It’s the same way I hold my tongue when a group of third-grade moms are talking about how difficult the last math test was — that they themselves couldn’t even understand the questions. I know my son could explain the questions to them (and that I could not). But of course, there would be no way to mention that without seeming to brag.
I don’t like the term “gifted.” It seems too exclusive a term, and doesn’t encompass the breadth of talents that children can have. My son isn’t especially gifted in sports, visual art, dance or public speaking. He’s gifted in all things academic. He’s brainy. And his giftedness doesn’t always feel like something to brag about. In fact, some of my real parenting struggles are related to the way his brain is wired.
But I feel so alone, like I can’t share this with other parents.
From birth, my son had an intensity about him that made him different from most kids. When he was happy, he was ecstatic, but when he was upset, he was prone to epic tantrums. Even as a young toddler, he argued with a voracity that was biting, complex and unrelenting.
I think it’s normal to lack self-confidence as a new parent. But almost a decade into parenting my gifted son, I still often feel completely and utterly lost. I wonder: Is he normal? Is it really supposed to be this difficult? Does he need more intellectual stimulation? Does he need less?
And I wonder about me, his mother. How on earth will I muster enough patience every day to deal with his willfulness, his outspoken personality and unrelenting energy? How can I create appropriate boundaries without squashing his unique abilities? How can I help create a life for him that nurtures his innate gifts but also gives him the ability to function normally and be happy?
When he was younger, I would seek advice for how to deal with some of his behavior, but most of the advice simply did not apply to him. For example, when children are playing with something they are not supposed to, you are advised to “redirect” them by offering something else. But that never worked with my son and he would never accept even the most attractive alternative.
I always thought that was a reflection of the way his brain worked. When he learned something new, it was immediately glued down into the crevices of his mind and he would not let it go.
Like many gifted children, my son reached milestones at a different rate than his peers. He began reading when he was 3. At 4, he was multiplying and doing long division. We didn’t push these things on him. He begged for more knowledge, more information.
There was an obsessive quality to the way he did everything, which was both amazing and infuriating. One afternoon, when he was 4 years old, we wrote out a long division problem for him. I remember it well: It was 376 divided by 12. The reason I remember it is because he recited it nonstop. He made us write it on a piece of paper for him, and he took it everywhere he went. He showed it to strangers. He rewrote it on different pieces of paper in different colors. It was like he was trying to etch the problem into his brain so that he could understand everything about how long division works.
When he was in pre-K, he took the New York City Gifted and Talented Exam to see if he was eligible to attend one of our city’s coveted gifted programs — and also because we were curious to see how he would score. He not only tested as “gifted” but received the highest possible score on the exam.
And yet, at the same time that he excelled in his young academic pursuits, he was slow to meet other milestones (potty training, independent sleep and certain fine motor skills). This is what experts call “asynchronous development,” and while my son certainly has accomplished all his toddler milestones by now, he still lags behind in some developmental areas where his peers seem to excel.
It’s hard to remember that sometimes. We’ll have a conversation about computer programming or physics that is way beyond his years, and the next minute he’ll be lying on the floor crying because I told him his screen time was over, and closed his computer before he finished a level in Mario. Gifted kids have a major perfectionist streak and don’t like to be interrupted.
Sometimes he seems like a grumpy old man trapped in a 9-year-old’s body.
(It should probably be noted here that gifted children share many of the same characteristics as children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, including an absorbing interest in a particular topic, and an uncanny ability to hyperfocus. And while many children are diagnosed with both — often called “twice exceptional” — this is not the case with my son. He does not exhibit the socializing difficulties that are the hallmark of Asperger’s. He is very social, makes friends easily and doesn’t have trouble expressing his feelings.)
We decided early on in his education that we wanted him to have as normal a childhood as possible. Even though he gained admission to some of the city’s top gifted programs, when we found out how competitive the programs were, and how much extra work the kids are given at such young ages, we decided not to send him to any of them. Instead, we enrolled him in our small neighborhood school.
This plan has worked out well for the past few years. His teachers give him extra challenges when he finishes the regular class work, and he has plenty of time to pursue his own brainy interests outside of school. He certainly spends a fair share of his free time playing video games, but he also has also learned how to code and create video games himself.
But the fact that we’ve enrolled him in a traditional school means I don’t have a community of other parents of gifted kids to talk to. I don’t have people to share my struggles with, and they are struggles. I know that if I shared them, I would seem boastful, vain.
Still, sometimes I want others to know that when my son comes out of school with the most serious expression on his face, it’s not because he’s angry or being snotty. He’s lost in thought about something that many of us would be bored to tears if he tried to explain.
I can’t predict what his life will be like. I certainly want him to be successful, but I also know that he has an intensity that can make life difficult sometimes. As his mom, I worry. I worry that he will start to find school annoying or stressful. I worry that his seriousness and impetuousness will make him seem aloof or unfriendly. I worry that his profound drive for perfection will leave him feeling frustrated and disappointed.
And yet, I know I have little control over any of this, and that all I can do is love him unconditionally, guide him to make good decisions and then trust that things will work out the way they are supposed to in the end.
I want my son to know that wherever life takes him, I will always admire him deeply. I’m his biggest fan. And I’m thrilled to watch him grow up to see where his dazzling mind takes him.
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