Perfectionism in Parenting the Gifted

My kids used to love to read Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. These books were written for the 9-12 age set. The concept is great. You read for a while and then you have to make a choice. Let’s say you’re at the circus and you are given the choice of joining the circus to become a clown (go to page 64) or joining the circus to become a tightrope walker (go to page 72). After making the choice and going to the appointed page, you read some more until you come to another choice. It’s fun because you can read the book over and over, each time making the story different.

This concept is very much like life. We face choices all the time. Some are more serious than others, but with each choice, our life takes a slightly different turn. As parents, we often get caught in the trap of thinking there is only one correct way of “reading the book” of raising our kids. We are afraid that if we don’t move into the “right” neighborhood or choose the “right” school or the “right” teacher for our kids the results will be disastrous. Although there’s a slight chance this may be true, it is much more likely that each result will just be different—not necessarily better or worse. There may even be some consequences that surprise you.

We get caught up in the perfectionism of parenting because we’re afraid we might ruin the lives of our gifted kids. We also don’t want to be considered failures as parents. Instead of becoming so insistent that everything happen “just so,” I recommend relaxing a bit and considering what good might come out of a situation that doesn’t look favorable on the surface. If not in a perfect situation, might your child learn some coping skills? Might he find a way to become more self-reliant? Might she be exposed to some ideas that would lead her down an exciting path that you would not have been able to provide?

It’s often one’s attitude toward different choices that can be more important than the choice itself. Can you help your gifted child discover what he might learn from a particular decision? Can you help him find the good in it and ways to make it better?

One child I knew always had a difficult time in school. She couldn’t handle any type of authority. Her coping mechanism was to secretly create cartoons of school situations. She became very good at it and eventually drew political cartoons for a newspaper.

As kids get older and more independent, you may find that they make choices that are not of your liking. Sometimes bright students chose not to go on to school or they don’t get a traditional job in a timely fashion. Parents may wring their hands and feel like failures. In most cases, these kids are just taking nontraditional paths.

As one parent put it, “My son decided to retire at the age of 22.” For years he wandered, seeming to do nothing with his life. Now, at 27, he’s in a Ph.D. program.

Another fellow took menial jobs and slept on a friend’s couch so he could save all his money to travel. He traveled to the most exotic places, stayed with the native people under primitive conditions and quickly learned the language of each place he visited. Somewhere along the line, he became interested in photography and then macro photography. He wound up going back to school and becoming an entomologist. Now he is also working on a Ph.D., but it has taken him until the age of 32 to get there. Think of the life experiences he had that the rest of us missed.

So, don’t lose faith if parenting your gifted student has its ups and downs and if you aren’t always able to make things “work” for your child. Your child may be taking an unexpected path, but that doesn’t mean it will have undesirable results in the end.

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