Built to Be Different, Raised to Thrive- Teaching wilderness skills to our gifted kids

When I was about eight, my mom took me to the dentist. I needed to have a tooth removed and, to save you the distressing details, I’ll just say the procedure lacked all bedside manner. Afterward, a nurse came in to collect some paperwork and she looked at me and said:

You’re such a crybaby, you know that?

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I just sat there in the cold dentist’s chair, feeling the sharp sting of that word… crybaby… as I silently filed this new bit of information about me into my personal databanks.

I didn’t know it then, but I was experiencing shame. I was on the receiving end of someone else’s discomfort, confusion, and judgement. And as I look at my son, growing more into boyhood everyday and further from the sweet phase of early childhood where quirkiness and lack of self-regulation is okay, I know that he’ll someday have experiences like mine.

I know that someday, someone’s going to make fun of or shame my son because he talks too fast or too much. Because he’s so picky about what he eats, or because he’s ‘too bossy’. Someday, he’ll get overstimulated and have to scramble for a way out, probably while having to blow-off friends peppering him with questions of concern. And someday (*gets choked-up*) he’ll start building a life for himself that probably can’t look like everyone else’s, at least not if he hopes to be happy and healthy.

He’s going to need some skills that he probably won’t get in school. He’s going to need skills to deal with name-calling, shaming, making other people uncomfortable, and being misunderstood. He’s going to need conversations about giftedness and being different, and not in a “you’re different and that’s ok” kind of way, but in a “you’re exactly who you need to be and not everyone’s going to get that, so be ready to stand-up for yourself and your needs” kind of way.

He’s going to need to learn to advocate, communicate, and fight for his right to be himself. And he’s going to need to fight for that right with love, kindness, and courage. Otherwise, the only choice left seems to be that I single-handedly fix all the people and all the wrong beliefs and behaviors, and I’m not a morning person so that’s a non-starter right there.

This is the real reason Gifted Culture Project exists. I’m a gifted parent of a gifted kid, and I know many of the kinds of challenges my son will likely experience. For over ten years I’ve studied, practiced, and taught the methods by which we try to understand and negotiate differences in the real world. And I know that the greatest gift I can give him is the courage and real-life skills to be different, to be himself- flawed, brilliant, and brimming with potential.

And so we arrive, finally, at the whole reason for this post- the things we need to teach our gifted kids (my wonderful, quirky son included!) to better prepare them for negotiating their difference in the real world. Things they won’t learn in school.


Built to Be Different

It all starts with those inevitable and often frequent moments where gifted kids stand alone in their way of being (feeling, moving, thinking) and need to defend it, advocate for themselves, self-regulate, adapt, and connect through it.

You see, gifted kids (and grownups) are built to be different.

Yes, there’s the whole ‘brain wiring is different’ thing, and the ‘different behaviors we call excitabilities’ thing. But there’s more than that. When you’re built to be different, you’re built to experience being different… often. And that’s where things get icky because in the real world, the gifted experience of being different can often go like this:

“You’re too sensitive.”

“You’re such a know-it-all!”

“Why are you so bossy?”

“Can’t you just sit still like everyone else?”

Sometimes, in these moments, the voices are other people’s. Other times, these voices are our gifted kid’s own; the byproduct of trying to make sense of why their bodies and brains don’t always behave the way that others do. And so our gifted kids stand alone in these moments, needing a way through and out. It’s these moments that I believe we need to prepare our gifted kids to navigate. But before we talk about navigating, it’s important that we talk about the terrain.


Welcome to the Wilderness

“…wilderness is standing alone… despite our fear of criticism and rejection…[and] protecting the status quo against our internal convictions is obviously a luxury of the privileged, because the underdogs and outliers and marginalized have no choice but to experience the daily wilderness.” Braving the Wilderness by Dr. Brene Brown

Standing alone, or wilderness as we’re going to call it, is the experience of being different. And for the gifted, there’s rarely choice involved because they stand alone as a result of biology and natural behavior. Their daily wilderness is people expecting things from them that they can’t always give- still, attentive bodies; even tempers and mild emotions; brains that work fast but don’t ask too many questions or talk too much. Their daily wilderness is sometimes making people uncomfortable, confused, even upset. And it’s feeling the sting of misjudgments, miscommunication, and unfair labels. This is our gifted kid’s daily wilderness.

Now let’s talk about what we can teach them to help navigate that wilderness…


Wilderness Skills

As it turns out, being different is an experience shared by all humans. Consequently, there are an incredible number of resources out there for tackling wilderness: the social science and healing insights of Dr. Brene Brown, the science and methodology of social-emotional learning and Dr. Daniel Goleman, scientific research on self-regulation, tools and perspective-expanding insights from the field of intercultural communication, and the resilience- and courage-building methods of growth mindset… just to name a few.

So what do our gifted kids need to learn to navigate their wilderness? Well, to start, they need:

  1. Stories- about being gifted, sensitive, intense, and under/overstimulated
  2. Activities- that help them map-out their whole identities and connectedness to others; that help them examine how and when gifted traits show-up in their lives; and activities that assist them in planning for self-care, self-regulation, and speaking-up for their needs
  3. Connection- to adults in their lives who commit to learning to navigate giftedness alongside them, to other gifted kids so they can feel less alone and more validated in their experiences

This is what we’re doing with Gifted Culture Kids Magazine. You can read more about it here, and sign-up here to contribute and help us shape these conversations, activities, and stories.

Together, we’re creating ways to start talking to our kids about their gifted wilderness. We’re helping them feel seen and understood. And we’re teaching them that we’re ready and willing to explore their gifted experience alongside them, walking stick and compass in-hand.

Together, we’re breaking new ground in our conversations about giftedness. I hope you’ll join us!

This post is part of the Hoagie’s Blog Hop series on ‘Necessities Beyond Academics‘. Be sure to click the image below to read more!

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