Fathering a Gifted Child
By Jennifer de la Haye
“Dad, I love you, but I’m sick of all your dumb ideas today.”
Meet Soren, my four-year-old nephew whose favorite philosopher is Alvin Plantinga, who concocts impromptu flash fiction, who composes songs to sing to his baby brother, who creates elaborate yet surprisingly practical Lego inventions, and whose father has carefully engaged him since he was old enough to poop.
When my brother, Louis, learned of his wife’s pregnancy, he immediately gasped, “But I haven’t solved the problem of education in America yet!” Like most parents who feel unready, unprepared, and unequipped to introduce a tiny new human into our intricate, flawed world, he dove right in: he reads to Soren about theology, he reads countless children’s stories, he reads the Bible, he reads Plato, he talks to him about ideas, and most importantly, he engages with Soren’s thoughts and questions, no matter how exhausted or busy or emotionally drained he feels.
So often, children’s wonderings are dismissed because the parent is tired, frustrated, or doesn’t know how to answer. A little girl looks across the table at her mother and asks, wide-eyed, “Mommy, what is the sky for?” What a lovely question! The sky is a vast expanse of scattered light. The sky is the window into our endless atmosphere. The sky is the home of millions and millions of glowing balls of light. The sky changes every moment – silvery and wispy in the morning, fluffy in the afternoon, golden and pink and alight in the evening, and black and glittery at night. Rather than taking a moment to reflect on the question and beginning an actual discussion about science and beauty, the mother, whose brain and body are tired, replies, “The sky is the sky, honey. Eat your sandwich.” How often we are tempted to neglect the curiosities of the young, developing minds around us!
“Dada, how does your brain think?” Soren asks. In this case, he is not inquiring about his father’s personal, current imaginings; he actually wants to know how the brain does it. Logistically, how does the brain conjure the thinking? “Well, son,” Louis replies, “the mind and the brain are separate entities, and while the mind uses the brain to think, the brain itself doesn’t produce actual thoughts.” Then Louis proceeded to launch a conversation about “subjective qualitative experiences,” but I think Soren decided to talk about oatmeal instead.
Raising a gifted child can be exhausting. The perpetual answering of questions that require analysis and lengthy discussion is only part of the journey. As we know, gifted kids typically experience deep, intense emotions and heightened sensitivities. Emotions are powerful, moving, and often terrifying, even for adults with years of experience in feeling feelings. Soren often spins into a whirlwind of tears and shrieks for seemingly inane reasons. Once, he became inconsolable because his pillow felt too soft. Every night, Louis meets Soren’s eyes and acknowledges his grief. “I understand that you are disappointed because story time is finished,” Louis says. He doesn’t tell him to “stop crying” or to “be strong.” He identifies the source of the sadness and gives voice to it, which teaches Soren that he need not suppress the feelings he experiences and that he can trust his parents to help him.
Two years ago, Louis and his wife, Lindsey, took in a four-month-old baby girl as a foster child. Soren, who knew a foster brother or sister might be a possibility, took one look at the tiny swaddled bundle and ran into his dad’s arms in the other room. “I’m scared, Dada,” he whispered. At two, he was able to identify the emotion he felt when his world was suddenly shaken. Louis held him and explained that his love for him would not change. After a few minutes, Soren began sifting through the recently purchased Target packages to find a pacifier for the baby who would later become his sister. He searched through his own toys, plucked his favorite blue car from the bunch, lifted it into the air, and said, “It’s so beautiful!” Then he tried to give it to baby Isabella.
Happy Father’s Day, little brother. I’m so proud of you.