A colleague of mine asked a Head of School “Which kids should go to boarding school?” Her answer was “Children of two ‘Type-A’ parents.” Well, where I live, that’s just about everyone. What that head of school said made me sad. Parents are so frequently judged and in one fell swoop this educator took down an entire personality type. Back in the day being ‘Type A’ got you places. You were the one who went the extra mile. My mantra as a kid – handed down to me by my father – was, “Aim low boring, Aim high soaring!” I kid you not. The difference? I never felt undue pressure by that message. I felt encouraged, I felt motivated, I felt worthy of such a goal. I was proud that my father thought I could always aim high and I knew he was asking me to compete against myself. Why wasn’t I resentful, intimidated, or annoyed by this charge? Why does it seem like today such messaging will send children into tail-spins?
I think ‘Type A’ today, means something different than it used to. ‘Type A’ implies goal-directed, but today, with social media, goals are redefined. The overarching goal in many cases, it seems, is to gain the biggest response to accomplishments. Social media has become the purest form of external motivation. “Back in the day,” we were judged, and judged ourselves compared to relatively fewer peers. It seems like internal motivation was easier to come by. With social media, not only are kids able to see what other kids are doing (or saying they are doing), but adults too, compare themselves to colleagues and other parents. Of course, parents have always bragged and exaggerated about their kids to one another, and some kids always wanted to share the ‘A’ they received on an exam or paper, but now we actually see evidence (false or otherwise) of what people (all over the world) are doing. Additionally, our every move has the potential of being enhanced, edited and filtered extravagantly. Goals are fictionalized and augmented. I think of it as everyone in his or her own fish bowl, looking around at each other with bulging eyes, and the size of that ‘biggest fish I ever caught’ gets bigger by the moment. Kids and parents get caught up in comparing themselves.
Psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of one of my favorite books, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, talks about “tea cups” and “crispies.” Tea cups are kids whose demeanors and personalities are in and of themselves fragile. But pushing them, cornering them, keeping them in a box filled with constantly high expectations, turns them into “crispies” or kids who at any moment might shatter. Mogel talks about “one trick ponies.” She says “[c]hildren who feel that they are expected to surpass their parents’ already high level of achievement or to demonstrate skills that are beyond their capabilities will suffer.” If we continually push our kids to master a broad variety of skills they are neither interested in nor capable of, they may forget their one awesome “trick.” Further this with a competitive need to showcase our children’s accomplishments in our social media posts, and we up the ante for our community and for our kids who watch and emulate what we do.
Gifted and twice exceptional children are so often judged and defined by either their gift or their challenge. Expectations are derived based on what they can do easily or where they struggle, not by what they love. They are either expected not to achieve based on their deficit or expected to achieve in every area based on their abilities. 2e kids know this. They know this in their every day, exhausting, trying-to-be-what-everyone-wants-me-to-be lives. They either learn to play the game – assign some false worth to someone else’s prerogative or they become immensely frustrated and likely become what experts call, “underachievers.” It’s funny, but the educator or parent who takes the time to know their student or child, to understand what is keeping them from doing the thing they don’t want to do, will more often get that same kid to do that same thing with less effort. Time spent on the front-end yields more meaningful results in the end. A child learns to feel internal pride and motivation when their effort is recognized and praised, rather than their accomplishment showcased.
For sure, successful ‘Type-A’ people find paths to get what they want, using creative, sustainable, durable ways toward a goal. Other ‘Type A’ people may use tactics that defeat their purpose, more “bull in a china shop” sort of tactics. It reminds me of what Jim Delisle says about relationships between gifted kids and teachers in his book, Doing Poorly on Purpose; “The same student who will walk on nails for a teacher who asks, ‘What are you interested in learning and how can I help you achieve your goals?” will dismiss a teacher who says, ‘I don’t care how smart you think you are, all of my students need to turn in their homework. Review and practice are good for you.’” It’s the same with parenting. “I don’t care that you’re about to level up” or “that your friend is leaving tomorrow,” or “that you are exhausted, you have to do [insert thing they have to do] before you can do anything else.” This tactic is disrespectful and dismissive. Particularly for 2e kids who thrive when they are given choices or are in control, who need meaning assigned to what they have to do, and who often need down-time to recuperate from a day of assaulting their sensitivities; “do this or else” tactics do not work.
We’ve created a culture of external motivation in this hyper-competitive atmosphere by broadcasting to the world every moment our child does something, (“She took her first step!” “He ate peas for the first time!” “She won the science fair!” “He scored the winning goal!” “He got his driver’s license!” “He graduated first in his class!” “She got into her first-choice college!”). The person who coined the term, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ had no idea what that could mean.
So, what can we do? Mogel’s advice is to “study [your child’s] temperament, and once you’ve learned it, work to accept it.” Understand who your child is and what they, dare I say, want to do. Work with them within the outline of who they are rather than how we want others to see them. Resist the impulse to post about everything they do. Show them that it is more important within the family to celebrate them than to look for outside encouragement and validation. Parents sometimes share with me an outlier behavior of their child and comment “the whole neighborhood saw” or “everyone noticed.” Sometimes it’s embarrassing or frustrating raising kids who don’t hover at “norm” on any bell curve. It makes it harder to let go or recalibrate especially when it seems like everyone else is all about more attention and you would prefer less.
As one client recently said to me, “we are learning to brush our teeth with our other hand intuitively.” I love that! Part of this recalibration is to notice what your kids do and accomplish compared to their own efforts and abilities. Have high expectations for them – our 2e kids need to know how valued they are and that their contributions are immensely important to society – but let the importance be about how they accomplish their goals rather than the things they accomplish. I imagine how Carole Dweck, author of Mindset, a book that espouses the philosophy to praise the product not the process, might tweak the social media posts listed above. She took her first step becomes: “Our girl worked so hard to coordinate her muscles and looked so proud when she let go of Mommy’s hand to move forward on her own!” He got his driver’s license! becomes: “After practicing for hours, we are proud that our son’s studiousness and fastidious attention to safety granted him the permission to drive legally.” #praisetheprocess #manthisishard
Parents are so often blamed for their child’s behavior or demeanor. The Head of School who linked boarding school to parenting style oversimplified the myriad of factors that lead to boarding school decisions and confused ‘Type A’ with pressurized, inflexible parenting. Boarding school is a gift for some children and families – it can allow kids to become independent, it allows the family system to change, it gives a child the opportunity to see that he can thrive on his own and can provide an atmosphere where lagging skills are learned. These are all great reasons for kids to attend boarding schools and attending boarding school does not imply parental failure. I truly believe that parents want what is best for their children. Goal-directed parents seek out any and all opportunities to support their kids and judging parental decisions behooves no one. Just as we need to praise our children for their endeavors and hard work, so parents’ efforts must be praised. Sometimes parents need to shift their goals and sometimes they need to forge a new path toward those goals. The most important thing is to choose these goals based on who your children are and to support them in finding their personal best path for getting there.