Parental Expectations

March 26, 2013

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

When my sons were in elementary school, I argued with the teachers every year to get them the instruction that they needed. When they reached middle school, I found the solution: a school for gifted and talented students. I happily enrolled both boys. My daughter started in kindergarten. The school offered my children what they needed – academically, socially and emotionally. The school also brought out all my insecurities.

My children’s school is full of incredible students. A boy in my daughter’s fourth grade class was a finalist in the National Geography Bee. Two of my middle son’s classmates were invited to Carnegie Hall. One student won a writing award; the other played the cello. My oldest son went to school with a girl who played the violin for the Dalai Lama. Rumor has it that three 5th graders this year are taking the Calculus AP exam. And those are the accomplishments I know about.

If I were a more self-confident person, I would be proud that my children are learning with and from these incredible students. Instead, I worry that I haven’t done enough to help my children develop their talents. I wonder what my middle son would be doing in math if I could get him to a math camp. I daydream of the stories my oldest son could have created if I had urged him at an early age to write about the creative worlds that lived in his imagination instead of yelling at him to “pay attention in class.” I even beat myself up about whether my daughter is taking full advantage of the opportunities we made available to her. Maybe she should be practicing violin more or playing in a youth symphony.

I have expectations of what gifted students should look like. I’m not the only one.

Recently, I read a Yelp review of the gifted school my boys attended and my daughter attends now. One reviewer asked, “If it’s such a great school for such smart students, how come they don’t have any famous alumni?” He was judging the school by the accomplishments of its students. This guy isn’t alone.

Three years ago, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) issued a position paper, “Redefining Giftedness for a New Century: Shifting the Paradigm.” In it, the NAGC noted that,

“As individuals mature through childhood to adolescence … achievement and high levels of motivation in the domain become the primary characteristics of their giftedness.”

The NAGC was speaking directly to me. If my children are gifted, they need to be accomplished.

It’s hard not to be intimidated by the accomplishments of other gifted children and conclude that you’ve not done enough for your children and that they are not doing enough for themselves. And yet, I don’t want my children to be defined by their accomplishments. Everything I have done for them, including enrolling them in a school for the gifted, was to help them self-actualize. I want my oldest son to embrace his artistic and empathetic nature in a world that celebrates a boy’s physical coordination and strength. I want my middle son to feel good about his enthusiasm and out-of-the-box thinking even though it comes with a tendency to call out of turn and not follow instructions. I want my daughter embrace her strength and leadership abilities even when it causes some to call her bossy.

When I get lost in my devotion to public expectations, I remind myself of a 60 Minutes profile about a gifted child that aired years ago. The boy had a passion for geography. To demonstrate, the interviewer would call out the name of a state. The child would place a slice of American cheese between his teeth and nibble at the edges until it resembled the shape of the state. I loved that kid.

Who knows what the cheese eater is doing today. Maybe he’s has demonstrated achievement outside the dairy world. If he hasn’t, does that really matter? He looks like a gifted kid to me.

I don’t know if my children’s abilities will earn them a place on the world stage. It doesn’t really matter. I just want them to become the individuals they were meant to be and to feel confident about who they are. If they manage to get there, that will be my gift to them and theirs to the world.

Have you had experiences similar to Lisa’s? Please share in the comment section below.

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