What It’s Like to Be a Parent of a Gifted Child
Being a parent of a profoundly gifted child can be stressful. You have to cope with constant questioning all day long, unusual behavior that is difficult to understand, and negative comments from other people, including relatives. The challenge is to be able to nurture your child’s development while not becoming too exhausted. Parent Amanda Sarabi gives advice from her experience of raising her profoundly gifted son, Sherwyn.
Here is an excerpt from Off the Scale! or Sherwyn’s Progress: Raising a Profoundly Gifted Child:
When Sherwyn was twenty months old, he could speak in full sentences and asked questions all day long. He wanted to know about everything, always in great detail, one question leading to another and another. I’m not by nature a very talkative person; I much prefer to be the listener rather than the speaker. But I had to change my natural inclination in order to help Sherwyn. His questioning created long conversations, and it became important to me to take part in that. Sometimes I would go to bed at night with my jaw aching, having talked so much with Sherwyn during the day.
“How do I nurture my gifted child?” is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. On the one hand, you want to provide as much stimulation, opportunity, and support as it takes to help your child to thrive. On the other, however, there will always be additional demands for your time and attention, many of them simply the tasks of everyday life. How can you split yourself up in this way and still have enough energy to take care of both your child and also yourself?
While your relationship with your child is crucial to his development and happiness, he must learn—as all children must—to cope alone at times, to survive confrontation, disappointment, and frustration. That becomes extremely difficult if you transform yourself into his 24/7 personal assistant and mentor.
To an outsider, it can be striking just how much a gifted child talks, often to ask questions. Here is typical exchange between me and Sherwyn, age four:
Me: “Now that you’ve finished reading your book, it’s time for bed.”
Sherwyn: “Why is it time to go to bed?”
Me: “Because it is 8 o’clock in the evening.”
Sherwyn: “Why is it 8 o’clock in the evening, Mummy?”
Me: “Well…because the clock says so.”
Sherwyn: “Why do we have a clock?”
Me: “So we can tell the time!”
Sherwyn: “So why do I have to go to bed at 8 o’clock?”
At this point I give up answering his questions; I know from experience that we could easily spend another half hour pursuing this line of questioning. Instead, I stay quiet and start heading toward the bedroom. Sherwyn follows me, but he hasn’t given up his questions. Denied my input, he tries to answer them himself while turning our discussion into a monologue: “Children need to go to bed at 8 o’clock because…because it’s the law! The Queen says so! Queen Elizabeth is our queen, you know. She’s Elizabeth the Second, but Elizabeth the First was a Tudor queen. She killed Mary Queen of Scots. Her father was Henry the Eighth. He had six wives! That’s a lot of wives!”
By this time Sherwyn is at least brushing his teeth, but he continues to talk about the kings and queens of England. I sit near him, exhausted, wondering how on earth a simple request to go to bed can turn into this kind of discussion!
Gifted expert Carol Bainbridge offers a lovely analogy to help us understand gifted children’s constant questioning. It is centered on a robot called Number Five. Number Five (who is the star of the 1986 American science fiction comedy movie Short Circuit) is a robot that comes to life with a voracious appetite for information. His catchphrase is “More input, more input!”
Many gifted children can appear similar. Their inquisitive brains need more input, and their favorite word is usually why, as Bainbridge illustrates in the following exchange:
“Jenny, eat your green beans.”
“But Mum, I don’t like them. Why do I have to eat them?”
“Because they are good for you.’”
“Why are they good for you?”
“Because they have vitamins.”
“Why are vitamins good for you?”
“Just eat your green beans!”
[exasperated] “Because I said so!”
You might think that Jenny is just being difficult, but all those “why” questions are her natural, logical way of filling in the gaps of what she knows. Most gifted children have a driving need to figure out how their world works, and many a frustrated parent has used the standard “because I said so” to try to shut the questioning down. It’s perfectly understandable when a parent resorts to this phrase, but at the same time, we don’t want to squelch our child’s amazing curiosity. So what’s the answer? How can you cope with this constant barrage of questioning?
The best solution is to change your attitude; instead of getting annoyed, think of the little robot, Number Five. It was doing exactly what it had been programmed to do—gather input—and your child is doing the same. Admittedly, it can be hard to adjust your attitude, especially when you are already stressed or in a hurry, so you need some strategies to fall back on. Here are some excellent tips, compliments of Carol Bainbridge:
• Postpone answering a question until it’s more convenient – In the example of Jenny and her mother, the mother could have said that she was happy to discuss everything she knew about green beans, but not at the supper table. This strategy gives your child’s question the attention it deserves but has the added advantage of helping the child to accept some simple boundaries.
• Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” – It’s perfectly okay to admit to not having all the answers. It teaches your child the valuable lesson that there is always more to learn, that even adults don’t know everything. Your child can learn with you, and this can be a wonderful way of exploring a topic of interest. But sometimes that exploration needs to take place at another time.
If you use these or other delaying techniques, be sure to follow through on them eventually! Gifted children have excellent memories and won’t let you off the hook easily. Besides, no child likes being let down. So decide on a time to follow up on the questions when you know you will have the energy and will be free of interruptions. For example, Jenny’s mother might continue the discussion about green beans and vitamins while the two of them do the dishes. That way, Jenny may regard that activity as valuable parent-child time rather than a boring chore.
The key is to pledge to give or find the answer but to do it in a way that doesn’t wear you out or lead to frayed tempers. Exchanges with your gifted child should be fun for you both—and believe me, you will end up learning the most amazing things!
The challenge of asynchrony
What is it like for a parent to live alongside an asynchronous child? Resources on parenting assume that the child is developing intellectually, emotionally, and physically at the same chronological rates. So for the parent of a gifted child, these resources are not much help! It can be exceedingly frustrating trying to cope with the moment-by-moment behavior of a child who can switch from an intellectually demanding discussion about physics to a typical two-year-old’s tantrum.
The answer is simply to understand asynchrony better, to read up on it, talk to others who have the same experiences, and gain greater insight and tolerance. Carol Bainbridge offers the following tips:
• Recognize that your gifted child’s emotional and social abilities may not match his intellectual ones. When you face a sudden emotional outburst, before you react, remind yourself of his actual chronological age.
• Keep in mind that asynchrony means that your child’s needs vary enormously at different times. Mentally put on the appropriate hat so that you are in the right mindset to provide the emotional support or intellectual stimulation that the situation requires.
• Don’t forget that the asynchronous child is unlikely to get as many of his various needs met by his peers as you might expect. You may need to provide opportunities to fill the gaps—for example, letting him spend some time with older children or even other adults. You yourself may not have to provide the input, but you do have to ensure that your child receives it from somewhere.
Gifted children often exhibit what appear to others as odd or peculiar behaviors. They may stay awake most of the night, refuse to eat food that has touched other food on the plate, and of course ask endless questions, some of which really do seem to come out of nowhere. For different reasons, all of these can either cause you to worry or simply wear you down.
Your ability to care for your child requires you to be healthy, and that means avoiding unnecessary anxiety and also removing your child’s dependency on having your complete attention at all times. For example, perhaps your child sleeps less than other children his age do. He wakes up before dawn every morning, knocks on your bedroom door, and asks you to get up to play with him. His natural sleep cycle is shorter than that of others, and there’s nothing either you or he can do about it. So don’t let it become a cause for worrying or losing sleep yourself. Simply find a way to ensure that he is safe in bed with enough toys or books to keep himself busy until the rest of the family awakens. Similarly, if you know that your child is particularly sensitive to certain noises, places, smells, or other stimuli, try to avoid them. Change the route you take to school; buy the unscented laundry detergent; donate his wool sweater to charity, and buy him a cotton one—in other words, find a different way to do what you need to do to remove the experience that your child finds so unpleasant.
Many quirky behaviors demonstrated by gifted children have at their root a bizarrely logical reason behind them, if only you ask.
“What’s going on up here? Why is your bed in the middle of the room?”
“That way I can see Orion out of this window and Andromeda out of that one at the same time before I fall asleep. They’re my two favorite constellations.”
“What is this? Why have you put marks on your socks with a permanent marker?”
“Those socks won’t stay up when I run. So they’re my Tuesday-Thursday socks.”
“You know, the days when I don’t have gym class.”
Give credence to your child’s reasons for doing things. Gifted minds tend to be off in other dimensions much of the time, but these are the very minds that will drive society forward with new and innovative ideas that will help to better our world. You may get funny looks from others who don’t know what’s going on, but that’s a small price to pay for offering your child unconditional acceptance of who he truly is.
Coping with negative attitudes from others
It is a sad fact that having a gifted child can generate negative responses in other people. However, while most parents’ strongest instinct is to protect and nurture their child, it is important to help the child acquire the skills needed to manage in the outside world. Therefore, even it if were realistic and possible, sheltering your child from nasty experiences is not always helpful. And what about you? As the parent, it is just as often you who is criticized. Are you equipped to cope?
When someone says something to you about your child—perhaps commenting on how you must “push” him to learn so much at such a young age—should you answer back? Every encounter is different, and every parent will have differing degrees of self-confidence in handling them. Other factors come into play as well, such as how tired you are, whether you are in a hurry, and whether it is the first or the sixteenth time that day that someone has glowered at you and your child.
Some parents instinctively want to defend their child and at the same time point out the error in the other person’s assumptions. Others just want a quiet, easy exit from the situation. If, in the heat of the moment, you do decide to challenge the other person, you need to consider the possible effects that will have on your child. What are you modeling to your child in how to handle conflict? What message do you want him to take from the situation? And are you inadvertently drawing his attention to something he wasn’t even aware he was doing, thereby making him self-conscious of it?
It is a good idea to have one or two simple comments up your sleeve for situations like this—a few quiet, kindly-meant words to resolve some of the curiosity or quell the suspicions of others. Your challenge is to be observant and make moment-by-moment decisions about the value or risk of responding. Decide what any perfectly reasonable person would tolerate, and as long as your child’s behavior fits with that, tell yourself that the problem is the other people, not your child.
Friends and relatives
While it seems most likely that strangers will be the ones to give you the most discomfort about your child, your friends and relatives might be the guiltiest culprits. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, friends—all can question your parenting skills if they see your child demonstrate what they feel to be unusual behaviors.
Unlike random encounters in public places, when it comes to talking about your child with someone you know, you usually can choose when and where to hold the discussion. Remember, though, that it is almost always best to avoid doing this in front of your child. You may decide that it’s useful to include your child in conversations about his differences later on, just to resolve any lingering bad feelings, but until you know it’s safe to do that, keep him out of it.
Without acting superior or arrogant, your job is to help the other person understand why your child did or said whatever caused the negative response and then to help that person find ways to accept it when it happens again. Negative responses usually arise from ignorance—not understanding what is going on. The more you can enlighten the other person about your child’s gifted traits, empowering the other person to see your child through the same loving and nonjudgmental eyes that you do, the better for everyone. You may even find that you have recruited a willing and helpful ambassador for your child!
As you surely already know, being a parent of a gifted child can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean you have to become “Super-Parent”! You are more than just a parent. You might also be a sister, a son, a coworker, a spouse, a best friend. You need to nurture all of the roles that you have taken on in your life, and sometimes that means taking time off from parenting your gifted child. And what about the activities, interests, hobbies, and socializing you used to enjoy and which are just as important to your physical and mental well-being?
However gifted your child is, he still needs opportunities to discover new topics and ideas to expand his range of experiences, interests, and knowledge, but he also needs to discover the joy of play. As with any child, sometimes that will include the parent, and sometimes it won’t. Your job is no different than that of any parent; it just requires you to remember how and why your child may differ from other children his age and then to make appropriate accommodations for him. But you can’t be an effective nurturer to your child if you don’t also look after yourself. After all, you won’t be much good to your child if you don’t!
Sherwyn Sarabi is now six years old and continues to attract media attention in the UK, where he lives with his parents. This causes additional challenges for the family. His mother cautions: “We live in a digital age, when information can be shared globally at the click of a button. This exposes you to the possibility of cyberbullying or face-to-face confrontation. But it also means that reputable papers and program-makers may come to you in the future to participate in high-quality projects. Before allowing the outside world into your lives, be sure to think through all the possible outcomes, both positive and negative.”
Bainbridge, C. (n.d.). Dealing with never-ending questions. Retrieved from http://giftedkids.about.com/od/nurturinggiftsandtalents/qt/ questions.htm
The Essential Guidebook for Parents of Gifted Children by Jennifer Ault
Embracing the Whole Gifted Self by Patricia Gatto-Walden
Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child, edited by Christine Neville, Michael M. Piechowski, and Stephanie S. Tolan
“Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could by Michael M. Piechowski
Out of Sync: Essays on Giftedness by Stephanie S. Tolan
From Stress to Success by Carol Strip Whitney with Gretchen Hirsch