When I was about ten years old, I got in trouble with a friend’s parent for something that now, twenty five years later, still cranks up my blood pressure as I reflect on it with the perspective of an adult. My crime, essentially, was trying to start a business. It all started when I invited a few friends to pool some of their savings to buy supplies for our planned artisan trinket shop, to be launched at the craft shows that frequented the local rec center. A couple friends did—including one whose contribution of $20 was impressive enough to reach the status of angel investor, if that had been in my vocabulary in 1992. Or, more technically—and here’s the rub!—she pooled her parents’ money, which we then all marched four blocks to the store on our own (“free-range” parenting was not a crime in the 1990s) to invest in our supplies.
I was clearly the ideating leader of the enterprise, so the less-than-angelic investors told my mom that they had actually wanted more change back from the twenty than they received—a detail my friend had wholly failed to convey to me and which horrified me to hear after the fact—and my friend’s dad punished “her” by forbidding her to play with me for a week. This had the effect of my being excluded from all neighborhood play, as the friend was more popular than I was. I remember sitting there on our porch swing, listening to them having fun around the block and knowing that I was not allowed to join them, wholly confused as to why I had been deemed bad, and certainly learning the lesson that I should never try something like that again. The trinket enterprise collapsed.
This incident came back to my mind as I pondered the topic for this month’s Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop: What should we teach gifted children, other than academics? My pondering is, of course, from the perspective of an adult who’s trying her hardest to Do The Thing that she’s always wanted to do: to bring one of her many ideas to fruition, to create something of valuable and get it out there into the world.
It bears repeating that giftedness is a nebulous concept, and even once we agree on a definition, the people within its circle will still be diverse. My musings here are in line with my proposed neutral term for “gifted,” abstract-intensive. This encompasses the creatives, ideators, and idealists who like to sail along 30,000 feet above everyday reality; and who live, breathe, and do with intensity. On the other hand, I suspect these proposals may fit a much broader circle of kids, dubbed “gifted” or not. All I can say is this: I have some ideas on what might have helped a kid like me, who grew into an adult who is still determined to Do The Thing.
And I can sum up the theme in one word: empowerment. How could we help young ideators learn to Do Their Thing effectively?
A foundation of self-awareness is essential to this goal, so the first thing I’d do would be to talk to them about what it means to be “gifted” or “abstract-intense.” This would both affirm what’s true in the statement “all children are gifted” and refute what’s false. Kids who are not in the program, after all, may well be very bright and/or talented in a way that just isn’t in line with the particular emphasis of the gifted program. If the abstract-intensive kids understand precisely what traits they were selected for and realize that others don’t share these ways of thinking, they’ll be better prepared to capitalize on their strengths, respect the strengths of others, and understand their own areas of weakness. An early exercise in meta-cognition might, for instance, have shed some light on why a neighborhood kid would be overwhelmed by “our” (read: my) proposed business plan—and, moreover, why she might not have let on! And hey, I’d wager that that this might help prevent impostor syndrome in adulthood, too.
So that’s the foundation for my extra-academic training, but the core would involve parents, teachers, and/or interested community members teaming up to help these young ideators take a project through to completion.
This means taking a young person’s project seriously. The major hurdle I see here, of course, is that parents who never had such support themselves may not have a clue how to support their child’s project, even if they want to. My mom’s family came from a working class background and my dad’s came from poverty; they sure didn’t know any writers or how you got started; they assumed, I think, that educators would help me with this, but this did not pan out. And while my dad was also a born ideator, he himself rarely anyone to help him bring his ideas through to fruition, so he in turn did not know how to help me with mine.
This is where schools and community members could theoretically step in. It truly does take a village, and the impact of even one adult taking one of my projects seriously could, I think, have really saved me much of the trouble I’m dealing with right now, as I stubbornly persist in trying to
become a trinket magnate launch some of my ideas. My friend’s dad, I might add, destroyed any chance that he’d get a return on that $20 investment. Just imagine if he had said, “Hey, what happened here? Ah, I see, you invested that money on materials. Well, remember, you have to repay your investors. How exactly are you going to earn the money back?” (My inner ten-year-old insists that I note that he did get some change back.) On the other hand, if I had ended up a modern-day Bolshevik, biographers could well have faulted that parent for teaching me that accepting business investment was a condemnable act.
On that note, the interested adult—whether a parent, teacher, or other mentor—will surely need to help the children determine if a project is feasible or not. Sometimes it obviously won’t be, but even that can be an opportunity to talk about why, or to explore how they might at least take a few steps toward their goal. If some form of the project is realistic, the next step is to hold them accountable until completion. This is something my dad said he wished someone had done for him: it would have taught him that ideas can become reality, but only with dedicated work, and probably also the support of allies.
This, in turn, means getting them out there in the real world. The more practical, hands-on experience these kids gain, the more they’ll be able to land the planes of their ideas on the ground of concrete and practical reality, rather than orbiting forever in the stratosphere of ideas. In my admittedly non-expert opinion, an abstract-intense kid could easily knock a couple days off of classroom time every week and replace it with kid-sized exploratory internships or self-directed work with people who care about their ideas, giving needed context to their academic work. Okay, kid, you want to make and sell crafts? Here’s what goes into it—now see if you can make it work!
Following this, we should teach them what it really means to succeed. In other words, memorizing content and getting top grades is NOT the end goal! Dear gifted kids, I know you’re good at this; beware of clinging to the delusion that this means you are being educated! It’s easy for high-achieving students to expect that once they graduate, they can just put their GPA on their resumes, get picked by employers, and keep getting A’s, if in the form of a performance evaluation rather than a report card.
But this, of course, is not how it works. And this is a problem, because the most interesting jobs for abstract-intense kids will want them to have learned to independently ideate and, more importantly, know how to follow through on those projects. Unfortunately, in my case, what I learned is that school and work are places you follow directions and get the “right” answers as judged by a Scantron, putting your projects on hold because they’re not what’s important. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Actually selling a few crafts and being able to pay my friend’s parent back would have been one great example of success—and even if it wasn’t feasible, I could at least have learned something from being encouraged to recognize that as a goal that I could succeed or fail at meeting.
Speaking of putting projects on hold—that brings me to one more thing: include in the gifted program’s formal curriculum the likes of home economics and shop. Remember how we taught these kids what it means to be abstract-intensive? Well, many of these students will have their noses in books so often (and get praised for doing so throughout their formal education) that they never take time to learn to effectively feed themselves, change a flat tire, manage their finances, or otherwise do practical, everyday activities. There’s a debate in the management world about whether it’s better to train people in their areas of weakness or to focus on building their strengths and let someone else do the stuff they’re bad at. I tend to lean toward emphasizing the strengths—but only after meeting a minimum level of competence in all that’s essential to the job, or to life.
Ultimately, we want to get our abstract-intensive kids—and all our kids—to be good enough at things they’re not gifted at but will need to face in life, and then to spend the rest of their time furthering their natural strengths. These are the things that put them in a flow state as they contribute to society, and they are the things that give their life meaning. Supporting kids’ own real-world projects would help kids make sense of the academic content we teach them, and to meaningfully apply it. In the end, isn’t that really the point?
This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
Follow the link for many thoughtful takes on this topic!
Image credits: Jill111, pixel2013, JESHOOTS, trinhkien91, KarstenBergmann, and M_Caballero at Pixabay