The crowd of kids in front of the concert stage were singing, jumping, and dancing, frenzied and joyful. At the edge of the crowd, next to the chairs for the parents, stood my four-year-old son. He watched and occasionally bounced his head a little, like a kid at homecoming who feels uncomfortable dancing. Other times he wandered to me in the back, seemingly missing the music altogether.
“Who is this kid?” I wondered.
These heads, these little heads. At the window, looking out on the world, whether the snow or the birds at the feeder, pecking around the grass looking for the smallest of morsels. Those little heads looking for the slightest touch of the outdoors, the hints of freedom of the outside world.
“Which set of pajamas do you want? The space ones or the biking alligators?” I asked my three-year-old.
“Nope,” he answered. Nope is the casual middle finger of answers. So much for offering choices.
“How about these?” I said, holding up a pair with bears on them.
“Nope,” he said, lounging with his hands behind his head on his bed like it was a pool floatie in Malibu.
After a few more choices, he finally acquiesced to wearing a pair. We don’t go through this particular back-and-forth every night, but it’s just one in his bag of tricks to delay bedtime.
My son is one of those kids who doesn’t want to do anything that’s demanded of him. “Because I said so” is a foreign phase to him. He wants a good justification for every decision and preferably to feel like he came up with the idea himself.
Part of this is my fault, for better or worse. Our family practices positive parenting, which is largely focused on validating children’s feelings and perspectives while teaching them to do the same for others. And as a science writer and communicator, I love explaining our choices.
But some of it is just his personality. I’m pretty sure if we tried to be more authoritarian, he’d just dig his heels in harder. The times that I start to get bossy go downhill very quickly. Despite the fact that having a stubborn kid with a strong will is sometimes a pain in the butt, there are some definite advantages to it for our family.
“Look, those tomatoes are red! Can I eat them?” Sprout asks me, hardly waiting to pop them in his mouth.
“Just wait to get inside for me to wash them,” I say, brushing aside the overgrown zucchini leaves as I walk towards the garden gate. He mock puts them in his mouth and I roll my eyes at him.
Getting inside, he hands me the tiny tomatoes for me to place in a small orange plastic bowl and rinse off. I hand it back and he sits down on the couch to chomp down. (Despite our “only eat at the table” rule.)
I reflect on how much he’s learned from spending time with me in the garden: knowing how to plant seeds, understanding the role of weeds, composting, and judging when vegetables are ripe. But I also think about the life lessons the garden has taught me that apply to raising kids.
Sitting in the private school’s admissions office, my mom faced a choice about her gifted daughter’s education. The admissions officer told her how much smaller the classes were than public school, how girls felt less pressure when they didn’t compete for boys’ attention, and how much more they could meet her needs.
But the tuition was as expensive as you would expect for a private school. We were a solidly upper-middle-class family, but a salesman’s and teacher’s salaries added together meant we weren’t exactly rolling in the dough. Private school meant no new house. No vacations for years. Hardly any luxuries at all.
But wasn’t her daughter’s education worth it? Wasn’t public school going to hold her back? Would she be able to fulfill her potential?
As the daughter in question, I now know my mom made the right decision. With more hoopla these days than ever about the beauty and struggles of raising “gifted” kids, it feels odd to me. Wasn’t this stuff we should have figured out 20 years ago?
As a “gifted” kid who had lots of gifted friends growing up and is now an adult, I’ve thought a lot about what society does and doesn’t do well in terms of how we treat “smart” kids. From my experience and reading, here’s what parents must teach gifted children:
“Look, there’s a rabbit!” I exclaim to my four-year-old son, trying to keep my voice down.
“Where?” he asks, as I point to the animal.
“Do you see it? Let’s be quiet so we don’t scare it away.”
“Yeah,” he replies, as he watches the bunny twitch its tail. It looks at us, then goes back to munching on the clover. It doesn’t think we’re a threat.
While the rabbits in our neighborhood do tend to be bold, my son’s calm demeanor definitely allowed us to watch it longer than if he had a louder reaction.
While we may think of a “wild child” as boisterous, exploring nature isn’t limited to adventurous extroverts. In fact, more quiet or introverted children can get just as much, if not more, out of being outside. While he sprints and yell-sings inside, my son is naturally a bit cautious and calm outside.
Here’s what I’ve learned from exploring with him:
Sinking into our couch, I look at the clock. 11:15. 11:15 PM. I had literally spent our entire night getting our kids to bed. Metaphorically, we had tripped and fallen hard on our faces. While this was an exceptionally bad night, our whole bedtime routine with Sprout is always a delicate dance.
Sitting at the top of our concrete stairs, Little Bird smiles down at me. Even though he doesn’t talk yet, his big grin says, “Look at me, Mama! Isn’t this awesome?” Used to my daredevil of a baby, I shake my head, smile back and hustle up the stairs before he gets the idea to climb down on his own.
I suppose it’s appropriate that one of my kids is a risk-taker. After all, exploration and adventure are some of my big values, in whatever form they come. My family stories overflow with risk, from biking around the world to immigrating to America. And I myself was a kid who never hesitated to put anything in my mouth and embraced the wildness of the outdoors. But all of that doesn’t make it any easier on my mental health.
I found out that I couldn’t attend my grandmother’s funeral in my ob-gyn’s office. After my doctor observed that I was several centimeters dilated, I asked, “So I shouldn’t go to New Jersey on Monday then?” Looking up from between my legs, she said, “No, You probably shouldn’t travel out of state.” Between the fact that I missed the funeral and the baby was born that afternoon meant that I never told my older son about my grandmother’s death. He had only met her once, briefly, so it would have met little to him anyway. But it made me realize how urgent it was to talk about the subject with him.
In particular, my other grandmother is getting up in years. Sprout has met “Grammy” several times and remembers her. While her passing may be years away, there’s no way to know. Needless to say, I didn’t want finding out about her death to be Sprout’s introduction to the topic.
But I had no idea where to start.
When I was pregnant, I imagined what life might be like if I had a little girl. I envisioned teaching her to stand up for herself, buying her dresses with science symbols, letting her get dirty, and being an example of a strong woman for her. I wasn’t going to stereotype her or allow anyone else to, thank you very much. In short, I considered how to teach her to be a feminist.
But I turned out to have two sons.