Pushing

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.

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15 Responses to Pushing

  1. Clint says:

    Doug, you were the smartest person I knew growing up. Smarter, by a ton, than I ever was. As a friend, I was always a little disappointed to not see you apply yourself more. I did not now, nor did I then, ever see that as an issue with your parents. But if you think some motivation by your parents may have helped you (and I am not saying that you turned out to be a turd), keep that in mind when you make comments that Linus is a lot like you. The T-wolves suck.

  2. kelly says:

    Grain of salt, no parent advice here. Linus will be like his parents, and have socialization problems as part of being smart. You can lessen it and be sympathetic, but don’t sweat it, you know whats it is like. The important part of that conversation is achieving his potential academically, and as one of those stigmitzed gifted kids who emotionally dropped out of school for lack or interest or challenge, the result of my peers progress, I can say. Send him to the smart kids school. He’s gonna be geeky in his existing public school anyway.

  3. Charley says:

    I can relate to a lot of what you’ve written there (and written very well). Except for the part about having kids, which I don’t (well, probably).

    From my experiences, I’d say this: don’t make Linus feel you are disappointed in him except in cases where it is extremely appropriate (e.g., killing sprees, voting Republican). Don’t send mixed messages by encouraging him to excel and then then criticizing him for excelling “too much.” Don’t worry about him not being “cool.” He’ll find his way, and there is something like “sub-group coolness” that I bet he’ll nail.

    Of course, I could be wrong about all this. There’s probably a good reason I got a vasectomy.

  4. Scott says:

    De-lurking for a moment.

    I grew up in the “gifted and talented” program started in the St. Paul School District way back when it was called the NOVA program in my first grade year (1982). We had a lot of smart kids in the program and I don’t remember anyone being made fun of because they new a fancy word or could answer difficult questions. So in that respect, Linus would not stick out as much at the smart school.

    Another experience is that the gifted program became watered down a bit in the late 80’s as I believe they made the entry testing easier. As a result, some of the education became watered down as well. Then when my class hit junior high and high school, some of the kids started to drift into the basic English, Math and Science classes instead of keeping up with the advanced classes. There was nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if those kids hit their full potential.

    So my advice would be to put Linus into the smart school. If a teacher has to teach to the “average” student level and he remains in an average class, then he may become bored and his intellect advantage could start to fade. If he is in a smart class and stays more involved, that advantage can be honed instead.

    Just my opinion….

  5. Marsha says:

    I think that it is great that you not only have the opportunity to send Linus to a school for gifted kids, but that you have the opportunity to do it for free. Not that I think our kids are gifted in any way, but we don’t have public schools for gifted kids in Madison.
    I say, for what it’s worth, give it a try. You can always go back to his school if it doesn’t work out. Sure, changing schools sucks, but I bet that you will all be pleasantly surprised with the school for gifted kids.
    I’m not the least bit surprised that Linus has been chosen for this school. And with time and self confidence his social skills will improve. And maybe that is what the new school environment will give him.

  6. pipelineblog says:

    Clint, I was certainly not smarter by a ton than you; I think we were pretty much in the same boat in a lot of ways. I decided early on that it didn’t matter who was smarter anyway because you actually did the homework and whatnot and I didn’t. I know this because one Friday night in middle school Charlie and I went to your house but for some reason, instead of knocking, we looked in your window and saw you sitting at the kitchen table by the phone doing algebra homework. And when you finished a problem you did a little victory shuffle in your chair; I remember it vividly. You were genuinely thrilled to be mastering the material. I marveled at that. Today I have that joy of learning, but then I did not. Sorry about the peeping Tom thing. I’m sure it was Charlie’s idea.

    As for advice for Linus, rest assured he will not be allowed to coast on his gifts. We do push him to try new things, are rigid about completing his homework and reading, and generally have conversations with him that give him credit for being able to think about the world. Being an expert slacker, I can spot it in others a mile away. That will not be his fate.

    Thanks to others for the comments. I’m reading them with interest, and genuinely look to Pipeline People for wisdom and perspective.

    Scott, thank you for de-lurking to make your comment. Feel free to de-lurk at any time, or not, but thanks for reading Pipeline regardless.

  7. David Beimers says:

    Doug, I’ve given you my feedback in private, so here in public I want to openly challenge you to push him harder! He’s seven for chrissakes! He should be driving hanging curve balls over the left field wall and spotting his fastball at will. Where exactly are your priorties? Why isn’t he in the basement swinging rebar right now? Doug, I’m so disappointed. When he fails to be drafted, he will have you to blame.

  8. Jenny says:

    Doug,

    Teaching at a school for gifted kids, I can say that the environment is much better than any school I ever attended. I was in an OK school system with gifted classes but most of my days were spent with adults and kids that did not want to be there.

    Teachers and kids just have a much more positive relationship when there are fewer behavior problems. Kids get encouraged, have more creative projects, find more role models, and their daily lives are better because teachers focus on positive things instead of classroom management.

    And, the teaching jobs are harder to get so Linus will have more competent teachers.

    The kids are also much nicer, on average. They are almost all into something that is “uncool” so it is not nearly as big of an issue.

    I have no question that I would send my own kids (if we ever have any) to a private school if there was not an equivalent public option.

    Jenny

  9. pipelineblog says:

    One thing I want to make clear is that the gifted school option we have is not a private school. And, although Linus is in a public school now, it’s a magnet school. St. Paul schools are better than average in general, and they have a vibrant collection of magnet schools with various emphases. If Linus were at a typical public school this would be a no-brainer in most ways. But he is not at a typical public school. It’s still not going to challenge him as much as it could, but it’s not exactly an abyss, either.

    Also, I’m afraid I may have overstated the social aspect of things, that I was afraid he would grow up to be more “uncool” in one environment vs. the other. Those things work themselves out, but I am mindful of the fact that he’s a shy, sensitive kid. Changing schools is hard on kids, but so is being a square peg in a school of round holes. Really, I’m just saying I don’t want to think only about the academics, or only about the social aspects, in making this decision.

  10. martha says:

    What does Linus think about all this?

    My parents left this sort of thing up to me, for the most part. I was in the Talented and Gifted program when I was in elementary school (starting in 3rd grade). It took us out of our class one day a week to join the TAG kids from around the district. My parents definitely presented the option in a very positive manner, but they didn’t start to push me until I decided that was what I wanted to do. I went on to do honors classes in Jr high and High school, but I decided not to do Running Start because I didn’t want to leave my friends. My parents fully supported me and pushed me to be successful at what I chose to do. In my case (and for my three siblings who made different choices) it seems to have worked out really well.

  11. Steim says:

    Does the smart school grade on a curve?

  12. pipelineblog says:

    Linus is thus far open to the idea of a school change, but he’s a little concerned about a place that assigns homework every day. But he’d be getting that at his school next year anyway.

  13. Jeff H says:

    It will probably come as a complete shock to you that I, too, was an overbright little kid with a flair for stigmatizing himself by answering every question and correcting the mistakes of others.

    From my standpoint, being in the “smart-kid school” is a great opportunity. I remember that when I was in middle school, some courses were tracked and some weren’t. So, in math, I was in the class with a group of people who all excelled academically. In social studies, I was with a random sample. I won’t claim that we were brilliant or witty to any abnormal degree, but there were a lot of conversations in that class that just wouldn’t have happened with the other group. And I can’t tell you how many class periods I sat there, bored to tears, while the teacher attempted to deal with the same three kids and their behavior problems.

    I was also in a G&T program, but that was only a band-aid. Plus, the fact that you got pulled out of class to attend just emphasized how different you were.

    Assuming you haven’t done so, do your due diligence. Go to the smart kid school and look at the curriculum. Meet the teachers. Talk to the principal. See what kind of projects they’re working on. And then, assuming that Linus is on board and that you still see it as a choice between two pretty good options, I’d go for it.

  14. Seems to me the bottom line is that at either school he will deal with the various joys and sorrows of growing up. At either school he will find the people he likes to be with and those he doesn’t like to be with (and those who feel that way about him). At either school he will find opportunities of one sort another that engage him. But, at the “gifted” school he will be in a peer group more likely to promote his self-esteem, I suspect. He will be in a peer group more likely to encourage intellectual exploration and the gathering of knowledge. He will likely end up with more options in future schooling, which will translate to more options in future life. I simply cannot imagine you (or Jane) pushing Linus “too” hard — it’s just not in your nature to be those kind of parents. So, I’d say push as hard as seems reasonable to you, and trust that you won’t ever become the kind of parents who would put accomplishment over happiness or make your children feel that your love is anything but unconditional.

  15. Pingback: Back to School « Pipeline

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