever we wanted and classrooms were filled with treats of all kinds, with nary a sign warning you to turn back if you carried forbidden candy. Research is ongoing as to why food allergies are on the rise, but I promise you this: anaphylactic reactions are not made up and they aren’t for attention. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the favorites of MANY kids. Yes, there are some kids with sensory or other differences who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches. Their parents will work out those situations with the administrators and find a way to keep everyone safe and fed. Not everyone likes turkey and not everyone can afford a lot of alternatives. I offer complete empathy, I know. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Oh yeah, I saw that meme, too. The one with sea turtles from Finding Nemo that have absolutely no relation to the statement comparing peanut butter sandwiches to vaccines. I’ve seen it a lot. It gets a lot of shares and likes, because again, people don’t like being told what to do and don’t like feeling as though their parenting choices are being taken away from them. But if you stop and think about it, parents don’t like having their children taken from them, and that’s exactly what an exposure to peanuts could cause for some. Death. Real death. Not a meme, not a grasp at straws to connect two hot-button topics and feebly justify risking an innocent child’s life. An actual process that begins with peanuts and ends with a dead child. I won’t even delve into the fallacy of the “argument”, but will point out that a family’s choice whether or not to vaccinate is not the same as fluke genetics and how parents are afforded no such freedom of choice when it comes to food allergies. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No, they can’t just send them all to a special school. Life-threatening allergies are recognized by the federal government as a disability, so accommodations must be made just as dyslexia or the need for a wheelchair would require. You can’t ship off all the kids who need hearing aides or insulin. You can’t demand that the kid with vision problems be moved behind your child so they can be closer to the front because they like it so much. There are needs, plans are made, and life goes on. Food allergies are no reason to ostracize the poor child who can’t control their reaction… or at least ostracize them any farther than already sitting them alone at a table in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

You’re not wrong to be irritated. You’re not wrong to be frustrated. You’re not even wrong to not fully understand it. You are wrong, however, when you know the risk and choose to break the rules, anyway. You are not wrong for wanting to send peanut butter. You are wrong for knowing that sending peanut butter will result in the grave injury of a child. You are wrong when you weigh the life of the little girl your child sits next to and decide the Nutter Butters are worth her life. You are wrong when you see your child’s disgust at yet another ham sandwich and decide you’d rather them witness their friend stop breathing, instead.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No one is saying it’s easy to leave peanuts out of the classroom. No one is shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Oh well.” Your frustrations are heard, they are real. But so is death. And death will always be more important than frustration. Always. If you have any response other than agreement to that, then please find another school for your child to attend.

Maybe you’re a parent whose school is not nut-free, but your child’s class has a student with a life-threatening peanut allergy. What a disappointment, I know. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Seatbelts are irritating. They rub your neck wrong and come across your chest at weird angles. Sometimes they lock up right when you’re reaching forward to change the radio station and you feel trapped! But they’re there for a reason – to keep you safe. It’s easy to forget how necessary they are when they’re rubbing and twisting and inexplicably pulling your hair, but should you ever find yourself saved by one, you look at the simple strap with gratitude and don’t mind the irritation.

Allergy rules are irritating. They make lunches and parties and snacks difficult. They change your plans and cause some uproar in routine. But they are there for a reason – to save a life. Did you know that peanut oil can remain on the skin for up to four hours, even after washing hands? That’s why you can’t sneak it into your kids’ lunch. Did you know that simply being in the same room as someone eating a Snickers can cause an anaphylactic reaction that leads to permanent brain damage or death? That’s why you can’t bring them for all but the allergic kiddo.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Go ahead, mourn peanut butter. You’re allowed to be disappointed. I’d ask that while you are examining your feelings towards Jif you explore what the other side may look like – how terrifying it must be for the parents of the child who is the cause of this policy. Man, they can’t even eat peanut butter at home. Not on the weekends. Not after school. Not at all. Those articles all over Facebook sure did make it sound like those EpiPens he carries are pretty darn expensive. I bet all the birthday parties they go to are scary. They must have spent a lot of time communicating with the school and coming up with an allergy action plan in the event of accidental exposure. They must be scared beyond belief knowing that their child’s life is in the hands of the parents packing the other kids’ lunches. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

When my daughter was 4, yes, only 4, the parent of another child in her preschool class called her a “weak @$$ kid”. An adult man said this of a 4-year-old child who still needs straps on her flip flops to keep them on her feet. He’d just been told that the preschool class his daughter was about to start was in a nut-free room, and no peanut products would be allowed. Even after the immensely patient teacher explained that he would rather pack a different lunch than for his child to have to witness an anaphylactic reaction, he expressed his displeasure and frustration at the “weak @$$ kid”. My blood is boiling now just remembering it, and if I hadn’t been speaking so loudly I would never have heard my own words over the rush in my ears as I spoke up from behind him. No, she’s not weak – she’ll die. She did not ask for these food allergies, science cannot yet tell us what caused these food allergies, and she can actually die from these food allergies. I sometimes wonder if he still thinks about that moment, when he got caught name-calling a helpless preschooler because he didn’t like having to pack a different lunch. I wonder if he realized the weight his irritation carried when it came to an innocent child’s life and death.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Please accept my apology, I do recognize and sympathize that not bringing peanuts to school is difficult. I say that without an ounce of sarcasm, it really is tough. I am sorry for the inconvenience these policies cause, truly. But I will not ever – and I suspect you would say the same – ever apologize for keeping my child safe. If you find yourself at the end of this very long post and still have thoughts forming that begin with, “But…”, then please talk with your school administrators about how you can be either transferred to another classroom or another school without peanut policies. Seriously, it’s the only safe alternative. And if you can know that your rebellion could cause the death of a child and still feel okay with sneaking a Reese’s into your child’s bag, then I’ll be happy to help you fill out the transfer paperwork.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Mourning Normal

Yes, yes, I know – “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.” There’s almost a resistance to the word “normal”, a visual bristling that takes place at the mention of it, especially when using “normal” as a measuring stick or comparison tool. “Normal” isn’t bad, it isn’t better, but it is, statistically, a thing. It’s real. It’s the middle of the bell curve, the average, the typical. It’s what’s to be expected, what’s been planned for. It’s the experience of most, and surprisingly the disdain of many.

It’s also a gift, as I’ve written before.

We grieve a lot of things in our lives – jobs, relationships, deaths, disappointments. Stories that ended before we were ready and stories that continue on in ways we didn’t expect. This is where I find myself today, mourning. Grieving the death not of a loved one, but of a future, of expectations. Coming face-t0-face with the very real differences between what I expected to be “normal” and what is my “actual”.

For some it may be life after divorce. For others it may be life after an accident or illness. Continuing on after the loss of someone incredibly close. Hearing, “It’s a boy!” instead of planning for pink. Being forced to envision your future in an entirely new and different way after the loss of your dream job, or never having landed the position at all. The circumstances are all different, but the feelings remain similar – you had a plan, it changed, and now you’re left not only reeling, scrambling, planning for the new future, but also feeling the aching hole left behind by your original future, the one you’d looked forward to, prepared for. Your “normal” is suddenly gone, and your present is something you never intended or considered. Your present is now, by definition, “abnormal”, at least from what you’d been anticipating.

For me, I’m mourning a “normal” childhood for my son.

We can call it “neurotypical”. We can call it “average”. We can reference the majority of the population and refer to him as an outlier, an anomaly, an exception. What we can’t call him is “normal”, though the life I’d envisioned for him was.

I started homeschooling him a few months ago for a few reasons, and it has been fantastic. We’ve had a blast, I’ve noticed so much relief in him, and he’s absolutely loving it – it’s been a good thing. However, last week a parent from his former class shared a slideshow of moments from the school year… and I lost it. Full on, snotty, ugly, moaning, sobbing cries. Seeing the smiles, the crafts, the parties, the memories – they caused me actual pain. I saw this typical childhood in a typical school and felt the most intense sadness. They were so happy. They were doing what so many other kids their age did. In my eyes, they were easy and normal. Was I romanticizing their school experience, as a friend pointed out to me? Absolutely. Were those experiences things my son was even interested in? No way. Would him being present for those things make him happy? A booming, echoing NO. But I was suddenly hit with such intense grief over the fact that normal hadn’t worked out. It didn’t negate how much homeschooling is working for us. It didn’t lessen my love or amazement at who he is. It was grieving for what ought to have been. Recognizing that my current path had strayed from my intended one, and while lovely, I hadn’t yet let go of my original travel plan. Something was over, and no matter how poor of a fit it was, it brought me grief to know that it had ended, that is was no longer an option.

It’s popped up before, this grief, and I expect it will pop up again. And the thing about it is, it’s okay. It’s okay to grieve. It’s healthy to mourn. Mourning is not regret. Letting go of what might have been is not taking your current reality for granted. Being sad something didn’t work out, feeling the pain of that end is not wishing your present, wasn’t. You can be both sad at what is gone and appreciative of what you have at the same time. The tears that fell over knowing I wouldn’t see my son smiling in those photos did not erase the photos I have of him smiling with me. The tears just fell, and it was okay.

Grieving normal requires learning to think in new ways, retraining your reactions. Not many people start out their journey hoping they’ll abandon their destination and end up somewhere else entirely. The habitual way you think and react and plan has been practiced for a very long time, and now it doesn’t fit with your life. You may mourn normal every time you have to make a hard decision – at the very least you’ll be reminded of it. I once heard a beautiful analogy relating to the parents of special needs children that I feel fits so well to many, many more situations:

Imagine you’re planning to move to Paris. You pack your chicest clothing, research the museums, the language, the culture, the food, the rues. You tell everyone where you’re going and you imagine your exciting life once you get there. Only upon exiting the plane, you find that you’ve somehow landed in Holland. Huh?! Holland is not Paris. You’re shocked. You’re sad. You’re completely unprepared for Holland. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the customs. You know nothing about the food, the maps, the people. Your clothes are wrong, your plans can’t happen, yet here you are. You are now in Holland, for better or worse. You long for Paris, you may even declare intense hatred for Holland simply because it isn’t Paris. But slowly, slowly, you being to learn about your new home. You absorb the culture, begin to assimilate. Holland doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower, but it does have windmills, and tulips, and it’s very peaceful there. Your friends come to visit from Paris and don’t understand it, but you go to visit them and find that Paris is loud, crowded, and a little smelly. You grow to love Holland, despite it never having been on your radar, and you appreciate your new life for what it is, find peace where you are, and are happy. Holland is never going to be Paris, but that’s okay.

Here is something I must stress, whatever normal you are mourning – GRIEF IS NOT GUILT. Feeling sad about the sudden change in your future does mean you are responsible for it, it does not mean you caused it, it does not mean you can change it. No matter how strong your feelings are, they cannot reverse anything. Do not trick yourself into feeling guilt over your situation or guilt for your grief. Feel your feelings. Identify your feelings. Accept them, work through them. You can change the way you think, but you must embrace how you feel in order to move forward. Assigning yourself guilt is not a punishment for experiencing grief.

Find someone you can talk with about your feelings. It may take a few tries and you may only find one person, but keep trying. People will say stupid things. I’ve written before about how we often attempt to measure the pain of others – it will happen. You will hear dismissive comments about the things you DO have that you SHOULD be grateful for. Don’t allow them to shame you into guilt. Don’t allow any statements that begin with “At least…” to bury your feelings. You know that being sad over what isn’t to come does not mean you are not grateful for what is. The thing about winding up in an unknown foreign territory, metaphorical or otherwise, is that it is terrifying. Sometimes you have no idea what to expect. Sometimes you DO know, and that’s even scarier. Change is hard, unexpected change is harder. But finding someone who can listen will at least mean you aren’t alone.

Mourning the end of your marriage doesn’t mean you want your ex back. Grieving the diagnosis your child received doesn’t mean you love them any less. Crying because you got a boy doesn’t mean you wish he’d been a girl. Remembering life before kids isn’t overlooking or disregarding the miracles that they are.  Missing your old home doesn’t mean you wish you hadn’t moved. It’s grief, it’s an end, it’s saying goodbye to what you thought your future would be as you learn what your new present is. It’s part of the process of letting go of what was “supposed to be”, what was your “normal”, and finding yourself in uncharted territory. Mourn that normal. Multiple times. And while your tears are still wet on your cheek, tell someone you trust how you’re feeling.

Whenever I feel inspired to write a post here, I typically write down some notes in a journal I keep. I think about it for a long time, I pray, I research when necessary. I have dozens of posts just waiting to be written, with rough ideas and random thoughts jotted down. But this post was different. I kept trying to make the time to sit and pray about it, to ask for wisdom. I was waiting for a time when I felt absolutely joyous about the current state of abnormal we’re in, so that I could offer some hope from the other side perhaps, so I could have a cute little sign-off, something to share that would inspire, lift, encourage. But it never came. Every day since that slideshow has been hard. Tomorrow will probably be hard, too. I began to feel very discouraged at it all. Why wasn’t it getting better? Why wasn’t I feeling more hopeful? Was I the world’s biggest hypocrite for wanting to talk about mourning normal and feeling this way? It hit me today – I was waiting for normal to return. I was waiting for this state of abnormal to stop being so abnormal so that I could write about it. I wanted it to feel normal while I discussed how it wasn’t. And so I grieve again, because mourning normal isn’t a period you go through, it’s a change in your lifestyle. It’s not a season, it’s a shift. Despite all my words, I still wanted normal to come back, and it just isn’t going to. And that’s sad. And that’s okay. I know over time this abnormal will become my new normal. I know over time I will feel that punch in the gut become softer and softer, with fewer and fewer blows. I know that we have made the right decision. But today, right now, in the middle of the sadness and fatigue and tears and doubts, I am sad. Not regretful, not ungrateful, I am in mourning.

Welcome to Holland.

 

 

My Child Didn’t Take a Standardized Test Yesterday So Now He’s Basically Doomed

Across my great state yesterday, 4th and 5th graders gathered into hushed classrooms with bellies full of protein-packed breakfasts and sharpened pencils at the ready. Children in younger grades had their chairs removed from their desks so that the scraping sounds wouldn’t distract students rooms away, and parents were barred from visiting the campus: it was the first day of standardized testing in Texas.

My 10-year-old woke after a good night’s sleep, ate a big breakfast, and settled in with the book of his choosing. He played with his siblings, created with Legos, and even ASKED for veggies with his lunch. He had a great day… but was not at school. I opted him out of the test.

Being a 4th grader, he’s an old pro at the STAAR, the standardized test for Texas students. He’s taken the math and reading tests before (and totally crushed them, but that’s just the mom in me needing to brag on him). He wasn’t worried about the tests and he knew they didn’t define him as a student. He was proud of both his regular grades and his previous scores and shrugged off the idea that standardized testing was stressful.

Until it became stressful.

At the beginning of the school year his teacher bragged on his writing (insert proud mom puffing her chest out here). She was very excited by his ability, his creativity – he was a good writer. We began getting examples of what the STAAR test expected in a composition, and it was clear that my boy was doing well and would score high. He could use some tweaking to get the highest possible score, but that’s what school – and the next few months – were for, helping him grow as a writer and hone his skills.

To save you the novel it would require to share all the details, it became a nightmare right after winter break. The students – 9- and 10-year-olds – were writing a new paper every day to prepare for the writing portion of the standardized test. A paper a day. Each time with a new prompt that required new creativity yet had to follow the same formula. If a child didn’t finish they were made to miss recess to keep working on their paper. The paper that was just practice. If they still didn’t finish they would have to take it home and finish it, because a new prompt awaited the next day. It started taking longer and longer for him to finish. He’d come home exhausted, in tears, stressed over not finishing a paper that was just practice, a paper that’d be thrown out in the morning so he could start all over again with another. Despite our encouragement and praises – from his parents and teachers – his self esteem took a huge hit. He felt like a terrible student that he couldn’t finish quickly. He felt like he had no ideas because it took him so long to come up with yet ANOTHER creative paper. He allowed his worth to be dictated by this repetitive practicing and completely ignored the A’s he made in all of his regular schoolwork. He has a tic disorder that only appears when he’s stressed or ill, and his face was so overtaken by tics that he struggled to make it through a sentence at times. My boy was broken. His writing suffered. Where he’d started the year bringing home papers with high grades and excellent imagery, he began handing over papers that were not finished, that were pieced together according to a formula, that had no vision, and that weren’t even a shadow of what he’d been capable of before. He handed these to me with his head down, because he knew it, too. My 10-year-old was burned out. In the 4th grade. He was exhausted, spent, suffering. I felt like a failure as a mother for having allowed it to happen, for having bought into the “Suck it up, it’s just a test” line. Not all kids respond this way, but mine did, and I had to remind myself that I am his parent, not the school district, and not the businesspeople making millions off of the test.

So I opted him out.

We spent the day together like rebels – one homeschooled kid, one kid opted out of standardized testing, and one too young to be a part of any of it. We got stares. We got smiles. And we got a lot of questions. When it became clear just how very many parents were not aware that they could opt their children out of standardized testing, I took it upon myself to post on Facebook about it. The only city in Texas that has a formal opt-out policy also has the highest percentage of families who opt out, so I decided to get the word out, as it seems the more empowered parents are the more action they take. I don’t judge those who sent their kids to school, I don’t think all kids are being damaged by the process, I just wanted to make sure parents knew they had a choice.

And, apparently, I wanted to make sure my son never succeeded in life.

There were a few comments – and some surprising “likes” on those comments – that expressed concern over his college career and his character as an adult. Yes, my 10-year-old. Who is in 4th grade. Whether those comments came from a place of well-meaning, judgement, or just being wholly ignorant, I would like to address the sentiment and make a few things clear.

He is 10. He’ll only be 10 for 6 more months, and then he’ll be 11. He does not need to be prepared for college right now. Because he’s 10. He may not even choose to go to college. But whenever that decision comes, it’s the better part of a decade away.

Not taking a standardized test does not teach a child not to take tests. They take tests all year long. They have homework and projects and book reports and quizzes, too. They must complete those and show mastery of the content. Not taking this one standardized test didn’t teach him that it’s okay to wimp out on something that’s too hard and it didn’t create a habit of avoiding tests. It was a standardized test that, at his current grade level, does not affect his grades. He’ll continue to take tests over the material he is presented throughout his school career despite having missed this one.

The idea that a single test is an indicator of future character is absurd. My job as his parent goes a lot deeper and longer than a single test. Me standing up for him when something gets to be too much does not teach him he doesn’t have to deal with hard things – it teaches him that his parents support him. It teaches him that it’s okay to say “no” to something that isn’t good for you. It teaches him that sometimes when everyone else is doing something, that doesn’t mean you should, too. It teaches him that he can come to us when he’s faced with another hard issue, and it teaches him that he can trust us to help him through it. Not taking one test out of hundreds will not make him a flake, it will not relegate him to a lifetime of looking to mommy to fix his problems, and it does not render him powerless against difficulty. Character is an ongoing education in our home, one that gets a lot more time and attention than a single standardized test.

It’s “just a test” to you, but your experience only counts with one person – you. There really are children with anxiety disorders. There really are children with the inability to write what their brains tell them. There really are kids who can’t sit still for 4 hours. There really are kids who don’t understand the instructions. There really are kids who can’t see the instructions. There really are kids whose stomachs growl with hunger. There really are kids who have failed to meet the requirements multiple times and are terrified they’ll be held back a grade. There are countless children – identified and otherwise – who have an entirely different experience when it comes to standardized testing, who approach the packet with hurdles already placed before them. Your great fortune in overcoming nerves or never knowing them at all does not dismiss their very real experiences.

This is not 1997. The tests aren’t what they were when I took them. They’ve gotten harder, are riddled with grammatical and grading issues, and come with millions of unseen strings that tie teachers’ jobs and salaries to students’ performance… on ONE test. The stakes are higher, the tests are harder, the prep is more intense, and it is comparing apples to dragonfruit when we try to compare our own standardized testing experiences to those of children today.

Nobody really asked you. That was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry about that, but it’s true. At the end of the day, no parent needs the permission of another or the blessing of your opinion to decide if they want to opt their child out of a test. Really. You don’t have to like it – they didn’t ask you to. You don’t have to agree with it – you’re welcome to send your kids with their number two pencils to take any test you wish. You’re more than free to feel passionately – and I pray you DO! But your passions are not my guide, and I’ll raise my child how I see fit, thankyouverymuch.

Standardized testing has nothing to do with college. Nothing. Colleges don’t request STAAR scores. To my knowledge there are no scholarships offered based on STAAR scores (especially to 4th graders). Are there tests in college? Sure. There are also tests in elementary, middle, and high school, all covering the material that was taught… like college. In fact, those tests are much more like the ones college students will face than a STAAR test. Valedictorians aren’t chosen from STAAR scores, standardized test scores don’t get you extra cords at graduation, and I really hope there are no fraternities that base membership on a 4th grade writing test. I don’t even think Jostens has a STAAR logo you can put on your senior ring…

The same people who are saying it’s only a test are the ones making dark predictions about the weight of the test. If it’s only a test, then what’s the big deal about missing it? If it’s only a test, it can’t possibly determine what type of adult he’ll be, right? If it’s only a test, then there’s no way his college career will be completely derailed by it, right? If it’s only a test, then it’s nowhere near as important as my SON, and I choose him every time. And if you think that “just a test” dictates the entire academic future of a child, then what is the purpose of school? It can’t be something that’s both easily shrugged off and fatefully guiding us at the same time.

At the end of this very long post, he’s still only 10. He loves his Rubik’s cubes, drawing on graph paper, playing board games, wrestling with his brother, laughing at movies. He’s growing taller by the day and thinks the little blonde hairs on his legs are very manly. He snuggles me on the couch, his table manners are questionable, and farts are the funniest thing in the world to him (though I’m pretty sure that’s not age-specific). He’s 10. He’s still a boy. There is no need to prepare him for adulthood, for college, right now. There is no need to push him beyond where is healthy for him to go. There IS a need to stand up for him and protect him from what’s not okay, from what’s harmful to him. He has the rest of his life to be an adult, I don’t need to push him towards it when he’s just barely reached double digits. Not that standardized testing has anything to do with being a functional adult, only that there is no need to push him towards something that will happen eventually, anyway. Missing this one test does not disqualify him from future success or doom him to a lifetime of watching old 90’s FOX reruns in the dark while eating potted meat from the can. He’s 10. We live in a developed society that allows him to be 10 and not worry about tilling fields or getting the black lung down in the coal mines. He’s not being prepared for adulthood, he’s being allowed a childhood.

At the end of the day, he went to bed. He wasn’t fearful about his future, I didn’t get any recruiters calling to cancel their visits, and knowledge didn’t tumble out of his head. He didn’t take a test. A very expensive stack of paper sits in a box, leftover because he wasn’t there to break the seal on it. The world will keep spinning, he will keep learning, and everything will be okay. I don’t regret our decision – in fact, I feel more sure of it than ever. We will face tomorrow – and any other tests, academic or otherwise – how we faced today: together.

Part Two: I Am “That Mom” (and here’s why)

You had to know a part two was coming. I couldn’t very well call out my son for being “that kid” without admitting that I am “that mom”, right?

I didn’t set out to be That Mom. None of us do. I know I’ve started numerous emails with, “I promise I’m not trying to be That Mom,” “Not to be That Mom, but…”, or just the blatant, “I’m not That Mom.” But it happened. I am That Mom. In the same way that we women often apologize more often than we need to, we seem to be terrified of being seen as or referred to as That Mom. As if we’ll send the PTO running for the hills away from us, the dragon lady who breathes fire and eats teachers. As if being That Mom were synonymous with being a Bad Mom.

I am not one for confrontation. I’m not good at it, it makes me uncomfortable. I’m great at responding and reacting, but to confront an issue I must first dwell on it for a while, talk myself out of it a few times, ask friends to tell me any other way to get around it, allow myself to get flushed, hear my heartbeat, and probably cry from frustration. Once these steps have been achieved, I can now timidly approach confrontation. Why? Well, to be honest, most of the time it’s because I’m afraid of how I’ll be perceived. I want to be liked, and that’s as hard to admit as confrontation is to initiate. I like smiling and getting along with people. I want things to go well, and I don’t want to be associated with negative things or thoughts. But that’s just not life. Things happen and things have to be dealt with, and when you have That Kid, things happen and have to be dealt with more often.

I’m not blaming my That Mom status on my kid. I didn’t become That Mom because of him, I became That Mom for him. Because he needs an advocate. Because he is a square peg and the round hole isn’t always a good fit. Because there are cracks in every system no matter how wonderful it is. Not because I enjoy arguing, not because I’m angry inside, not because I think he’s an infallible snowflake, not because I’m picking on anyone, not because I have it out for someone, not because I’m impossible to please, and definitely not because I’m a b word. Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Because I can either sit back and allow the cracks to swallow him, or I can speak up on his behalf. I am That Mom because he needs me to be. I am That Mom because I am HIS mom.

My kids’ teachers are saints, before this is taken as a rant against anyone. They have wings and just about walk on water as far as I’m concerned. But they’re overworked, underpaid, and have their hands tied in an increasing number of ways. More often than not the situations where I speak up are situations where they cannot. I even had one angelic teacher thank me for using my voice and speaking up. Where school is concerned, there are a growing number of cracks for children to fall through. Class size, test prep, 22 different IEP’s, integration, transition time, finding ways to get PE time in during Spanish… schools are being choked more and more by legislation and requirements, and the teachers who volunteered to help shape our young people are often left with only the power to check boxes. Sometimes a need isn’t met, and I don’t blame the teacher, but that doesn’t mean our kids don’t deserve what they showed up for. So when it comes to school, I will take what he needs and leave the whispers behind. I will speak up for him and ensure that he is fought for, taught to, and included, no matter how it makes me look. Because I guarantee you that the stares and judgements and derogatory names will not matter or even cross my mind when I see him graduate. If the administration is breathing a sigh of relief to see him gone, so be it. We can speak up on political affairs, the management of our favorite sports teams, and pop culture, but not on behalf of our kids? That’s a big fat NOPE from me. No one else can be my kids’ mom – that privilege and work belongs to me alone. And if I don’t work harder on their behalf than I do at being liked I will have failed. Miserably.

It’s not like it’s a source of pride. I don’t use “haters” as fuel or anything so dramatic. I’m not immune to the eye rolls and sighs and tension. I’m saddened each time I know I’ve blown a chance at a friendship by speaking up. I’m not out on a mission to get anyone fired, and I hate to think of anyone getting into trouble because of me. But I can’t let my timidity overrule my children’s needs. I can’t not stand up for what’s right just because I want everyone to like me. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if I make friends, it matters that they get what they need.

Last year an issue arose where my son did not get what he needed, that middle kid of mine. It was a big deal, by anyone’s standards, and rippled out to affect others. So I showed up and did my work as That Mom. In this particular instance there really may have been steam coming from my nostrils, but I didn’t eat any teachers and I wasn’t on the news, so we’ll call it a win. I knew the exact moment I was trading in “I love that mom!” for “Oh, she’s That Mom, ” but I could either back down and try to make a friend at my son’s expense or hold someone accountable. He needed what he was promised. A few months after, a friend of mine saw me at the store and asked me about it. I was quite surprised, as I hadn’t advertised it or vented publicly. Somehow, though, as will happen, some person shared some version of it, and the gossip mill got to work grinding out sensational tales of Jennifer the Whip-Wielding Crusader Mom. That’s not really word-for-word, but it was quite a story. To be honest, I was first surprised that anyone even knew who I was to share the story. That meant that I could no longer go incognito at pickup and show up makeup-free in my sweats, hoping my messy hair was going unnoticed. Dang. If people know who I am enough to share stories about me, they’re going to see me when I show up. Now I have to wear pants with a zipper. Ugh. My next reaction was one of embarrassment. What must these people think of me? I bet they’re hoping they don’t get a class with any of my kids! Do the kids’ teachers know the true version of what happened, or are they going to cower when I walk in to Meet the Teacher? What do people think?! Eh, it doesn’t matter. If they think I’m a crusader, awesome. Maybe it will empower them to speak up on behalf of their kid. Maybe they’ll approach me with suggestions and energy about how to fight for change in the system. Or maybe they’ll just be scared of me and let me sit in peace in my sweats in the pickup line. Either way, their opinion didn’t matter. They definitely formed thoughts, judgements, and gossipy tales, but it didn’t affect what my son needed or what he got. They’re going to talk. I can’t control what they’ll say about me. But I can control how my son will remember me fighting for him.

Which leads me to the main, ultimate, single most important reason I am That Mom.

Last week that same middle kid (it’s always him) took a fall at school. It was a total accident, but he hit his face HARD on the floor – chipped tooth, lots of blood, and we later found out a broken nose. He was glassy-eyed, irritable, and very tired, so I took him to the emergency room just to be safe. When the doctor came in, she spent less than 3 minutes with him – checking his tooth, checking his tongue, feeling his broken nose and telling him he could go home. I know I’m not a doctor, but it seemed a bit rushed and incomplete, knowing we were there for a possible concussion.

This is where it gets good.

My son was as surprised as I was. Maybe surprised isn’t the right word – he was angry. “That’s IT?” he asked, completely incredulous. “You’re not going to check me or anything?” The doctor, bless her, didn’t know this boy or the IQ he walked in with. She assured him he was fine, which only ruffled him more. “I’m not fine, that’s why I’m in here.” She asked if maybe she had used some words that he didn’t understand, which seemed to add fuel to his fire. “I understood everything you said perfectly, which is why I’m upset.” We were a printout away from being discharged, and here he was, speaking up in a room full of adults, advocating for himself. Sure we can work on his delivery, but the bravery it took was still incredible. I had tears in my eyes, not from embarrassment – from pride. This little boy wasn’t trying to put anyone in their place, he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, he wasn’t trying to prove anything, he was only trying to get the care he needed. And he knew what to do in a situation where he felt he wasn’t being heard – he spoke up. Speaking up eventually led to him getting a CT scan, which it turned out he needed. If he hadn’t advocated for himself, I don’t know what would have happened. He has seen me fight for him and now knows that he can fight back, too. He knows that if something isn’t right, you can say something. Then say something else. And keep saying something until someone listens and it gets made right.

He’s only 8, so I don’t think my job is quite done yet. I’m not trying to protect my kids, I’m trying to equip them, and sometimes it takes losing a popularity contest to do that.

I know I’m not alone, know there are a lot of others out there doing the best they can for their kids at the expense of their image. High-five, Momma. Parenting is hard, and parenting to cater to everyone else’s opinions is impossible, so let’s stop apologizing for advocating and get our kids what they need. It doesn’t matter what they call us – That Mom, Tiger Mom, Mama Bear, Helicopter Mom, Room Mom, Team Mom… it only matters that we are a good mom.

Part One: I Am the Mom of “That Kid”

I see them.

The looks you toss my way. How your eyes narrow and your eyebrows shoot up. I’ve felt the room quiet and tense when I walk in with my son. I’ve noticed how the class pictures, special projects, birthday parties and candid shots you share don’t include him. I feel your judgements, your distaste, your impatience, your discomfort, your dislike. Sometimes, if I’m really unlucky that day, I catch your words, hear your thoughts, get wind of your opinions.

And so does my son.

My child, who doesn’t act like yours, he hears you. He feels your stares, feels the isolation of being left out of the pictures, the projects, the parties. He sits alone and is not oblivious to it. Because my kid, “that kid”, he’s still a kid.

He has a birthday. He has a favorite stuffed animal. He laughs at tv shows, has bad dreams, scrapes his knees, and doesn’t always want to eat his vegetables. He plays, he reads, he draws. He has Legos, he uses his sleeve like a napkin, he has dreams for when he’s a grown up and fears for right now as a kid.

Because he’s still just a kid.

That child, the person you resent, dislike, the boy you make assumptions about, the one you give up on before trying, he’s a kid. The boy who needs help, he’s a kid. The child who has trouble making or keeping friends, he’s a kid. The boy who so obviously doesn’t mesh with whatever environment you’re judging him in, he’s just a kid. Yet somehow it’s been decided that he’s “that kid”, the one who gets in trouble, the one who causes trouble, the one who just can’t seem to act like the other kids around him. You’ve allowed his obvious struggle to be the one trait that defines him. Kids do well when they can, and for whatever reason – or for many reasons – he can’t do well, not at what you’re asking of him. So really, when you roll your eyes, when you shun him away from your kid, when you refer to him as “that kid”, what you really mean is he’s not your kid. And you’re right, he’s not.

He doesn’t act like your kid. He doesn’t have the benefit of your doubt like your kid. He doesn’t get included like your kid. He doesn’t get your advocacy like your kid. And the best part of all of it is that he isn’t your kid. He’s mine. He’s unique to us, our family, our dynamic. His struggles aren’t your job, but neither is his assessment. He is mine, my snuggly boy, my loving boy, my creative and hilarious little guy who has so much more to offer than just his classroom behavior. There isn’t a child in any classroom shared with yours who doesn’t have at least one parent aware of their child’s behavior. Your opinion isn’t needed in the raising of any of them.

Yet still you stand, a little straighter when you see him, in judgement. Casting your thoughts down upon a child. Narrowing your eyes to create a tunnel vision that only allows you to see what he struggles most with, allows you to place sanctimonious blinders on and miss the great things about him in your peripheral. You feel indignation towards him, as though “that kid” is a wrong that needs to be righted. The superiority  you feel in having identified “that kid” fills you with comfort and relief that it isn’t your kid. So you avoid him, judge him, make assumptions about myself and our home. You expect the worst and are irritated when you’re proven right. Because my boy can’t act like your kid. He isn’t like the other kids. He does struggle, daily… with issues you haven’t even bothered to consider. Maybe the kid who won’t talk to you has a speech delay. Maybe the girl who flinches away from you has a sensory processing disorder. Maybe the boy who ignites in anger has a legitimate emotional disorder. Maybe the girl who won’t stop talking at inappropriate times is just looking for someone to listen because no one at home does. Maybe the bully is being abused. Maybe the kid who brought the wrong snack didn’t have anyone at home to help him. Maybe the grumpy guy in the corner didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe the clingy kid on every field trip isn’t handling her parents’ divorce. Maybe the boy who asks for everyone else’s leftovers is eating the only meal he’ll get that day. Maybe the sweet little boy who sits away from everyone has a mind that far exceeds his abilities to control. Maybe their behavior is telling us something, not backing up your opinion. Maybe “that kid” is “that hurting kid”, “that hungry kid”, “that lonely kid”, “that kid in therapy who is really trying”.

Because they know they’re different, these kids. They know they’re left out, avoided, whispered about and looked down upon. And for every empty seat next to them, it reinforces their immature belief that something is wrong with them. Kids have a very narrow understanding of the world, of themselves. Much of what they think about themselves they’ve built buy comparison to others, so when others – especially adults – shun them, roll their eyes at them, or even speak harsh words, they don’t have the capacity to consider whether it’s true or not. They see they don’t act like others, they see the activities going on without them, and by comparison now believe that something is wrong with them – not the society that would avoid or blame a struggling child for being different.

“That kid” stays “that kid” because you keep treating him like “that kid”.

Imagine if we stopped resenting “that kid” and started remembering they’re JUST a kid.  Imagine if we stopped searching for ways to be RIGHT about them and started looking for ways to be KIND to them. They’re different from your kid, and that’s okay. They’re not fitting into the mold, and that’s okay. They’re most certainly lonely, and that’s not okay. Kids are not the people to shun or judge, and what does it say about us as adults if we’re holding so tightly on to wanting to?

Again, kids do well when they can. So let’s stop putting up social roadblocks that make it even harder for them to do well. I’m not expecting invitations for play dates, but a smile instead of a scowl wouldn’t kill ya. My struggling apple won’t spoil your whole bunch.

To the Parents Who Hurt on the First Day of School

It’s back to school season, ya’ll. Summer is fading and sales are aplenty. Excitement and dread fill the air in equal parts, apples are decorative, and grown people are found rocking in the school supply aisle, eyes glazed over and muttering something about folders with brads.

This week my social media feeds have been flooded with first day of school photos, adorable, smiling faces ready to learn, teenagers eager to get away from the camera, parents excited for a little more quiet. It’s a time of anticipation and preparation, of labeling and laminating. Back to school is upon us, and all the parents shouted amen – even though they’re all broke by now from all the back to school buying needs.

But I’d like to take a moment to give a shout out to the parents who made it through the first day, who survived it rather than celebrated it.

To the parents of children not with them on this earth, the parents who didn’t get to write their child’s name on a backpack because at some point they had to engrave their name on a tombstone.

To the parents of children who have not yet come, those waiting and crying and desperately wanting their own littles to buy obscene amounts of glue sticks for.

To the parents who don’t get to walk their child to class because their child is wheeled in by an aide.

To the parents whose school year started weeks ago with ARD meetings and IEPs and 504’s.

To the parents introducing their child to yet another new school.

To the parents who are limping across the month of August because the clothes, shoes, gear, supplies, extra supplies, surprise supplies, and lunch staples have drained you of more than you could give.

To the parent who is doing it alone.

To the parents who watch their child walk into a classroom full of saved seats – but not a one was reserved for them.

To the parents who watch their child walk into a classroom full of parents who judge you – and your child.

To the parents who didn’t get to watch at all, because work or health or some other circumstance meant you couldn’t be there.

To the parents who are scared, worried, wondering if their child is able or their teacher is prepared.

To the parents of the bullied – and the parents of the bully.

To the parents of the medically fragile and the emotionally unstable, the academically challenged and the intellectually unchallenged.

To the parents who spend more time advocating than anticipating.

To the parents of the foster kids.

To the parents of the kids repeating a grade.

To the parents of the quirky kids, the overlooked kids, the oblivious kids, the hyper-aware kids. The sensory kids, the allergy kids, the differently-abled kids.

To all the parents who made it through – you did it. You’re not alone, though you’re often overlooked. The work and love you put into getting your child through the doors of that school may not look like everyone else’s, it may not have started when everyone else’s did, and it may not even be complete, but you did it. To all the parents who are a little sad, it’s okay. To all the parents who played off their tears and didn’t vocalize their fears, it’s okay. To the parents who approach the year with trepidation and built-in exhaustion, you’re not a downer, you’re not a curmudgeon, you’re not a pessimist and you’re not a bad parent. It’s just a hard day, and that’s okay. So shout out to you for making it through. Shout out to you for bearing what your child needs and what the world has handed you. Shout out to you for being stronger than most know, even when the tears creep down. Shout out to you for doing what any kid needs regardless of abilities, health, socioeconomic status or social standing – you got stuff done. Shout out to you, parents, for being everything your child needs of you, even when you feel like you’ve failed, and especially when the world just doesn’t get it. Shout out to you for making it to another year, for trying again, for not giving up. Shout out to you… and your amazing kid.

 

 

What It’s (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

What It's (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

 

I know, I know. You probably rolled your eyes at the title. I did, too, if we’re being honest. The term “gifted” is what does it. It has an elitist air to it, seems snooty, sounds like I’m bragging. But the truth is, most parents of children who have been identified as gifted, those having an IQ score above 130 or two standard deviations above the norm, they aren’t bragging, they’re BEGGING. Begging for help, for understanding, for answers, for a system that will recognize and meet their child’s needs. You see, giftedness does not look at all like you think it does. Some of you know my tale of tears, the years of counseling, testing, praying, dieting, oiling, reading, and sobbing, all to be told that what was “wrong” with my child was giftedness. The years spent searching for a diagnosis, knowing something was different about my boy, knowing he was miserable and hurting, wanting desperately to help and find an answer, but always falling just short of sensory processing disorder, of bipolar disorder, of oppositional defiant disorder, of autism spectrum disorders, of ADHD. Really, THOSE are the labels that came to mind before I had to be told that my child was gifted, and that the behaviors he was exhibiting were NORMAL. Those extremes are what I thought about my child, never a high IQ. I knew he was bright, don’t get me wrong, but bright and the actual classification of “gifted” are two very different things, and what I knew of giftedness was chess champions, piano prodigies, and tiny little adults. My emotional, sensitive, intense child who never slept and always worried couldn’t possibly be a – gasp – genius.

Except that he kind of is.

It’s been a year and a half since we “found out” about him, and every day I learn more about what it means for him to exist in a world that is built for people different from himself. Many days I find myself advocating, emailing, sticking up for him. I’ve been asked more than once what’s “wrong” with him. I’ve asked that myself on many occasions. Some days I have people roll their eyes. Lots of days people feel the need to question or disprove his label. One day I even had someone walk away while I was mid-sentence. There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding gifted kids – their parents are pushing them, their parents are bragging, everything is easy for them, they’re perfect kids, they can handle it. One of the most hurtful ones I’ve encountered is the apparent belief that there is some finite amount of intelligence in the world, some IQ pool that kids draw from, and my child having withdrawn more than the others somehow left less for their son or daughter. Those are the people who see him as a threat, who resent him for skipping a grade, who feel slighted that he earned a place on a math team that their child did not. Those are the adults who approach him with the sole intention of proving him wrong, tripping him up, who have made up their minds to blame him for something he cannot help and something he didn’t do. Who make no attempt to understand what it’s really like for him, how scary and overwhelming it is to have a brain that doesn’t turn off, to be able to take everything in but have no idea what to do with it.

People who think giftedness looks like this:

But have no idea it also comes with this:

 

People who assume the school sends us this:

But don’t realize they also send us here:

That’s what it’s really like, giftedness. To exist in a world that doesn’t understand you, that even resents you. To watch athletes be praised for their form of giftedness but to have yours dismissed. A world where a gold medal is earned but a grade skip is bragging. Sure, it can be high grades, athletic achievements, musical gifts and artistic abilities. But it’s also asynchronous development, where “cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences that are qualitatively different from the norm”, to have the brain of an adult, the body of a child, and the emotional stability of a toddler. It’s overexcitabilities, where the brain’s intensity creates disorder-like reactions to stimuli, creates more intense emotions than the norm, more intense physical needs than the norm, more intense everything than the norm. Giftedness is everything inside you going at 1,000,000% and not knowing how to cope, because no one else around you is having the same problem, no one else is bothered, bored. It’s having trouble finding friends because you read so many levels above your classmates but socially are so many levels beneath them, not being able to have peers because they don’t want to talk about politics in the second grade and don’t understand why you hide in your locker when things get to be too much.

It’s sometimes making great grades, but it’s also sometimes struggling with being twice-exceptional – having both a gifted IQ and a learning or emotional disorder. Yeah, that’s a real thing. It turns out there’s a lot about gifted kids that most people don’t know. I share these things not to brag, not to garner sympathy, but to educate, to help. Ever since I first shared our journey to discovering our son’s giftedness, I have received almost a message a week from a friend, or from the friend of a friend, seeking answers, wondering if their child might also be gifted, looking for support once they discover that they are. So I’ll keep sharing, keep talking about it, for the parents who feel overwhelmed and alone, for the parents desperately looking for an answer to their child’s behavior that doesn’t seem “fixable”. I’ll endure the eyerolls and the sighs, the people who think I’m bragging, and I’ll continue to share about how we endure tears on a daily basis, emotions and thoughts that are too big for a little guy to handle, how we are caught in a never-ending race to meet his intellectual needs. I’ll tell about the testing, the never-ending testing, the 504 meetings and the IEP requests, the phone calls from school, the guilt and doubt I face when it comes to school at all. I’ll share about the anxiety, the overwhelming fear I have when he’s walking the halls of school or running on a soccer field, not knowing what will trigger HIS anxiety, what will reduce him to a crying toddler or ignite him to become a raging monster. I’ll tell you about how he doesn’t have birthday parties because they’re too much for him to handle, and he doesn’t really have friends to invite to them, anyway. I’ll write about how embarrassing it is to walk into a school office, knowing how a lot of the adults in there feel about your child, how humbling and remorseful it is to message another parent about what my own has done. I’ll tell of the expensive specialized psychologist we can’t afford and the hour it takes to get to her. I’ll share about how futile it feels to try and find a place for your square peg child in a world of round holes.

I’ll also tell you about how hilarious he is, how he makes jokes far beyond his 7 years and has mastered sarcasm on an expert level. I’ll tell you about how intensely sweet he is, how he snuggles me still and says he never wants to grow up and leave me, how his love literally makes me ache. I’ll write about how thoughtful he is, how he makes crafts and cards for people he loves, includes money, Starburst, or anything else he thinks the person may enjoy. I’ll definitely tell about how creative he is, how his brain works in a way that never ceases to amaze me, how he’s able to see things from a new perspective, from a place you didn’t even know existed, how he’s able to create entire worlds and mythologies with just 10 minutes and his toes. I’ll roll my eyes as I tell you about his love for Star Wars, how he has learned every single fact you never even knew was out there.  I’ll shout from the rooftops about the advocates he has on the inside, the teachers who have helped him AND me, who get him, love him, encourage him, support him, and want the best for him. I’ll marvel publicly at how naturally he picks up math concepts, how he reads novels in a day, his herding-like abilities on the soccer field, how he can identify insects and read Roman numerals and tell you about cultural customs all the world over. I’ll share wistfully about his infectious smile, his giant blue eyes that sparkle with mischief, and his sweet little feet that still have some of the toddler chubbiness left on them. I’ll declare firmly and confidently that I know he has a purpose in this world, and I believe it to be huge.

I love my boy. My gifted boy. My intense, emotional, overwhelmed, creative, hilarious, loving boy. He is not what people think he is. Giftedness is not what people think it is. It is a wonderful, exhausting, never-dull and never-easy experience. And for the last time, it’s not bragging.

I Just Want to Just

It’s been a hard day.

It’s been a hard week.

I’m texting with a friend who’s been having a hard month.

We both have kids who, for different reasons, have special needs, and it is EXHAUSTING. Don’t get me wrong, any parenting of any child is exhausting. But there is a different kind of fatigue I’ve come to know since I was introduced to the “norm” my children don’t fit into. It’s an ongoing fatigue, with no promise of anything ever getting easier. Today was difficult, and tomorrow likely will be, too. Today I worked my butt off to maintain a sense or normalcy or to meet my child’s unique needs, and it will do little to affect tomorrow, so I have to do it again. And again. I can never just…. JUST. I can’t just drive through a fast food restaurant and feed my children anything from the menu. I can’t just send my child to school and expect the day to go well. I can’t just take my child anywhere and expect it to be uneventful. I can’t just watch a kid’s movie with any deaths or sad moments (so scratch every single Disney movie ever). I can’t just watch Shark Week. I can’t just Google an answer and have the question be finished.  I can’t just eat at any place in the city, can’t just accept offers of casseroles when I’m ill, can’t just enroll my child in school or watch him play soccer or introduce him to someone new or go anywhere without needing a bag for an EpiPen and Benadryl. And with the limitless access we have to blogs, and the freedom we have to write them, we’re given the unique opportunity to get a peak into the lives of other families that may not look like ours… or to feel understood by families who look very similar. I’m not alone. WE’RE not alone. There are many, many parents who, despite their beliefs or location or socioeconomic standing, all want one thing.

Parents of kids with allergies. Parents of medically fragile kids. Parents of premature babies. Parents of kids fighting cancer. Parents of kids with autism. Parents of kids struggling with their identity. Parents of kids with emotional disturbances. Genetic disorders. Mitochondrial disorders. Eating disorders. Sensory processing disorders. Mood disorders. Attention deficit disorders. Kids with IEPs. Kids with diabetes. Kids with developmental delays. Kids who can’t travel anywhere without a piece of medical equipment attached. Kids who can’t travel anywhere at all. Kids who fight authority and kids who will likely never live alone. Kids with below-average intelligence and kids with above-average intelligence. Kids who teachers don’t “get” and kids who doctors can’t help. Kids who get stared and parents who are judged.

Parents who are misunderstood. Parents who are exhausted. Parents who feel isolated. Parents who spend their free time on research and their savings on co pays. On weighted blankets. On medical strollers. On home healthcare nurses. On surgeries. On treatments. On medications. On conferences. On books. On organic ingredients. Parents who have cancelled plans more often than they’ve kept them. Parents whose schedules are mostly ruled by their kids’ needs. Parents who have hung their heads in the gaze of disapproving strangers. Parents who advocate and fight tooth and nail to keep their child from falling between the cracks. Parents who never imagined their life as it is now. Parents who just want to JUST.

Just want to eat at a Chinese or seafood restaurant. Just want to be able to leave the kids with a babysitter. Just want to spend a few dollars on something for themselves. Just want to see their friends more than they see doctors or therapists. Just want to be able to leave their child alone with their other children. Just want to walk through a store without bringing attention on themselves. Just want to enjoy their child’s laughter without the interruptions of medical equipment beeping. Just want to hear their child laugh at all. Just want to go through a day without fearing – or getting – a phone call from the school. Just want to fill out paperwork without needing extra room for all of the conditions or medications to be listed. Just want an answer so they HAVE a condition to list. Just want to be able to meet new people without having to explain anything. Just want to know that the school is meeting their child’s needs. Just want to not live in fear. Just want to dream and plan for the future. Just want to be able to attend birthday parties. Just want their kids to make friends. Just want their kids to see how amazing they are. Just want the rest of the world to see how special and loving and wonderful they are. Just want to know that it’s going to be okay.

All parents want some silence from time to time. All parents want to pee alone, go on a date, and have a healthy child. All parents want different versions of the same things. But some parents, just for a little bit, just want to JUST.

Yes, there are plenty of parents who struggle with situations “worse” than food allergies or high IQ. But that doesn’t make the very real difficulties of parenting kids like mine any easier. We’re grateful to know our kids, grateful to have been trusted enough to care for them, grateful for the access we have to modern medicine, alternative medicine, doctors and forums and blogs and therapists and support groups. But we’re tired. And sometimes we want to just JUST.

Raising the Difficult Child – Consider the Dandelions

I wrote a concise little blog on this topic a few months back, but now I really feel like I can go a little deeper into the issue. I am no parenting expert, nor do I believe there is only one, specific, unwavering way to raise children. But I DO have a difficult child, and am learning quite a bit in the process of raising – and loving – him. I’m not naming names, but let’s just say it’s not the oldest one, and it’s not the youngest one. I’ll leave it up to your imagination. He has always been difficult. I remember our pediatrician trying to tell me in between my desperate sobs that some babies just don’t need as much sleep. He rarely napped and didn’t sleep very long. This was particularly frustrating when I compared him to my firstborn, who slept 14 hours straight at night and took 2-hour naps. I remember the night he discovered he could escape from his crib, because he did it more than 30 times. That one, single night. This was particularly frustrating when I compared him to my firstborn, who climbed out once and was so sad to have been in trouble for it that he never did it again. I remember the first time I punished him and he laughed at me. This was particularly frustrating when I compared him to my firstborn, who is so sad to have disappointed me that I rarely have to punish him. This difficult child of mine (who shall remain unnamed, remember, you’re still guessing at who it could possibly be) is stubborn, willful, volatile at times. He is easily angered, easily frustrated, and easily entertained by acting on any impulse he has. Covered in scars and dripping with swagger, he is unmoved by the concept of cause and effect. I’ve said it before that he knows about gravity, he just doesn’t care. He climbs walls, he leaps from furniture, he talks back, he gets into trouble at school, and he is extremely difficult to parent. This is particularly frustrating when I compare him to my firstborn, who is compliant, people-pleasing, a teacher’s pet, and pretty easy to parent. You can probably guess what the first thing is that I’ve learned in my journey of parenting a difficult child: you can’t compare. Comparison is the thief of joy. In parenting ANY child, comparison will only leave you frustrated and doubting yourself. One of the best days I’ve had as a mother was when the lightbulb went off, when it clicked that my two boys are different people. The more I compared the unnamed mystery wild child to the older, tiny-adult-like child, the more I was setting us both up to fail. He will never be his older brother, and that is a GOOD thing. He is unique. I don’t need two of the same kid. God spent a lot of time making him, with intention, and it was high time I started appreciating him for who he was, rather than getting frustrated at who he wasn’t. Milestones, demeanors, and reactions are as varied as likes, dislikes, and fingerprints between two same-gender siblings from the same gene pool. Wild.

Another thing I’ve learned while parenting my difficult child is that it sucks. This echoes my sentiments from the previous blog, yes, but allow me to elaborate: it really sucks. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s EMBARRASSING. It’s isolating. I cannot tell you, dear reader, how many books and blogs and journals and wise sages I’ve sought in my attempts to tame the unruly beast, all spanning different belief systems, based on different foundations, and implemented in different ways. But the one common thread is consistency. Be consistent. If it was against the rules yesterday, it has to be against the rules today, no matter how tired you are. But oh, Lord, how tired we are. How truly, bone-achingly exhausted, drained, depleted, worn we are. Every single incident, every single day, in the hopes that it will someday *click* and he’ll get it. It can make a mommy numb. It can make a mommy dejected, make her feel hopeless. Afraid to leave him with a sitter because his behavior is embarrassing, afraid to go to the splash pad because he may act up, it leaves a mommy feeling alone. Tears over what’s happening and fears over what’s to come, parenting a difficult child is, well, difficult.

The final, most important, most incredibly hard thing to grasp that I’ve learned while parenting this difficult middle child of mine (don’t act surprised, you knew it was him all along) is that it is not my fault. No argument that was ever presented to me in college has ever made me think more about nature vs. nurture than raising a strong-willed child. Sure, there are kids who act a fool because of their parents’ foolish ways, but having this handful has given me a new, more sympathetic perspective. Not every kid who talks back or doesn’t listen or has a moment is the result of bad parenting. The mom you’re judging is likely nearing dehydration from all the exasperated tears she’s cried. We know our kids are rough, it’s not something that escapes a parents’ attention.  Not every difficult child “needs to be set straight”. How do I know this? Because I’m a good mom, dangit. I know I am. I do everything I’m “supposed” to and then some. He is loved, disciplined, fed well and put to bed on time. We engage and take an interest in him, he is physically active, intelligent, and socialized. And yet he acts like a real butthead sometimes. He will always have a consequence for his disobedience, yet he still chooses to disobey. This is particularly ENCOURAGING when I compare him to my firstborn, who is from the same gene pool, is of the same gender, and is raised in the same home with the same rules, love, and attention. Two wildly different fruits of the same tree prove to me that the roots aren’t to blame, it’s just how the fruits ARE. He just IS how he is. It is no fault of my own, it’s only up to me to adapt and learn what he needs and marry that with what is expected of him. And THAT is nearly as hard as not blaming myself for my child’s behavior. I’m a good mom. This is not a cop-out, it’s a revelation. The sooner we can let go of the guilt, the sooner we can address what REALLY is causing behaviors and deal with them with an appropriate amount of attention. It is not my fault. As I sit here, my face red and tear-stained, debating just giving him an iPad for a few minutes of peace, I notice a dandelion and feel God speak to me. Dandelions are weeds. Unsightly and dreaded by gardeners. They’re stubborn, unruly, and difficult to get rid of. The more you tug at them, the harder the fight, and the more likely you are to find more dandelions next week. Just like my difficult baby. He doesn’t fit into what would be considered ideal, pristine. No one WANTS dandelions, they just pop up. But consider them for a moment. Difficult, yes, but vibrant with color. They stand out instantly not because of our feelings towards dandelions, but because they are different, bright. Dandelions can provide healing and nourishment. They undergo marked transformations, and are the stuff of childhood wishes. They spread their seeds with the wind, quickly, and all too soon are gone. Just like our difficult babies. Stubborn, tough, and not “ideal”, but beautiful in their own way, quickly-growing, and valuable. My dandelion literally grows like a weed, but he is also incredibly intelligent, creative, talented, funny, thoughtful, and can be painfully sweet. I can compare him to roses, tulips, or lilies, and he will always fall short, because he is a dandelion. Or I can appreciate his vibrancy and his limited time with me and be happy I have a flower at all. What if we all saw our own dandelions not for the pain and hassle they cause, but for the wishes we can make upon them? Hang in there, you, me. We’re not alone, it’s okay to admit we’re struggling. Having a hard time doesn’t mean we love them any less, or that we’re not doing a good job. It just means our precious little ones act like buttheads sometimes