Education Opinion

Strange Advice for Bright Kids

By Tamara Fisher — June 19, 2009 11 min read
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Hey, kids :o) My name is Tamara and for my job I work with super smart kids like you all day long in every grade level (yup, from Kindergarten all the way through high school). It’s loads of fun and I get to learn a lot, too, right along with my students. They’re interesting people – just like you, I imagine – and they keep me on my toes because – probably like you as well – they’re intense, deeply curious, highly sensitive, sometimes perfectionistic, definitely creative, and often out-of-step learners.

As you may have discovered, being gifted isn’t always the cakewalk that a lot of teachers, peers, and parents sometimes think it is. Do you find that sometimes you’re confused by all the awesome choices you have for what you want to be when you grow up? Does it sometimes feel like you’re a grown-up trapped inside a kid’s body? Is it irritating when someone makes fun of you because you read the dictionary for fun or because you want to work harder and learn even more in school? Well, as I tell my students, it’s okay to be who you are because our world needs people like you. Our world needs people of all sorts. Even though others sometimes don’t “get” you, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing “wrong” with you. You’re just gifted, and because the majority of people aren’t gifted that means a lot of them won’t understand you at times. (But really – do you understand them all the time? It goes both ways, too.) Being who you are is a precious thing to be – and you’re the only one in the whole world who can do it.

I have a handful of gems of advice that I give my students and I thought I’d offer them out here today for you. Maybe a couple of these tidbits can be of some help for you. I’m calling it “strange” advice because I like to look at things from unusual angles and this advice comes from perspectives others may not consider.

1) Ask for help. Yup. That means raise your hand in class to ask the teacher for help, or go to Mom & Dad and seek their advice on something. Being super smart, you’re probably the kind of kid who doesn’t have to ask for help too often, especially when it comes to learning. It might all come fairly easily for you and (especially if your classes in school aren’t accelerated or challenging) you may find that you can pretty much always figure stuff out on your own or “get it” without any need for assistance. (Side note: If that’s always the case for you, that’s a big problem. See #5 below for more advice on how to change that.) But do you think everything in school and in Life will always be so easy that you’ll never need to ask for help? Nope. I promise you it gets harder – and there are things you can do today to help prepare yourself for handling it well when the day comes you’ll need big (or little) help. Put yourself into a (healthy) situation where you’ll have to ask for help – and then ask! Think of it as good practice for the future. There’s nothing shameful about needing to ask for help. It might seem that way to you because you so rarely need it, but the reality is it’s a healthy strategy for dealing with frustration and problems. (Not asking is the unhealthy strategy…) Everybody needs help from time to time, even people you might least expect, like Mom or Dad or Einstein or Teacher. Ask them… You’ll find out they’ve all needed help at one point or another, too. [Well, technically, Einstein is dead, so you can’t ask him, but you could ask someone like him…]

2) Love hard work. This piece of advice goes along with #1 a bit. Think about it – If everything always comes easy to you, will you ever really learn how to work hard? Will you ever really develop your work ethic to its fullest? Think of all the people throughout history who have accomplished great things… Was it a piece of cake for them to do what they did? Not at all. Think of someone you know who is GREAT at what he or she does. Is it a cinch for that person to be so awesome at what they do? Nope. (Just ask them…!) To a person, they put in countless hours of hard work before they finally met with success or discovery. So if everything is coming easy for you and you believe because of that that everything will always comes easy for you, then you’re letting yourself be set up for a big disappointment somewhere down the line. But if you can learn and practice HARD WORK now when you’re a kid, you’ll find that you’ll be much better set up for accomplishing whatever it is you want to do as you get older. This means finding ways that you’ll have to work hard in school, work hard at chores, work hard at learning an instrument, work hard at cleaning your room, work hard at learning how to write a great paper. As you practice working hard (just like you’re going to practice asking for help, right?), you’ll find that you’ll be able to make even more progress and you’ll be happier and healthier in the process.

3) Know when to keep your mouth shut. Now, you’ve probably had a lot of people in your life encourage you to speak up, give your opinion, say what you believe, utilize your freedom of speech. And yes, I fully agree with all of that. Speak up, speak out, be heard, and love that in our country we can do so. But this particular piece of advice – about knowing when to keep your mouth shut – is for that little voice in the back of your head that someday (if it hasn’t already) will tell you that maybe you shouldn’t say what’s on the tip of your tongue, maybe the timing isn’t right, maybe that person doesn’t want or need to hear what you have to say, maybe saying it would do more harm than good, maybe somebody has entrusted you with information that the little voice knows you shouldn’t reveal, maybe there’s a nicer way to say it. Learn how to listen to that little voice. I know (because I spend all day with bright kids like you) that you love to share what you know – and hey, that’s super cool. You probably have great ideas and tidbits of information to share, so go for it. But I also know that your impulse to speak up can be very difficult to resist (especially when what you have to say is so darn interesting!). But someday, some moment, you will need to know how to resist that impulse and listen instead to that little voice in the back of your head saying, “Not now… Don’t say it…” Don’t let your speaking-up-voice be a bully to that little voice. Let your little voice be strong, too, - and learn how to hear and heed it when it speaks up.

4) Do what you love. Deciding what you want to be when you grow up can be a really difficult decision, especially for kids like you who have many things they’re great at. (That’s called “multipotentiality.”) Some “multipotentialed” people find ways to combine some of their talents to create new kinds of career paths. Some will pursue one talent for a few years and then switch and pursue another and switch again to a third passion a few years after that. Some will maintain a couple of talents as hobbies, things they still do on the side because they love them so much, even if they’re not making a living off of them. I also know a lot of incredibly brilliant and talented people who have felt pReSsUrEd to pursue a particular career path because everyone always said they were “so good” at whatever it was – or because Mom & Dad or Teacher insisted (though not always bluntly) that they become a ____ (fill in the blank here with anything). But really, even though they were “so good” at it, they weren’t very happy doing it because there was something else they had loved to do that they turned away from. It’s not Mom & Dad’s or Teacher’s career; it’s YOURS. And your greatest successes will come through the talents that you are most passionate about – because they’ll be the ones you’ll want to work harder at, spend time on, muck around with (experiment, explore), and generally devote much of your Life to. So if what you love is to be a farmer or teacher or doctor or astronaut or stay-at-home-mom (or dad) or clown or lawyer or research scientist or orchestra conductor or house painter, then go for it. The most important thing is, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

5) Look out for #1. Who do you suppose #1 is? Nope, it’s not the Lakers or the Penguins or the Red Sox (sorry Maria and Catherine). Number One is YOU. And YOU are the one who is stuck with you for the rest of your life. That means that even though Mom & Dad and Teacher are there now to look out for you, in the long run, you will be left with YOU to look out for you. So (once again) there are things you can do now as a kid to practice looking out for #1. There are three sub-categories to this piece of advice. First, Self-Advocate. That means speak up for what you need – in school and out of school. Did you know that you can approach your teacher and ask for harder work? Yup. You don’t have to just sit back and “take it” – you can speak up and let the teacher know that you’re ready for something more challenging. Think of it this way… For whose purpose do you sit in class every day? Whose education is it? It’s YOUR education. The teacher already has her education. You are there for YOUR education. So it’s okay to speak up if it’s not fitting you very well. If your shoes don’t fit, you speak up about that, right? Well, if your education isn’t fitting, start speaking up about that, too. I have a few specific steps that I teach my students to follow when they are going to self-advocate in school. (We call them “The 4 P’s.”) Be Polite. Remember to use your please’s and thank you’s when talking to your teacher and asking for something more challenging. Do it in Private. If you bring the topic up in front of the whole class, you’ll just make the teacher uncomfortable and all the other kids will try to stick their noses in your business. Provide Proof. The teacher is going to need some sort of proof that you’re ready to move on or do something that’s harder or more in-depth. Be willing to give her whatever reasonable proof she needs so that she can be convinced. Propose an Alternative. Offer the teacher some ideas for what you’ll do instead (such as how you’ll select your harder Spelling words and who will give you your Spelling test when the other kids are taking their test). Be open to the teacher’s ideas for alternatives, too.

Second under “Look Out for #1” is Learn How to Quit Something. Yes, I actually used the Q-word. No, I’m not saying it’s okay to quit whatever, whenever. What I am saying is that you’ll need to know and learn in Life when and how to quit something. See, bright, multi-talented kids like you tend to get involved in EVERYTHING. You play sports, you take piano lessons, you’re in Scouts and 4-H, you participate in your church youth group, you take every challenging class offered at your school, you’re in Dance and Robotics Club, you tutor kids after school, you’re on the Student Council, you go running just for the exercise, you have Game Night with your family, you always have a book on hand to read, you’re on the Debate team, you have chores, you rodeo and PowWow, you love Tae Kwon Do, you’re thinking about learning the violin, you have a few science experiments growing in your basement (sshhh… Mom doesn’t know…), and if you’re old enough you even have an after school job. Whew! Honey, you can’t do it all. At some point, something is going to need to go. You can’t keep adding to your plate without running yourself into the ground in the process. Being busy and involved in such a variety of things is energizing and fun and interesting – and OKAY. You thrive on it – I know! But we all have our limits and it’s also okay to acknowledge that you, too, - being a “mere” human – have limits. When you begin to feel like you’ve reached your limits, take a moment to look at all you’re doing, set some priorities, and cut one (or more) of your activities loose. You’ll be better able to focus on what’s remaining (including getting better at what’s remaining) and you won’t be running yourself as ragged anymore.

And third under “Look Out for #1” is Accept That You Can’t Save the Whole World. I know as gifted kids you are sensitive to all the need and horror and struggle and problems in our world – and I know you have a deep desire to help and fix and save. That’s a precious facet of kids like you and I want you to feel empowered to go out into the world, no matter how young you are, and make a difference. You CAN make a difference. But I also think it’s important that you know going into it that you’re not going to be able to save everyone and solve every problem. I know it’s difficult to acknowledge, but the need in the world is MUCH bigger than you are. If you try to save everyone, you’ll only end up doing yourself in in the process, and then you won’t be any help to anyone. Now, I want to be clear here. Notice I am NOT saying, “Be selfish,” and I am NOT saying, “Don’t try to solve the world’s problems.” What I AM talking about is an important (and healthy) balance. Because if you don’t take care of you first, you’ll be less able to help those you want to help. Pick the Difference(s) you know you can reasonably make and let that (or those) be your focus. If you get sidetracked by all the BIG problems and trying to fix them alone, you’ll just end up demoralized by the overwhelming-ness of it all. I’m not saying you (or anyone) can’t do GREAT things to help in the world. You can. We all can. I’m just saying that you humanly can’t do EVERYthing to help the world. And it’s simply healthy (healthy for you and healthy for those you want to help) to come to terms with that. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” You’re “only” human. And that’s a great thing to let yourself be.

So… Ask for help, love hard work, know when to keep your mouth shut, do what you love, and look out for #1. Hopefully some of this advice can help you learn how to manage the topsy-turvy’s :o) And maybe some of my readers will have some sTrAnGe advice to offer you, too.

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.