A friend and I recently had a conversation about growing up, and what roles our parents played in our academic development while we were growing up. Our parents didn’t push us too much. My friend wishes his parents had pushed him a bit more when he was young, but he certainly doesn’t believe his parents failed him, either. I believe he mostly wishes his parents had set higher expectations for him, to not let him get by with shoddy work when he was clearly capable of better, or to push him to attend a better college and not let him settle for where he went. But I don’t want to overstate the case or imply any animosity he has towards his folks; he thinks about these things in the spirit of what he can do better as a parent, not necessarily from the standpoint of obvious mistakes his parents made. I believe it’s a case of hindsight as opposed to second-guessing.
For my part, I certainly could have used some pushing at many points in my life, but I’m not sure it would have worked particularly well. I have rarely responded well to the expectations of others. It is a serious shortcoming that I continue to address as I get older. Am I to blame for this? Did my parents somehow cause me to always find the path of least resistance? Genetics? Or was it a part of my larger environment, knowing very few kids growing up whose parents had gone to college or had been high academic achievers?
I’m sure it is some part of all of those factors and probably more. But let me be clear: While it’s certainly true my parents could have done more to push me as I was growing up, I in no way hold them accountable for any shortcomings I have today, other than the fact that I am only 5’8″. When two people have a baby just after they turn 19 and 17, and then against all odds manage to keep that family together through thick and thin, pay bills, buy a house, put that baby through college and spoil two future grandkids, I have a hard time laying too much at their feet for me being a lazy hedonistic narcissist who avoids responsibility.
I also can’t realistically have expected my parents to push me when nobody pushed them growing up. I grew up in an era in a part of town where parents pretty much sent their kids to school and that was the extent of your academic program. It’s different today, and we have more opportunities to educate our kids outside of the parameters of their normal academic work at school.
The reason this all came up is because we might be facing a major decision about Linus’s academic future. Right now I want to stop and preface everything I’m about to say with this:
I have an intense dislike for hearing parents talk about how gifted their kids are. It’s fine in many situations, but many times it just grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. I know that most times these parents don’t mean their words in the way I perceive them. They are proud of their kids, and if they’re smart, they’re smart. It’s a fact. They ought to be able to talk about their kid’s academic realities without fear of offending other people, but not if they use that fucking annoying voice and act like they’re all better than me. I do have a degree in psychology, so I’m completely aware of the self-esteem issues that are laid bare with that kind of statement.
And besides, those people aren’t better than me because now I have a gifted kid too! In your face!
OK, parody aside, I have a serious issue to discuss. There is a school here in town for gifted children, and Linus has an opportunity to attend starting next year. We’ve heard rave reviews of the school, and we would need to learn much more about it and discuss it with his teachers before making any kind of a decision, but this is an option we hadn’t necessarily planned on. He’s happy at his current school, and we are happy there too. I frankly did not expect to be confronted with a proactive choice about my child’s education or life-path while he was 7, and to my surprise his designation as a gifted student has induced a lot of soul-searching for me as I think about my experiences growing up.
I was a gifted student, one of those kids who was in the 99th percentile in virtually every test I ever took up until the GRE, and even that worked out pretty well for me considering my lack of preparation. I have some peculiar talents that lend themselves well to a standardized testing environment, and when you’re really good at taking tests, people seem to want to give you more tests to take. My peak testing years were in 7th and 8th grade, when I did a lot of one-on-one testing that ran the gamut, from Rorschach to questions about how many bowel movements I had a day. I was not anything like a savant or a supergenius, but I know what it’s like to be “identified” and “tested” and “a dork”. I’m sure a number of Pipeline readers can relate to this. Linus will have many more standardized tests in his future, and he very likely will continue to be one of the kids with an alternative curriculum. The point of this paragraph is that once you are in a population, it tends to stay that way and become more pronounced as you move through school.
I had a little bit of the Lisa Simpson thing going on, where you want to be popular and you think if you can just show everyone you’re good at something that will do the trick. I was a good athlete and was smart, but I felt I lacked a certain social cache, perhaps because I used words like “cache”. So, in an effort to impress people, especially female people, I made no secret that I was a smartypants, answering every question, correcting people, making obscure references and plays on words, but surprisingly that only seemed to distance me further from the coolness I sought. The perm I got in middle school didn’t help, either. If I had been Mr. Smooth it wouldn’t have been a problem. I would have been the funny smart guy. But I was shy and socially awkward. Fast forward to my progeny, who is also somewhat shy. He’s only in second grade, but I can already see a lot of me in him, though thankfully he’s less of a motormouth than I was. The point of this paragraph is that being gifted can be socially stigmatizing when everybody is always reminded that you are gifted, and you have a bad perm.
I detest the notion that every smart kid has to go to a special smart kid school. He’s in a good school now. But what would it be like if he was in a school where all the kids were gifted? Would that make him more comfortable or less? I have real problems seeing myself as one of these parents who is already obsessed about what college my kid is going to go to, how soon will they learn their musical instrument or their second (or third) language, or when they will be doing calculus.
I have real problems with that whole attitude. I think a lot of kids get pushed harder than is healthy today. But how do I draw the line between my own biases about parental pushing, and what is a legitimate opportunity that Linus might thrive in? How do I know what the right amount is without seeing him in that environment? I would be very disappointed if we sent him there and he had a negative experience, and uprooted him from a school he was happy with. But how do I know that keeping him at his current school isn’t just my way of lowering his expectations, my own personal path of least resistance?
I know the answer is to research thoroughly, starting with his current teachers and what they think. But at some point, the choice is still going to be ours, and no matter what we have to take a proactive leap of faith. Whether we keep him where he is or move him, it feels like a big part of his future is now in our hands. Obviously that’s what being a parent is about, making these kinds of choices. But this feels like the first big one. You have this little boy all this time, but then you get a letter in the mail and an unexpected part of their future suddenly comes into focus.
No matter what that future will be a good one, I have faith in that. But this is weighing on me more than I expected, because I want him to benefit from my experiences as he grows up. Here is some advice for my son:
Let other people answer some of the questions. Let some people be wrong. Don’t get the perm. Don’t waste your peculiar talents.