Category Archives: Pseudonymous Kid

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.

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Happy New Year

December was a tough month for me, mama-wise. The husband was gone at the beginning for a business trip and then took a couple of weeks off over the holidays (he goes back to work next week). It’s been fabulous having him home, but one effect has been a vacation-like atmosphere for us, with lots of sleeping late and little “school” stuff happening. L and I dropped the medieval history lectures we’ve been enjoying, we haven’t done any math, we’ve had no social engagements other than my mom and her brother coming over for Xmas.

All of which sounds (and has been) very nice. But it’s worried me, too, because as those who’ve been following this blog know, this is our first year of home schooling and we’re still in the process of finding out what works for us, content- and schedule-wise. So it hasn’t been clear to me if we’ve been “taking a vacation” or “backsliding.” Add in the fact that PK started Lexapro recently too and the horrible shootings in Newton CT and there’s been plenty for me to worry and chew over: is L’s video game habit “bad” for him–too much screen time!–or is it “good” on the grounds that he in fact thinks a lot about how game narratives are constructed, how games are designed, and uses Minecraft to build and design stuff? Is his gaming a symptom of ongoing depression or a sign that he’s enthusiastically pursuing real interests? Am I contributing to a “culture of violence” by getting him a nerf gun for Xmas or am I “following his lead” in providing him with toys that appeal to him in order to get him outside? Am I “enabling bad habits” by letting him stay up past midnight and sleep so late or am I being supportive by not forcing daily fights over his “natural” sleep schedule?

You get the idea.

But today was PK’s third appointment with his psychiatrist, and his first after reaching what the shrink said he thought would be the full dose of PK’s medication. PK reported that his mood has been great and his anxiety negligible, though I interrupted (PK hasn’t yet gotten to the point where he’s comfortable talking to the psychiatrist without me in the room) to mention a couple of recent anxiety problems that I’d suggested PK tell the psychiatrist about only to have him tell me that I should be the one to report them for some reason.

Anyway, so we then had a brief conversation about the difficulty of knowing how to distinguish between “anxiety” and “manipulation” (PK’s word!)–

PK: I don’t remember that. I think I just didn’t want to eat at that restaurant.ME, to PSYCH: Which is another problem. It can be really difficult to distinguish between what’s an anxiety attack and what’s just an argument.
PSYCH: Yes. It’s clear that PK is highly intelligent, and kids with high IQs like him can be very good at arguing with or outsmarting people…
PK, cutting to the chase: I can be very manipulative.
PSYCH, smiling: Right, that.

–which led me to my broader concern, i.e., what are we going to do about PK’s education.

“Basically,” I said to the shrink, “I’d like your input on the timeline here. Because at some point I’d like PK to go back to school in some form, whether within the district or simply by taking classes somewhere, maybe at the community college. Because as he enters high school, I really don’t think I have the ability to teach him the stuff he’s going to want and need to know to prepare him for college.” The psychiatrist knows that PK wants to be a scientist–and while that may change, of course, it’s certainly and obviously not a possibility I want foreclosed by homeschooling. (Probably more to the point is what I said above about my concerns with establishing a routine; obviously there are scientists who were homeschooled, but PK hasn’t been showing any interest in “doing” or reading science this year, though it used to be his preferred way to spend all his free time. Plus the difficulties with math.)

PK immediately started getting argumentative about the idea of taking classes or returning to school, which of course let me exchange glances with the psychiatrist–“see?” “yes, I see”–but the psychiatrist reassured both of us by saying, “keep in mind that we’re just starting to see PK recover from his illness, his depression. And he is clearly improving. I’d like to see you in a couple more months to see how he’s continuing with this medication; I expect to see continued improvement. Obviously long-term he’ll surely want to go back to school in some capacity–you do want to go to college, right PK?”–he does–“but I wouldn’t worry too much about that just yet.”

I asked for, and got, confirmation of what I’d just heard: don’t worry too much at this point about PK’s education. Keep in mind that he is recovering from an illness. Yes, a regular schedule is probably a good thing to strive for, and yes it’s good to work on getting him outside for exercise and doing some “school”ish stuff with him to the extent that he can handle it. But things are going well.

Which is something I really needed to hear; my own mood is so much lighter since this afternoon. A happy new year indeed.


When Hippie Parenting Fails

So a few years ago I had this clever idea that I would save all the various random toys that come into the house, get played with for five minutes, and then just clutter up my life by throwing them into a bag and giving them away at Halloween. Not candy! Environmentally better than just tossing them (if less admirable than not acquiring them in the first place, but what can you do)! Clever!

Of course, I never actually *remembered* to drag out the bag, or if I did, I couldn’t find it, right? But this year, I saw the bag and it’s all ready to go.

Only, HITCH. Pseudonymous Kid is now old enough that he has FIRM OPINIONS on the complete and utter lousiness of this plan. “Mama. Kids HATE the people that give out non-candy crap. And no, you cannot give out sugar-free gum this year, either. Kids want CANDY.” He even tried to talk me out of the $20 worth of ETHICALLY SOURCED NON-SLAVE-LABOR CHOCOLATES* I bought yesterday at the overpriced “health food” grocery store, finally relenting by grudgingly insisting that I could buy that chocolate to give out, but that I would also be required to buy a bag of almond joys and reese’s for us to eat.

Only Almond Joy and Reese’s are both Hershey products, and Hershey is sucky on the chid-slave-labor front. I’m trying to talk him into a homeschool cooking project to make them at home. He is intrigued by the idea of making them for ourselves, but, on realizing that I was not proposing whipping up a ton of these to hand out to every kid that comes to the door but rather proposing to hand out the health-food-store chocolates, he reverted to “NO. You will hand out the regular, unhealthy, bad-for-the-environment stuff. Or the kids will hate you.”

I BLAME THE SYSTEM.

*Endangered Species makes halloween-type chocolates–little individually-wrapped squares. And yes, they are much more expensive. Which is kind of the point.


Rough Story

So yes, PK and I are going to start homeschooling next month. Officially. (I’m already sneakily showing him the occasional documentary and of course his entire life he’s had tons of books, etc., so.) I’m kind of apprehensive about it because, you know, I haven’t done this before; moreso because PK is not in a great place right now where “school” things are concerned. Mostly he wants to avoid all talk of “school.”

How’d we get here? A brief, truncated explanation: kindergarten was great; he loved his teacher, had a couple of good friends, teacher loved him. For first grade we’d moved back to the US and he was enrolled in a “good” (read: high test scores) school. Suddenly we had tons of homework, his being occasionally a couple minutes late meant we got letters from the district about his “habitual truancy,” the teacher was rigid and not real patient with PK’s social difficulties (“if he’s going to have long hair, he’s going to have to expect that,” when I told her his classmates were hassling him for using the boy’s bathroom). By the end of the year he was regularly crying himself to sleep at night with worry over “being behind” and hiding homework in his desk.

So the next year we switched him to a different school, still public, that was run very much like a coop. Parents were expected to volunteer several hours each week, they helped teach small groups in class, the classes had mixed grades, there were lots of campouts and handson artsy craftsy stuff. Kind of a hippie school. Socially, he was much better off; academically, he was bored, but his 2/3 teacher was a fabulously empathetic young man who pretty much allowed PK to read whatever he wanted and opt out of “centers” (small group). The 4th grade teacher was far more rigid again (he left the school after one year, actually; it wasn’t his bag) and put PK on a “behavior contract” because by that point PK had gotten pretty used to being allowed to do whatever he wanted. Also, to be honest, PK has always been extremely comfortable arguing with adults and has had a temper–so when he was frustrated with adults or his peers, he would often end up yelling. I spent most of that year backing the teacher and giving PK incentives/punishments for adhering to the behavior contract. He did get much better about restraining his temper, but I think he also got more frustrated because he perceived that even when he restrained himself, the adults around him didn’t change the behavior that was frustrating him or insist that his peers do so (minor bullying, etc.).

In 5th grade he had a sympathetic teacher again, who was particularly appreciative of his math skills. He enjoyed her class but continued to be frustrated with the academic pace of the school. There were also one or two kids he disliked intensely and, as the year wore on, it became clear to me that the teacher who would have him for middle school (the school went K-8) was apprehensive about PK’s “behavior”. I was also growing frustrated with the school for different reasons. So PK visited the “regular” middle school, was excited by seeing that they had a “real science lab!” and opted to go there for 6-8th grade. I made a point of having him tested for GATE over the summer in the hopes that that would help get him more interesting academic content, which is what he really wanted.

Only it turned out that GATE only applied to Language Arts and Social Studies, that 6th graders didn’t have a separate science class, and that his math teacher was again, very traditional and rigid. She wouldn’t hear about PK’s frustration with doing pages and pages of math homework that covered things he already knew, or his refusal to “show his work” on problems he could do in his head, and we started having the screaming crying anxious fights over homework every night, like we’d done in first grade. By the end of the first semester PK hated school, talked about suicide, and was generally incredibly angry and hostile. Amazingly, neither teachers nor administrators observed this–he was keeping it in during the school day–but that meant that they didn’t believe me when I said there was a problem. He was also getting some bullying for his long hair and unconventional attitude, and felt as he had in fourth grade that the adults weren’t responding to his complaints about bullies with any kind of real action.

By the end of that semester, the school had called the “crisis team” out; two social workers from the county showed up at the house along with two policemen.

PK did not go back to school after that. I put him on what our state calls “home hospital”–our pediatrician was very sympathetic and willing to provide an anxiety diagnosis and a note saying that PK should not go back to school–and he had a tutor come out for five hours a week to make sure he “kept up.” The first tutor was not a good fit and walked off the job after the second meeting, so the district called his former fifth grade teacher (who I had talked to, and been telling them wanted to be his assigned tutor, and had been asking for) in and she helped him finish the year.

But even so, he had to use the sixth grade textbooks, which he loathes (“Mama, these are SO STUPID and BADLY WRITTEN”), and because his teacher had to “provide documentation,” he still had to do a certain amount of homework. During this time we also had him tested for all sorts of things: pscyhological problems, learning disabilities, IQ, academic achievement (what does he actually know), etc.

It turned out that academically, he’s working 3-8 years ahead of his grade. His reading and math reasoning abilities are at about the college level. His IQ is very high. But the speed with which he writes? Is that of a third grader.

No wonder the kid didn’t want to show his work or do all that damn homework.

So, as I said, we will be homeschooling starting this fall. In addition to figuring out how to “teach” him I’m having to figure out how to treat his anxiety and possible depression, his current hatred of all things school, his distrust of and hostility towards most adults, and his mild (and I think situational) agoraphobia. We’ve come a long way just over the summer in learning how to have reasonable discussions about things we disagree on rather than screaming fights, and he’s becoming much better at listening to me tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. I’m collecting tons of possible learning resources, reading all sorts of shit about “gifted” children (I have a problem with that word, hence the scare quotes–but it’s the one that everyone uses) and home schooling (which, like “gifted” education, is often associated with things I dislike: hostility towards public education, religious-based education). I’m having, obviously, to tackle some of my own prejudices and preconceptions, including the preconception that PK would manage to get through middle school the same way I did, by keeping his nose in a book and ignoring the crap that bored or bothered him. PK, it turns out, is not the type to keep his head down when something offends him. I’m learning to listen to him, to see him for who he is, and to figure out how to differentiate between “changing” him and teaching him how to get along in the world.

Luckily, I have a good, mutually-supportive marriage; the husband has a well-paying job that he loves (today, as it happens, is our 20th anniversary and he’s on a road trip vacation with some work buddies); we have good insurance that covers lots of therapy; the husband has a strong science and math background and I have a PhD in English and mad research skills.

Most luckily of all, I like hanging out with my kid, and always have. Hopefully that will see us through.


Letting Go Apparently Isn’t that Hard

So this morning I overslept about 20 minutes. Usually I get up at 6:15 in order to get Pseudonymous Kid to school by 7:55: I get up, I go flip on his light and talk to him, I maybe get the coffee going if my husband hasn’t done it already. I get PK’s clothes and toss them at him; he gets dressed under the blanket. I make him a cup of tea, I make the coffee for me. I bring his cup of tea into the living room. If he’s gotten dressed (this week he’s been pretty good about it), I make his lunch, then we hang out and chit-chat over tea and coffee for a bit. At about 7:15ish I remind him to go brush his teeth and get his shoes on; at about 7:35-45 he hops on his bike.

That’s been this week, which has been awesome. Before Christmas break, I was far more likely to wake PK by talking/pulling him into an upright enough position that I could pick him up (he currently weighs a little over 77 lbs) and carry him into the living room, where I would deposit him on the couch and he’d curl up under a blanket with his head on a pillow–but at least in the living room I can see him and keep chanting “get up, get dressed” as I walk back and forth and make his lunch. This week he’s been much more self-starting and we’ve agreed that since he hates the constant nagging, I will forego it as long as he gets himself moving at a reasonable pace.

This morning, however, like I said, I overslept. And he was a lot groggier than he has been. Obviously we’ve both had a couple of nights where we were up a little later than we ought to have been, last night in particular. I offered to carry him to the living room: no. More negotiating/pleading. I offer to help him get dressed: no. I offer to make him a cup of tea: no, then yes. I ask him to get dressed while I’m making it: no.

“Look, I overslept a bit. I need you to cooperate here.”

“Exactly. YOU overslept. It’s YOUR fault. Why do I have to make up for it.”

This seems to be the emerging theme of PK’s nascent adolescence. And it’s kind of annoying. I got mad and said something pissy about how that would be fine if he lived in a goddamn vacuum, but he doesn’t.

“Okay, fine. Get yourself up and off to school.” I stand up and leave the room. I turn around as I reach the doorway with an afterthought. “Oh, and I’m going to put the water on for your tea. Which is apparently the kind of thing you do think it’s okay to be interdependent about.”

Digression: yep, apparently I am that kind of a mom. My authority is primarily verbal, and while I can definitely leverage a certain amount of intimidation (“Mama, you are scary when you’re mad”), for the most part his stubbornness and my reluctance to just whip out the “BECAUSE I SAID SO GODDAMNIT” speech (which is probably why it’s effective when I do) means that I pull a lot of this martyrish manipulative “let me list the stuff I do, just so you have a context in which to place your lack of cooperation here” stuff. My only saving grace is that I’m angry, rather than weepy, when it happens.

And it works. I put on the tea, pour myself some cold coffee, stick it in the microwave, get the hot cup and sit my pissy ass down on the couch. I open up my laptop and realize it’s not actually as late as all that: I slept past my preferred wakeup time, to be sure, but it’s still just barely 7, and PK does have a reasonable amount of time before school starts. Plus today is the husband’s day off, so the car is available if it comes to that.

PK emerges from his bedroom a few minutes later fully dressed and goes directly into the bathroom to brush his teeth. The kettle starts to whistle and I say “your tea water is boiling” rather than getting up to make his cup. He comes out and says “I know,” goes back and finishes brushing, goes and takes the kettle off. He comes back to the living room. “What day is it?”

“Friday,” I reply, realizing that this means his homework is due and that we haven’t actually gotten it done.

“Shit,” he says. Then, in the actually-growing-up-this-is-my-problem-to-solve mode that he falls into more and more often lately (especially when I’ve gotten pissed off), he says, “I’ll have to take it to school and finish it there.”

“I guess so,” I reply.

He goes to look for his workbook. Which, since we’re coming off the two-week break and he didn’t have homework for at least a week beforehand and his room didn’t get cleaned over Xmas, he can’t find. Eventually he comes out with the textbook.

“Is that it?”

“No, this is just the sort of explaining-things book. I can’t find the homework book.”

“Huh, that’s too bad.” I’m reading Facebook.

He goes back and looks some more, still can’t find it.

“I still can’t find it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I did do a quick sort of clean-up of my room, though, at least.”

“Okay.”

He stands there at a bit of a loss, then sits down on the other end of the couch. “Mama, I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Okay, yes, sometimes I am an asshole.

“For before.”

Sigh. “Thanks. I’m sorry I got so mad.”

He picks up one of his Xmas books, a history encyclopedia, and starts reading.

By now, of course, it is definitely time for him to be leaving for school, or for me to drive him. But this seems to be going pretty well, as a do-it-yourself lesson, so I don’t say anything for about ten minutes. If he asks, I will either help him find his book or take him to school, but I’m not in the mood to help him think. Finally, I can’t stand it any more.

“So what are your plans for the day, then?”

“To go to school and be anxious about not having my homework done.”

“Well, school starts in about three minutes.”

“Oh shit!” He puts the book down and the next thing I know, the back door has slammed and he’s gone to get his bike.

My little boy is growing up.