Getting Real About Giftedness

Me with my stamp collection in 5th (?) grade

Talking about gifted kids – and giftedness more broadly – is challenging; I’ve already explored that tension a bit on this blog, and will continue to do so.

With that said, as much as I love Paula Prober’s alternative phrase rainforest mind to describe myself as an “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive adult,”  gifted remains a specific and useful diagnostic term for kids who need differentiated attention and instruction in order to be successful in school.

I’m actually a fan of placing giftedness within the sphere of “learning differences”, as addressed by Special Education mandates in schools – meaning, teachers need to understand that a designation of gifted doesn’t simply mean the child is capable of more advanced work, but rather has a unique set of needs, dispositions, and potential challenges to address and work with. And that’s not even factoring in twice-exceptionality (i.e., other confounding challenges, including neurodiversity, anxiety, ADHD, etc.).

In this post, I’ll be sharing a bit about my own journey as a gifted kid navigating through a public school system in the United States. Hopefully, the chronological progression I’ve chosen here will make it clear how, despite best efforts by many, formal schooling eventually grew less and less tolerable for me.

As a younger child, I attended a local community preschool a couple of days a week and otherwise explored learning on my own and with my three siblings, with daily support from “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. I don’t precisely recall learning to read, but it happened early and without effort. On the other hand, I DO remember the moment I knew I HAD to learn how to put my thoughts into writing: my mom was eager to get out the door to run an errand, but I wouldn’t stop bugging her with questions about how to spell various words. Eventually I learned how to navigate this on my own, and took off with emergent writing as well.

Kindergarten was basically a joy. I adored being in a bilingual (English-Spanish) classroom which emphasized play, music, art, friendship, and imagination. I don’t recall any sense of competition between kids at this point, other than an adult commenting once on how precisely I drew a tiny circle during an art project (without tracing). I got to practice the alphabet in both languages, and learn some basic terms in Spanish. (To this day, Spanish is my most fluent non-native language, despite never having lived in a Spanish-speaking country.)

First grade is when schooling challenges began to surface. Kids were suddenly expected to sit at their desks and listen quietly, and we were collectively punished for the misbehavior of a few naughty kids. Meanwhile, differences between our varying academic abilities were made stark: since I already knew how to read, write, and do basic math, I was given “next-grade-up” textbooks in each of these topics and asked to simply work on my own. Occasionally I was sent to other (older) classrooms to hang out for a while, but I mostly recall an increasing sense of isolation and separatism from my peers during core subject times. Thankfully, I had good friends in first grade and wasn’t socially anxious, so recess time allowed for plenty of connecting and play.

By second grade, I had tested into the district’s gifted program – but since this didn’t officially start until fourth grade, I distinctly recall teachers not being exactly sure what to do with me. I continued to be given separate textbooks and projects in core subjects, and was expected to simply learn and practice math, reading, and writing on my own, since I’d demonstrated proficiency using this “method” until then. On an emotional level, I unfortunately experienced relentless bullying that year, both from boys and from my supposed best girl-friends, and my anxiety skyrocketed. (Bullying of gifted kids merits its own post, so I’ll leave it at that for now.)

My parents met with my teacher to discuss having me skip third grade, but they collectively decided against it since they deemed me too “socially immature”. (One other child my age at my school was also offered the possibility of “grade promotion” – skipping third grade – which his parents said yes to. I can’t speak to J.’s emotional well-being, of course, but he’s a married professor with two kids at a prestigious university, so from outer appearances, things seem to have worked well for him.) 

In third grade I had a lovely teacher (more of a friend than a teacher) and an awesome best friend, and my “bully friends” were placed in a different class – so, life was good. My teacher assumed I would understand everything easily (which I did), so I was simply allowed to read books, have fun, and enjoy existence. Because life at school was so stress-free, I actually looked happy in my school photo that year. On the down side, I wasn’t challenged academically at all, and was continuing to internalize the notion that learning “should” simply be easy and natural for me, as the “smartest kid in the class”.

Fourth grade was when the “upper grades” started at my school – as well as the formal gifted-and-talented education (GATE) program. For one full day a week, the district’s GATE kids were bused over to my school (we had the most available classrooms) and we would rotate through a series of highly enjoyable, hands-on classes with committed teachers. I was no longer “the smartest kid in the room” and I LOVED this. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed and frustrated that not all kids were given the privilege of such a refreshing break from “school as usual”. However, at the time, I was simply happy about the opportunity for myself.

In terms of regular academics, I recall trying to get everything done in school (including homework) so I could have the afternoon and evening free – in other words, schoolwork was for “getting done”, not for actually learning from or engaging with meaningfully.

In fifth grade, I was placed in a combination 4th/5th bilingual classroom, with the result that everything about our class was differentiated, so I don’t recall feeling like a sore thumb – plus, I got to make good new friends who were in the 4th grade, and listen to my teacher repeat instructions in Spanish (yahoo!). A notable exception to not feeling “different” was during spelling bees, when I would ruin the experience for the entire class by never getting a word wrong.

Sixth grade, the final year at my elementary school, was when everything fell apart. My teacher – Mr. F., a notoriously strict taskmaster – required all the “GATE kids” to make up the work we’d missed during the day when we were “gone”. Meanwhile, acceleration for gifted kids in Mr. F.’s class meant doing boring research projects (not of our own choosing) and writing lengthy reports about what we’d learned. I was mercifully allowed to sit in one of the “corral” desks and simply read all day, unless Mr. F. was yelling at me for not paying attention. Mr. F.’s teaching fell squarely into inexcusable territory when he randomly assigned all girls and boys in the class a “romantic partner”, and started a “fat club” for all the “overweight” kids, who would receive free McDonald’s lunches from him once a week. Clearly, my sixth grade experience was a disaster on all counts.

This is when my true depression began, and eventually I descended into a challenging path that derailed me from “traditional school” for years. However, since this post is lengthy enough for now, I’ll end by noting the biggest takeaways I can glean from my own overview of what “worked”(or not) for me as a gifted kid:

  • Teachers obviously mattered – a lot.  Other than Mr. F., I had a range of teachers who helped me feel comfortable and welcome to varying degrees in class. Some were friendlier than others, but what the best ones all had in common was not making me feel awkward, “different”, or penalized because of my giftedness. Socially-speaking, I was simply a member of the class.
  • Friends also mattered, of course. Most of my best friends as a child weren’t designed “gifted”; rather, they were kind and fun girls who I bonded with and enjoyed spending time with.
  • Being asked to work ahead in next-grade textbooks in math, reading, and spelling was better than being forced to sit and listen to material I already knew – but it also reinforced two challenging “truths”: 1) I was expected to simply learn things on my own (from books), and 2) I was positioned as an outlier needing to be “dealt with”.
  • The weekly GATE program was an amazing life-saver for me personally – but ultimately a band-aid serving (mostly) privileged kids from more socio-economically advantaged homes; it almost certainly promoted many feelings of inequity and exclusion in the rest of the school.
  • Speaking of pull-out programs, being forced to make up work that you’ve “missed” while attending a gifted class is obviously cruel and pointless – as is requiring gifted kids to do boring research reports “just because they can”, without bothering to inquire about authentic interests.

I’ve only briefly touched on the socio-emotional aspects of growing up gifted, which I’ll turn to in another post – and of course there were so many other factors, both positive and negative, that played a part in my experiences. For now, this overview at least provides a historical glimpse of what schooling looked like for me as a gifted kid who eventually dropped out of school time and again, and rejected formal schooling for years on end.

Thankfully, I’ve emerged as a rainforest-minded adult with a rich life, and all’s well that ends well – but I can only image the possibilities if my first years of schooling had been better tailored to meet my needs.

Solfege and Chisanbop

Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solfege_hand_sign_la.jpg

In my last post, I talked about the challenges associated with keeping my rainforest mind sufficiently busy as a child.  I shared that one thing I would do if I didn’t have a book or other form of writing around me to read was to hum a tune in solfege – defined by MusicTheoryTutor.org as:

… a system where every note of a scale is given its own unique syllable, which is used to sing that note every time it appears. A major or a minor scale (the most common scales in Western classical music) has seven notes, and so the solfege system has seven basic syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.

Americans will probably be most familiar with solfege from Maria von Trapp (a.k.a. Julie Andrews) singing “Do-Re-Mi” around the streets of Salzburg with her wards in The Sound of Music (1965) (one of my all-time favorite movies). The song teaches solfege through the following homophones:

Doe, a deer, a female deer

Ray, a drop of golden sun

Me, a name I call myself

Fa, a long long way to go

Sew, a needle pulling thread

La, a note that follows Sol

Tea, a drink with jam and bread

That will bring us back to Doe

Once the solfege “alphabet” is acquired and rehearsed, it serves as a magical key to the musical universe. Every single melody (at least in Western music – other scales and systems have their own unique entryways) can be “solfeged” – and since I was also studying piano as a child (my choice – I insisted on lessons), I would often combine solfege with moving my fingers in the air or on my legs as though playing over a keyboard.

In addition to solfege, I engaged my fingers and mind with chisanbop, a Korean-developed method of counting to one hundred on one’s two hands (right hand = ones, left hand = tens). Chisanbop came to America at just the right time for me to learn it as a first grader, at which point I very quickly become ultra-proficient, spending my recess time experimenting with ways to multiply by various numbers. (Sadly, none of my friends seemed particularly interested in watching or participating, so I recall simply doing this on my own.) 

Chisanbop went out of style in schools shortly after this, for reasons I’ve never understood – but I never lost it, and have continued to use my hands to count (and subtract, multiply, and divide) to this day.

As a fun side-story, I ended up being given the nickname “Chisanbop” during a volunteer teaching gig a couple of years ago at a minimum security men’s prison. My co-instructor and I were offering a series of modules on learning and leadership, and I used chisanbop as a literally hands-on example of how one might learn and teach something new. The guys were super-intrigued, and many took to it quickly – though one in particular, D., struggled quite a bit. Each time D. came to follow-up classes, he greeted me with a smile, said, “Hey, Chisanbop”, and gave me an update on how he was proceeding with his practice – which included trying to teach it to other men in the prison to get better at it himself.

I mention both solfege and chisanbop together in this post to highlight just two of the ways I kept my brain creatively engaged as a sensory-minded, twice-exceptional kiddo – without realizing at the time that this was what I was doing (or why). In hindsight, I can see how integrally connected these both were with embodied cognition: that is, I was desperate to make a connection between what my brain was cycling through (knowing/learning math and music), and how this might manifest bodily in the world (through my fingers).

I use the term “desperate” because as fun as these activities were, they sometimes felt almost like addictive and/or compulsive tendencies. I consider them a form of “coping OCD” that eventually went away. (I’ll write more about this in another post, since there’s a lot more to say about OCD and gifted kids.)

But most of the time, solfege and chisanbop served me well. Chisanbop gave me an always-available way to quickly count points during games, for instance, while solfege became the foundation for a much more extensive understanding of musical theory – which proved surprisingly useful in college.

As I wrote about in a previous post, I went to college because I knew I needed a bachelor’s degree of some kind to go on and get a teaching credential – but I wasn’t clear on what to study, or why. I ended up majoring in literature and minoring in music simply because I liked them both, despite not really understanding (at first) what either of these specializations entailed.

It turns out that studying music at the college level meant not just performing but really getting into the weeds of how music is constructed – i.e., the  nuts and bolts of its existence, which includes taking solfege to a whole other level. In one of my beginning music theory classes, we had an infamous “64 Intervals Test” that was conducted orally in front of everybody. One at a time, we were given 64 different intervals, both ascending and descending, and asked to name each one. I completed my test perfectly on the first try – probably in no small part because I’d spent my childhood solfegging non-stop inside my brain. In future quarters of more advanced music theory, we were given portions of simple Bach  chorales and asked to dictate the chords we heard; this was harder, but I still did well.

Since I was minoring rather than majoring in music, I wasn’t required to give a performance in the “big concert hall” – a good thing, since I was just barely getting myself up to performance-speed and didn’t feel nearly confident enough to pull something like this off. While I’d spent years loving music in the abstract, I knew I wasn’t cut out for a career in performance.

With that said, my interest in unusual music intrigued my piano instructor, who had never before worked with someone fascinated by early twentieth century American composers like Samuel Barber and George Antheil. My instructor encouraged me to put on a “Fridays at Four” concert in the music building, which was much lower-stakes, and allowed me to share the stage with a fellow student.

I performed part of Antheil’s “Airplane Sonata” and several of Barber’s “Excursions”, practicing just enough to  prove I could put on a reasonable show, but knowing this would be my “last hurrah” with both piano concerts and getting anywhere close to “perfection” – which it was. A handful of my good friends came to watch me and took me out to lunch afterwards. I still remember this fondly, and regret not having a recording of it to watch. (This was a different era in technology.) 

I spent a good many years after this wondering why, exactly, I’d chosen to study music, since I never planned on making a career of it. Many moons later – after lengthy deliberation and reading about the value of liberal arts degrees more broadly –  I’ve come to realize that there was nothing at all “wrong” about choosing to study music for awhile, as opposed to anything else. Something about its innate structure and beauty struck me as worthwhile – and that hasn’t gone away. Music continues to be almost like magic to me: it’s so powerful I almost can’t bear it at times. I actually have to stay away unless or until I’m ready to engage and get lost in it. (I need to write another post about music, since there’s so clearly so much more here to process and explore.)  

As for chisanbop – while I love having 100 digits available to manipulate on just two hands, I didn’t end up pursing mathematics beyond Pre-Calculus. I spent one hour in a college-level calculus class, found it less intuitive than I wanted, and gave up, never to return. I went in a liberal arts direction instead, and figured if I ever needed or wanted calculus in my life for some reason, I could come back to it.

As a parent now, I watch my three kids with deep curiosity, checking to see how math and music are playing out in their lives. They all take lessons on various instruments, but I don’t push anything too far, and they don’t seem driven. Meanwhile, none have taken up chisanbop, either, so I guess that really does remain my own unique bailiwick.

Obsessions take on different forms, and my kids’ interests are so clearly different from my own. They code and world-create like nobody’s business, making my mind spin with the quickness and intensity of it all – and so it goes with generational evolution; life (and parenting) are never not fascinating and ever-shifting.

 

Having To Do… Absolutely Nothing

Image from: https://pixabay.com/vectors/yin-yang-harmony-balance-silhouette-4401011/

Seeing this humorous (but real) article a couple of weeks ago – in which the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany is “offering scholarships to three people who would have to do… ‘absolutely nothing'” – made me grin AND reflect on my own tendency as an RFM to always want to do “too much”.

Questions on the application form for this very-unique scholarship include:

What do you want not to do? How long do you want not to do it for? Why is it important not to do this particular thing? Why are you the right person not to do it?

According to Dr. Friedrich von Borries (the project’s creator – born the same year as me, I might add – though I have no idea why this fact is on his professional website), this experiment is driven by a desire to understand more about how our current societal “belief in success, in growth, in money” has led us “into the ecological crisis – and social injustice – we are living in”.

Von Borries adds:

“I think that doing nothing is not that easy. You can fail. Your surroundings can become aggressive… And we would love to learn from the experience of those who will receive the grant.”

Years ago, when I shared with one of my beloved aunts how much I had going on – my work, my hobbies, the books I was reading, the writing I was doing, and all my other plans – she listened, paused, then asked me, out of genuine curiosity (and likely concern):

“Do you ever just stop and … do nothing? Perhaps, look around for a little bit?”

I had to admit that I didn’t, really. There was simply too much to do: too many interesting things to explore, too many books to read, too many languages to learn…

I sincerely feared (and still fear) the abyss of “nothingness”. My idea of hell – one of them, anyway is intellectual boredom. As a child, I ALWAYS had a book with me wherever I went (smart phones have now obviated that need, though they bring other challenges to the table). In college, while sitting and listening to lengthy lectures, I either took voracious notes and/or experimented with things like trying to write with my left hand (not easy, and not really possible – I’m a rightie, not an ambidextrie). 

For as long as I can remember, as soon as I’m in a space without any writing in it, I start to mildly panic. I’ve been driven to interrogating my (analog) watch for signs of any letters at all to read (there are some tiny ones engraved on the back…), or checking the backs of bottles or other items in (for instance) a public bathroom for words. If absolutely no writing is available, and I can’t talk to someone else, I’ll turn to humming or tapping tunes on my fingers and engaging in solfege – musical language – to keep my mind engaged in some way. (I’ll write more about solfege in another post.)  

Back to the “Not Doing” project: almost certainly, von Borries won’t select people already experienced in mindful meditation and living peacefully with “not doing”. Individuals who are lucky – and skilled, and persistent – enough to engage with that kind of practice regularly already have a leg up on the rest of us too-busy, overly-doing folks. And speaking of luck, to a certain extent this project is inextricably bound in class privileges as well; only those who can afford to “do nothing” for the sum of $1900 will apply.

(Then again, that amount would actually go a really long way for people in certain contexts… But which individuals will be likely to read this call for participation, anyway?)

Regardless, I agree with von Borries that we need to interrogate our compulsions – to slow down and consider how our actions impact the world around us, and whether doing LESS of whatever it is we’re doing would be beneficial (and in what way, and for whom).

Yuval Noah Harari reflects on this tension in his fascinating book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). In Chapter 5, entitled “History’s Biggest Fraud”, Harari talks about how humans were “conned” about 10,000 years ago into the Agricultural Revolution, which has led to greater human flourishing overall, but worse outcomes for individuals. He writes:

“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites” (p. 79).

He goes on to describe how our desire to domesticate animals for our own use led to their extreme and unnatural suffering – just one among many reasons to slow down and consider what we’re doing (and why). (I’m not a vegetarian, though I do believe that the world needs to shift towards a form of conscious omnivory or carnivory. And yes, this is absolutely a topic for another post.)   

In closing, I’m curious to hear about von Borries’ culminating art installation once it occurs. Who will he pick for this project, and why? What, exactly, will he learn from them about intentionally “NOT doing” things? How can a sample size of just three yield meaningful results? Ultimately, however,  it’s the impulse to explore this corner of existence that has me most intrigued. And as always, I’ll stay tuned.

Neurodiversity: Embracing Cognitive Differences

Image retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Neurodiversity_Crowd_1.png

Neurodiversity is a term not yet widely used by society.

Broadly defined, it’s a stance providing “a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits” – but it tends to be used most often when referring to individuals on the autism spectrum, like my 10-year-old son D.

While not nearly as loaded, in some ways neurodiversity is just as iffy and tenuous a term as giftedness. Just as “we’re all gifted in our own way”, surely we all “view the world in a different way” – isn’t that the very nature of epistemology and subjectivity?

But the terms gifted and neurodiverse become much more useful when you consider that kids with these diagnoses, especially in combination, really do need extra, different support in order to be successful in school. An assignment that could appear straightforward and meaningful to 95% of the class, for instance, might legitimately strike the other 5% (i.e., the one twice-exceptional, neurodiverse kid out of 20) as nonsensical or pointless.

To that end, my gifted, neurodiverse son was asked to complete a poem called “Where I’m From” last week, as a creative way to express his origins and let his new 5th grade teacher get to know him a little better. Here is part of the template:

“I am from [specific ordinary item]

From [product name] and [product name]

I am from the [home description]

[adjective], [adjective], [sensory detail]”

etc.

I remember writing this type of poem about myself back in one of the first teacher education courses I took in college, and finding it a profoundly rewarding and insightful experience. I loved getting to think back viscerally to my upbringing,  sharing some of the unique sights and sounds and smells that infused my first-generation Norwegian-American household.

For my neurodiverse son, however, this assignment was perceived as painful and intrusive. He didn’t understand the point of simply filling in the blanks of “specific ordinary item” or “description of family tendency”. It could be that he’s too young to engage with this kind of metaphorical literary activity (I’m curious what his classmates came up with), but it’s more likely he was simply befuddled by the point of it all.

I should add that my son – as I pointed out in my last entryloves language and words. He wants to know the origin of phrases, adores puns, and notices things about words (in terms of roots and spelling) that others might easily miss. He admires and enjoys the silly poetry of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

So, how could I help D. make sense of the “Where I’m From” poetry assignment?

Or, perhaps more appropriately – how could I help his new teacher understand why this kind of activity is so challenging for him?

In a blog post for Scientific American entitled “Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Neurodiversity” (2019), Aiyana Bailin reminds us that:

Autism and other neurological variations (learning disabilities, ADHD, etc.) may be disabilities, but they are not flaws. People with neurological differences are not broken or incomplete versions of normal people… Neurological variations are a vital part of humanity, as much as variations in size, shape, skin color and personality.

She adds:

When we talk about “not pathologizing autism,” we don’t mean “pretending autistic people don’t have impairments.” But we also don’t assume that neurological and behavioral differences are always problems. For example, there’s nothing inherently wrong with disliking social activities. Not wanting to socialize is different from wanting to participate and being unable to. Both are possibilities for autistic people. One requires acceptance, the other requires assistance.

So – does my son need assistance with writing a poem like “Where I’m From”, or acceptance from his teacher that this simply isn’t something that makes sense to him?

And can I – should I – teach him how to self-advocate on behalf of submitting work that meets the requirements in a different way? 

We got through that particular assignment by doing it together – or rather, I basically fed him ideas for each blank and “we” submitted it.

But – that’s not sustainable or appropriate. And when he was asked the next day to complete another writing assignment about his personal experiences in school (specifically related to online learning during the shutdown in spring), he flat-out refused.

I left him to do the work, and came back to see that he had written something along the lines of, “These questions are too personal. I don’t want to answer them. This is three sentences.” And that was it. (He had been asked to respond to five different sets of prompts, in 3-4 sentences each.)  

I tried engaging with him to see if I could figure out what was bothering him; I reminded him that his teacher was simply trying to learn more about him to help him have a better time with online schooling this year.

He wouldn’t budge.

He finally said to me, with a touch of emotion in his voice, “Mommy, you’re just asking me the same question in different ways. Those questions on the slides are too personal, and I don’t feel safe answering them.”

At that point, something in me shifted. He was right: I was asking him the same question again and again, in an attempt to help him build empathy for his teacher’s perspective. But D.’s perspective was important, too.

Neurodiverse kids can sometimes be perceived as “unemotional”, given how linear and factual they come across. However, this is far from true. My son feels very strong emotions – ones that sometimes bubble to the surface at surprising moments, demonstrating how he truly does see the world in unique, multi-faceted, and deeply felt ways.

Yesterday, for instance, while at my parents’ house, we were playing the game Apples to Apples, sitting at the edge of their garage to social-distance and trying to stay shaded in the fresh air.

(Apples to Apples, for those who haven’t played it, is a card game where players try to select a word-card from their hand that MOST matches a descriptor provided by the person who’s “on” for that round.)

The word at the center of the table during one particular round was hurt, and my son chose to put forth the card “deer hunting”. He then explained to me, “It HURTS the deer who’s being shot – but it also HURTS the person who’s doing the shooting.”

Yes, indeed. It often does. 

Another recent example:

Last night I was reading aloud to D. from our newest night-time novelHoles (1996) by Louis Sachar. A central feature of this complex, back-and-forth narrative (primarily taking place in current times at a juvenile detention facility) involves a white female schoolteacher in the 1880s falling in love with a black male onion seller, who is then nearly lynched (and does die) for the “crime” of kissing her. As I read this part aloud to D., he said with exasperation and frustration:

Racism… slavery! Fighting… war!

Then he contemplated what he’d just said (which is common for D. – he often provides an instant meta-commentary on his own speech). He said:

I just put one word and then a more extreme but related word after it. I’m not sure why…

I helped him understand that he was making analogies, and that they were entirely apt: one of the worst, most extreme outcomes of racism is slavery; one of the worst, most extreme outcomes of fighting is war.

He doesn’t understand the “point” of any of these existing, by the way. Why in the world do we fight? Why do we go to war? Why is stupid racism even a thing – at all? And how in the world could slavery have ever taken place?

The fact that neurodiverse individuals may be more inclined to voice such views openly and without hesitation is, in my opinion, ultimately a gift – but not one without problems. D. is very blunt, and doesn’t always understand when it’s “appropriate” to voice his opinion (or not). Sometimes he’s convinced he knows the “truth”, and is not able to see beyond his own definition.

Regarding complex issues such as systemic racism and violence, he’ll need to learn about the many factors that play into the existence of these realities – to help combat them, rather than simply dismissing them as ridiculously wrong.

With that said, I sense D. will bring an invaluable, pragmatic approach to the table. He is sensitive, caring, intelligent, and insightful – and if he can’t express those qualities in the “traditional” format of his assignments, we’ll have to work with him to find alternative means of expression.

Because he does have a lot to say, and many important contributions to make to the world. He just needs plenty of support in doing it well.

Labor Day “Mini-Lesson”

Still from “PBS Learning Media: Labor Day”

Yesterday was Labor Day in the United States, which means a three-day weekend for families and kids.

When one of my kids asked me a few days ago, “What’s Labor Day?”, I found myself unable to provide a better answer than: “It’s a break for people who work.”

That was pretty lame, and I knew it.

Traditionally, I’ve let schools take care of explaining holidays, figuring they would cover it in some fashion, and I would simply enjoy getting to spend the time off with my kids.

These days, however, everything around learning and understanding the world feels different. Since I’m with my kids all the time – well, not right next to them, but in proximity to – I find myself looking more often for “teachable moments”, a phrase used by teachers for taking advantage of authentic topics that crop up in life and can be the starting point for an interesting conversation and/or investigation.

The truth is, life is filled with “teachable moments” – in fact, you could argue it’s nothing but teachable moments, on some level, both positive and negative.

But in this case, I’m talking more specifically about a designated topic which you (i.e., the teacher or parent) want your child to deliberately consider and explore for at least a little while.

For instance: we saw an adorable baby frog near our lake shore last week, swimming around with its polliwog-ish legs, and landing repeatedly within ripples of the mild current before finally swimming off and out of sight. We talked about how amphibians need to have access to both land and water, and can’t ever become completely dry. We talked about whether it was appropriate to pick the frog up (we did, briefly), and then how long we should hold him before putting him back and resisting touching him again – and why this was important.

If my husband had been out there with us, he would have been able to provide quite a bit more information, since he tends to be a storehouse of facts about the natural world. And, if I’d been more intentional about turning this into an official “homeschooling” or “unschooling” moment, I could have required or encouraged my kids to do additional research back inside, and/or make some kind of report or poster or drawing.

I didn’t do anything of those things. Instead, I simply mentioned meeting the frog as a definite “high” of the day during dinner, when we all share our “highs and lows” – and the kids all agreed with me on that one. Since then, each time we’ve been out at the lake we’ve skimmed the shore for evidence of another frog. (We saw a cluster of eggs the other day, so we know there are more somewhere.) But otherwise, my approach has been hands off and relaxed.

How does this relate back to Labor Day? Well, in the case of explaining why we all had a day off of school and work, I knew I needed to do more than wait for a frog-like opportunity to appear on our shore.

So, I turned to the internet, and very quickly found this one-and-a-half minute PBS Kids video.  I gave it a watch and was impressed by how much it succinctly conveyed in just 96 seconds.

I set an alarm on my calendar to “show kids Labor Day video” in the morning on Monday, and then when that moment arrived, I asked them to pause what they were engaged with to come gather around me. There was mild resistance from my youngest (who claims she “doesn’t like” PBS Kids videos), but I shushed them and said, “It’s short – just watch.”

While viewing, I paused a couple of times to point something out (it was moving quickly), but otherwise simply showed it to them, then asked afterwards, “So, what did you learn about Labor Day from this video?”

“It’s about making sure we have breaks.”

“Yes, that’s true… It’s important to have breaks when you’re working. What else?”

“It’s about having vacations.”

“Yes, that’s also important, for sure.”

I kept probing until we finally named several of the key take-aways from the video. When it comes to work, we agreed it’s important that:

  • We don’t work too many hours each day or week.
  • We are allowed to take breaks to use the restroom, to eat, and to relax.
  • We get to take vacations.
  • We are paid a fair wage.
  • We work in safe conditions that won’t hurt us or kill us.
  • Kids don’t have to go to work.

There were other important topics mentioned in the video, too – for instance, the “fight” required to obtain better work conditions.

On that note, later in the day – as were driving back home from a socially-distanced visit with my elderly parents, and were about to meet up with friends in our backyard for water time – I mentioned how nice it was to have time off to do this (i.e., to achieve a balance of rest, family, and friends) but/and how this wasn’t always the case. We had to fight for these rights, as my son quickly reminded us.

“What did that fighting look like?” we asked him. “Was it ACTUAL fighting?”

“No… People carried posters and protested.”

“That’s right. And what else did they do?”

This led to a (very brief) conversation about boycotts, unions, and collective bargaining. I’m sure all this went straight over the head of our 7-year-old, but my older two kids have now been exposed to these concepts – so when we bring them up again in other contexts, we’ll have the cognitive “anchor” of this video and our conversations to ground them back into what we hope becomes an ongoing and evolving discussion.

As a close to this mini-conversation, I said:

“Work is much, much better for many of us these days, but not for everyone. For instance, there are still places in the world where kids have to go to work. Can any of you tell us what some more recent labor issues have been here in the United States?”

This led us to talking about COVID-19 and workplace safety.

“Can you imagine having to work someplace where you’re forced to be right next to other people coughing and breathing, and you don’t have a mask to wear to protect yourself?”

Or your employer forbids you from wearing a mask?” my husband chimed in.

There’s so much more to contemplate and discuss.

For now, I’m satisfied that my kids have a reasonable understanding of why we take the first Monday of each September off as a holiday, and why it’s important not to take workplace safety and fairness for granted.

I hope and assume they’ll continue to carry this “unschooling” learning moment with them throughout future months and years. The arc of learning is long, and happens whether we realize it or not. By bringing “teachable moments” to the surface, we can name and highlight these opportunities as key moments for powerful insights. And they don’t take long.

A silver lining of COVID-19 is that it’s made these opportunities more frequent – and I’ll take any silver linings I can get.*

* Even using the phrase “silver lining” with my kids so often during the pandemic has been a “teachable moment”. My language-loving son is fascinated by word origins, so we investigated how English-speakers came to use this phrase, and what it means. We didn’t actually find a satisfactory answer to this – it’s in a poem from the 1600s – so we had to brainstorm and hypothesize instead. Not all questions have satisfying answers… 

Anxiety, Stress, and Perfectionism – Oh My…

School has started and we’re very slowly getting into a new rhythm and routine around here.

Thankfully, my kids’ school district is prioritizing socio-emotional well-being and community building during these first few weeks of school, in addition to helping kids and their guardians become more familiarized with the online learning systems we’ll be using for the foreseeable future.

So far, I’m already seeing wonderful evidence of resilience, rigor, compassion, and flexibility on the part of everyone. (Thank you, teachers and administrators!)

… None of which takes away from the fact that we’re all a little bit more stressed these days here in our household. Our recent weeks of “uncamping” – that is, living life at a slower pace, exploring our interests, and (for me) getting this new blog started – have ended, though we’re still holding on to as much as we can.

Yesterday I had a lovely half-hour, one-on-one (online) conference with my 7-year-old’s teacher. We talked about I.’s strengths, challenges, sensitivities, dislike of online learning, passion for art, and much more. She listened, validated, took plenty of notes, and helped me feel like my daughter’s well-being really is one of her priorities amidst everything else going on.

In terms of academic content, I shared that I. may need some additional support in math, given that she’s shifting from an exclusively first-grade math curriculum (her first grade teacher didn’t differentiate for kids capable of more advanced content) to a fully third-grade math curriculum in her new accelerated-learning 2nd grade placement.

I.’s teacher mentioned (very non-judgmentally) that if we wanted to, we could work with I. on basic math facts and operations to help her feel more confident – which makes perfect sense, but put me into a mild panic nonetheless.

Her suggestion is not an un-doable feat by any means. I’m a former elementary school teacher and math coach, for goodness sake! I have a ton of resources available in our house to help my kids with whatever content areas they need support in, as well as access to a wealth of activities and games on the internet – not to mention our school district making math curriculum content from all grade levels available online to any student with a district ID.

So, why hadn’t I done anything all summer long to help I. get comfortable with the 2nd grade math she would be hopping over this year? This seems like such a no-brainer parenting checklist item, and yet… It ended up being a “no-brainer” of a different kind for me on terms of NOT ENTERING MY BRAIN ONCE I DISMISSED IT.

Memories of our relaxed summer suddenly rushed past me in backwards fast-motion as I reflected on the “controlled chaos” of spring quarter during COVID-19, when our kids were at home with us all the time, teachers everywhere were scrambling to adjust, and the entire world was reeling with stress over a global pandemic we were both terrified by and didn’t understand enough about. I was trying to oversee my three kids’ schoolwork while also doing my own teaching, and taking a daily Norwegian class I’d (foolishly?) signed up for.

As was the case for most parents, I’m sure, each day was differently exhausting – especially given that none of my kids were able to simply “sit and do their work” on their own. They all needed scaffolding of some kind – whether that related to making sense of rapidly shifting expectations, accessing online portals, learning how to set deadlines for themselves, or dealing with emotional meltdowns as they inevitably got kicked off of Zoom meetings, couldn’t be seen by their teachers, couldn’t use the chat box, couldn’t talk or communicate while their entire class was muted, etc., etc., etc.

When I thought back specifically to doing math work with I., I recalled how utterly tedious it was to sit with her and try to figure out whether her reluctance to do her worksheets was because she was unclear on what to do, didn’t feel like doing it at that particular moment in time, couldn’t figure out the solutions, and/or was “gaming” me in some way.

(Plus, I couldn’t personally relate to any of this. I was a “good” little worksheet-completer as a kid – I loved blasting through them!)

At any rate, we would sit on her floor and color math facts worksheets together (“Ooh, fun! A color-by-number worksheet!”), and I remember wondering why she was being so deliberate and slow rather than just getting the work done so she could get back to whatever else she wanted to do. She cared a lot more about color choices than the math. She also cared more about sitting and doing something “fun” with me than the math.

But her facility with the actual math facts? Well, that was trickier. Whenever I tried doing quick drills, she would instantly get overwhelmed and stressed. (“Mom! I don’t want to do this right now!”)

I tried tapping into her love of manipulating numbers in creative ways to show her how easy it is to, for instance, quickly calculate 13 minus 5. (“Well, if you take 3 away from 13, you have 10, and then you only have 2 more to take away, and that gets you down to 8.”) This made complete sense to her, and she definitely understood it – yet she still froze up at the idea of spitting out the answers, especially when timed.

“I can’t do it! I’m getting them wrong!”

I.’s anxiety and perfectionism seemed to be preventing her from practicing and learning from mistakes. Her older sister, who also deals with anxiety, was the same way at her age (and continues to struggle with that while doing higher-level math). Their brother – not so much. He’s a “facts geek” and takes great delight in spewing off answers. They’re all different (who knew?).

(As an anecdotal aside, my husband – a software engineer with a major in electrical engineering and an informal minor in economics – has told me he was the absolute LAST person in his third grade class to memorize his times tables. So strange – AND useful to my understanding of, and compassion for, I.) 

Back to last night and her teacher’s suggestion – I talked it all over with my husband (normally I leave him out of schooling issues – that’s a topic for another blog post), then decided to see what would happen if I did a quick review with I. of some core 2nd grade math ideas, just to see where she was at after the summer months.

The first question I asked her – “How many ones are there in 78?” – got a silly response:

“500!”.

“No, for real. How many ones are there in 78?”

“78!”

Umm…. Okay. Yes.

That’s actually true. There are 78 individual “ones” in 78.

I quickly reminded her about place value (“What’s place value? Oh, right, okay.”), messing up briefly myself as I explained there were 70 tens in 78.

(“Seven, not seventy!” my husband chimed in. “Whoops – yes, 7.”).

Then I revisited a similar question with I.: “How many ones are there in 68?”

No problem – there are 8 ones.

How many tens are there in 68?

“Sixty!”

Grin. This was the mistake I’d made, so she made it too.

“No really – how many?”

“Six.”

“Now, if I add a 5 here to the left, in the hundreds column, how many hundreds are there in 568?”

“Five.”

Etc. We kept going, and she seemed to have no problem going with the flow, up through a million.

“How about a billion?!?!?!?!” she asked at that point – so, we went that far.

Great. Fun. Place value seemed to be fine. I told her we would be doing more work the next day to review second grade math, and she seemed relieved to simply escape back to her room.

Meanwhile, in our bedroom (which is right next door to I.’s), my husband and I continued talking about core second grade math concepts, and what we needed to do to help I. quickly catch up. We may have sounded a little agitated, since we were in problem-solving mode – and like I said, I don’t normally involve my husband in detailed conversations around schooling (we both agree that’s my bailiwick), so I was treading in slightly uncomfortable water.

All of a sudden, in the midst of our “heated” conversation, I heard a troubling and loud thump next door.

I dropped the paper I was holding (a print out of core ideas from second grade math) and ran into her room to see what had happened. I. was lying on the floor on her back, with her eyes closed.

“I FELL OFF MY BUNK BED!” she screamed.

I quickly checked to make sure she seemed physically okay – which she was – but that was certainly an unpleasant surprise and jolt for her.

In the year+ she’s owned a bunk bed – always sleeping on the top – she has NEVER fallen off. Ever. Despite repeated warnings and concerns from us, and plenty of athletic gymnastics skirting close to and over the edge, she’s stayed focused and safe.

But last night, her equilibrium was apparently off – and it’s impossible not to associate this with the discussion she was hearing (and probably really distressed by) right next door.

To bring this story full circle, I reassured I. that everything was okay, that she could have some extra online gaming time that evening to get back into her virtual world and self-regulate (no, I didn’t explicitly use that term with her), and that she was going to be just fine with math during second grade. No worries.

For my part, I was reminded that kids ALWAYS pick up on our “panic” and concerns – or at least, mine do. I may think I’m hiding it, but I’m not. If I worry, they worry. If I’m stressed, they’re stressed.

I deliberately chose for us to have an “uncamping” summer because I wanted to maximize joy and peaceful vibes throughout the house.  My goal now is to gradually bring “formal schooling” back in without upsetting everyone’s  well-being.

Naturally, I’ll be reporting back.

 

Burning Out Too Soon: The Dark Side of RFMs

Photo attribute: https://pixabay.com/photos/moon-crescent-lunar-craters-933675/

While recently watching and reviewing a documentary about Janis Joplin, I learned she’s a member of the infamous “27 Club” – that is, artists and musicians who died at the age of 27.

The existence of this “group” was sad but not surprising to me, given that so many gifted artists have died incredibly young – whether at 27 or somewhere in that range.

British filmmaker Michael Reeves, for instance, made his first feature-length movie at the age of 23, his second at the age of 24, and his third (and final) movie – the brilliant Witchfinder General (1968) – at 25. He died of a drug overdose.

I bring this up not to be morbid, but instead to highlight once again that being gifted (with all the intensities this inevitably brings) can be just as challenging as it is rewarding. Many RFMs deal with existential angst that leads to tremendous psychological pain, anguish, and occasionally early death. (SENG was founded because of this).

I personally nearly died at age 12 from an eating disorder, dropped out of school countless times, and have struggled my entire life to varying degrees with depression and anxiety in one form or another (now thankfully being managed quite well). 

RFMs may be so eager from such a young age to make a difference, to utilize our talents, to “do the right thing” – and so intolerant of a world that doesn’t generally live up to our expectations – that we get mired in the hopelessness of it all. Indeed, the third chapter of Prober’s (2016) Your Rainforest Mind is entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Saving the World?”

Not knowing other people who share our feelings and passions can make thing even lonelier. As Prober (2016) writes:

“Loneliness may be the number one challenge for the RFM. And it often starts early” (p. 105).

RFMs may reach out time and again, hoping desperately for a connection that shows us we’re not crazy for wanting MORE – and mostly being disappointed. Before meeting my RFM husband, the only people I dated (not many, and not for long; I was mostly single and lonely) were musicians. Their passion for their craft resembled what I felt about the world more broadly – and being an (amateur) musician myself, we had this love in common.  However, the challenge inevitably became that they were SO invested in their music, they didn’t really have space for a long-term partner – or kids, which I wanted.

Meanwhile, my list of “good friends” has always been small and selective. I search for people who understand and accept my complexity and gifts rather than judging them.

To that end, I remain immensely grateful for Prober’s proffering of the alternative term “rainforest mind”, given how super-loaded “gifted” still is – for good reason, due to ongoing societal inequities and injustices which lead to under-representation of kids of color and other marginalized groups in formal programs for gifted children. Indeed, gifted individuals are often highly attuned to these unacceptable facts – and I will be writing more about them. 

As Prober reminds us again and again, our troubled world actually needs RFMs more than ever – “overthinkers” who dwell on society’s challenges and strive for justice at every turn. After all, we don’t settle for good enough – ever – unless forced to.

All that being said, as hard as it may be, we have to get comfortable talking about ourselves:

  • We need to talk about what it’s like have uniquely wired brains, heightened emotions, and a kind of intensity that can be “too much” for many (including sometimes ourselves).
  • We need to share what it’s like to experience the world at a different pace, often with differently calibrated senses.
  • We need acknowledgement that our gifts cause us both great joy AND tremendous suffering.

I’m committed to keeping myself – and like-minded RFMS – healthy and well-tended so we can turn right back around and use our gifts for others. There’s too much at stake otherwise.

Meltdowns During Pandemic: School-Start!

It’s started.

School is here, we’re beginning fully online, and… My kids are miserable about it. 

As highly sensory kiddos who prefer to be bodily engaged in whatever they’re doing, online learning is just about the worst possible choice for them. (Apparently online gaming is different from schooling.)

Of course, what they’re doing is currently safer than the alternatives, and I’m extremely grateful for all the work their school district has put into making this experience as meaningful as possible.

But – it’s just not the same as in-person.

Last night, as I was putting my oldest daughter C to bed, she erupted in pent-up frustration that startled me by its intensity (she’s not a  yeller by nature):

“I HATE online learning! Why can’t we just have things go back to the way they were? I was doing so WELL in middle school! Now if I have QUESTIONS about an assignment,  I can’t just go up to my TEACHER and ask them to explain it! I send an email and they DON’T GET BACK TO ME! I CAN’T KEEP TRACK of everything I’m supposed to do!”

She is PISSED OFF (rightfully so) that corona virus is still here, that we’re not coming together as a country to lower rates, and that there’s nothing we can do to impact others’ poor socializing choices.

Her feelings about online learning being hideous were strong enough that she kept listing horrible thing after (creatively) horrible thing that she’d rather go through than start school that way.

She went on for about half an hour non-stop. I tried interrupting her to affirm and ask questions, but really she just needed to vent – and vent – and vent… So eventually I just shut up and let her.

(As a side note, we live in a “pro-teacher” household – meaning, as a former teacher myself, a sister to a current kindergarten teacher, and someone who works with teachers in higher education, I empathize just as much with teachers as I do with students. Teachers are being asked to do impossible work, and this is most definitely not the format they originally signed up for. To that end, C clarified immediately that she didn’t mean to bash her teachers, and that she empathized with their challenges.)

However. 

There’s still the fact that none of this looks anything close to normal – either in terms of what she’s used to from previous (pre-COVID) years of schooling, OR in terms of “human normal”.

Meanwhile, my younger kids are just as unhappy, confused, and depressed. Ever since we went to their physical elementary school site a few days ago to pick up supplies (all socially-distanced, from our car), my 7 y.o. “I” has been confused and thought today meant heading back there with her mask and getting to see the inside of her classroom – and her teacher and friends.

“I like making new friends, Mommy! I want to have play dates!”

(There are so many times during this pandemic when kids have reasonable and healthy requests, and the answer is – no.)

With that said, this morning, we made it through a rough and rocky first day of (online) school:

  • C – ironically, despite her meltdown last night – had the easiest time of it, cycling through 15-minute “attendance meetings” with each of her six teachers within 1.5 hours; she’s done for the day.
  • “I” kept getting booted off her meetings (internet issues), but I was nearby to monitor and helped her get linked back in.
  • D was wrapped up in his blanket and chewing on it during his Zoom meetings, but I decided not to fight that particular battle today.

Now I need to go make the rounds again, and ensure that all is okay – or at least, okay enough.

 

 

 

“Overthinking” Parenting

Parenting is an interesting craft.

Like all hands-on skill-sets,  you can only read so much about it before you need to jump in and do it – at which point you instantly realize how ill-prepared you are.*

I wrote in my last blog post about how incredibly challenging it was on a sensory level to become a new parent. The physical discomfort of months of pregnancy – combined with the pain of childbirth, chronic sleep-deprivation, and an infant who constantly  threw up all her food – had me despairing over how little of this I’d actually read about or understood ahead of time.

It was supposed to all be relatively intuitive, but it didn’t feel that way. I knew that my over-active (read = “overly intellectualizing”) brain wasn’t helping me – but ragging on myself for this was equally unhelpful. As Paula Prober (2019) writes:

“Thinking has gotten a bad rap. If you do a lot of it, which you know you do, you’re called an overthinker, and that’s something you’re told you’re supposed to avoid” (p. 57).

Yep. Prober goes on to write:

“Too much thinking can become a problem… [but] it’s how your brain works… [For] you, it’s not overthinking. It’s just thinking. Or being. It’s curiosity. Analysis. Wondering. Creating… It’s you being you…” (p. 58).

I’m incredibly grateful for this vote of confidence, and hope all “over-thinking” RFM parents will read Prober’s words and stop guilt-tripping. (And I will now officially stop censuring myself for purchasing a sociology textbook on child-rearing practices around the world when my oldest daughter was only a few days old, as part of my desperate search for reassurance that it’s “normal” to want and need help during those challenging first weeks.)  

With all that said, it’s been interesting over the past 12+ years to reflect on how doing parenting intersects with reading and learning about parenting. As with so many aspects of life, they’re deeply intertwined: parenting doesn’t stop while you’re taking a “break” to talk to a friend or family member about a challenge you’re having with one of your kids, or while you’re reading a book on how to help siblings get along, or while you’re attending a class on using “love and logic” as a disciplinary approach.

When my kids were super-little, I recall reading a number of books and website articles on developmental stages. However, I was so overwhelmed by work and parenting my (eventually) three kids under five – even with plenty of support from my husband and mom and babysitters and preschool teachers – that I didn’t write down a lot of my kids’ milestones; I just checked to verify they were basically on track.

(I mention this because it turns out with twice-exceptional kids, it’s pretty important to know a lot of “when” moments with your little ones. A bunch of the paperwork you fill out for evaluations asks you when, for instance, they said their first word… or took their first step… You know, reasonable things parents should probably remember and keep track of. Whoops.) 

One book I do remember reading and really enjoying about their early years was Alison Gopnick’s The Philosophical Baby (2010).

But most of the books I’ve read on parenting have come later in their still-young lives (ages 12, 10, and 7), especially as I’ve explored what I now understand to be their twice-exceptionalism. It turns out they all have rainforest minds AND they live with anxiety, ADHD (inattentive type), and/or neurodiversity.

To that end, attending a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) parent support group and reading the core text for this organization – A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (2007) – was life-changing in terms of providing a space where I finally (FINALLY!) felt like I could safely open up not only about my kids, but my own experiences as a gifted child.

After this group ended, I got my three children formally evaluated by a neuropsychiatrist and continued looking for books and websites to support my learning-as-a-parent. Debbie Reber’s Tilt Parenting podcast was a godsend in terms of collating expertise from dozens of specialists in one convenient space, and I spent a full summer working my way through nearly all of her prior episodes. My shelves and Kindle library are now loaded with books on anxiety, ADHD, giftedness, neurodiversity, sensory processing disorder, and so much more. I haven’t read them all (yet) but just knowing they’re there makes a difference.

Given that one of my many goals with this blog is to eventually offer thoughts on various books related to parenting and/or giftedness, perhaps this will be my excuse to embrace my “overthinking” mind and geek out as I head over to my bookshelf…

Stay tuned.

* My experience with teaching went much the same way: I studied a ton, took many classes, did student-teaching, got certified, and yet – there was still nothing to compare with actually standing in front of my own classroom of 28 kids for the first time, with no other adults around. Who said I was qualified to do this, again? 

References:

  • Gopnick, A. (2010). The philosophical  baby: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Prober, P. (2019). Journey into your rainforest mind: A field guide for gifted adults and teens, book lovers, overthinkers, geeks, sensitives, brainiacs, intuitives, procrastinators, and perfectionists. Luminare Press.
  • Webb, J.T., & Gore, J. (2007). A parent’s guide to gifted children. Great Potential Press, Inc.

 

 

Sensory Savvy: Bodily Sensitivity as a 2E Parent

The very first chapter of Paula Prober’s (2016) Your Rainforest Mind is entitled “Too Much: Intensity, Sensitivity, Empathy”.

There are a ton of important ideas here to explore, but for now I’ll focus on the issue of heightened bodily sensitivity, and connect it back to what it’s been like learning to parent for the last 12+ years.

First, an explanation. As Prober writes of Rain Forest Minds  (RFMs):

“… your perception, awareness, and sensitivities are turned up high. This can apply to sounds, textures, smells, chemicals, tastes, colors, images, and air quality. You may hear sounds that others miss or not be able to wear particular clothes due to their texture” (p. 18).

In her follow-up “field guild” for RFMs, Prober (2019) adds:

“Your sensitivities may be criticized or pathologized by family members, teachers, and therapists. Not knowing that a finely tuned nervous system and a body-mind that perceives more on multiple levels is part of your rainforest mind might lead you to believe that something is seriously wrong with you” (p. 36).

Yes, exactly, Paula. That’s what happened.

I had read Elaine Aron’s (1997) The Highly Sensitive Person years earlier, so fortunately already knew about this concept – but it was nice to see it reiterated so boldly in Prober’s book.

Okay – where to begin?

In hindsight, life was definitely too much (sensorily speaking) for me as a kid, though I didn’t realize this at the time. I wasn’t shy or socially anxious, yet I struggled with feeling the “too muchness” of being with people for too long. I remember needing to sneak away to read a book on my own during sleep-overs with friends; escaping into the bathroom during play-dates to decompress; and occasionally choosing to simply stay at home rather than go out to social and/or high sensory events.

I cried “too much” in elementary school, to the point where I was chastised by two of my less-tolerant teachers and made to feel ashamed of myself for this tendency. I slept with a stuffie (an old Norwegian “teddy duck” I called bamse) for years.

I (secretly, only at home) sucked my thumb until I was 12 – but this deeply entrenched habit suddenly went away when it was no longer soothing, and I turned instead to the lure of dieting, which provided temporarily bodily control but very quickly spiraled into an eating disorder I dealt with for my entire teenage-hood. (That topic merits additional blog posts, and was FILLED with sensory challenges of its own.) 

Suffice it to say I simply didn’t feel okay in my body as a child or teen, unless I was escaping into my mind or engaged in very carefully selected exercise. (For instance, I loved bicycling out on city streets in the fresh air early in the morning – like, at 5:30 a.m., before many people were out.)

I didn’t realize until I became a parent and started reading about Sensory Processing Disorder (actually, listening to a podcast about it on Debbie Reber’s awesome Tilt Parenting site) that I realized I may be able to retroactively diagnose myself in this way, too.

When I became pregnant with my first child at the age of 33, I experienced heightened sensory sensitivity – primarily persistent nausea (I ended up taking medication for this) and deep exhaustion. I resisted getting an epidural while giving birth, which led to a physical experience more painful than anything I’d ever dealt with before in my life.

(I say this not to state the obvious, but rather to say that I’ll bet highly-sensitive people have a harder time with childbirth in general. Many moms I’ve spoken with acknowledge how painful it is – yes, of course – but don’t seem to have experienced the physical pain as acutely or in the same way as I did.)

Having a newborn – as miraculous as this was! – brought with it an entirely new set of sensory challenges, ones I couldn’t really share openly given the taboo of complaining about being lucky enough to have a child.

With that said, the biggest challenges I faced were the following:

1) Suddenly being denied anything close to consistent sleep (WTF??!!);

2) Becoming overly vigilant (naturally enough) to the potential sound of a baby crying or fussing; and

3) Feeling every second of milk filling up my breasts. (I eventually got mastitis, which became perhaps the second-most painful thing I could imagine at that time.) 

Meanwhile, my oldest child C suffered the most out of all three of my kids as an infant: she was diagnosed with GERD within a couple of weeks of being born (she threw up everything she ate until we got her medication), and was very clearly physically uncomfortable a lot of the time, no matter how much comfort we tried to give her. That didn’t make life easier for any of us, poor thing.

I ended up stopping breastfeeding far sooner than I anticipated or wanted, simply to stop “feeling so much” in my body and get some sleep. My husband and I decided this was more important to our collective sanity than the potential benefits of breast-milk. Thankfully, C absolutely loved being fed from a bottle; she took to it as naturally as you could hope. (You could say she was gifted at it – ha.) 

Meanwhile, I began struggling with insomnia challenges that persist to this day. (I was lucky enough not to deal with this as a child, so I know it’s a remnant of parenting.) With the birth of each new child, I became more familiarized with the physical sensations, but it never became less exhausting.

(Again, I have many parent-friends who simply didn’t feel the same way when caring for newborns, so I’m comfortable attributing this perception to my hyper-sensitivity. They were all “new-mom tired”, of course – but not bone-achingly exhausted and unable to get to sleep the way I was.) 

Now that I’m parenting three kids who also have strong “sensory needs” (both avoidant and seeking), I’m able to look back at my own childhood, teenage, and parenting experiences from a new lens of compassion. As Prober (2019) recommends in her field guild for RFMS:

“If you have lived for years thinking something was wrong with you because of your sensitivities and intensities, it may take time for a new, positive identity to sink in and take hold” (p. 34).

That’s definitely been the case for me – but I’m happy to say I’m slowly making peace, finding acceptance, and learning effective ways to cope.

References:

  • Aron, E. (1997). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Random House.
  • Prober, P. (2016). Your rainforest mind: A guide to the well-being of gifted adults and youth. Luminare Press.
  • Prober, P. (2019). Journey into your rainforest mind: A field guide for gifted adults and teens, book lovers, overthinkers, geeks, sensitives, brainiacs, intuitives, procrastinators, and perfectionists. Luminare Press.