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Entries in Life with Gifted Children (1)

Friday
Sep022011

Life with Gifted Children: Four Years Later

(This appeared today in a guest post on Lisa' Rivero's everydayintensity.com)

Wendy A. Skinner, author of Life With Gifted Children: Inifinity & Zebra Stripes.

Like many parents of gifted children, when our children left the cocoon of family life and began spending most of their waking hours in public school, I worried. Will they make friends? Will they be challenged? Will they be OK?

Our son, Ben, and our daughter, Jillian, were so bright and capable, but also so very sensitive. I worried for their happiness. I advocated for them because I knew as small children, although they were mature beyond their years, they didn’t have the wherewithal of life experience to advocate for their exceptional educational needs. For years I wished I could read something other than the dozens of how-to or research-heavy books about gifted children. I wanted a story. I wanted to listen to someone who’d already been there, raised their gifted children, and survived to tell the tale. I found nothing published within the last 30 years, so I wrote the book I wished I could’ve read, Life with Gifted Children: Infinity & Zebra Stripes.

When I began writing in earnest, Ben was an 8-year-old fourth grader who was soon accelerated another year in math and Jillian was a fresh 5-year-old kindergartner with interests beyond playing house or racing cars on the carpet. Ben went on to excel in math and declare himself a physics major at Carleton College. This week he’ll step on a plane to Germany and live with a host family while studying theater and the history of Berlin. Next week, as a recent high school graduate with a National Merit Scholarship, Jillian will meet her roommate from Chicago, an artist like her, and begin her freshman year at Carleton.

What’s happened since advocating for our children in grade school? The teenage years are often described as the most tumultuous phase of a person’s development that can provide enough angst to last a lifetime. Anxiety, depression, and loneliness marked our children’s lives in various degrees. On the other hand, so did hours of caring for lizards and snakes at the nature center, nights creating web pages for a neighbor, winters nordic skiing with teammates, and days earning academic honors, as well as developing friendships and falling in love for the first time. That’s what has happened. Mind you, Jillian celebrated her 17th birthday only two weeks ago and Ben is still 19. The process of searching for a circle of friends where they can truly relax, be themselves, and be understood, is still unfolding. The main difference is that now, they’re in a social and intellectual environment of their choosing.

My most satisfying realization as a parent of gifted children is that after graduating from high school, they’re lucky enough to spend their next four years in an environment that supports their intellectual curiosity as well as their quirky and intense interests. An alumnus once told me that this will be the only time—four precious years—that their true peers will surround them. Once they get out into the real world, they’ll work with and serve people from all walks of life. These four years are a gift that will allow them to continue developing their talents and interests, develop lifelong friendships, and grow into people who’ll make a difference for themselves and others in the world.

In the meantime, both Ben and Jillian continue to discover and wrap their brains around the what-ifs. Ben continues his fascination with mathematical and analytical problem solving. In addition to his physics classes, he’s taking as many computer science classes as he can. He’s a modest kid. He doesn’t say much about his college work, but when I ask, he will. I can tell that he simplifies his explanations for the sake of my elementary understanding. If only I could discuss Saturn’s rings or the properties of the low-temperature helium he’s researched over the summer like his housemates can, but I can’t and that’s okay.

Jillian continues in her persistent and private ways. She’s an artist. Stories constantly simmer beneath her calm exterior and bubble out her fingertips in writing and hundreds of doodles and sketches. Very few people know and even fewer understand how these narratives and images run through her veins. She’s not an exhibitionist, but a true artist whose primary purpose is to make her characters come alive and solve their problems. And what problems they can be! The worlds she creates are half science fiction and half fantasy, sometimes with whole civilizations teetering in the balance.

Everything changes, and yet, nothing does. The external circumstances, the geography of our lives, will change completely. In a week my husband and I won’t hear the floorboards creak at night when Ben jumps out of bed with a startling discovery or hear Jillian laughing as she watches an episode of The Big Bang Theory from her laptop. Our grocery bill will decrease by 50% mostly because “the Hoover” (as we’ve nicknamed Ben lately) won’t be around. I won’t be picking up the water glasses or socks that Jillian routinely scatters around the house. As much as our home will change from bustling to stillness, Ben and Jillian will always be our children. On occasion they’ll need our guidance as they navigate the many firsts to come—filing income taxes, renewing a passport, booking a flight, dating for the first time or maintaining a long-distance relationship.

What advice would I give parents now that our children have crossed the threshold from home to college and beyond? Persist. Expect the unexpected. Lay a solid foundation for them. Know that no matter how brilliant you think your children are—and they’re probably more brilliant than you’ll ever know—they’ll find their way. In the meantime, you’ll have more sleepless nights when you ask yourself, Will they be OK? Take it from a mother who’s been there: with your love and guidance, they will be all right.