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See also: Parenting a gifted teenager
A certain letter of mine was published in the Straits Times today and I am being torn to shreds by readers.
Readers of Letters to the Forum should bear in mind that writers have 400 words and often cannot dwell on related topics to make a holistic or "joined-up" argument.
Editors also make changes outside of our control so that the original intention might be obscured. Eg the third and fourth points in print were one point in the original letter: MM Lee first alerted us to our limited gene pool back in 1984. What has been done since to preserve/enhance this gene pool? Has the “foreign talent” initiative superseded this urgency?
My (subtle? rhetorical?) question was whether politicians are now happy with just buying foreign talent instead of investing in and nurturing our own. By breaking this one point into two it sounds like I was paying homage to MM Lee. As if.
This letter was written with the purpose of reiterating a need to support parents who might wish to take a career break so that their children (of whatever ability) could benefit.
The focus was on better-educated mothers because a PhD was at the root of this controversy. Such mothers find it harder because society makes them feel they "owe" it to society not to "waste" their education. The nature of their professional jobs also makes it more difficult for them to get back to work. I am saying, let's not forget to support these parents.
I noted breast-feeding to point to how "nurture" is just as important as "nature". I did not have space to say how much we should support mothers of all education levels who breast-feed. Babies breast-fed for more than six months (or is it 12?) are some nine (NINE!) IQ points ahead of their mums.
Imagine the results if every baby born has the privilege to be breast-fed by mothers for at least a year, by mothers who are not stressed about returning to work, pumping, freezing and transporting breast milk, etc?
I also hoped to encourage more young men to marry women who happen to be better-educated. I wonder how many male readers have, hand on heart, also walked away from women simply because of the women's education. (Let him who is without any sin .... )
I did not say anything about women who refuse to marry men they deem not clever enough for them.
In short I encourage women to do their PhDs if they are so inclined. I am also aware of the issues that cleverer (and this word is used in Britain) women face in terms of marriage, having children and nurturing them.
My father had at best two years of schooling in his village before coming to Singapore from China. My mother had four years of education before it was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. They taught themselves to read the Chinese newspapers.
Would they have gone far in formal education? Precisely because of my own background I believe that giftedness is not restricted to those who have well-educated parents. I was also blessed with being nurtured by five older siblings who all did well at school.
What has been done to enhance this gene pool? Does our education system identify such gifted children who are hidden in neighbourhood schools, eg? What has happened to our meritocratic system which allowed children of factory workers, taxi-drivers, or butchers in my case, to get to university?
I made the point of my son having a high IQ. But I did not have room to say that at school he is classified as having "special education needs", like those who have dyslexia, autism, asperger's, etc.
To those who do not yet have such offspring a high IQ might seem a godsend. Let me assure you, having a child with an IQ in the "gifted", "highly gifted" or "exceptionally gifted" category is a real challenge to parents.
I think mine falls between the first and second categories (or "moderately gifted") and I thank God that he is not "exceptionally gifted".
My son exhibited quite disturbing behaviour at school when he was seven years old. We were told to engage an educational psychologist to assess him.
We did, and after careful assessment her conclusion was that he has a very high IQ (nine points above mine), a reading age about twice his real age, etc., but very poor skills in reading facial cues. But she discounted borderline Asperger's syndrome which so often comes with the territory.
Up to this point we thought, "Wow! Clever child, no problems there." We assumed that because he was so clever that he, like cream in milk, would naturally rise to the top.
I read all I could find about gifted children and helping a gifted child. Clearly this child needed a lot of help.
The good news is, four years later, he has shown great improvement and we are now confident that he would be able to cope in most new situations.
Some of the lessons I learned are:
- their intellectual development is not in step with emotional/physical development. So while he could think through problems his fingers and fine motor skills did not develop at the same speed. Eg he came up with very convoluted story lines, but because his handwriting had not developed to the same level he could not finish writing in the given time. He hated, absolutely hated, his own handwriting which was not "perfect" enough for him. At one point he refused to write a test -- which alerted us to his special needs. In the last few years he was "invited" to join the handwriting club. He has since "graduated" and is now able to write quickly and fluently. (Some experts recommend that such children be allowed to type their exams instead or be given more time to write.)
- they may have physical sensitivities. I have lost count of the times I've been asked to cut off clothing labels because they irritated him. He prefers to wear his socks inside out so that the seams do not bother him. He could not cope with being in a shopping centre because the echoing sounds disturbed him. Travelling in a bus with lots of other children was a torture because sounds were coming in all directions. (A friend who suffered trauma to her head has the same problem.) He felt the need to process every sound, which of course he could not. Thankfully he has learned to cope by eg focussing on one sound, one stream of conversation, but even this becomes very tiring. The GP advised using an iPod!
- these children have an enhanced sense of right and wrong. He found it most difficult when a boy in class refused to obey instructions like sitting down. He felt it was wrong. He had come home complaining, "I learned nothing new today!!" What he did not say was this boy had disrupted the class so much he did not learn anything new and it is right that he should learn something new at school. When this boy left the school, my son became almost instantly a much happier boy.
- I used to tell him off for being a "perfectionist". I learned from my research that he could not help it. You cannot say to a child her hair is too brown. Please make it less brown. You cannot ask a gifted child to be "less perfectionist". That's the way they function. That's the way they make sense of the world. I apologized to him and learned to accept him for what he is.
We had a "disaster scale" which we drew up together. It helped to remind him that things are not as bad as what he makes it out to be (gifted children suffer from extremes in emotions, every day was his "worst day of my life").
We had a debriefing routine at the end of the day, going through a checklist of emotions he went through and how he coped with it.
We "banked" good experiences so that when he had bad days we could draw on these happy memories.
I also had to supplement learning at home. Whenever he felt inclined to discuss a subject we would spend time doing this, whatever the subject.
What do you say to a six-year-old (he was six then) who wanted to discuss "artificial intelligence"? Or when he comes up with the statement "There's no right in doing wrong, and there's no wrong in doing right."???
Most of all as he moved up the grades where football prowess was not the only "social capital" on the playground, his confidence level rose.
I've lost count of the times he came home crying "We played football. Or I tried to. I was the last one to be chosen by the team captains. Nobody wanted me on their team."
I cried with him, too.
Then one day he came home to say, "We had a music quiz and I was the first one to be picked by a team captain."
Eventually the boys learned that to win a general knowledge, science, music (whatever) quiz, it's best to have him in their team.
They also started playing other sports. He discovered that he has inherited his grandfather's genes and was quite good at hockey. And he skis rather better than all his mates. (He is mix-handed which suggests that he has a more centred centre of gravity which makes slalom easier for him.) No one in the whole extended family skis.
Our son entertains us with some really good and original jokes. Unfortunately his mates at school often did not understand the word play. Now that these other boys are older, they are beginning to appreciate his sense of humour a bit better.
I am pleased that my son has a high IQ, but he is very hard work. I thank God that he is not "exceptionally gifted" with an IQ in the 160s or above ("profoundly gifted"). Such children find ordinary life even more difficult.
Clearly it was imperative for me to stay home to support him. He was more important to me than making use of my PhD.
We are also grateful to his school teachers who "extend" him in class as we are not in favour of accelerating him (skip grades). What's the point of doing 'O' Levels, say, at age 11? What does he do after that?
We want to let him enjoy being his own age, to be amongst his peers, have sleepovers with friends, etc. We only agreed to let him skip a year in Maths this year because it has come to a point where it would be cruel not to do so (having beaten the most able boys two years older than him in a national Maths competition last year). It is the subject he complains about the most. Now he's enjoying Maths again because it is a challenge again.
Over the years we have struggled to keep his emotions on an even keel. Slowly we have more calm times than tantrum/disaster/the-whole-world-is-against-me times. I think in the last year or so he has, at last, come to a kind of equilibrium. Long may it last.
The danger is that very often gifted children go unrecognized. In their frustration they begin to manifest behaviour which school teachers consider disruptive. "Why show working in Maths when I have already computed the answer in my head?" They get side-lined, labelled as lazy, uncooperative, trouble-makers, nutters, whatever.
Parents who struggle with gifted children please feel free to get in touch.
And my husband would object to being called "Caucasian". He much prefers "gwai-lo" as in my original letter.