Recently in a Facebook group for parents on how to pay for college, a fellow member posted an article of a 9-year-old boy from the Chicago area that took the ACT and scored 35 (out of a possible 36). My immediate thought was, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be great if he lived in our state so Elliott could meet him?”. I followed the thread with interest and curiosity. I felt it was an opportunity to see what kind of response the public has to gifted outliers like Elliott. I was a bit taken aback. Many of the commenters were not kind.
Internet Rule #1: Never read the comments.
Alas, I did. Comments ranged from supportive to mostly judgmental. Some were outright rude and even bullying in nature. Some people chimed in with comments about how they once knew someone who knew someone who had a daughter that was one grade accelerated and how it ruined her life. RUINED HER LIFE! There were countless comments about how the parents should just let the kid be a kid. On the surface, I can understand their preconceived notions about accelerated children. There will always be stories of parents pushing their kids whether it’s sports or academics.
In 2011, a woman named Amy Chua wrote a book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, that spawned the catch phrase. Amy raised her children with what she described as a “strict Chinese upbringing”. She uses the term “tiger mom” as a mother who is a strict disciplinarian. This term is now widely bandied about to describe a parent who pushes their child to excel, a lot of times against the child’s wishes or abilities. We have an uphill battle against this stereotype.
We’re also up against somewhat of an inequity. Children who are advanced or gifted in athletics are often praised and applauded. Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Gabby Douglas. While their journeys were not easy by any stretch of the imagination, their talents and achievements are celebrated by the general public while a 9-year-old who took the ACT “for fun” and received high marks, the overwhelming response is, “Why are his parents pushing him?” and “Just let him be a kid!”.
I’ve always said if you spend 5 minutes with Elliott, you would get it. You would get HIM. He’s different. Life has been challenging in many ways, but it’s also been an amazing adventure to watch him grow. We take it day by day, but I can tell you one thing for certain; we aren’t pushing Elliott. I’m not sure I’d choose this particular journey. Dare I say, I’d choose easy! (I know, no one has it easy. How about easier?)
On the Facebook thread in the how to pay for college group, I tried to defend this kid. Defend my kid. Defend parents in situations like ours. I mentioned that Elliott, “drives the bus”, that we didn’t choose this life but we are doing everything in our power to make sure Elliott’s needs are met. It’s what we as parents do for all of our kids. We want our children to be happy. I think we can all agree that all children deserve to have their academic needs met. It took exactly .05 seconds for a woman to say, “how does a 9-year-old drive a bus when he can’t reach the pedals?”, adding a snarky laughing emoji. Her comments told me she wasn’t at all willing to listen to parents trying to describe what these kids are really like. It’s not the first time nor the last time we will be judged. I realize without knowing Elliott, this may be the gut reaction from many people.
I can go on to list all of the early milestones and achievements Elliott has under his belt. But there’s more to Elliott; his personality, his passions. He lives, breathes, and craves to learn. His needs have often times been unsustainable. At 15 months old, he took large plastic alphabet letters everywhere — out to dinner, to his friends houses, on vacation, to the grocery store, to bed. Everywhere. They were his lovies. (Keeping track of 26 three-inch-tall lovies is no easy task!) If I took Elliott to Target and told him he could pick a small toy, he would make a beeline to the math workbooks in the book isle. One day when he was 5, he decided to memorize each of the 118 elements including their atomic numbers, descriptions and who discovered them because he loved knowing what made up the world. His favorite movie is Particle Fever and he cheered out loud when the physicists discovered the Higgs Particle. He wants to teach. He wants to share with the world the beauty of the language of mathematics. He writes the Pythagorean theorem in the beach sand and he calculates the height of his souvenir kite flying high in the sky. He wants to write codes in Java to make life tasks easier for people. He can hold his own in a conversation with adults about artificial intelligence and he can debate the fairness of rules of a made-up Nerf wars game with a fellow 9-year-old friend. He hugs his new text books. He also loves to play in the snow, building sand castles, Angry Birds, remote control cars, riding his bike, swimming, ice cream, mini golf and stuffed animals. He understands and feels so incredibly deeply. And he wants to be your friend.
As his parents, we try our hardest to make sure his needs are being met academically and socially. But the reality is, he is an outlier. Recently one of his teachers called a meeting with us and pointed out that he’s an outlier among outliers, adding, “…you hear about these minds, it’s incredible to actually meet someone like this.”. After that meeting, the current schooling situation that we thought was working, isn’t going to work for much longer. He needs more. He’s always going to need more. Since this is our norm, it’s sometimes difficult for us to step outside our day to day lives and observe Elliott the way other people see him. We try hard to achieve balance for him and how we can help accommodate his desire to learn, while being acutely aware of depression and self-harm tendencies that can come hand in hand with the profoundly gifted population. We do our best to advocate schooling options for him, crowd source mentors, find job shadowing/field trip opportunities, we also schedule play dates, trips to the amusement park, have lemonade stands and race bikes with the neighborhood kids. Just because he has a different educational journey, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to be a kid. One is not exclusive of the other.
I hope we continue to hear many more stories of kids thriving at their passions! I hope that parents will feel safe sharing their experiences without worrying about the knee-jerk reaction that these kids have been pushed by their “tiger” parents. Our families have had to make a lot of sacrifices and concessions, have worked hard advocating and have gone up against the system more times than we would like to make sure our kids are getting the educational opportunities that they deserve to have. I hope we can be proud and not judgmental of all of our kids that are thriving at what they love, academically, athletically, and beyond! We all just want the best for our children.
And of course, happiness.