I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people have read the first post – and I feel a little guilty because I know it’s not my best work. Dealing with a migraine probably isn’t the best time to write, but hey, if I waited until I was pain free, I would never write anything!
One of the readers responded to my post on Gifted Homeschoolers Forum’s page and vehemently pointed out that I wasn’t applying the 1,2,3 Magic! method correctly. If I did it right and was consistent, then all of my parenting woes would go away. She concluded by admonishing me that allowing my kids to question the rules means that I am encouraging it.
Ok! (brief pause for hysterical laughter in the background.)
Here’s the thing: these kids were BORN questioning authority. And short of gagging them and breaking their spirit, there’s no way that I could make them stop questioning anything. So like everything else in the realm of gifted, I’ve learned to work with what we have.
Call them gifted, call them strong-willed, call them spirited. Whatever. It’s the same problem no matter the label. And while it’s frustrating to live with a child who could negotiate his way out of a hostage situation by utterly confusing the hostage takers, it’s actually a fun ride most of the time.
So here’s a little more about how we work with the free-spirits in our households:
1. Expect Endless Questions
These kids never shut up. The Engineer especially. If you make a rule, be prepared to defend it for a very long time. Heck, make yourself a list so that you can repeat key points easily. They’ll look at every angle of the issue and come up with amazing, unrealistic scenarios to justify why they wouldn’t have to obey the rule. And if finesse doesn’t work, they’ll resort to brute force: repeatedly asking the same damn question over and over.
That one is my pet peeve: “it’s the same answer it was the last 4 times you asked that! Nothing has changed!”
These kids will make amazing negotiators later on in life, and they will be great emergency planners because they are able to see all the different possibilities. It’s not a bad skill to have, just annoying to be on the receiving end of it.
What’s your best defense? Explain it, be sure they understand, and then close the conversation. It takes two to engage. Now, if I’m being completely honest, the explaining part of this scenario can take a while. Too long. But it’s critical that they truly understand the rule (and the consequence) before you just shut things down. If they are having issues grasping the situation, then shutting it down makes them think you’re not being fair.
Once I know they get it, my response becomes “You know this rule. I’m done talking about it.” And I am! I don’t engage.
Sometimes that means we drive down the road with music blaring so that he’s defeated by not being able to shout his questions to me. That’s the last-ditch effort before I pull the car over and sit outside for a bit with the mosquitoes. Mosquitoes aren’t nearly as irritating as my kids.
2. Pick Your Battlefront
The Engineer absolutely HATES when I tell him that he has to obey because XYZ rule is to keep him safe. He’s learned that safety rules are my no-holds-barred, fight-you-into-the-ground battles. If someone’s safety is involved there is no negotiating. Period.
Naturally, I don’t apply “safety” to every rule. I reserve it for the big battles – the ones that might get someone killed or maimed.
That doesn’t mean that I’m lenient or lax about the rest of the rules. I’m just a little more open to negotiation on the rest.
In fact, we tend to be fairly lenient parents about things most parents would go nuts over. Running in the house? Sure, but be careful. Talking loudly? Sure, unless it’s a quiet voice situation. Sure, you can climb that rock or that tree. Go splash in that puddle, it’s ok!
We’ve learned that unless we triage the rules, our kids are faced with an unrelenting stream of parental negativity. That’s soul-crushing. No one wants to live that way! It’s just as difficult for the parents as the kids: constantly saying no makes me feel like I’m killing puppies.
Make a list of the top 20 things that are important for your kid’s safety and life lessons. Then look at your household’s rules. If those top 20 aren’t on the rules list, you have a problem.
3. Use Empathy
To you, it’s a minor issue if the ice cream fell on the floor. But to them, it’s a life-changing event and they’re heartbroken. How you respond to their emotions will define how they respond to the situation. If you laugh, they feel like their emotions are invalidated. If you brush it off and ignore it, they feel like you’re ignoring them. If you respond empathetically and figure out how to fix it, they feel respected and validated.
The most used phrase in our parenting lexicon has to be “I understand.”
The Engineer got to go play in the IKEA playland area on our visit because he’s potty trained and the right height. Disappointed Princess and Destroyer couldn’t go because they weren’t potty trained. The Princess was old enough to understand the situation, but the Destroyer had already pulled out his own bin and eagerly plopped his shoes in, waiting for that magical moment when he could go play in the ball pit too! And I – the mean mommy – had to tell him no.
He lost it. He ran away to the small seating area, sobbing. I let him go because I could see him and he needed a little distance, but after I finished up with the Engineer, I headed over to talk to him. I explained that he wasn’t old enough yet and told him it was time to put on shoes. Flat denial – “NO!” – and he crawled under the couch.
Once I got him out, I sat him down and calmly explained that I understood that he wanted to go play. It looked really fun, right? But he wasn’t old enough yet. Would he like to go upstairs to the kids area and play with those toys instead? A teary “yes” later, we put on his shoes and got up.
Once I had things calmed down, I looked up to see one of the greeters watching us. She smiled, and said “you’re such a great mom!” I thanked her, but confusedly thought “isn’t this what all parents do?”
4. Be Consistent
I know – this is in every list that I write about parenting. That’s because it’s so critical. Especially with gifted kids – they are faster to point out inconsistencies than they scarf down ice cream. Every kid wants limits that make sense. Limits help them know we care about them. When we don’t enforce those limits, it sends a message that it’s not important.
Worse, it sends a message that they are not important. Think about it – the law says wear a seat belt because it will keep you safe. If the police stopped enforcing that law, how would you feel? Safer? Or would you think that perhaps they just don’t care if you get hurt – your decision, your responsibility to deal with the results?
If you make a rule and it’s a good, fair, solid-reason-behind-it rule, then stick with it. Don’t enforce sometimes and be lenient for others. That sends a message of “I don’t care” to your kids, and no kid wants to feel like their parent doesn’t care about them. Sure, they’ll test the rules, they’ll even fight you over them. But in the end, the firm boundaries mean “you matter to me.” And that’s really what kids need – not just the consistency.
5. Let Them Win (Sometimes)
We’re human. We screw up. Parenting isn’t something that comes with a manual – it’s more of a by-the-seat-of-your-pants learning experience. So when you do screw up and they call you out on it, admit it. Tell them they’re right. Earthshaking, no? It’s so tough to admit you’re wrong to a pint-sized version of you, because that means they won!
It’s not about a competition though – it’s about teaching them strong life lessons. Sometimes authority is wrong. And when that happens, someone needs to stand up and say so in a polite, respectful way.
I’m still working on the polite, respectful method myself, and my kids definitely haven’t gotten that part down yet. Still, it’s an important life skill. If you’re taught all your life to shut up and obey, how will you handle it when the authorities are wrong? Will you be able to create change, or will you promote anarchy with your actions?
Our strong-willed, independent children have to learn to master that skill, because they will challenge authority all of their lives. And sometimes that has very negative consequences. Consequences that end up with them hurt or headed to jail.
I’m not a parenting expert. My kids are young. I’m sure that by the time we reach the teen years, I’ll look back on these posts and laugh hysterically at what I didn’t know. But, I do know that a blanket parenting approach just doesn’t work for gifted kids. It doesn’t work for most kids, actually, but gifted, strong-willed kids are more likely to fight back.
So yes, reader, I’m allowing my kids to question the rules. I’m allowing them to question my authority. I’m secure enough in my authority as a parent that I can weather a little questioning – and I know that if they understand the logic and the reasoning, it’s easier for them to choose to follow those rules.
My kids are unique – and our parenting has to be unique to keep up with them. I don’t want my kids to decide that arbitrary rules are pointless and don’t need to be followed. I want them to work to change those arbitrary rules. I want them to be safe, to be independent, and to be the unique, wonderful individuals that they already are.
Just hoping that I survive to that point!