The oh yeah, that’s right post

Bondi Rescue lifesaver Harrison, rendered in gingerbread ©careerusinterruptus

Sometimes I wonder if my kids really are gifted. (Hello, imposter syndrome!)

Sure, they read early and zipped through their first couple of years of math, but then ill health, anxiety, a bad school fit, and a dash of bullying brought a screaming halt to their academic advancement. Since then, their disinterest in book learning is a source of perpetual bemusement to their dad and me – neither of them, really, has an academic bone in their body. So when I read about kids doing calculus at 5, or teaching themselves multiple languages, I do sometimes wonder whether I’m in the right parenting group.

And then we’ll have a 24-hour period in which one kid (it doesn’t matter which one, they’re both over age 10 and both more than capable of all of this):

a) soliloquises extensively about how desperate they are to learn everything, and “know the answers to all the questions in the world”;

b) throws a screaming fit over wrapping a Christmas present – they cut too much paper, you see, and had to trim in both dimensions, which “ruined everything” and then they didn’t know how to do corners so the whole idea was stupid and just FORGET IT, JUST CANCEL CHRISTMAS NOW;

c) carries on the screaming fit with floods of tears, on the floor, because they wish they were learning, but they can’t because they are sick, and they can’t find their math book, and couldn’t do any even if they could find it because their entire body hurts, but they need to do it before school starts in 8 weeks’ time or they will grow up stupid and end up living in some guy’s basement playing video games for their entire life;

d) insists they would rather flush their head down the toilet than watch any educational YouTube content, even though they are sick and need to lie down watching TV, and they’re bored silly with cartoons, and to thwart me, they turn on the TV themselves, flipping through the channels until they get to … the ABC’s educational programming;

e) and finally, after more tears because it’s the 2nd and we’re not doing anything Christmassy, settles on decorating gingerbread men and spend the best part of three hours contentedly creating artworks like the portrait above. And below:

Gingerbread cookies in the CI house
©careerusinterruptus

Hilarious, aren’t they? Take a close look at the designs on those Christmas jumpers. Some of those sprinkles were placed using tweezers, for the love of God, and that one down the bottom was decapitated deliberately. The Santa hat one is decorated the same front and back because that’s how hats work. And when a cookie’s leg broke off during the transfer from worktop to baking tray, they made a gingerbread wheelchair to put it in, with a lecture to me on the importance of representing all kinds of people, not just people with legs. There was a drag queen cookie, too, and both a topless sunbather and the creep who took photos of her (a storyline lifted from Bondi Rescue. You may notice a theme, here.)

This day was like a masterclass in teh gifted, banging through all the boxes: Intelligence and a thirst for knowledge, tick. Rampaging need for autonomy, tick. A tsunami of emotion, tick. A stonking sense of humour, tick. Anxiety (not necessarily a gifted thing, but often comorbid), tick. Social justice campaigning, tick. Intense and asynchronous up the wazoo.

I know, I go on about it. Partly, dude, I just need to vent. I mean, you try living with this. Partly I do it for that other mum who may be out there, wondering what the hell is going on in her house. And partly, I need to remind myself: yes, actually, I am dealing with somewhat … unusual kids, and if we all struggle sometimes, well, that’s understandable. And finally, partly, it’s to remind myself that yes, I am in the right parenting group, even without the calculus, because this is what gifted looks like.

The asynchronous development is a PITA post

Nostalgic picture of a well-loved, 50-year-old childhood toy
©careerusinterruptus

The thing about asynchronous development is, I can’t fairly write about how it looks in our house. All the stuff that would scythe right through popular one-dimensional notions of giftedness is too freaking embarrassing to my kids, and I respect them far too much to put it online.

Because the whole point of asynchronous development is that, whilst some of the stuff gifted kids do makes them look absolutely amazing, quite a lot of other stuff they do – or can’t do, or won’t do, depending on the issue – looks pretty bloody babyish. It is babyish. And my kids aren’t stupid; they know perfectly well they “should” have outgrown it like their age-peers have, but they haven’t, yet. That’s not down to my coddling or their manipulation or kids these days being soft/spoiled/getting away with murder, it’s just wiring.

It’s integral to the full picture of what we’re wrangling here, though, because the one thing us parents of gifties want you to know is that honey, we ain’t bragging. We cling to these words along with our gin bottles, because often, the “asynchronous development” part of the gifted diagnosis is the only thing that makes our kids make any degree of sense.

So instead, I’m going to share a moment from my childhood, when the asynchronicity – the all-over-the-shop development that makes gifted kids appear several ages at once – really twinkled, now that I look back through the lens of Much Reading.

On one hand, my parents bought me a subscription to Readers’ Digest for my sixth birthday, because I was desperate for reading material and they were desperate for me to stop asking questions – and they knew I’d love it. And, oh my god, I did love it. I devoured it, cover-to-cover, every month until we moved to Australia when I was 14 and the subscription lapsed. I can still tell you a whole stack of things I learned from Readers’ Digest. So on this hand, the expected precocious little smart-arse, right?

On the other hand, when my younger sisters ganged up to shame me out of thumb-sucking and sleeping with my Humpty, age 9 (first clue!), I epically lost my shit and bashed them over the head with a broom (second clue!). This hand – whoa. This hand was Daffy Duck, except actually dangerous. (Having been on the receiving end myself, I must say the tantrums of a three-year-old are a picnic compared to the same fury and lack of control whomping out of someone six years bigger and stronger.)

Now I know how today’s parenting forums would pile on. The “I would not stand for thats”, the “completely unacceptables”, the “9yo is definitely old enough to control their tempers”. It was completely unacceptable, obviously, but the point is – controlling your temper isn’t about age. It’s a learned skill. At 9, I had the self-control of your average three-year old, because I had never lost my temper before. Until that point, my parents would reasonably explain their position in any conflict and I would reasonably accept it. I’d never hit anyone; I’d never even thrown a tantrum. So my fit that night was a double-whammy: not only had I walloped my sisters, the fact that I could wallop my sisters came as a giant shock to all of us. It terrified the crap out of me, and I burst into tears every bit as loud as theirs. I was A MONSTER!

That’s asynchronous development. That’s the reason parents of gifted kids clutch their gin: at any moment, your hitherto rational, advanced, and well-adjusted child may suddenly be taken over by a foaming poltergeist of their much-younger selves – or, as in my case, a developmental stage they’d seemingly skipped altogether. (Tip: they never skip stages. If you think your kid has skipped a stage, by all means, read ahead and meet them wherever they are, but mark the place in your book. You will be revisiting it, sooner or later. Sometimes much later.)

Sure, some gifties lose their temper regularly and still take forever to learn that control. For others, it’s different aspects of development that are out of whack: they can read but not write, or recite the periodic table but not toilet-train, or calculate orbital trajectories in their heads but still need to co-sleep. The point is the lows that come with the highs and the vertiginous zipping between the two. One minute your nine-year-old is waxing lyrical about David Hartman, the first blind person to graduate med school in the US; the next minute she’s lost all self-control, everyone’s screaming hysterically, and you’re checking the littlies for concussion.

As a parent, I have suffered this whiplash so many times, it’s a wonder my head is still attached. It’s the thing I most wish to convey when I talk about the gifted. Sure, there’s an intellectual component to the diagnosis that hogs the limelight, but as a parent, you don’t really care about that. No, what keeps you awake at night is the berserker lurking behind the vocabulary, ready to leap out and wallop everyone when least expected.

That’s the thing that drove me to the forums and eventually, to my tribe of other, similarly-traumatised parents, and it’s why I’m sharing this now. Because if you don’t get what asynchronous development is, you might not know that this is what gifted looks like.

Teh stubborn

I known, I know. You’re not supposed to use that word, with all its negative connotations. Positive parents are supposed to frame it as “persistence”, a far more admirable trait.

But I’m going with stubborn. In part, this is because my kids own it; I’ve heard “because I’m a pig-headed little butthead” more times than I can count in recent weeks. And in part because it’s genetic. I know precisely where they get it from and this is one I cannot even begin to blame on the Sceptic. The Stubborn is all my family. It’s Mum and both my sisters and my brother and dear god, my niece and nephew, love ’em.

But mainly I’m going with ‘stubborn’ this week to focus on the bottom line. When they are little, conventional parenting wisdom is that you must show children who is boss. Whatever it takes – losing privileges, time-out, the occasional spanking “to get their attention”, you keep upping the ante until you get compliance. They learn through “consequences” to do what you say.

In our family, though, there is … something. Something that gets in the way of that process. My sister and I call it the “nose-cutting gene”: most of us would rather cut off our own noses than do something your way or (god forbid) ask for help.

So Mum, for example, has refused for thirty years to drink the glass of red wine a night her doctor said would help with her cholesterol. She took herself off any number of medications, continued seeing negligent doctors, ate foods that landed her repeatedly in hospital. She won’t use a walker. Recently, when she was completely crippled with back pain and I had to call an ambulance to take her to hospital, I joked, “No more soccer for you, Mum”, as she lay on the stretcher, just to see the look on the paramedics’ faces when she said, “I can if I want.”

My kids inherited that. Oh, they’re not stupid: they were never compelled to touch a hot thing, or pull free to run in traffic. When it comes to a battle of wills, however, there is no backing down. They will do it their way, not mine, even if it hurts them. If I call their bluff, they up the ante. As a gamer friend put it, if they have to suffer damage 3 to cause me damage 6, it’s worth it. The more I invest in my demand, the more they refuse.

On top of that, it didn’t take me long to learn that this likely to cause them to freak the fuck out, because if damage 3 is scary (and it is), being at war with Mummah is ten thousand times scarier. There’s nothing cold or calculated about it; if they lose the plot it is not about ‘making’ me do/give them what they wanted (ie, a tantrum), it’s because they don’t know how to back down and they are terrified of the consequences. So one of my biggest parenting challenges is to regularly model backing down.

Hold your knickers, there! I do not mean that I model “giving in”. They do not get it all their own way. But if I take the heat out of it – if I say, “Oh, you’re not ready to do that, yet? Well, could you do it later? (After food, or rest, or a tickle?) Or could you do this, instead?” then I am teaching them that their needs matter, that they can say what they need, and that we can both get our needs met. If I lower the bar, I take anxiety out of the equation and we are all free to move.

It’s hard, lemme tell ya. I’ve got the same bloody gene. I see a problem, I assess, I come up with The Best Solution, I have a plan, we’re gonna have this sucker fixed by Tuesday. That’s how I got through my whole life, pre-kids, and it worked. But post-kids, doing things that way has meant arguments, all day, every day, about everysinglebloodything, with meltdowns galore to boot. I tried it, okay? I flogged the You Will Go To School horse for five solid years, and all it did was make Mr Pixel hate school. And cause literally thousands of fights.

And I know that in a few years, backing down is going to be my kids’ biggest challenge (especially my son’s). They need to be able to tell the difference between doing what they want because it’s what they genuinely want, and doing what they want to prove me wrong, hurting themselves in the process. We need to be able to negotiate in a way that will not have an angry young person hurling him- or her-self out the door into a car, or into a bad relationship, or an addiction, or a shitty career, because all I’ve taught them over the years is to dig their heels in.

So this week, my big win was putting sums for CraftyFish on the glass door, and asking Mr Pixel to help with painting the bed. He’d watched his sister scribbling on glass with dry-wipe markers; he’d heard us work through several low levels of sum that weren’t too hard. And to my astonishment, he said he’d rather do that than paint the bed. So, okay! Quickly scrawled some sums for him. Which he took five hours to work up to doing, and then made lots of basic mistakes, which we laughed all the way through.

True, I didn’t get help with the painting. Irrelevant. No, insignificant. Mr Pixel negotiated, a crucial life skill that many adults lack. He voluntarily did something he usually pathologically avoids, and which I deliberately didn’t ask him to do, because I didn’t give him a chance to dig his refusenik heels in. He did it and not only was it not painful, he actually enjoyed himself, and building that experience around something he’s paralytically anxious about – and sharing a laugh with Mummah, to boot – that is priceless.

It won’t work twice, I know that. I know we haven’t ‘solved’ his math anxiety. I will have to find other ways around that and yes, it’s hard fucking work. But that’s okay, because we are both learning, and learning is good. I am proud of both of us.