Monday, March 20, 2017

Serotonin

Recently, on a whim, I bought a necklace. It's a serotonin molecule...I've been mulling over the idea that happiness is just a chemical reaction. The things and experiences we value most in life are the ones that bring us happiness...but are those things really any more valid or real than drugs that stimulate the release of serotonin or dopamine? If I could take a pill to be happy, would that be cheating myself, or just efficiency? When most of what we do is erased within a lifetime or two, does it matter how much joy I got out of knitting, or how good I was at sewing, or how many people I enjoyed helping at work? The physical traces of everything I do will be up at an estate sale within 50 years or so, and the joy that I experienced was nothing more than chemically facilitated electric pulses shooting across my cortex, which will be slowly disintegrating.

See, if I had cable I wouldn't be thinking about this stuff because I'd have better TV to take up my time. But I don't have cable, so thinking about life, death, meaning and neurochemicals it is.

Anyway, it's been an interesting concept and I've been meaning to wear more jewelry, so I bought a serotonin necklace. It arrived today, and unfortunately, it was much bigger than I had bargained for...


...which disappointed me. I have a golden ratio necklace that's small and just looks like a little rectangle, so you don't really realize what a nerdy necklace it is. I've worn it several times and nobody looked twice at it until I was at a group for parents of gifted children. Then everybody noticed what it was. And everybody loved it.

I was hoping the serotonin necklace would be like that. Allowing me to indulge what interests me, but in a small, unobtrusive way that most people wouldn't recognize because it almost completely blends in.

One of the weird things about having a gifted kid is coming to terms that I might be like him. Smarter than I gave myself credit for. More perceptive than I thought I was. More in need of understanding than correction, and maybe not broken so much as just out of place. When I believe these things about my children, I start to consider believing them about myself.

Maybe I should concentrate less on being myself in the most unobtrusive way possible, and concentrate more on just being myself.

It will be a while before I wear that serotonin necklace, though.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Chess day

This year I signed P up for his school's chess team. I didn't think he'd be particularly good at it, but he's spectacularly unathletic and awkward with other kids. I really wanted him to have a chance to work hard at something, lose gracefully, and be with other kids. Chess team seemed like just the ticket.

However...I didn't want him to go to tournaments. Losing during practice was one thing, losing in a competitive environment was quite another. Throughout the season I let tournament after tournament slip by, not signing him up for any of them. But as the number of opportunities dwindled, P started feeling the pressure to compete in just one tournament...they like to get all of the kids out at least once. And so, with some misgivings, a few weeks ago I signed him up for a tournament.

The entire week prior we emphasized the good parts of the tournament (Hot dogs for lunch! Candy and snacks! Participant medal!) while also warning him that he might lose each and every match. It was hard to tell how much P was taking in...he's a kid that lets his frustration show in a heartbeat, but keeps every other thought and emotion very close to the vest. I hoped that some of it was sinking in.

On the day of the tournament I was throwing-up-nervous, terrified that P would get too frustrated, or cry, or get lost, or act weird enough to draw the ridicule of his peers. And not only did I not have to just sit back and imagine the carnage, I had to witness it personally. Parents have to stay and chaperone the kids, so I went right along with him, my backpack stuffed with snacks, video games, and a battery back-up pack. I parked myself at a table in the cafeteria, which served as a lounge during and between rounds, and let him do his thing.

That day "his thing" was playing the best chess he'd ever played, along with socializing more with his teammates than I had ever seen. The chess coach had told me that the kids go out, play chess, and then come back and immediately play outside or play video games. P did both admirably. He handled his one loss and one stalemate gracefully, and accepted his three wins with equal grace. And between rounds he was right there with the other kids, playing our his iPad or Nintendo DS, showing the other kids his game, commenting on theirs, and running around the playground when he decided to spend his between-round minutes outside. Chess rounds take about an hour, but only 5 to 20 minutes of that is actual playing, so he spent the majority of his time in unstructured interaction with the other kids.

And, for the first time, he was indistinguishable. He didn't stick out. If I had taken a photo, you wouldn't have been able to pick him out as weird or different. You'd think that I would have been bored at an elementary school chess tournament with my son ignoring me and being too shy to talk to the other adults, but I couldn't stop watching and marveling at his experience.

It was amazing.

This year our schedule is too full to attend any more tournaments...religious ed obligations, Cub Scout obligations, and family events all ate up what little was left of the chess season. But next year, it will be a priority. He can't wait. Neither can I.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Failing Her

My six year old is a planner. Actually, that's an understatement. Her very favorite thing to do is to plan and arrange a complex, gigantic event with as many people as possible involved. She's a hard worker too...she's not just a bossy kid, she does as much work as possible to see her plan through. When she has a baby-sitter, she creates a check-in table, name tags, and a night full of activities. When she plays school with the three-year-old she has homework, lesson plans, parent-teacher conferences, test scores, and report cards. It's not difficult to imagine her twenty years from now tossing her heavy curtain of hair over her shoulder, raising a fist and shouting into a megaphone at a huge political protest. Someday she'll be unstoppable.

But today she's six. And when she comes to me and plunks down her entry in a charm bracelet contest that took place at her imaginary school, with every charm idea illustrated and scored by a panel of judges, and informs me that I need to get her a prize because she beat "all of the other" entries...I just sigh. And tell her that I can't.

"What?" I asked impatiently. "Do you want me to drive to Target and buy you a bracelet? I'm not doing that. I'm already in my pajamas."

"Give me an old one!" she said.

"I don't have an old one," I retorted. "You girls have broken all of my old ones."

"I'll take a broken one!" she said. "Give me a broken necklace. I'll tie it around my wrist."

"No," I replied.

"Well, give me some yarn! Just some yarn! I'll pretend!" she cried. I wavered, and then she said, "You can attach this little horse to it as a charm."

"No," I sighed. And she huffs off to her next plan. I lean against the counter and sigh. It's been a long day - I have a demanding job feeding the needs of kids and adults. It's work that is, at times, emotionally draining. I also have three kids who need me intensely to listen, to help, to find, to encourage. By the time she runs up to me with her next plan, I'm just too tired.

I feel like she could do amazing things if I could just give her a boost...but I'm so tired that I can't give her the leg up. When I'm with my son, I feel like I'm doing okay...all he wants is for me to be his audience, and to give him hugs. With the three year old, she's content with snuggles and stories. But the six-year-old wants so much more.

Someday I hope I can live up to her potential.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Find Your Tribe

I've heard the phrase "find your tribe," and to be honest, I always found it irritating. It seemed cutesy, for one thing, and for another thing it's the least helpful advice ever. It's like, "Feeling sick? Stop being ill!" or "Tired of being poor? Just have more money." Exhortations for people to "find their tribe" seemed useless without an accompanying how-to manual. 

I still don't have that manual...however, slowly but surely, I feel like I'm collecting a group of people who "get it" as far as this parenting-outlier-kids thing is concerned. And those relationships are worth cultivating, and those people are worth appreciating, because having people who get it is just awesome.

Today a mom friend of mine chaperoned P's field trip to the art museum. Unfortunately he had a big meltdown in the middle of the museum and it took both this mom and the teacher to calm him down. She texted me about it and then emailed me the blow-by-blow. I was mortified that he'd have a meltdown on a field trip like that, and my mind immediately jumped to what the teachers must have said, what the kids must have said, P being banned from all field trips (hello, anxiety disorder!)...I was crushed. C was sick so instead of receiving this news at work I was at home. I settled C onto the couch with a couple episodes of a cartoon and, unable to settle my mind, I dropped onto the other end of the couch and slept.

I dozed until the cartoon was over, and then I decided to face up to it. I emailed her back, saying how embarrassing that was, how P had made progress in managing his emotions but still lost control of himself sometimes, and thanking her for working with him. I was shocked when I got this back:

Not at all embarassing.  I just felt badly that he found himself in that situation and my efforts failed to calm him.  On what I hope is a positive note, the other students didn't seem to think anything of it. I'm glad you like the pictures and really hope P enjoyed the trip! 

I could almost feel the tension roll off of me. I can't express what it means when someone sees the kids at their lowest, the points where they struggle the most, and get it. P is slowly finding his place, and I'm finding mine.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Library play date

This week a friend of mine with a son who's gifted decided to have a playdate with my kids and I at the library. Yeah, not the greatest idea. As soon as our kids saw BOOKS it was all over in terms of actual human interaction, and they just read the whole time. So I sat with her on a couch in the children's area, her son squirrelled away in the adult stacks, my son sitting on the floor in front of the bookcase where he found a Lego minifigure encyclopedia, and my 6 year old daughter reading to my 3 year old and another preschooler. Although I complain about my son's lack of interaction with his friend I wasn't much better, sitting next to this other mom, talking a bit but mostly crocheting.

When we did talk it was mostly about crochet (which we were both learning, and I was hating), or parenting gifted kids. We talked about the similarities between her kid and mine, the differences, the difficulties and funny anecdotes.

After a while a friend of hers happened to come into the library and sat down to chat with her. And I noticed a little change in her. Maybe it was my imagination, but she seemed to gloss over what her kid was reading (and he was a fourth grader reading J.R.R. Tolkien, for fuck's sake), and the intensity he had in playing the board game he got for Christmas. My preschooler was starting to get restless and whiny, so I knew I had to be off quickly, so maybe if I had stayed longer those things would have come up. But I kind of wondered if her experiences are like mine, and with certain people she finds herself omitting, side-stepping, dredging up one anecdote about absent-mindedness for every story about her kid being bright. I wondered if that's why she's so eager to find other gifted kids and their parents...not because it's exclusionary or because she only wants her kid associating with bright kids, but because it's just easier not to have to monitor what you say.

I wonder how many parents have to do this. The parents of artists? The parents of athletes? Are we all sweeping the best of our kids' achievements under the rug? It seems like I hear a lot about my friends' kids' athletic achievements, but maybe I don't hear as much as they'd like to say.

I understanding not wanting to brag, but it's tiring to censor.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Pushing It

I live on the edge of a rather large neighborhood in my city, with its own culture, identity, and Facebook neighborhood group. My husband is a member, and recently he told me about a discussion they were having about neighborhood schools. They were talking about how the schools were improving and how they were even attracting students away from the city's gifted and talented magnet school, students who were tired of the "high pressure environment" there.

I sighed uneasily when he told me. "It doesn't seem high-pressure," I said. "P hasn't felt any pressure at all. It's actually been the best school experience he's had in a long time.

"Maybe there's more pressure in the upper grades," my husband replied.

"Maybe," I replied. I still felt uneasy.

It kept rattling around in the back of my mind all weekend. This morning, though, I finally put my finger on what was bugging me. Maybe it isn't that the G&T school is that pushy...maybe it's that adults can't look at a group of high-achieving kids without assuming that their teachers and parents are cracking the whip behind them.

I'm not sure if Jen from Laughing at Chaos coined the phrase, "I'm not pushing, he's pulling," but her blog was the first place I ran across it. This is the first entry I read after P's rather dramatic entry into the world of gifted students, and the phrase really stuck with me. In the past I didn't really get that line too much with P...he would learn about topics of interest with such single-minded passion that nobody could assume I was pushing him. It also helped that I knew nothing about what he was chasing. Geology? Dinosaurs? Army vehicles? I got nothing. I had no hand in this. Within ten seconds of warming up to someone enough to speak with them, he'd start to spout off on his topic of choice while I shrugged helplessly.

However, now P is a little more socially aware, and some people wonder if the well-spoken little kid is the result of intentional cultivation. Still, where I'm getting that more and more is with my daughter, E. E is just as smart as P, but ten times as competitive and socially smart. At school she's popular with the kids (but lonely - that's another entry) and a joy to the adults. Instead of pursuing different interests and dropping them after six months like P does, she's made it her mission for the last two years to study animals in hopes of becoming a field biologist. She is the one that I've started to get remarks on..."You must really push her at home." "You must work with her all the time." "You have to remember to let her be a kid."

It's getting harder to shrug off. And as I parent my three wonderful, outside-the-box kids, I doubt myself. They're really not that different. I should make them act more normal. They have to act normal, don't they? They have to learn to get along with other people to be happy. They have to fit in. But then I realize that any pushing I do is not pushing them to achieve higher, it's pushing them to be typical.

I am pushing them sometimes. And I really should stop.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Weekends

On Friday night I stood in the basement, cheerfully sorting dirty laundry into piles. I was deeply content, nearly humming in my good mood. It's going to be a good weekend, I thought to myself. The nerdiest weekend ever.

Every weekend is the nerdiest weekend ever. Every weekend we have something going on...trips to museums. Trips to the nature center. Library visits. Spending time huddled around the computer watching videos about Boston Dynamics' robots. The kids eat it up. This weekend, in between a visit to my in-laws and chores like grocery shopping, we were planning on a museum visit and an afternoon spent geocaching with another family. This is our type of fun.

Sometimes our weekends lead us to meet kindred spirits...on Friday after work P and I went to American Science & Surplus, a store that is every bit as eccentric and awesome as the catalog makes it look. We bought geodes and tiny plastic animals for geocaching prizes, and instead of the cashier telling us that we were crazy for planning on going hiking on the coldest day of the season, she said, "Oh, that's awesome! Bundle up!"

An ongoing struggle that I have is trying to balance feeding the kids' interests with making them normal. About a year ago I stopped making them do things simply because they were age appropriate, like read certain books or watch certain TV shows. Sometimes I wonder if it's the right choice...maybe I should push them harder into sports or something more mainstream. But over and over again I decide that the world will do a good enough job of telling them that they don't fit in...maybe my job is to provide a home where they're celebrated and they always fit in.

This morning dawned with the usual responsibilities...work, baby-sitters, and plans to call a mechanic on my lunch break because our car died last night. I'm already looking forward to the weekend, when we can pull away from the real world and geek out amongst ourselves for a while.