The First Duty of Love Is to Listen
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The First Duty of Love Is to Listen

By Marianne Kuzujanakis, MD, MPH

(Editor’s Note: This piece by SENG Director Marianne Kuzujanakis is part of the 2012 National Parenting Gifted Week Blog Tour. Be sure to check out the full schedule of blogs and follow along!)


“The first duty of love is to listen.” – Paul Tillich


handsConfession…I’ve made mistakes as a parent. But who hasn’t? Maybe I was naïve to think that when my son turned five and we enrolled him in kindergarten, all would be filled as I always imagined with lovely memories of school buses and in-class parties and warmth and friendship.

OK. It didn’t exactly go that way.  

My son was so excited about school. We’d spoken about all the things he’d learn and do. He had been a voracious reader for quite some time, and was looking forward to meeting the children and his teacher. He loved drawing pictures of himself, his image smiling with the precious, awkward pencil strokes of a young child. One eye slightly larger than the other, large hands and thick fingers spread out to catch life with full force. Oversized clothing with irregular pant lengths. Feet turned in all directions, heading out at top speed to see everything the world had to offer. That’s my son. An intense and awesome presence.  He was never one for naps, and would sleep so deeply at night that a fire alarm could go off unheard. His hunger for learning was like a human Pac-Man, devouring everything in his path. When he was hungry for food nourishment, the shovels needed to come out or else a meltdown was soon to occur.  How could a school understand all of my son’s needs?

We began kindergarten that crisp day in September, my son eagerly running for the classroom and leaving me unbearably alone to face my separation anxiety. He’ll be just fine, I thought, better than me. But he wasn’t fine. In the weeks that followed, I was told that he didn’t sit for circle time, wouldn’t follow bathroom line-ups (once even suggesting that the teacher not block the middle of the hallway, and instead stand along the edges like the children), and he was said to interrupt the teacher when she was reading her morning list from the white board (this I witnessed myself, as my son proudly wanted to read aloud the teacher’s list for the entire class).  “Sit down”, he was told. No kindly pat-on-the-back at break-time for reading a magazine about foxes to his classmate who had a disability.

My son’s demeanor was changing. At home he began to look anxious, and wanted to practice sitting in a circle with me, perhaps thinking he could gain the love of his teacher if only he tried hard enough. He no longer ran so fast to the classroom in the mornings.

“Have you thought about attention problems? ADHD?” the teacher would ask me repeatedly. By then, my son was a regular in the principal’s office, and was often tapped with the job of classroom cleanup. My son wanted to learn something. Anything. My district offered nothing. No gifted pull-outs, no acceleration, no funding, and no identification. I advocated with my every breath. “Be happy that your child can relax and not need to learn anything this year,” we were told.

This was not what my son envisioned. His in-school behavior worsened. His at-home behavior changed. It was then when I made my mistake. I became angry – not at the school, but at my child. “Why can’t you behave?” I said, over and over.  One could, in retrospect, see him grow visibly smaller and smaller. I didn’t yet know my options.  I felt helpless. I felt I was letting my child down.

Then the answer suddenly spoke. The voice was at first hushed, peeking out from an unexpected place, so I strained to hear. Remember when I said my son loved to draw self-portraits, all free and alive and ready to pounce out of the paper? Those drawings continued. But now they changed. Why didn’t I see it before? His lovely self-portraits still had the endearing misshapen eyes, the haphazard feet, the odd garment arrangements, but now something so heartbreaking was apparent – my son no longer had any arms. Nothing past the shoulders.

How could I miss this? His drawings blared as if I had a megaphone to my ear.  They shouted, “I do not have any control over my life. I can’t do anything.“

Listening, I immediately had the answer. I took him home. His arms returned to his drawings.  We are now in our eighth year of homeschooling. It wasn’t my child that was a misfit; his particular school situation was a misfit. It wasn’t ADHD; it was educational misplacement.

While homeschooling worked for us, homeschooling isn’t a cure-all. Many schools and passionate teachers do indeed beautifully accommodate the intense needs of gifted children. Being open to all possibilities works positively in the child’s interests. Being a strong advocate for your child is essential. Pediatric clinicians are under-utilized resources to help parents advocate. Meanwhile, it is crucial for both parents and pediatric clinicians to be knowledgeable about giftedness and twice-exceptionalities.

Does my child have any other concerns I need to address? At this point, I cannot say, but I’ll listen closely if and when they happen, and together we’ll deal with whatever comes along.

If I have any regret, it is that I did not listen to my child sooner.

* * * * * * * *

MarianneSENG Director & Medical Liaison Marianne Kuzujanakis, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with a masters degree in public health from Harvard School of Public Health. She has long-standing interests in parent and clinician education, and also is a homeschool educator for her son. This month Dr. Kuzujanakis, together with Dr. James T. Webb and Dr. Rosina M. Gallagher, have published an article about practice opportunities working with gifted children in The National Psychologist, available on the SENG website at


  1. i went through that exact scenario with my 5.5 year old. he was a young K at 4, almost 5 and we figured it out after about 6 months of pure hell as you describe. it was with some trepidation that we had him tested for giftedness and subsequently enrolled in a gifted school where we were told they could help us. they did. as you describe, his drawings became what they had been. his smile returned. his ability to positively relate to other human beings– who knew that school could destroy a young brain so quickly and so thoroughly? articles like yours are what so many people need to see. take action when what is provided and expected are not working. congrats to you.

    Comment by alison kenyon — July 19, 2012 @ 8:54 am

  2. I believe that you have written about my son. I shook my head in amazement as you discribed the struggles you and your son experienced. My son, too, was so excited about Kindergarten and couldn’t wait to get to school. A month after school started we were called into the principal’s office for a meeting. He was called socially immature; a child with a defiant heart. At one point it was suggested that perhaps he should have stayed in the pre-K program. We sought out IQ and academic achievement testing. Before the results were given, the school was talking expulsion. They took his recess away for poor behavior and then made him sit in the principal’s office for 2 hours with nothing to do. When he frequented the principal 2 & 3 times a week, he was sent home and we were told that they couldn’t “babysit”. He became withdrawn and unhappy. He tried to talk out the situations at school in attempt to find a solution if he did something different. He often finalized those thoughts with “but if I did that, I’d get in trouble too”. He got in trouble for not coloring, shouting out answers, not walking on the sidewalk, talking with his friends. The defiant heart label resulted in a few months of private counseling sessions to build him back up. We removed him after that first semester. Even the headmaster said, “It is more damaging to leave him in this school”. I was shocked he would say that about his own staff and school rather than advocate. We are now homeschooling and have opened up an entire world of learning. He has a smile on his face again. “I am finally learning something, Mama!” Thank you for sharing your story. It helps to hear that we are not alone!

    Comment by Jean Brandon — July 19, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  3. I appreciate this article and am in my third year of virtual academy online schooling. Can you share the homeschooling program or resources that you have found that you like and are using? Thank you.

    Comment by Lisa Phillips — July 19, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  4. I am so warmed by everyone’s comments. This is proof positive that “we are not alone”. Each one of us has strengths and stories to share. We can learn so much from each other & perhaps change the world.

    Lisa P…Please feel free to email me privately at, and we can better discuss your child’s educational desires and needs.

    Comment by Marianne Kuzujanakis — July 19, 2012 @ 10:47 am

  5. Marianne,

    I know this story from many and we experienced this as well, though my son came home With the belief that he must be the bully because the bully is the only different one (and it was in preschool when he was 3). Our journey into what I call the ‘land of gifted’ began as we luckily had found an expert in gifted who introduced us to the concept, term and population, inspiring me to return to graduate school again and become an advocate through IAGC, ultimately resulting in the start of my blog on positive discipline for gifted children and continued professional focus.

    I love how you say to listen….listen to your child and listen to the little voice inside of you. For those feeling (‘I wish I did it sooner’) remember that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn and that parenting is full of these opportunities. Keep moving forward. We connect with our children and move forward.

    I support and thank SENG for spearheading the campaign for formal education to the medical and mental health community as I have seen gifted children being misunderstood and misdiagnosed, resulting sometimes in recommendations of very strong medications (anti-psychotics) for these young children.

    Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing your story.


    Comment by Catherine Gruener — July 19, 2012 @ 11:03 am

  6. We had a very similar experience! Our son’s school refused to provide more challenging school work because, “they already spent too much time dealing with his behavior.” We were told by his teacher the first week of school that he “took pleasure in causing others pain.”

    Not until we read the book Bright Not Broken, did we understand that he was a twice-exceptional child. Our journey has been emotional, overwhelming, and now we know so much more! We also know how very little schools know about 2e children.

    I write a blog about our story that I know you will really relate to:

    Blessings to you!

    Comment by Kelly — July 19, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  7. Dr. Kuzujanakis:

    I completely understand. I have had the same problem where I live, and I live somewhere with gifted and talented programs. I cannot bear to see this happen over and over to my children, your children, and any other child. My answer, and I am a teacher, has been to return to school and further mt graduate education so that I may better advocate for talent development. My son is now 11, and we are just grateful that we have a middle school where he can take all honors finally. This is a gut-wrenching process that is never perfect and I wish you luck.

    Comment by Susan — July 19, 2012 @ 11:20 am

  8. I find stories like these frustrating and distinctly unhelpful. While I appreciate that parents need support to pull their kids out to home school, that is not an option for us. I end up feeling guilty because I don’t make that sacrifice for my children.

    I am still in the school a lot. Every year new issues arise. I volunteer as I can, and am very respectful and supportive of the teachers (even when having issues–which we have definitely had) so that the teachers and administration appreciate what I bring to the school community. There are a lot of people who can not do as much as I do. How do those people support their children?

    Yes, the article says that homeschooling isn’t a choice for everyone, but what are your thoughts, as a psychologist, about we can support our children if that is the case? It would be a amazing to hear about strategies other people have used to approach their schools and districts.

    Ideas from me to other “Stay in School Parents.”

    In our case, I brought my child’s psychologist to the school to help educate teachers and administrators about his needs. About things they could put in place (with little or no cost) to help him self regulate (greater access to the quiet corner, games and learning activities that he could do when he was finished with his work that were stimulating to his mind). We practiced social skills at home–turning his intellect into a tool to brainstorm solutions to social situations.

    I visited the classes of the teachers my daughter might have and met with the Director to discuss my daughter and her personality traits that might become challenging in specific situations. The school does have some flexibility in placing kids in classes, but parents can not choose. Hopefully, they will place her where I think there is a good fit.

    The district talked with me (our district actually has a funded gifted program, but my child is not in a gifted school which irritates them) and worked with me to find ideas that might work for the school in areas where my son struggles. I get that I am lucky to be in a district and a state that cares. However, we are one of the lowest in per pupil funding nationally so solutions have to be cheap.

    In our experience the diagnosis “Asynchronous Development” has a different feel for teachers and administrators than “Gifted.” They seemed to respond to the first as a condition, and the second is a statement of, “My kid deserves more.” While the second may be true, it can inspire resentment. Teachers have been more willing to shift in response to the first after a conversation about what my child needs–and what will be the rewards for the teacher (at least in my experience).

    What are the rewards? A high-performing student who can make the teacher and school look good. A student who can inspire the class.

    Comment by Jen — July 19, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

  9. My son is starting kindergarten and starting a new school. Because of the prior school it has taken me this summer to bring my confident boy back. Much of what you share I experienced similarly and am relieved. My son wants to learn, it’s that simple. While play is important, learning can be playful and it was not at his last school. He was criminalized for standing up for himself and punished. No one ever considered listening to him at the school. Their philosophy was to equalize the kids, they did not believe in gifted.
    Why are schools so happy to help the challenged but so against helping the gifted?
    Thank you for the relief and opportunity to learn more about what to do.

    Comment by Elana — July 20, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

  10. Jen,

    I appreciate your comment, and I definitely can relate to the many issues associated with not being able to homeschool.

    I want to point out that my article was not at all intended to make those unable to change educational courses for their child feel guilty in any way. The real underlying issue and need is to increase education for those adults caring for gifted children (teachers & medical professionals) so that educational accommodations are more easily obtained without the parent feeling hopeless and in many cases, minimized.

    Having physicians, psychologists, and therapists of all types work more easily and with a better understanding of the unique nature of gifted children (as well as 2e children), with parents and teachers in advocating for their child’s needs, is a powerful step forward to achieving proper educational placement for all children. In essence, proper educational placement with an awareness & support of the specific individual needs of gifted children are the ideal goals. Thank you.

    Comment by Marianne Kuzujanakis — July 20, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

  11. Catherine, Susan, and others…

    I am so inspired to hear the stories of how you, as parents, after your children’s negative school experiences, turned the problems on their heads by furthered your own education to become more prepared advocates for not just your own children but also all gifted children. I think this desire speaks to so many of us as parents of gifted children. Thanks to each of you for taking that bold step.

    Comment by Marianne Kuzujanakis — July 20, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

  12. Dr. Kuzujanakis,
    My apologies for dealing you my frustrations. It is not in my personality to home school–I am a better mother, wife and person when I have my own outside projects to stimulate my mind and use my energy. I can give my kids much more when I take care of myself and my own needs as a 2g individual.

    I know that your article was not intended to put down any segment of the gifted parent population. Perhaps I am just feeling like all roads lead to home schooling. My kids are in a language immersion school and definitely getting experiences and challenge there that I could not provide them at home.

    Maybe I have not yet found the right places to look. The guilt, decision-making, and issues of these kids are incredibly complex and difficult. And the parents of these kids are as likely to have “issues” as the kids themselves. Our own “Overexcitabilities” get in the way.

    Thank you for your efforts in this arena. Any time a person puts something out there, they open themselves up. Though I was critical, I still appreciate the article and the thoughts.

    Comment by Jen — July 23, 2012 @ 11:54 pm

  13. Jen,

    Please, there is no need to apologize for anything. Our children and their needs are both unique and complex. Even within a single family each child’s needs are unique from other children in that family. There is never an easy “one-size-fits-all” approach to our children nor to our families. We all struggle at some point with our decisions, and rare is the person who has not. I certainly have not met such a person, nor am I a person without some of my own doubts.

    There is no seemingly right way to approach to life except to truly attempt to understand both ourselves and our children, and to approach life in a way which pays respect to both. All my best to you in your journey.

    Comment by Marianne Kuzujanakis — July 24, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

  14. […] The school didn’t understand my gifted son’s enthusiasm for learning, his energetic passion to discover, his earnest desire to engage with everyone and everything around him. It seemed as if they could only see in him someone who didn’t fit the rules of what their worldview told them about children. He was an outlier. I’ve previously written a bit about his early educational experiences HERE. […]

    Pingback by Why I Homeschool | Marianne Kuzujanakis — September 15, 2015 @ 11:20 am

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