A Prescription for the Perfect Summer
by Dr. Devon MacEachron
In our practice of meeting the needs of gifted and twice-exceptional learners, our “prescription” for the perfect summer is “Take two genuine interests, explore them thoroughly, and call us in September.”
When parents actively help their children explore their interests and delve deeply into their passions, everyone in the family ends up having a rewarding summer. Whether the passion is marine biology or engineering, art or writing, programs can be found or designed to address every child’s interests. For the parent whose child happens to be interested in something offered at a nearby gifted summer camp, this can be easy to arrange. For the parent who lives far from such resources or for whom high program fees are prohibitive, or whose child has unusual interests, planning a summer of enrichment can be a bit more challenging. It is our view, however, that parents can give no greater gift than helping their child design and implement a summer of exploring the child’s genuine interests, utilizing talents, accomplishing something of value, and building self-esteem.
Benefits of Engagement
The benefits for children of a summer engaged in enrichment in their interest areas are manifold: intellectual stimulation, increased motivation to achieve, enhanced marketability to colleges, the chance of finding passions or a future career, validation of self, increased self-esteem, increased happiness, and social connectedness. Intellectually, students who work on something they are interested in at their pace of learning are stimulated at a level rarely possible during the academic year. The opportunity to study something of intrinsic interest and challenge is the most thrilling intellectual experience possible. Kindling an Intrinsic motivation can lead to a transfer of motivation and stronger desire to achieve throughout the school year.
Over the summers through high school, students can build a résumé showing the pursuit of interests and achievement, positioning the student well for college applications. Selective colleges are far more interested in applicants who have pursued their genuine interests over the years than in those who engage only in what is required and valued at school. Children may even find their true calling in life by exploring future career interests.
Perhaps the greatest benefits of an enrichment-focused summer are in the emotional area. By valuing children’s interests, we show that we truly care about them for who they are, not who we think they should be. By taking their interests seriously, we validate their unique sense of self. Knowing that they have their parents’ support can give students a sense of security and help them fulfill their dreams, helping them to become the individuals they really want to be. Furthermore, children who spend their summers pursuing personally meaningful goals are often happier and more cheerful than children who just “hang out.” Although many children default to playing video games or chatting with friends in their free time, it may not make them feel as happy as to be engaged in something that provides real opportunities for personal growth. Children who pursue their interests during the summer, on the other hand, typically come into frequent contact with peers or mentors in their interest area. Relationships with others who share their interests can be deeply fulfilling in a way that interactions with school-year classmates and video-game buddies often are not.
Tips for Parents
Summer is almost upon us. How can parents go about designing an enrichment-focused summer program for their children?
Begin with a careful assessment of their genuine interests. In a non-judgmental way, directly ask what they want to learn more about, from anthropology to zoology, archery to yoga, animation to video film making. Making a list of various hobbies and fields of interest and discussing them with children can be helpful. Parents can reflect on how their children choose to spend free time, the books that absorb their interest, the kinds of exhibits that engage them in museums, and any other clues to what intrigues them. Even interests that on the surface don’t appear to lend themselves to productive enrichment can provide valuable clues. For example, if your daughter spends most of her free time on the phone with friends in meaningful conversations, recognize that this suggests she may be good at and interested in helping her friends solve problems, and consider exposing her to psychology.
Once parents have a better understanding of their children’s interests, what should they do with these insights?
- Embrace them. Don’t try to re-channel your child into something you consider to be more impressive or marketable, or something that you wish you might have done but didn’t. Remember that it’s your child’s life, not yours.
- Start searching for opportunities for your child to delve deeply into exploring his or her interests. Discourage your child from following friends to a camp that may interest the friends but might not be a good fit for your child.
- Don’t limit yourself to organized camp programs (although there are many terrific and specialized ones), and don’t feel limited to the menu of activities offered in formal programs in your area. Often the best opportunities for your child are the ones that the two of you initiate together.
- Don’t be shy about asking experts in a field for their advice. Most people who have a consuming interest in something are flattered when they are approached by a parent with a child who is intrigued by learning more. Professional musicians might be able to recommend teachers, competitions, and schools. A scientist or professor might be able to recommend a colleague your child can intern with. We know children who have co-published articles in journals by the time they were out of middle school – all of which started when their parents asked if their children could help out in a lab.
- Check local high schools and colleges for courses your child (or you and your child) can audit.
- Plan family vacations around your child’s interests. Paleontology fits well with a trip to the Southwest to volunteer on a dinosaur dig. Engineering fits well with outings to science museums and factory tours.
- Enlist the help of your local children’s librarian. Find books and do internet searches about your child’s interest areas. Discover magazines about particular fields, from National Geographic to MIT’s Technology Review. Find out about conferences and special events.
- Learn about local special interest clubs and organizations. Most communities have star watching groups, book groups, birding clubs, and other such groups that offer events and information.
- Be involved. Don’t just sign your child up or dump resources on your child. Accompany him or her to events. Help him practice. Read the books he is reading and discuss them over dinner. Be an active partner in exploring your child’s interests and how he or she might pursue them in the summer. Studies repeatedly show that parental involvement is essential if children are to fully develop their potential.
If you follow this “prescription” for the perfect summer, your gifted child will begin the school year with renewed energy, enthusiasm for learning, and one step closer to achieving the joy of true fulfillment. And you’ll have quite an interesting ride along the way!
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Dr. Devon MacEachron is co-founder of the CT Center for Exceptional Learners, a private practice specializing in psychoeducational assessment and educational planning for gifted and twice exceptional learners based in Madison, CT. The Center’s mission is to uncover each student’s unique profile of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and goals, and to tailor educational recommendations to help them achieve their full potential. Dr. MacEachron holds a PhD in School Psychology from U.C. Berkeley, an MBA from Wharton, and a BA from Amherst College.