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Taking Care of Ourselves

By Marylou Kelly Streznewski

The importance of self-aware gifted adults in the lives of gifted children  

In our concern for the social and emotional needs of our gifted students, it seems to me that we must not lose sight of the fact that  families and classrooms are not only the places where children grow and develop.

They are also the places where adults are working out their lives. And since it is the adults who are in charge in these areas; who set the tone, choose the content and make the rules, their well-being is a crucial factor in the well-being of their charges.

One of the greatest assets a gifted child can have is to be parented and educated by self-aware gifted adults.

Gifted Grownups: the Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential (John Wiley & Sons, 1999) my study of the lives of a cross section of one hundred gifted adults, offers insights into families, schooling, friendships, marriages, aging and crime.

In actuality, all of these are areas which impact the lives of gifted children, but parenting and teaching are of primary concern.

For example, we need more research into parental attitudes toward their own possible giftedness. At professional conferences where I present my book in the exhibit area, I have lost count of the numbers of parents who say to me, “Oh I’m not a gifted grownup. My husband/wife is the one the kids take after.”

Their tension and conflict around this question is often painfully obvious in their faces, their voices and their body language. In talking to parent groups, I have encountered this same kind of denial.

It has also been confirmed by teachers in other gifted programs. If men and women are to be the best parents for their gifted offspring, they must be able to deal with their own issues as gifted adults.

How much better for a family to be able to see that they are a dynamically interacting collection of high-powered individuals who can share both the pleasures and the problems of dealing with a world which does not always understand them.

Nowhere in contemporary life is the challenge greater than for gifted women. A powerful statement by Linda Kreger Silverman (1993) could serve as a summary. “Most women are unaware of their giftedness; they are only aware of their pain – the pain of being different from the way women are supposed to be.”

Even if she moves confidently beyond denial or lack of awareness of her gifts, a modern wife and mother is constantly challenged by personal and career responsibilities.

Mother Nature has decreed that the healthiest children are born to mothers in their twenties. The male patterns of corporate society push women into their thirties and even forties to have children, a long-term disadvantage to women’s and children’s health, not to mention health insurance and child care costs.

A woman deeply involved in these challenges may be parenting one or more of your students, or facing you across the desk at a difficult parent conference. That woman may also be yourself.

Other professionals are leading the fight to change the workplace to provide for a variety of acceptable career paths so that bright women can nurture their bright children as well as their own need for meaningful work.

The two accomplished authors of Answers to the Mommy Track (1993) put it quite bluntly, “If we want educated and well trained women to have children in this society, then we must support the needs of there women and their husbands to take care of training, developing and educating these children.” 

Teachers can help children by understanding the challenges faced by their parents, especially their mothers.           

A poignant example of how this can work came from my interview with Adrian, who did not recognize her own ability until her highly gifted son’s fifth grade teacher reached out to her and explained that what she was seeing in the son was reflected in his mother.

Raised in an environment where school and home treated her as a troublesome nuisance, she stumbled her way through 37 years before the light dawned, courtesy of an enlightened teacher. She marveled, “It was like being released after being locked in a closet!

What I had viewed as abnormality all my life was competence!” Although she was successful in the career world, Adrian decided to devote full time to raising her three gifted children. Needless to say, she is an avid volunteer at her children’s school.

Nor do fathers escape. In the interviews, I found that where employment is concerned gifted adults (of both sexes) my exhibit an intensity, an insistence on the integrity to do the work at its best, as well as chronic impatience with shoddy work and slow thinkers. Gifted adults may work too quickly, get bored, and show it.

They  may ask for more work and make enemies. They have odd approaches to things, and that can threaten the boss, if the odd approach turns out to be the better idea.

Which is why, when the “downsizing” begins (and this is not a new phenomenon) the smartest employees are often the first to go.

As far back as 1981, industrial psychologist David Willings said, “Job performance is not a significant factor in promotability. Social acceptability, the ability to fit in, to think as the rest of management thinks; these are the factors which make a person promotable. The gifted employee is not readily promotable.

This idea that the gifted will get ahead anyway, and if they do not, they were not really gifted, has no basis in fact.” 

In a society where most men still feel that they must be the rock which supports the family, a gifted father who is trying to make sense of where he fits into the job market may be greatly helped by a handout explaining some of this.      

For those who are teaching gifted students, parent conferences, back-to-school events, open houses – even an occasional mailing home - can provide opportunities to present the concept of adult giftedness, as well as the dynamic of a gifted family, in a tactful way.

This is important work because, like Adrian, many adults are unaware that they and their challenging children have much in common.

In addition, the parents with whom we are dealing ( and we ourselves) may be struggling to cope with a workplace which does not meet their needs, and are carrying that tension home to their already high energy family.

Parents can be encouraged to apply the following  to themselves, their spouses, teenagers, third-graders, pre-schoolers, and very importantly, Grandma and Grandpa.

And they may need to be helped to see that each of these characteristics of gifted people may apply differently to each member of the family!

            - The ability to experience intense levels of understanding and aesthetic pleasure may also involve hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, lights, colors, clothing, even the weather.

            - The ability to learn quickly creates a continuous need for new things to learn, at any age.

            - The ability to adjust rapidly to change may result in resistance to routines – even ones which help a household to run smoothly.

            - The ability to see all sides of a situation at once may also involve a low tolerance for frustration, and impatience with others.

            -The ability to perform at advanced levels is often accompanied by continuing self-criticism.

            -High levels of creativity can result in unrealistic expectations, from the self and others.   

            -Multiple talents sometimes make choices, whether for school projects or whole careers, difficult to manage.

            -Deep concern with moral issues can sometimes be eased by having a trusted person with whom one can share these feelings.

            -Hostility from others, feelings of loneliness and isolation can also be eased by knowing that one is not alone.

To look at these characteristics in terms of how a whole family interacts is to understand, and perhaps turn to forces for good, the energy that crackles among a collection of high-powered minds of all ages.

These interactions run the gamut from hilarious to painful, but a family whose members can see themselves as part of a dynamic group can work together to make provisions for each other’s varied needs. Heightened sensitivity levels can be understood and provided for by special quiet times or quiet spaces within the household.

An open discussion of the problems of getting along in the world which does not always understand can be a safety valve, an expression of love and support and a means to share coping skills – for adults as well as children.

Gifted people of all ages tend to make incredible demands on themselves, especially if they are multi-talented. Family members can provide support for someone who needs to set off in a new direction.

Being openly involved in each other’s lives can allow parents to assist a college student in changing majors. Children can pitch in to help a mother who needs to return to work or school, or grow in other ways.

By working together, a family group can agree to a more modest lifestyle so that a father can return to school, or take the risk of launching a new career. Blunt but loving criticism can help a “scattered” person of any age to regain essential balance.

If shared by the family, the high idealism of many adults can be directed outward to help the world, instead of inward to demand perfection of family members.

An extreme attitude toward giftedness is a danger which a family group can help each other to avoid. "Pit“ the poor gifted," will solve no problems; nor will "I'm gifted so the rules don't apply to me," create a better life for one's children.

Striving together for balance as full persons can create an atmosphere where talents will not be hidden and feelings of isolation can be relieved.

Parents can be asked to consider the following questions, even to discuss them with all the members of the family. 

Can all members find both shelter and recognition within this space? Can Father come home and complain that no one understands him at work?

If Mother is pursuing her own career, does she receive the support, both practical and emotional, which working mothers need? Can a child who is feeling isolated in school share those frustrations at the dinner table?

Can a grandparent freely express frustration at not being taken seriously or treated intelligently?

Human beings who have this kind of support from an early age can survive the misunderstandings and adjustments which are inevitable if you are a gifted person.

When and if they meet those educators who can give them what they need, they will be equipped to respond. And when and if they become parents and/or teachers, they will be equipped to pass it on.

The social and emotional well being of teachers is a crucial factor in the well being of  all students. An area which I believe has received little attention is the needs of teachers who are gifted grownups.

If these persons are fortunate enough to be working in progressive programs, they may be sufficiently stimulated and challenged even while enduring the stress of keeping such programs alive in these test-obsessed times.

Others are not so lucky.  Like many other adults, they may not even understand that the discontinuities they experience indicate giftedness, and not some flaw in their personhood. They may be teaching in schools with lock-step curricula where innovation and challenge, two essentials for the gifted mind, are viewed as “trouble making.”

Reaching out to colleagues who may be enduring health-damaging frustration is an important task of which we should be ever mindful, for the sake of all students.

Extending extra patience to a quirky colleague who is just trying to work out his or her own gifted existence can benefit that person, and in the long run, the children in his or her care.     

In all of our concern for others, the self should not be neglected. Objectively examining the dynamics of one’s own interactions with family, students, and colleagues, can lead to important insights and even marked changes in behavior.

In my own case, taking the knowledge I gained in writing Gifted Grownups and applying it to myself has  proved very helpful.

I was able to realize that speed in getting the point and wanting to move on to the next idea could make me an irritant at faculty meetings.

The same held true for my penchant for hatching creative projects which would require daunting amounts of extra work from already over-burdened colleagues.

I learned that I had to choose when and how to speak out; when to realize that I was “over-muching it,” and should re-think my ideas and present them in a form more likely to be accepted.

As a parent I was able to see that yes, boredom could cause the seventh grader to underachieve in math; I could relate it to my own boredom in college courses where I earned C’s.

Outlets had to be found for the surging energy of the eleventh grader who had used up high school, was not ready socially for college, and cried because she wanted to “try everything!”

My own frustration with choosing options was no different.  I had to realize that my oldest daughter, even as an adult, needs sympathy as she agonizes over the world’s problems; I too, get wound up in the Evening News.

Within the 6-ring circus of our family of four children and two gifted grownups, space had to be found for a husband who needed quiet solitary time to think about higher mathematics and for myself, who needed time to write a book. Easing our own tensions could ease the tension level in our family.

In short, I learned to recognize my own needs (and quirks) as legitimate, and explainable in terms of giftedness. But I also learned that I needed to develop strategies for meeting my needs while acquiring better social skills to work with the emotional needs of others, whether colleagues or family.

In my opinion, working toward this balance, as a teacher, a parent or a spouse, is the most difficult task a gifted grownup must perform. It may also be among the most important work we do.

To the degree that we work to cultivate healthy self-awareness in ourselves and those we encounter, we have begun to provide  healthy places for the growth of the children in our care.

While working hard to improve the ability of our schools to nurture feisty minds, we need to widen our perspective to understand that multi-talented people often require many years to discover what they really want to do, and that for all their lives they will seek stimulation and change.

While they are doing all of  this, they will also become the parents and the teachers with whom we interact in crafting the educational progress of a gifted child. 

In conducting hundreds of hours of interviews and in meeting gifted adults since the publication of Gifted Grownups, I have come to the firm conclusion that one of the major ways we can ensure the emotional and social welfare of our students is to seriously take up the work of recognizing these gifted grownups and using our professional expertise to help them to recognize themselves.

References

Ferguson, T. and Dunphy, J. (1993). Answers to the mommy track.(p.218). Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press.

Silverman, L.K. and Conarton, S., (1993). Giftedness and the development of the feminine, in Advanced Development, 5, P.42.

Streznewski, M.K. (1999).
Gifted grownups: the mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. (p.54). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Willings, D. (1981). The gifted at work. Paper presented at the Fourth World Conference on Gifted and Talented Children. Montreal, Canada.

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This article appeared in Gifted Education Communicator, Vol33, No.1, Spring,2002.

Article published here with kind permission of the author.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marylou Kelly Streznewski received her M. Ed. from the College of New Jersey in Trenton. Certified as a program specialist in gifted education, she taught gifted teenagers for twenty-four years at Central Bucks East High School in Bucks County Pennsylvania.

The author’s perspective on gifted adults has been informed by a lifetime as a member of a three-generation extended family of smart kids and gifted grownups. A long-standing marriage to a gifted gentlemen and the raising of her own four gifted children has provided experience in the realities of life in a gifted family. As an educator, she has counseled gifted students and their families in a variety of settings.

In addition to her work as an educator, Ms Streznewski’s career has included theater, journalism, fiction and poetry; she has taught writing at high school and college levels. In addition to Gifted Grownups, her fiction and poetry have appeared nationally. Currently, she is associated with The Writers Room, a non-profit writer’s center in Bucks County, where she serves as a poetry curator, and the poetry editor of the Bucks County Writer, a literary quarterly. She is at work on a poetry manuscript and her second novel.

She is author of the book Gifted Grownups: the Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential

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