Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Following the Passions of the Gifted Child...

The past few months there has been a lot of discussion on The Well Trained Mind forums about the interests and activities of children and how far parents are willing to go to allow their child to follow those interests or participate in certain activities. On the Accelerated Learner Board, many of these discussions have centered around gifted children who have what can be called a "passion" in a particular area due to the extremely high level of interest, time, and energy they devote to their activity. There seem to be two "camps" of parenting occupying either end of a broad continuum regarding children's activities and a whole range of those in between.

On one side of the continuum are parents who have decided the main focus for their family is time together as a family. This may be a purposeful decision made as part of their parenting philosophy or it maybe made out of necessity due to lack of resources...mainly time, money, or a family situation that limits participation in activities (maybe due to having a new baby, younger children, or taking care of elderly relatives). Sometimes both parents work and their time in the evenings is time to unwind with the family rather than shuffling this child in one direction and that in another.  Maybe there is only one family car or running all the time is too stressful for the family. Some people prefer their time at home or have children who are not interested in outside activities. Others feel the need to protect their family from the stress of running around and feel their child's time is better spent in free play either alone, with siblings, or with neighborhood children. Whatever the reason(s) for their decision-making, these families tend to chose no activities for their children, an activity all the children are able to participate in together, or limit each child to one activity.

On the other end are the families whose lives revolve around their children's activities. These families might have children involved in multiple activities or with a very high level of involvement in one. They might cart children off in a different direction nearly every night of the week or juggle the activities of multiple kids going different ways on the same day. Many want their children to experience as many different activities as possible to find what interests them most or make them well-rounded. Sometimes these families have a child or children who are extremely talented in one area. These parents do things others might find extreme or ridiculous such as driving hours away for lessons, moving across the country for a certain coach or program, or spending their family vacations providing their child opportunities in camps or competitions.

Kids around the world are involved in all types of activities...sports, music, dance, drama, technology, academic areas, debate, etc.... The majority will be average at their chosen activity or show different interests at different times in their lives. Even among the gifted population some kids are generalists with a variety of interests and levels of involvement while others have a smaller focus area.  A small minority will show extreme talent in a given area. These are the outliers. Besides demonstrating more facility and learning more quickly than their peers, these kids tend to drive their own interest. They practice or study/research a topic for hours at a time. They enjoy spending their "free" time noodling by themselves or engaging with others who have a similar interest. Their intense focus and interest can best be described as a "passion."

A parent who does not have this type of child may not be able to fathom interest and drive so strong in a child because it falls outside their realm of experience. They might view the parent as pushing their child or will respond they are more interested in their child being "well rounded" than allowing them to focus on only one thing...but what if your child has no interest in being "rounded" and can only see themselves as an arrow pointed in one direction? How does one parent that child? How far does one go to support this type of child and their area of passion? How does a parent set limits on what their family is able to do for their child? Where does a parent find the resources to assist their child in following their interest, help them get to the next level, or find outlets where they can share their interest with others? How much time should the parent allow their child to spend on their area of interest? Should the parent work to make their child more well-rounded?

These are the types of questions that tend to come up now and then on the WTM accelerated learner forum. The answers are as varied as the children they involve.

Here are some of my thoughts on these issues...

-I let my child's involvement guide what I am willing to do. Haley puts in the work to practice, listen to pieces, compose her own music, research, asks to attend sessions, etc… so I feel a certain responsibility to help her when I can by finding resources, paying for lessons, driving her, and making sure she has equipment on par with her abilities.  What I am willing to do has grown along with her level of involvement. Sometimes what once might have seemed ridiculous to me gradually became the best choice for our situation. For example, when she first started fiddling, a local teacher met her needs but eventually we had to travel hours away to find a higher level teacher.

-In our family there are limits to what we are able to do because we have three kids who all need my time and resources. Each has different needs, interests, and levels of involvement in their interests. With Haley, the amount of time and money spent on travel and lessons has gradually increased. If someone had told me eight years ago what I'd be paying now, I would never have believed them or thought it possible but at each level, our family has found a way (sometimes a creative way) to make things work. Luckily, the increases with Haley have been offset by decreasing needs, especially in the time department, with the boys who are getting older, doing many of their activities through school, learning to drive (and wanting to drive themselves), and now one going to college…this has hurt the family resources area but we'll figure it out. Dylan has a similar interest in music so many times he and Haley do things like performances and summer camps together which makes things easier.

-I involve my child in the decision making process with regards to her area of interest. When a major decision needs to be made we discuss the pros and the cons of each possibility. I listen to her ideas and needs as she sees them rather than assuming I always know what is best or driving her in a certain direction because I think it is the right one. Haley plays more than one style of music and recently relatively big decisions needed to be made on which is more important to her right now…time travel still not being a possibility and all. She had to decide what to do about orchestra. Continuing meant giving up some opportunities to play Irish music. I researched all possible options of different orchestras and when their concerts and rehearsals were held and together, we listed the pros and cons of each. In the end, the decision was hers and it was a well thought out, informed decision based on all our research and discussion.

-I make an effort to find friends for her with similar interests. These friends aren't always her age and it isn't ever easy because there are no kids in our immediate area playing Irish music (or classical music at the same level). Anything Haley does with others involves traveling at least 45 minutes and up to 5 hours or more. Recently she has spent more time with kids closer her age (and closer to us…45 to 60  minutes away rather than 3-5 hours). They have been working together to raise funds to travel to Ireland, playing together in competitions, at performances, and in sessions regularly the last couple months and it has been a lot of fun for her. Haley was also offered an opportunity to work in a music group for the Ireland competition with girls her age who live mid-way across the country from us. They sent her the music, which she learned, and will visit to rehearse together, which will be a blast. The benefits of getting to know and play others with similar interests is always worth the effort involved.

-I advocate for my child and help find resources. At 12 years old (today!!!), she does not know all the possibilities or where to find every resource she might need….though she is getting better and better at this as she gets older. The internet has been my most often used resource but involvement in the community of people with a similar interest, attending events (for us this has been concerts, fundraisers, festivals, etc…) and getting to know/talking with people runs a close second. Even though I advocate when I need to, like making sure a performance is not too long, she has enough rest, or the sound is set up correctly, I also give Haley opportunities to advocate for herself and make connections with people in safe environments so she will be able to be her own advocate as she gets older. For example, this year she had an idea of a way to volunteer at camp to help pay her tuition. Rather than sending emails to the director myself, I encouraged her to send an email to him explaining her idea and asking if he would allow her the opportunity to try it.  I felt it would be a good learning experience for her to take the lead on something, put her idea out there, and learn to handle the success or disappointment depending on the director's decision. She did it and it worked out for her in a positive way.

-My child is allowed to spend as much of her free time as she wants with her music but she also needs to receive an education, for my comfort and to have a backup plan. Injuries happen and interests can change. Homeschooling gives her more free time than she'd have if in school but she still has educational requirements each day in math, reading, history, science, and foreign languages. Even if she decides to pursue music as a career, she will have the benefits of a strong educational background. I also encourage her other interests…right now those are writing and crafting.

-When life gets really hectic and I feel like I am barely keeping up with our family's schedule, I check in with Haley to gauge her stress level. Right now she has multiple gigs each week (it's festival season) so she is practicing more plus her regular schedule of lessons and school. Also, some of her closer friends are finishing up school and attending area sessions so she is asking to go to those as well. The other day in the car I asked her thoughts on all we had going on and if she needed a break. She enthusiastically declared she loves everything she is doing. If she had expressed the need for less, we would have figured out where to cut back.

I probably had completely different ideas on these sorts of questions five years ago and in another five years I will be able to look back in hindsight and see if we made good decisions. Our lives are always evolving through our experiences and as my daughter gets older she takes more and more control over her life and music.

I would love to hear how other parents deal with these issues at different stages in their children's lives.

Click on the picture below if you'd like to read the rest of the posts on this blog tour!!!!


Unknown said...

I love your post. You spoke to issues that I deal with daily. We've spoken before on wtm. My son, Gus, is 10, and plays fiddle and guitar with the rock band Marah. I never imagined we'd be following a 10 yr old to rock and roll festivals in Spain, but life is strange.
The only thing I would add to your thoughtful and thorough post is that I was reminded yesterday that it is important to know when to back off. It's tough, knowing that he only has 4 days between touring and camp, and I think he really ought to practice, but he knows that what he really needs is to build Legos and swim with his buddies in the pool. After that he practices and it's brilliant. I could have made him do it first, but he needed time to be a kid, then he gets right back to being a pro musician. Passionate kids need a lot of support, sure, but they also need a lot of space. One of my most important roles is to preserve that space so he can be creative, so that he doesn't feel like he's missing anything, so that he can still be a boy.
We do less in the way of academics than I thought we would.
We also rely in skype and 3 hour drives for an appropriate teacher. Although it's a little crazy, the long day in the car gives us a chance to reconnect.
Thanks for your excellent post. I hope we meet up at a festival someday.

ptmom said...

Yes, I think knowing when to back off goes along with keeping the lines of communication open and monitoring stress levels.
I agree with you. We do need to preserve their free time to allow them time to still be children and be creative. Homeschooling plays a vital role in this for us. I couldn't imagine Haley going to school all day then coming home to do homework and practice for hours. There would be no time for her to be a kid or write and do crafts.
We also use our long car rides to talk and have fun together. As we are giggling hysterically together, our joke is "we never have any fun, do we?"
Best of luck to your son! Thanks for the thoughtful response!

Unknown said...

Homeschooling made it possible and continues to make it possible. It is the greatest blessing we could ask for.