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
Confession…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.
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SENG 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 http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/practice-opportunities.