When we were having so much school trouble with Violet, one of the ways we tried to handle it was to get her to work harder in school. [Warning: I am about to reveal one of my less admirable parenting moments.] She was bored in school, hated being the odd one out, hated wasting her time on stuff she’d mastered years ago. Not surprisingly, the simple addition worksheets handed out in class usually went unfinished. The “Great Books” gifted pull-out discussed a picture book with about 5 words per page — not a great fit for a kid keeping The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in her desk — and so she just sat there and waited for it to end.
Naturally, these things were brought to our attention when we began advocating for a more appropriate academic placement. “Look,” we’d explain to her. “No one is going to give you more challenging work until you actually finish the work you’ve got.” “OK,” she’d say, and then carry on with more of the same, though still complaining about the “dumb” stuff she was doing in 1st grade.
We did not think the teacher’s concerns were entirely unreasonable, so we continued prodding. When explaining the practical reasons why doing busywork was necessary did not motivate her, we turned to guilt. “Much is expected from those to whom much is given.” “People who have gifts need to use them.” “You have a responsibility to use your gift.” And so on. All in the hope of compelling her to do what everyone knew she could, so that she could have an education that was appropriate for her.
Pretty heavy words for 6-year-old, hey? Imagine, all you wanted was to be learning new stuff instead of stuff you learned 3 years ago, and suddenly you have a holy, moral obligation to complete addition worksheets and act enthusiastic about some book about a dumb duck — maybe a book you’ve been watching your mom read to your 2-year-old sister.
It’s not a proud moment for me, and it pains me every time I read a parenting book reminding me that such “motivation” is in fact discouraging, oppressive, and unfair. Whoops.
In addition, many gifted kids have several talent areas — the great writer is also a great singer is also great with foreign languages and a natural diplomat. Does that child have the responsibility to develop all of those talent areas and “give” in all of them? Of course not!
Another e-list I’m on coincidentally has been talking about ways of making a worthwhile contribution. I guess I’d call it being of service, or in church-y terms I’d call it ministry. Reading through the discussion and developing my own thoughts on it has brought me to conclude that I need to be concerned with just a few things:
1. How am I being of service?
2. How am I teaching my children that they are called to serve?
3. How am I offering my children opportunities to learn to discern how they are being called to serve?
What is not my concern is how or when they are serving. Part of a Catholic worldview, I think, is understanding that we have many different roles to play, and we often don’t know what role we are playing. [Note: not limited to a Catholic worldview. Don’t flame me.] Remember that animated film about Moses, The Prince of Egypt? It has a lovely scene in which someone shows Moses a tapestry and tells him that up close, he can’t see the whole pattern, but from a distance it is beautiful and perfect. Moses is like a thread in the tapestry — he can’t see the significance of the part he has to play.
By extension, what may not seem like developing a gift to a parent may in fact be exactly how a child is called to serve. I remember years ago seeing a heartbreaking interview with Paul Simon, in which he alluded to the fact that despite the incredible success he had acheived, despite the great music he had contributed to the world, his father was dismissive of that “musician thing.” I don’t want to be that parent.
I feel like I have some damage to undo with Violet. Like many parents, I take special care to praise both of my children for being kind, patient, thoughtful, and helpful. Squabbling sisters give me many opportunties to remind my children that people are more important than any toy or game. We’re all blessed in this house that Victoria is one of those people with a natural gift for consideration, quickly noticing other people’s feelings and expressing her concern for them. She teaches all of us!
I recently purchased a neat book for Violet that I would like to explore with her over the summer. It’s called The Uniquely Me Book from the Zondervan Young Women of Faith Library. (It’s explicitly Christian, maybe a bit Protestant, but still fine for Catholic families.) Through characters in the series, the book explores the idea of gifts, breaking them down into speaking gifts, serving gifts, and gifts that include both speaking and serving (leadership gifts).
Various exercises and stories encourage girls to consider their own gifts and how they might use them. The book also observes that “later in your life, you may discover God-given gifts . . . that will mature as you do,” while there are other gifts “you can use and develop right now.” Many gifted kids are big idea people and good leaders, but they are not mature enough to bring those things to fruition. I like how this book states directly that some gifts they will grow into; that takes the pressure off the kid whose mind instantly goes to organizing a concert for world peace and ending hunger. And I like how the book uses different characters to demonstrate the different gifts that all people have, gently recognizing that some gifts may be showier than others (*not* the language the book uses), but all are important. I am looking forward to hearing her 9-year-old thoughts on the subject.