A Word about High Achievement: Reflections from a Self-Directed Mama
Updated: May 7
(Well, maybe a few words…)
Growing up, I was considered “gifted” and was a top performer in every academic setting I participated in. (I'm not really loving the term "gifted" and I'll save that for another post!) I excelled in all studies across the board and even skipped a grade in elementary school. I don’t have any memories of the adults in my life explicitly pushing me to excel in these ways and I was motivated through the more subtle messages I gathered from having marginalized identities and learning that performance could save my life. For instance, I was constantly rewarded and acknowledged for being exceptional at following rules in a timely manner and getting correct answers. So much so, it became an identity I latched onto for acceptance as well as safety. This identity also allowed me to fulfill the unspoken expectation for how I would behave around people, namely white people – quiet, focused and serious as opposed to silly and child-like.
Fast forward…I just turned 35 as the winter season came to a close and I’m still recovering from some of the symptoms of perfectionism and negotiating a new identity that reclaims child-like wonder, play and experimentation as necessary for my development. I am reclaiming my fun and artistic identity and letting go of the idea that just because you show exceptional strength or talent in an area, it doesn’t mean it has to be centered. I’m always reclaiming play as a pathway to reduce stress and regulate my nervous system as I shed the belief that my joy and existence outside the lines of excellence and perfection will lead to my demise.
It’s been deeply difficult yet transformative work.
While on this personal journey I get to build upon lessons that support my children and those who I get to facilitate and care for. I felt called to share some reflections with parents who are supporting young people who are growing in and out of school settings about a different perspective around high achievement, exceptional skill and ability.
Ready or not...here we goooo!
When your child is showing signs of high achievement or "giftedness" it doesn’t mean you HAVE to nurture those qualities more than any other expressions or interests.
It can be tempting to notice that your child is expressing an ability or skill that is uncommon for their stage of life and feel pulled to nurture it in order to strengthen it and help it grow. You can, of course. And if you do, it may be wise to set realistic expectations for yourself, as their parent, in the case they choose to discontinue their pursuit or interest or choose not to put as much dedication into it as you may.
It also feels important to consider what messaging you are conveying when you suggest, whether directly or subtly, that being exceptional or “better than” others is what deserves their (ahem… your) attention and nurturance. A different way this commonly plays out is when we give undesired and maladaptive behaviors more attention in the form of negative reinforcement than the behaviors that reflect a healthy skill like communication. Your child might learn that instead of focusing on using their communication skills to get your attention they can instead express behaviors that will prompt you to spend a lot of energy and attention on navigating or redirecting them. This is less about the child and more about what activates (or triggers) YOU as a parent…whether it be feeling inconvenienced, internalizing judgment, disregulation, or safety. In the same way, when our children show signs of skill mastery we become activated for what this means to us (or what we have learned that it means), instead of what it actually means for the children as they learn and grow.
It is totally fine to be transparent about your interests and maintain authenticity as a parent. It can support you in taking ownership of your thoughts and feelings.
I remember being SO impressed that my then 3 year old knew all the country names in the world based on their shapes alone, as he wasn’t reading yet. Like, mind BLOWN! It wasn’t surprising that he had that type of spatial awareness and memory because he was also really skilled at jigsaw puzzles and could put together a 200 piece puzzle on his own. I imagined he saw the map like one huge puzzle and each piece had a place and name. I always expressed excitement and praise for each step of his process. I think something shifted for me when people would tell me how uncommon it was for someone his age to focus on something that long and show that level of skill. That sounded eerily familiar to some of the feedback people gave my caregivers and it made me more aware of balancing out my enthusiasm with praise for his actual process.
I had to own that I felt inspired by him because I couldn’t imagine having the patience and keen eye to do what he was doing. On a deeper level, I had to own all the stories I internalized about how being better than others, especially with my social identities, was my ticket to survival and safety. Over time, I realized THIS AIN’T THAT! I was able to free up space to appreciate and notice how he was engaging with his projects.
I noticed his way of trying out different pieces until he found a matching fit all while being mindful of taking great care not to bend the pieces. I affirmed him for taking breaks when he became frustrated or needed to take care of his body. I learned to not focus on completion or perfection because that was actually not his goal…those are goals I internalized as a child and student in school. He was really attracted to creating and enjoying the larger image out of small pieces and he mostly relished in the journey of using his mind to solve a puzzle.
I share this example to say there are ways to own our own excitement (or baggage) about our children’s skills and gifts without communicating that our interest and investment in them is contingent on them reproducing the things that excite us. Still, there are unconscious messages we share with our children when we don’t reflect on how we cultivate an agenda that isn’t consensual and supportive of harmonious development.
Your child being skilled at something doesn’t mean they will feel passion and joy about it at all times.
By the time my child was 5 years old we were working on 300 and 500 piece puzzles together. He no longer preferred doing puzzles alone and we didn’t always make the space and time to work on them together as a family. Eventually, his interest in puzzles fizzled and he shifted his attention to building lego sets with thousands of pieces. I believe that because I didn’t keep trying to get him to get better at bigger puzzles and stick with that passion, it naturally evolved to something similar but more fitting to his developing interests.
At one point he built a set that had over 6,000 pieces and expressed interest in sharing his builds on a YouTube channel. We supported him and got so excited just for him to say he was done after uploading his first and only video. I remember being consumed with the amount of money we spent on legos and the time that went into recording and uploading his video.
In the past year or so, he barely played with legos unless it was with his brother or his friends. Now he is 8 years old and while he still enjoys legos, he mostly spends his time stretching his social muscles and connecting with peers. I felt myself grieve a bit that the hundreds of dollars worth of legos were going unused aside from being stepping stones for my feet in his bedroom. Then I realized this was my journey to move through and had a huge realization. In fact, the legos were still serving him as stepping stones in different ways! They were a tool for connection with friends where he could play while learning important social and emotional skills around communication, sharing, problem solving, teamwork, conflict and using his imagination to make co-creations.
Allow space for intrinsic motivation.
By not always suggesting that my child put together a puzzle or build legos, or that he finish it, he was able to self-direct and find his own motivation for starting or completing these tasks. While he appreciated my praise and excitement and was always eager to show me what he was working on, he didn't require any of that to play and build. The approach as a facilitator served me well in noticing when he was motivated to focus in on the instructions booklet and work for an hour on his building projects or when he was desiring to have a fun building session to engage in free-play with others. He learned that both ways of play have their place in his life and one isn't better than the other because of the end result.
Facilitate, don’t push.
The art of facilitation is probably the most useful skill in parenting, in my opinion. Providing opportunities and perspective were really all that was needed in this example with the legos. I could offer ideas of what he could build or how he could store the legos for safekeeping. I could help him put pieces together when he asked for support and also communicate when I was confused and didn’t know where to find the piece he was looking for. Mostly, I could be a witness to how he played, learned, regulated his nervous system, and dealt with things not going his way. In a low stakes situation like building legos, that felt like such a gift. I could also just be physically around when he needed support which made up for me not always desiring to get down and play for hours with him. I imagine if I would have pushed him or always got involved in some way, he may have lost his desire and joy for legos and missed opportunities to learn more about himself.
Focus on process vs. performance.
Have you ever witnessed a child learn how to read because they have a good memory or was taught phonics skills but aren’t able to comprehend what they are reading or write you a note? In our performance culture we will celebrate the child who reads “early” and can’t actually use the skill for comprehension and writing while worrying about the child who is developing the skills of comprehension while learning how to write and read at a later age. The goal of literacy afterall is communication. What’s the point of reading if you can’t understand what the words mean or if you are unable to write a written response to written communication? This concept reveals how preoccupied we are with performance and what things look like instead of valuing the process for how things really are.
I recall my 7 year old using instructions for his builds for a couple years and learning how to comprehend the illustrations and eventually the minimal words and numbers that made up notes on the pages. He hadn’t been taught to read outside of learning his alphabet, but his desire for more complex builds and guides he could access on the iPad through apps and looking up pro builders on youtube required him to read, spell and comprehend all at the same time. And just like that, he started reading. He had space for trial and error without the pressures of being on target or at a particular grade level. He also learned healthy risk taking behaviors when he started reading out loud as he navigated some disfluency – a life skill that I’m still learning as an adult and parent.
Performance focused individuals are motivated by benchmarks and standards and are often discouraged from play, risk-taking, and making mistakes. Process focused individuals are motivated by their own desire to accomplish a goal and are encouraged to check in with how they feel along the way, invite fun and playfulness into learning, and to develop a healthy relationship to risks and failures. I got to witness my child naturally develop literacy skills through play, desire, and persistence to meet the goals he set for himself without any external standards to meet or any limitations to contain just how far he could go.
I am thankful for these lessons in parenting as they help me support my children while also healing my inner child as an adult. I share these lessons for those who grew up like me, look like me, and are parenting through the residue of disembodiment, disconnection, and oppression. If you’ve read this far I’m inviting you to take what you need and leave the rest. I’m learning as I go. I don’t have it all figured out and am accepting this as a valid and fulfilling way of life a little bit more each day. The natural way that children learn supports me in my own relearning and in supporting them as they journey in this life. If you’re feeling curious about what it could look like or feel like to support your child’s learning at a natural pace, let’s connect! Supporting their pace may help you embrace your natural pace, too! If you feel called to learn more about self-directed learning, check out The Alliance for Self-Directed Education to start!
There’s no need to ignite the love for learning in our children–they are born with it aflame! As parents, we are trusted with the job of stoking the fire. As we become practiced fire tenders, we reawaken the fire within. We learn how to cultivate an environment that doesn’t smother the fire and protects it from outside elements that may extinguish it.
- Mama Nika