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Friday, May 25, 2012

Are 'gifted' children really so different?

My post on gifted toddlers has made a little splash out there in internet land. I've had some very interesting conversations as a result. For example, Janet Lansbury (whose post 'No Bad Kids- toddler discipline without shame' was referenced in that post) brought up one issue which recurs often enough for me to deal with it in more detail. She commented:

"I truly believe that every child deserves this level of respect and sensitivity. Yes, the brighter the child, the more sensitive he or she usually is...but ALL children need this...don't you think?"

What an excellent point to raise. And of course the answer is a wholehearted 'yes'. All children deserve respect. All children deserve an authentic response. The advice I gave that mother could be applied to any child, really- respect and authenticity would work to improve the behaviour of just about any child.

My gifted boy at 4, captivating the crowd
with his rendition of '5 Cheeky Monkeys'.
Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. But he
WOULD NOT go to bed.
So what exactly is it about gifted children that needs extra care? Are they really so different from other children? And why do the parents of gifted children seem to need extra assistance with their parenting, if it's really just a matter of keeping to the same path as with other kids?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The challenges of a gifted toddler

I've written already about the difficulties of caring for gifted preschoolers, but what about the precociously gifted toddler? The challenges can be pretty daunting when your two-year-old has an astoundingly advanced ability to communicate, coupled with the normal emotional meltdowns associated with this age group. The parenting books just don't deal with this stuff. 
At 18 months, mine already
expressed himself clearly!

I was lucky; when I was parenting my 2-year-old gifted child, I was being mentored by the giftedness guru Miraca Gross through professional development in my workplace. She made me feel sane. Honestly, a toddler who can express himself well enough to argue the point logically while melting down is a pretty crazy-making phenomenon. 

And this is pretty much the problem that confronted "Angelique" when she asked me for help with her 2-year-old, "Julius". (Thank heavens for the new message function in FB Timeline pages!)

She started by thanking me for my post about gifted preschoolers, and describing her 2-year-old son Julius in general terms.

Angelique: ...My son also was one to walk at 11 months. It's actually pretty amazing how broad his vocabulary is, because 6 months ago he had a 90% blockage of his adenoids... I couldn't imagine how much he'd be talking if he DIDN'T have medical issues! ...My family used to think I was crazy because I would explain something to Julius, or I would squat down to his level and explain why he could/couldn't do something. For the longest time he thought we would have to squat together to converse... Now everyone in the family (the ones who thought I was nuts) now squat to his level and ask him to look them in the eyes as I have always done... 

...Also speaking softer than him always caught his attention (since he couldn't hear very well). It also taught him he didn't always have to yell after having his surgery. His psychologist said he could be one of those crazy kids who graduate at 10... Not into that, because the kid needs to have a childhood, however I am trying my best to teach him new things... Today we painted with watercolors instead of finger paint which he has never done and LOVED.... always looking for something new to pique his interest! I truly appreciate your insight and I appreciate the offer to turn to you for help!

So far so good; Angelique is already doing many of the things her little son needs, despite pressure to maintain what society thinks of as 'age-appropriate childrearing strategies', and I try to reinforce this. 

Aunt Annie: You hold your ground- sounds like you are doing all the right things. I found my gifted son made me a good parent because he wouldn't stand for anything else. With a gifted child you HAVE to be respectful, and authentic, and all those things I talk about in the blog. A long as you're paying attention to his actual needs rather than what's expected, you will be fine! But I am here when you want to talk something over.

At Julius' age, mine started to refuse to be
photographed. See him pushing away from
me? There are years in which all I have is
a school photo of him, mostly scowling.
Having been through the gifted-child experience, I could have put money on Angelique hitting a wall at some stage- and a month or so later, this was in my message box.

Angelique: Ok, so you told me if I ever needed advice I could ask you... I'm about to lose my mind and I'm desperate, so here I am! 

I'm not exactly sure how I am supposed to deal with Julius' emotional issues... It seems like they are MUCH more extreme then other 2 year olds his age. His feelings are hurt, and he'll tell you exactly how it has hurt him- and he is now starting to take his frustrations out on his brother. 

Early obsessions: normal.
My son was obsessed with
Thomas the Tank Engine
(here he is as the Fat
Controller for Book Week!)
His OCD and anxiety has been MAGNIFIED with his brother lately (his little brother has been in and out of hospitals the last 3 months so Julius is having problems dealing. I am trying to do things to make him feel special, and giving him special time with just me and him.) But he freaks when his brother touches his things, or does something that he thinks in his little gifted mind is unacceptable. I can't help but laugh sometimes when he tells his brother "No hands, baby Aidan, that's my stuff", like the baby will understand, and gives him a baby toy instead. 

SOOO I guess my main question is, how in the world do you deal with the different emotional issues, and how am I supposed to discipline a 2-year-old who is WAY past the whole time out 

Aughh, being a mom of a gifted kid is hard work.... almost as hard as his baby brother's medical issues! The 3 of us were all crying in the living room the other day, so I'm asking for advice from the best person I know for this! Thank you again for your insight and being an amazing source of info for me!

Poor Angelique. Here's the strategy I dreamed up for her.

Aunt Annie:  Well, the first thing you need is a HUG!


Wow, you really are copping it, aren't you? Look, I'm not a great believer in time out these days. I used to use it myself, but I think its main value was to let ME cool down. 'Time in' is actually more settling for the child- i.e. where you separate him physically from whatever he's doing that totally SUCKS (kicking and screaming if necessary), and then spend time with him. 

So with Julius, who is so advanced intellectually and verbally, you actually have a slight advantage here- you can use more complex 4/5-yr-old concepts when talking him through the terrible twos. Yes, he is being a completely normal 2-yr-old emotionally- bright 2-yr-olds can be VERY out there when they lose the plot. IT WILL STOP. He WILL grow out of it.

If you can hold it together enough to NARRATE what's happening without value judgments, it will help. Set a boundary. Then 
try talking and acknowledging the feelings, plus reinforcing acceptable ways to express those feelings.

So, say the baby has his toy. You stop his hands from whatever inappropriate thing they're doing to the baby, hold him so he can't do it again, but lovingly, and say calmly and firmly "I see that the baby has your toy and I see that you have some big feelings happening. I won't let you hit the baby (or grab things from the baby, or shout at the baby). If you want to hit, you can hit this pillow (or tear this paper, or shout and stamp your feet outside)." 

When the rage subsides a bit... "Can you tell me about the big feelings when the baby takes your toys? Are you angry? Or are you sad?" And let him talk. 

You can introduce the word jealousy, acknowledge that the baby is taking a lot of your time and that he's sad about it, tell him you understand. Maybe you can talk about your own childhood or some other relatives' childhoods, how they had little brothers/sisters and were jealous, but are glad they have a sibling now. Be real. Be authentic.

Another way of letting him release feelings is with puppets. Maybe you could get a baby puppet and act out the baby taking his toys, and let him work out some ways to deal with it. If you can introduce some humour, he will really appreciate it!
Mine melted down if not given
real tools and treated with
 respect for his intellectual age.

It does sound as though he is particularly sensitive. Many very, very bright children share some of the extreme sensitivities of kids with Asperger's Syndrome- my brother is a perfect example. He would melt down over crazy stuff like my mother feeding him peas- he hated hard stuff in his mouth. And me? I still melt down over conflicting noises, like someone talking to me over the TV, or someone who has the radio and TV on at once. Now I am NOT saying Julius has anything like that, but some of the strategies can be very useful with hypersensitive kids.

Try to avoid overstimulating him. Keep your environmental colours fairly neutral, try not to have too much mess around (hahahahaha very funny with a baby and a 2 yr old, I know!), avoid loud music playing, have safe places for Julius to retreat to AWAY from the baby. If the baby is driving him nuts, buy a low-rise playpen and put JULIUS'S TOYS in there, so the baby can't get them but he can. 

It's VERY important that you have firm, clear boundaries around what is not acceptable with the baby, and with you. Have you read Janet Lansbury's page about 'No Bad Children- Toddler discipline without shame'? Go to and look in her most popular posts. Emotionally, Julius is 2. Intellectually, he is way above that, but you need to deal with the toddler emotions in a toddler-appropriate way.

Have a think about all this and get back to me!

Well, Angelique messaged me back within a matter of hours.

Angelique: THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU... So I am going to be printing that blog and putting it on my fridge!

It's nice to know this won't be my life forever and that this will end. Some days it doesn't feel like that, but it's nice to know it won't always be this hard! I guess once we are through this stage we'll go on to a different problem.
Julius DOES have some super sensitivities (that's actually what raised my concern and what got me mentioning something to the Dr, who then sent us to the psych). Noise is a BIG thing- and with a baby who is crying a portion of the day from pain, THIS drives Julius NUTS! He'll yell at the baby "STOP CRYING" constantly, and then freak out when Aidan falls asleep because he thinks he did something wrong- so he'll yell at the baby to "WAKE UP" because he's concerned! Asperger's was something we were looking at. The kiddo is VERY particular in a lot that he does, which I'm trying not to let get too obsessive. 

So it's pretty amazing today... just by saying "I won't let you <fill in the blank> with the baby", it has totally changed the extent to which he tries to push his limits. Who knew those 4 words could change it?! I guess I'm personally struggling with the fact that he understands more then he should, but is doing things anyway (being 2). I guess I just have to remind myself that he's two- even though he acts older, he's still two.

I truly do appreciate your insight and cannot thank you enough... I actually have one of those big round play pens that have a door, that I bought after I had the baby. I took it out this morning and Julius has LOVED it! He has played in there (baby free), and I set it so the door is on the inside so he comes and goes as he wants and yet his things are "safe." He loves it, so I think I'll just keep it out for him.

I'm printing out what you wrote and sharing it with my husband and mom... you are amazing at what you do thank you!

Whew. I was just gobsmacked that this worked so quickly! Toddler parents, if you haven't read that Janet Lansbury post, skedaddle over there right now. Between Janet's understanding of respectful parenting and my understanding of giftedness, I reckon we've got this one nailed.

I replied to Angelique:

Aunt Annie: Oh Angelique, you made me cry. I am so pleased that what I said to you worked- though I'm not surprised!
The divide between emotional and intellectual maturity is probably the hardest thing to grasp about many gifted children. He still needs you to be a strong guiding hand on the boundary fence, regardless of his ability to talk and think in a somewhat precocious manner. 

Later on, this will become an ability to reason and manipulate and argue in a frighteningly logical and assertive way, and you will need to be on your toes. Get ready to say "My job as your mum is to make sure you are able to be happy when you grow up. I know from experience that if I let you do this, it will make you unhappy later on, so I won't let you do it." (Followed by real examples, real stories- always give your evidence.) That strategy saved me on several occasions with my strong-willed, argumentative son. Be ready!

Also I want to congratulate you for your perception and calmness in seeing that Julius' sensitivities are beyond the 'average' and seeking professional help. Denial that there's a problem has never been helpful for a child- you have done the best and bravest thing for your son. Learning how to handle his sensitivities early will be so helpful for his development and give him the best chance to realise his amazing potential. Well done, you!

And she came back almost at once with this:

Angelique: Haha... well, reading what YOU put made ME cry! It's always nice to know that I'm not the only one going through this and that this stage WILL end!

His ability to argue & manipulate situations at 2 scares me because he can already get his point across... I'm in deep trouble when he's a teenager.

I have to confess... I'm totally one of those moms who will put my kids and their needs WAY before my pride & feelings. But we knew Julius was "different" when he was rolling at 2 months & crawling at 4 months, putting his toys away in the correct spots at 8 months etc... It just got more apparent when he could talk, so I took him to the Dr's. I would rather do what I can now to be able to get the best future for my kid. Thanks for everything!

And thanks to Angelique too, for letting me share her problem with other readers. She is so right about the gifted teenager- if you haven't nailed the relationship with the gifted child before puberty, your learning curve will be sending you backwards at a million miles an hour. Boundaries, parents, boundaries! Don't let that silver tongue fool you! If you label the gifted child 'cute' and allow him/her to get away with murder, you are asking for trouble.

Just sayin'!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Let's talk about money. And appreciation.

For so many families, childcare is not really a choice. Oh sure, just about everything in our life involves a choice- I know that, believe me. But sometimes the alternatives to childcare are pretty dire.

You could choose not to have kids.

You could choose the one-parent-working route, and not even try to own your own house, or to have any more kids, or whatever that financial hardship might mean for you.

You could just give up on trying to work at all, and pay the rent and make ends meet on the dole.

And so on. Times are tough. All the alternatives have a price. Often childcare is the best option.

But boy, is it expensive!! It can make you feel quite very resentful to see all that money going out the door when you're working so hard to get it. And some of that resentment seems to get laid at the carers' and teachers' doors by some parents.

Making money to help out mum & dad?
Sometimes I think there might be a little bit of a misunderstanding happening.

Many families whose children are in care or at preschool during the day are in pretty dire financial straits. When you're financially stressed it's hard to see things clearly. Perhaps, because of these worries, parents can be a little blinded to the fact that the people who take care of their children are, more often than not, in the same financial boat.

I wonder how many of the parents who use Australian childcare and preschool facilities are actually aware of how little the workers are paid?

Let me give you an example of our wages. One private centre raised the daily fees to cover the cost of extra staff, as required by new legislation. The price ended up over $90 per day for babies. Any childcare worker at that centre who had their own baby in care- or, heaven help them, a baby plus one or more other child- had to seriously consider their options, because that $90 constituted the larger part of their daily wage after tax.

That's a pretty extreme example at a particularly expensive centre- but believe me, it's close to that bad for all of us workers. I don't have children at home, and I own my own home outright- but I still had the devil's own job surviving on my weekly salary when I was working full-time. All that money you're paying out for childcare is NOT, repeat NOT, filtering down to the workers. I've just been browsing the award wages for Early Childhood workers, and it's not pretty.

And this is where this blog post is heading. We're not here for the money. The money is terrible. Please keep that in mind, as you rush in and out of our centres with certain expectations of what all that hard-earned money is buying for you. Please keep that in mind, as you sit down (probably exhausted after work) for your parent-teacher interview.

Let's talk money a bit more, so you really get it.

Take the Early Childhood Teacher, or ECT- fully university trained, at great expense to themselves despite the recent increase in government support. Even with the current extra government support, an early childhood education degree can cost in the region of $700 per subject (and it's twice that without the government support) before we even consider buying textbooks and other expenses.

For example, to top up my Diploma to the lowest rung required for teaching preschool, I needed to study eight subjects. How many hours do you think it would take me to earn that $5,600, remembering that I also have to pay bills and eat, on my current casual Diploma wage of about $22 per hour? (It would be even less per hour if I were on a permanent wage.)

Our least qualified workers are trying to survive on less than that, and our most qualified teachers aren't making a significant amount more (as well as working untold hours of unpaid overtime). And so exactly how attractive do you imagine is it for the best high school graduates to take on a TAFE or uni course that will incur such a large loan compared to their earning power? (I can't imagine why there's a shortage of qualified ECT in EC settings, can you?)

The maths is frightening. In the end, the money we make from our qualifications is hardly worth the price of the piece of paper.
I can make $25 an hour nannying, and I'd only have to care for one family's children with no qualification needed, no paperwork to do and no after-hours expectations at all.

We're not here for the money.

And here's another real worry for the EC education workforce. Did you know that once a worker obtains an Early Childhood teaching degree, they're paid significantly more for working in the infants' department of a primary school than for working in an early childhood care setting?

That's right- same qualification, equivalent workloads and stresses- but lower wages.

Guess where most EC teachers want to work? Yep, correct- most of them are in a long queue for a job in an infants' school. Not because they don't enjoy working in preschools or long day care, but because they simply can't survive on the wages offered. Many directors are having the devil's own time finding teaching staff who are committed to Early Childhood settings, rather than marking time till a job turns up in a school.

I'm sure you can imagine how this sometimes impacts on teacher quality. If you're financially stressed, if you're constantly wanting and waiting to be somewhere else, you're not going to give of your best. Fortunately there are some ECTs out there who are actually committed to EC settings- I hope you've been lucky enough to find one at your centre.

Playing at being the breadwinner?
Just quietly, it also impacts on gender representation in EC workers. Even in this day and age, men often feel the need to be (or are expected to be) the primary breadwinner in the family, and taking a poorly-paid EC job can be extremely challenging on an emotional level. Even the most outstanding male teacher in the world of EC blogging, Teacher Tom, admits that his career in EC education is a luxury afforded to him only by his wife's more lucrative career.

So what's my point?

My point is that despite this job being very unrewarding in terms of dollars, there are many wonderful, committed EC teachers and workers out there who would really appreciate your understanding and support. (And who would really appreciate it if you took your feelings about the fees out on the government, not on them.)

It's one thing to have a vocation for working with children, and to give freely of your own time to do your job the very best way you can. It's another thing entirely to be expected to go above and beyond the call of duty out of hours, or to be expected to do the work of parenting on top of the work of an educator during those poorly paid hours, or to be abused for not doing more within those full-to-the brim, underpaid hours of work.

The ECT who hands you a beautiful portfolio at the end of the year, full of your child's artwork and professionally written and evaluated observations, hasn't knocked that up during working hours while she kept one eye on the kids. She's done it in her own time- in fact she's probably done 25 or more of them in her own time, while her partner crankily queries the unpaid overtime and invasion of their relationship time. A little insight into what that cost the teacher in time, a little thank you from every parent- that would be really, really nice.

The carer who asks you to please send your three-year-old in shoes with velcro fasteners isn't being lazy or dodging his duties. He can support a child to tie their own laces if they have a clue already, but teaching them to do that is your job. He simply hasn't the time or the support to tie 25 sets of laces before the kids go outside. If your carer makes a simple request, there will be a good reason. Please don't make a fuss about it. If your carer can't do for 25 children everything that you would do for your own two or three, please don't be surprised and indignant.

The daycare worker who hands you a plastic bag of soiled clothes is not your washerwoman. She may have seven of those bags in the laundry bucket, and her eyes need to be on the children- not on the washing machine, and not on seven pairs of clean but unnamed underpants while she tries to work out what belongs to whom. Please don't berate her at pick-up time.

A little bit of appreciation and understanding goes a very long way. Many, many childcare workers and ECTs absolutely love working with your children, but the way they are being paid has no relationship whatsoever to the level of responsibility they accept (or, for that matter, to the number and quality of tasks expected of them by the regulations and by centre management). When they go home at the end of the day, it's to the same sorts of financial stresses as many of the parents, or worse.

You can make a difference to how we EC workers feel at the end of the day. All it takes is a little understanding and appreciation. Because really, the vast majority of your fees fly straight over our heads and disappear- into rent, and insurance, and power bills, and maintenance, and heaven knows what other running costs each centre must cover. And we, the staff, are left scrabbling around on the ground splitting up the small change for our wages.

We're only here for the love of it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mothers' Day at Annie's house

Mothers' Day passes quietly in this house. My son is many miles away, and we've agreed that we won't subscribe to the Hallmark mentality; it's not necessary. I know that he appreciates me every single day of the year. He doesn't need to have a knee-jerk reaction to some randomly allocated date on the calendar to prove he loves me. Every time he calls me or pops up on my Gmail chat, it's Mothers' Day for me.

My mother
 And my own mother- well, I'm sitting here by the fire looking at her photo, which sits high on a shelf in the living room where she can seem to watch my life unfold, and I can pretend she's not missing anything. Her ashes sit on another shelf, but I know that's not really her. That's just the bit of her that grounds me, and reminds me that everything passes. She's more inside my head, or floating in the atmosphere of my home, than in that jar.

Marjorie Daw
She's more present in my old doll, Marjorie Daw, the one that sits up against that jar of ashes. Marjorie Daw still wears a hand-made replica of an outfit my mother made for me fifty years ago. I won a prize the first day I modelled that ensemble, strutting proudly up and down the catwalk feeling like a million dollars, my matching doll in my arms.

I always felt confident that I looked good back in those days. What a gift to give to a little girl.

I'm not a pastel person.
My mother is present, too, in the throws that cover my lounge suite, and in the cushions that are dotted across them. I made them myself, using the skills she taught me from the time I could hold a needle or sit at a sewing machine. More gifts from her to me; the gift of inclusion in real work, the gift of play with real tools.

She wouldn't have used those colours, mind you; she was a pastel person in decorating terms. But she would have let me choose them for myself. I think of my old bedroom, which she allowed me to paint black when I was a teenager. (And what a teenager I was. I was horrid.) The black walls ended up covered with white line drawings of my favourite musicians; it was quite a room. It was tiny, but it was MINE.

A talent for laughter...

It took her four coats of lavender to cover all that when I left home- FOUR coats- but she found that funny rather than irritating. I was always, always allowed to be myself, to express myself.

And there was always more laughter in our house than whining; mishaps weren't classed as disasters. Even today, it's easy to make me laugh at myself when I get cranky. That's a gift worth having, too.

...often at herself

Good choice, R!

My mother is here in the photo of my daughter-in-law, too, even though they never met. She died when my son was just two, yet enough of her remained in my son's subconscious for him to be attracted to a woman who had much in common with her. The dry but razor-sharp wit, the quiet intelligence, the ability to express difficult feelings calmly, the affinity for handcrafts and the ability to be completely happy in her own company- all these I recognise. Never believe a two-year-old retains nothing in his memory. At two, my gifted and very challenging son felt completely comfortable with my mother. At nineteen, he found the same atmosphere with another woman, and immediately chose her for life.

My daughter-in-law is a gift. How many women can say they genuinely love their son's wife?

My mother's chair sits in the corner. I hardly ever sit in it, but it's always full. It's bursting with memories. Mostly, I see her sitting there towards the end, in terrible pain but smiling while my little son tells her stories to distract her. Looking at that chair I can hear her voice. Voices are forgotten eventually, you know; the day you forget a lost soul's voice and can't hear it in your head is a dark day indeed. But between my son and that chair, the sound is still locked in my head 25 years later.

My mother's here in the books that are scattered through the room. Even when we were flat broke, somehow we managed to have books in the house. And those books were a symbol of time spent together. I remember going to the local children's library with her; what hours we spent there, browsing the shelves, sitting on the floor reading because we couldn't wait till we were at home again to open the book. I remember her sitting on my bed when I was deathly sick with rheumatic fever, reading the chapter of 'Anne of Green Gables' where Anne accidentally dyes her hair green while I laughed helplessly and forgot I was ill.

And she's right here in this computer, even though she never used one in her life. I tap away and remember how she let me use her typewriter to discover the joy of words. If my two-finger typing is faster than most experts' ten-finger efforts, it's down to that early start. And I remember the poems and stories we wrote together at that old machine, until I was good enough to use it to write up my own early compositions.

It's Mothers' Day- and though I haven't received a single card or present, I'm sitting here surrounded by gifts.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The 7 Deadly Sins of carers

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post about the 7 deadly sins of childcare parenting, from the point of view of carers. It was the product of extreme frustration!

Today I'm feeling frustrated too, but it's not with the parents. The boot's on the other foot today- I'm reflecting on some of the blatant errors I've seen over and over again from carers.

So here's the balancing post. Here are some things that carers commonly get wrong.