Unschooling the Intensely Gifted: A Cautionary Tale

So you’re supposed to “follow your child’s interests.” Which for gifted kids can include “overexcitabilities” (aka “intensities,” which is a better descriptor imo) like “intellectual intensity” (the need to explore an idea RIGHT NOW) and “psychomotor intensity” (the need to do something physical) and “emotional intensity.”

Here is what that looked like today.

I took PK out for a walk on the beach, because he and I have both observed that if he gets some fairly strenuous exercise every day, he is less anxious and argumentative. But because of his Intellectual and Emotional Intensities, he refuses to just, say, take a martial arts class; he has no patience for formal instruction or putting up with other people and is especially stressed and shy about doing anything in a group right now. We are still dealing with the fallout from middle school. So because I am a 45-year old woman, the compromise position is long nature walks rather than, say, sparring or footraces or some other shit like that that I am not going to do. Mostly this works pretty well.

After our exercise/p.e. regimen, we sat down to do a little bit of math. PK is working on finishing the Portfolio Assignment for the first chapter of IMP book one, which is as far as we have gotten this year; by way of Not Letting Him Off The Hook I am insisting that he finish the portfolio before we can call the un/homeschool year “over.” It asks him to collect some written work, write a cover letter showing that he gets the point of the first chapter (i.e., math is largely about figuring out patterns in things) and describe his own “learning” over the course of the unit, which mostly so far means him saying things like “math itself does not suck but schools make it suck and I used to love math but now I hate it.”

Needless to say, working on this triggered some of his Emotional Oversensitivites and he became pretty upset and angry, and we had a loooong talk about why I make him do math even though he now hates it. (The answer I gave him: because I am hoping to help him rediscover his enjoyment of it, because I want him to learn not to give up, and frankly because being able to do basic algebra is kind of a requirement for high school and college and although I cannot make him go to college or even finish high school I am still hoping that he will at least have those options available to him.)

This discussion, by the way, triggered my own Emotional Overexcitabilities, but luckily once he’d written a bit for the portfolio–which actually means he dictated it and I typed it up because he has some Motor Difficulties which make writing difficult for him (he is seeing an Occupational Therapist for this but for the time being I act as his scribe)–we were done with “school stuff” for the day. We were also done with his “non-computer-based free time” because it took us about an hour to process the ensuing discussion about why he hates school, how unhappy he is, etc., while I took the laundry off the line outside and he paced about, venting.

Since in addition to refusing formal classes of any type, he also refuses to do talk therapy for the time being (we have an appointment with his psychiatrist on Wednesday to talk about adjusting his meds, by the way), I am more or less also serving as his therapist. I am perhaps slightly less unqualified for this than one might expect, given that I’ve been in therapy myself for years (yeah, yeah, that might also make me even more unqualified, hardehar) and that I have been basically drinking this gifted/child psychology stuff from a firehose for the past year. At least I hope I am slightly less unqualified than one might expect, since it’s the only kind of semi-therapy the kid is getting these days other than the medication. In any case, I am pleased that he is starting to talk about not only how much he resents his middle school experience but also about his hopes to overcome and get past it–including, in this case, his hopes that some day he will enjoy math again. I am calling this progress.

In any case. So after p.e., math, and an informal nonofficial “therapy” session, kid was allowed to get on his laptop with the caveat that he would get off it and clean the kitchen when it was time for me to make dinner. I went out for a well-deserved beer on the porch, and did some more reading about Gifted Adolescents and their Overintensities for about half an hour, until he came to me with a request.

“Mama, I have two questions for you. The first is, will you give me permission to do something? The second is, will you supervise me so that it will be safe?”

“What is it you want to do?”

“Make and throw a Molotov cocktail.”

Now, before you think DUH THE ANSWER IS NO, you also need to know that because of his Psychomotor Intensities he has been getting in a lot of trouble lately for destroying things–breaking up terra cotta pots that held plants in the back yard, smashing pieces of scrap wood that his father had designs on, etc–and that I made him a deal that if he feels the need to destroy something, would he PLEASE come tell me and I will do what I can to accommodate that need in a way that is safe and will not get him in trouble. So instead of just saying HELL NO, I put down my book.

“Well, that could be pretty dangerous. Where do you want to do it?”

“I thought the driveway seemed the safest place. I don’t intend to really throw it hard, more like just a gentle toss.”

“The problem with the driveway is we’re going to end up with a lot of broken glass and possibly some fire. What if we went somewhere like a big empty parking lot? We could put the push broom and a dust pan into the back of the car…”

“No, I don’t want to have to go anywhere. I want to just do it in the driveway. I promise I’ll clean up.”

“Okay, well, if you do it on our half of the driveway,” (we share part of the drive with the neighbor, who you will not be surprised to find thinks PK is an absolute spoiled brat and therefore I try really hard to rein him in when it comes to our shared space), and you don’t throw it near anything flammable, I suppose it might be okay. I will have to move the car, and we’ll have to make sure we have the cleanup stuff and safety gear ready to go.” Yes I realize that I am not being, perhaps, as firm as I might be about Safety, but a parent only has so much energy. So either hang on to your judgment and fuck off now, or suspend it and keep reading.

“Great!” he says, and starts to run off.

“Hang on!” He stops as I stand up. “We need to do this carefully, which means that we need to talk our way through each step. You can’t just go off and get started until I know exactly what you’re doing and we’ve prepared. How do you intend to make this thing?”

“I’m going to put some rum into a bottle and light it on fire.”

“Okay, first of all, you are not allowed to use the expensive rum. Let’s see if we can find some cheap alcohol.” We dig around in the bar and I come up with some Captain Morgan coconut rum that someone must have left after a party. “We can use this. Let me go get the shop vac out of the closet. You will have to help me carry it down stairs and into the back yard, but first let me move the car.”

When I’ve finished moving the car and return to the house, he is holding an empty ginger beer bottle filled with coconut rum, with a dishtowel stuffed into the neck.

“PK. I do not want you lighting one of my good dish towels. We will have to use paper for that,” I say, taking the bottle away from him and pulling the towel out. It is soaked with rum, of course, so I set it in the sink. “Now let’s get the shop vac.”

PK, meanwhile, is grabbing some printer paper. “HANG ON,” I say. “I’m not sure printer paper is going to work; if you twist it up it won’t have that much oxygen in the neck, and it’ll probably go out. Though it’ll be soaked with alcohol so maybe not. We can give it a try, I guess. BUT FIRST,” I raise my voice as he starts twisting the paper into the bottle’s neck, “you need to help me get this vacuum cleaner outside. We need to get everything set up beforehand.”

He sets the bottle and paper down and helps me with the vacuum cleaner. We get it back to the driveway and I instruct him to pull the cord towards the house to see if it will reach. It doesn’t, of course.

“Okay, now we need an extension cord.”

“There’s one right here!” he exclaims, and reaches down, unplugging the back yard freezer and starting to pull the extension cord it’s attached to–which the husband carefully ran up and over the door frame to reach between the freezer and the outlet–off its hooks.

“No, STOP. You just unplugged the freezer. We need a different extension cord.”

“Oh, shit! I’m sorry.” He plugs it back in.

“Let’s go see if we can find the blue outdoor cord,” I say. We look around in the house and fail to find it. “It’s probably in the garage. Let me find my keys,” I say. The garage, you see, is now locked in order to keep PK from getting into the tools unsupervised and smashing up more things like potted plants or, god forbid, windows.

I can’t find my keys in the house, so I tell PK I am going to go see if I left them in the car when I moved it out of the driveway. I’ve locked the car, since it’s now on the street, so I am peering through the windows trying to make sure the keys aren’t in it when I hear PK shouting for me from the house. Once I’ve figured out that the keys aren’t in the car, I walk up to the front door.

“WHAT, Pseudonymous Kid?” I probably sound a little exasperated.

“Mama, never mind. This is turning into way too much work,” he says.

So it’s true: unschooling will eventually teach your kid the lessons you want him to learn. Lessons that no matter how many times I have explained to him–“No, that will be way too much work,” I have said–he has never really internalized.

That said? I’m really not sure it was worth it.


11 responses to “Unschooling the Intensely Gifted: A Cautionary Tale

  • Leslie

    No kidding you’re tired. I think that would exhaust anyone. Bravo to you for summoning the patience (not perfectly, I know, but still) to hang in there with him. And I’m sure it feels like there are no other options than that, but there are … just not good ones.

  • mytwicebakedpotato

    I am so glad that I found you! There are so many things that you say that remind me of my almost 8 yrs old boy.

    You might enjoy our struggles and stories too :)
    http://mytwicebakedpotato.com

  • Denise

    This I just absolutely loved. Thank you for sharing it!

  • meanliving

    People without kids like these of their own really don’t understand, do they? They crazy things these kids make us do…

  • tedra

    Hi all, and thanks!

    @Meanliving, having checked out your blog,
    you sound like a kindred spirit…

  • occhiblu

    You are so awesome. Seriously.

    And I am a therapist, who’s worked with kids, though mostly adolescents. While I obviously believe in therapy, I have found that kids do best when they can talk out stuff more than just an hour a week, and that supportive parents who encourage them to talk and try things out and fail, sometimes, are way more helpful, long-term, than therapy. Supportive parents plus therapy is never a bad thing, of course, especially when the kid has a lot going on, but I just wanted to support you in believing that what you’re doing for PK is as good, if not better, than therapy alone.

  • occhiblu

    You might also be interested in checking out the book “The Shelter of Each Other,” by Mary Pipher (who wrote “Reviving Ophelia”). I read it a while ago, so I’m having trouble pinpointing exactly why this post resonated with my memories of the work, but she writes very sensitively about how our society’s lack of community and family life, plus all the current technology, negatively affects kids’ mental health, and I remember her having interesting ideas about how to foster wellbeing even amidst all the chaos. It might spark an idea or two for relating to PK.

  • tedra

    Thanks, Occchiblu–will check the book out. :-)

  • Ingi (@ingidefygravity)

    “Intensely Gifted” – well, I love that phrase! And yep, that’s how unschooling tends to roll round here too :-) Thanks for the tale!

  • Ruth

    I totally get it. I love when other people get it! While we haven’t been in that exact place yet, we live on the spectrum of therapeutic life. It is a challenge but what they need most is to be heard. And for those small steps to be recognized for the positive steps they are, not a negative thing. I just found your blog and look forward to reading more.

  • tedra

    @Ruth, thanks–and welcome!

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