Name: margalit
Location: Massachusetts, United States Professional writer, educational advocate, opinionated ultra liberal mother of 18 year old twins, living life in the slow lane due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, and diabetes.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Parenting Gifted Kids

I'm the first to admit I'm a literary nerd. Some people like math, other people love music. Me, I love words. I love grammar and spelling and punctuation and writing. I love word origins and definitions. I love playing word games. I appreciate when people write effectively, I love it when people write beautifully. Words are, on some higher level, the thing that I hold onto when all else fails me.

The National Spelling Bee is one of those events that literary nerds like me put in their calendars as a must-see TV moment. I don't miss the spelling bee. I look forward to watching young kids spell words I've never ever heard of, and I'm really a word freak. I appreciate what it means to be a good speller, for I am not one naturally. If it weren't for spell check, I feel I would have never finished graduate school. But I get why people encourage their kids to compete. The spellers compete for a trophy and $35,000 in cash, plus a $5,000 scholarship, a $2,500 savings bond and a set of reference works. That's a full year of tuition, room and board at a private university.

Tonight the finals of the spelling bee were televised on ABC. It was a great night, with a really excellent field of finalists. Unfortunately, they got picked off very quickly, with many going out in the very first round, including a couple of my favorites from last year. Yeah, I remember the kids from years past. I'm that kinda geek. This year's winner is Evan M. O'Dorney, of Danville, California. Evan is a 13 year old eighth grader who is homeschooled by his mother. According to his biography:
Last summer Evan was chosen as an onstage contestant for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but the judges could not outsmart his spelling skills and resorted to making him spell out of order and giving him non-dictionary words. Evan is dedicated to Tae Kwon Do and has earned a first degree black belt. He loves to play piano: In addition to taking lessons at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he accompanies his church's children's choir. This year he began attending the Berkeley Math Circle and achieved success in various math competitions: He earned a perfect score in the American Mathematics Competition for 10th grade, the American Invitational Mathematics Examination, and the Bay Area Math Olympiad. He also placed fifth in the Northern California Mathcounts competition. His parents are Jennifer O'Dorney, his home school teacher, and Michael O'Dorney, a Bay Area Rapid Transit train operator.
Evan looks to be quite an unusual kid. If I had to guess, I'd say he is a twice-exceptional child, gifted and probably has Aspergers. He certainly had many of the telltale signs of an Aspie kid. No matter, it's apparent he's very smart, and maybe a bit pushed by his mother, who when interviewed kept extolling his musical and math ability over his ability to spell. It didn't even seem like Evan likes to spell. At his post-win interview, he stated that it was just 'memorization' and that he hated the spelling bee.

So why was he competing? Was it a case of pushy mom syndrome? This is obviously a kid that is encouraged to enter competitions for academics. He's doing math competitions, music competitions, and the national spelling bee. He's 13 years old. That's a lot of pressure on a kid. Never mind that he stated on national television that he really wasn't interested in spelling and didn't particularly want to be there.

This is something that bothers me a lot. I'm the parent of a profoundly gifted kid. I know what it is to have a very smart kid. I also know how fragile highly gifted children are. And I don't understand why parents of kids like mine push their kids to attend special programs and compete academically. For many years I've been on listservs for parents of gifted kids. The parents.... well, let's just say that neurotic is the word that often comes to mind. There's the mom whose son hasn't even started high school yet who is already asking about early admissions to college. There's the mom who will ONLY allow her child to attend gifted camps during the summer. There's the dad who is a math professor who pushes his child to participate in all the math olympiads and then brags about how smart his kid is. Last post was talking about how his 7 year old child is reading calculus books for fun. FUN? I find that hard to believe.

I wonder if some of the parents are living vicariously through their kids. The failings of the parents are being expunged by the successes of the children. I wonder if the parents are socially inept (like me) or have some kind of inability to understand that children should have fun. Real fun. Like running and playing fun. And I also know the arguments against fun. "My kid doesn't like sports" or "My kid thinks math is fun" are common ones. And they both are legitimate. But isn't it the job of parents to encourage kids to try something new? Is there a rule that says if your kid is gifted they have to only love academics? I just wonder how many parents of gifted kids are secretly thrilled that they don't have to do the little league/soccer/ballet thing.

I don't know what the answers are. I honestly don't. What I do know is that my gifted kid tried little league, soccer, skateboarding, basketball, lacrosse, and now ultimate frisbee not because he's athletically inclined, because he's not. He tried it because I believe that it's important to be well rounded. I believe that kids should learn how to be team players. I believe that kids who may not fit in socially need a push in the right direction to learn how to get along with their peers. Sometimes that push was successful, sometimes it wasn't. But my gifted kid has plenty of friends, lots of interests outside of academics, and wins awards without being entered into competitions. Am I doing the right things? I have no clue. Honestly, I don't.

What I do know is that my kids are going to find it much easier to get along with the population at large than are kids that are pushed into only interacting with other gifted kids. Because I think that will only be harmful in the long run.

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Blogger Sechakecha said...

You know... a local radio station was just talking about this very thing, this morning ~ only talking about it in referance to the sports parents. The sports parents who tell their kids that they HAVE to win, or that they're a failure. They push them and push them, so they don't have fun anymore.

I'm glad my parents didn't do taht to me. If I wanted to do something, they let me do it. The kids who get pushed like that, most of the time end up resenting someone or something, like my ex started to resent his mom after she pushed him for marching band.

1/6/07 7:11 AM  
Blogger useless_rambler said...

For what it's worth, I completely agree with you. I teach Emotionally Disturbed high schoolers and have the opposite at home, so I see both sides. While my children are still (what I consider, anyway) babies, I suspect at least one of them might be slightly 'advanced'. But, right now, I say let them be little.

In the future, I hope to provide my children the same support you describe, honestly, 'gifted' or not. There is a lot of truth to what you talk about them being well-rounded and helping them to avoid that social 'ineptness' that often accompanies those exceptional children - on both sides of the spectrum. Interesting post and very well said!!!

If I may be so bold...

1/6/07 8:55 AM  
Blogger Em said...

I have "regular" kids and a kid with a disability...so my experience is very different. But it does seem to me that the kid on the Bee last night did not want to be there. I admire the skill of those kids. But I also wonder about that much pressure on a kid so young. I applaud your choice to let your kid just be a kid. It seems that kids who are that gifted will be successful..and there is plenty of time to get there.

1/6/07 12:41 PM  
Blogger margalit said...

Today I saw Robin Roberts interview Evan and his parents for Good Morning America. The kid was monosyllabic, totally disinterested in the win, and yawned during the interview. OK, maybe he stayed up a bit too late, but still... his behavior was strange. Which substantiates my belief that this is an autistic kid. It isn't an issue, per se, but it just makes me think even more that he is being pushed, maybe even beyond his own desires, for something he had no interest in. And I do not get that.

1/6/07 1:11 PM  
Blogger Healthy said...

Very good post indeed. I'm the parent of two extremely gifted home educated children. My son at 4 is starting grade 1 maths, by choice, he loves doing the puzzles. I don't push, but my friend has suggested I move him into grade 2 maths, because he can do it. Why?????? He's a baby. Let him play. I also have a good friend whose daughter has an IQ of 140 and she wears it like a badge, and worries about what to do with her daughter. Heck. When will she see that her daughter is so much more than an iq number. Why don't people see that there are any number of extremely gifted children out there, but not all of them gifted in the academic arena. I feel so fortunate that my children are so bright because we can spend less time on school work and more time exploring their interests and passions.

Thanks for a thought provoking post.


2/6/07 6:25 AM  

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