It’s an easy, alluring trap to fall into, and I do it more often than I’d like to.
It starts so simply; one or another of them will come up to me, waving a piece of paper or a Lego monstrosity or a frog made out of craft foam, and more often than not, it’s pretty amazing. E cornered me the other day and insisted on taking me on a tour of her Minecraft island; inside her mansion is a lava-powered hot tub, a vending machine that dispenses cooked chickens, and – in the back yard – a roller coaster. She’s wiring up half the island for zombie/creeper detection with pressure plates and redstone (whatever that is; I’ve gleaned from conversation that it’s a form of crude electrical wiring) and wants me to see every square inch of her defensive perimeter.
It’s pretty amazing. And I told her so, and off she went, beaming with pride.
Did you see it happen there? It was pretty subtle. What happened is this: I unbalanced the praise equation, tilting it away from gifted-is-wiring, and toward gifted-is-output. In so doing, I created an obligation for myself to get her in a random, decidedly nonproductive moment, and tell her she’s an awesome kid, to counterbalance this moment. That’s the way of emotional intensity. They’ve already soared to a personal emotional ‘high’ based on what they’ve created. Seeking out my approval, or Kathy’s, just takes them that much higher. Trouble is, I don’t want them to think that they have to do something to merit praise and attention – because there will be days they don’t feel like ‘producing,’ and I need each of them to know that those days are good days, too. They’re good kids on those days.
There’s nothing wrong with praising output; in this house, there’s lots of output, and I really am impressed with all of it. Output is great. But so is non-output. They’re amazing kids when they’re wiring their Minecraft islands and when they’re asleep and when they’re brushing their teeth and when they’re writing and when they’re not writing and when they are laughing and when asynchrony makes them act nine and nineteen and twenty-nine. Teaching them that gifted is wiring, not output, requires an endless rebalancing of this equation. It’s made that much harder, I’ve noticed, when they’re in their en fuego output phases, when my desk piles up with H’s cartoon cards and the floor of A’s room is awash in Legos, part of his never-ending quest to build a convincing Pelican (from Halo) and E is working out the finer points of a Minecraft dirigible.
I have to work harder to catch them in their sleepy moments, their regular-kid moments, running around the yard and shooting Nerf guns at each other and singing about the Batmobile losing a wheel. Some weeks, I don’t ever find those moments; they run at full-blast from the time they get up until the last joule of energy dissipates and dreams overtake them, and I’m left to whisper their awesomeness into sleeping ears before pulling a blanket up and kissing them goodnight. But I know at those moments that there is work to be done. Leave the equation unbalanced too long, and that toxic message would begin to seep into them, the errant concept that I love them for what they do instead of who they are.
Dave Mayer posts regularly with his wife, Kathy, on Chasing Hollyfeld.