Why I Choose to Unschool My Gifted Children
By Amy Harrington
What if we let go of everything we thought we knew about parenting and education? What if everything that we have been conditioned to believe is counterintuitive to positive development particularly with highly to profoundly gifted children? These notions are scary at first but as I have continued down this divergent path, traditional mainstream ideas have ceased to resonate. They don’t make sense once you have experienced the alternative. This mind shift doesn’t generally happen over night but one day you will just be living differently and wonder how you haven’t thought this way all along. At least that is what has happened to me.
Gifted children don’t come with a user manual and rarely will mainstream parenting books provide gifted families with the information they need to support their children with their social, emotional, and intellectual development. One does not exist without the other. A gifted child’s social-emotional development will almost always intertwine with their intellectual needs and a complete understanding of the psyche of a gifted child is paramount to effective parenting. We are challenged to parent the child we have, not the child we imagined we would have. Our children show us who we are and sometimes that is uncomfortable. Self-discovery seems to be part of the gifted parenting journey often shedding light on the adult’s own giftedness. When we come to terms with who we are, we are able to see our children more clearly.
For those of us who never envisioned having anything other than “normal” kids, realizing that you are the parent of a gifted child can be an overwhelming responsibility. Intensity truly seems to be the hallmark of giftedness. It is a polite and succinct way of describing overexcitabilities, asynchronicity, quirks, verbal precocity, non-conformity, argumentativeness, and generally encapsulates being weird in a sometimes socially confusing way. As an exceptionally intense mom to two profoundly creative, intense, intellectually diverse, gifted children, I have had to adjust my perceptions about parenting, lifestyle, and education. I tried traditional parenting and educational approaches with my non-traditional firstborn progeny and it failed miserably. Sending my profoundly gifted, extremely creative child to school was the single worst decision I have made and I constantly punish myself for not being more enlightened earlier on in this unique and subversive journey. I write and advocate for gifted children and alternative education precisely because of my earlier misguided choices in the hope that other children do not become cautionary tales. I rescued my child just in time and we are all happier since.
Our society has conditioned us to follow along a very prescribed path and that is fine for some people; however, when faced with raising a profoundly gifted child sometimes you are forced into a role you never anticipated. Unschooling isn’t just for gifted children but it often becomes a necessity as our educational system cannot and will not provide an adequate form of education for those who truly need intellectual challenge. Parenting a gifted child requires a different mindset. Most parents are default traditional in nature and apply one or more forms of the most conventional modern parenting styles in an attempt to raise well-rounded, socially desirable children.
As a parent of a prodigy and a profoundly gifted child, I have learned how to shift my views from a traditional mindset into a progressive freethinker which is exactly what my intense children demanded of me. As brilliant outliers, they have forced me to question conventional thinking and have allowed me to see how a gifted child can thrive when we repudiate a traditional mindset. What we’ve found after years in both public and private school is that since my children are truly out-of-the-box, highly accelerated and divergent thinkers, then traditional brick and mortar schooling was not only a poor fit, it was also quite damaging and regressive. There are some gifted children who like a lot of structure and can thrive with prescribed curriculum but that is rarely optimal for the truly divergent, profoundly gifted child, high in multiple overexcitabilities and asynchronicity.
When we started on this alternative educational journey I referred to it as homeschooling and thought it would encompass the traditional subjects as well as my son’s areas of interest. I joined some homeschool discussion groups and realized that a necessary layover to any homeschooling adventure after years in a brick and mortar school was “deschooling.” This deschooling time period is essential for both parent and child to shift their mindset away from schooling and onto a learning mindset. For us, deschooling led naturally into unschooling with my children in the driver’s seat of their own education. One can learn anything desired in real-time and for free with access to internet and a computer or mobile device. We soon found out that my son’s areas of interest trumped standard areas of education which quickly and easily demonstrated that unschooling is the optimal fit for him. As we have continued down this path of unschooling and learning on our own terms, we have evolved into true freethinkers who blur the lines of societal convention. Unschooling transcended seamlessly into radical unschooling which extends the self-directed learning element into an all encompassing respect for the whole child’s ability to govern himself and live freely without adult coercion. Rejecting traditional schooling and mainstream parenting indoctrination has shed light on rejecting all indoctrination opening our eyes to the pitfalls of conventional thinking and its limitations as it applies to higher intellect. Creative intellectuals cannot and should not be restricted. Any attempt to limit a gifted child from divergent thinking and creative expression will damage the child’s development and may negatively affect the family dynamic. Freedom, for us, is essential and radical unschooling provides the ultimate freedom for my divergent family.
We unschool because my children’s minds need to delve deeply into their areas of interest. We radically unschool because as I started to appreciate and embrace non-conformity, rejecting all conventional dogma. Self-directed learning remains an imperative for my children to enjoy learning and actually develop their creative intellect.
Unschooling requires a change in beliefs on behalf of both the child and parent. Most of us have been conditioned to a schooling mindset for so long that we don’t question it. Schooling is contained, in-the-box, rote style, didactic teaching with external measurements to show accountability. The focus on school has never been about children’s learning or creativity. School has a purpose but it is the antithesis to what many gifted children need. The more divergent and asynchronous the gifted child is, the less likely any prescribed curriculum or schooling approach will work. Gifted children, by their nature, are abstract thinkers who prefer out-of-the-box thinking. These children question everything and rarely take answers at face value. They yearn to know more and ask questions that don’t easily have answers. This passionate curiosity is best supported when there are no limits that restrict open-ended learning. Within school, limits are everywhere and there is a huge cap on free expression.
Gifted children are great at finding their own interests and delving deeply into subject areas that they find appealing. It may not mirror what is traditionally taught in a schooling atmosphere and this is what makes some parents uncertain about whether their children are learning that which they need to for the real world. The thing about unschooling is all learning is relevant to the learner and judgment from others about its merit is both unnecessary and potentially damaging. If a child is focused on researching something and becomes well-versed in all aspects of such interest, then he is demonstrating the ability to learn independently driven solely by intrinsic desire. These are content neutral skills that are worth supporting. Meaningful learning doesn’t focus on five subject areas exclusively when there is an entire world filled with interesting concepts and ideas to explore. My kids’ preferred method of knowledge output is to teach me what they have been working on and it is never in the form of a worksheet or test. The highest form of learning is teaching. If my children can discuss factual information, historical relevance, spot inconsistencies, and create novel ideas, then they have engaged in meaningful learning. What they choose to learn is not important; however, the research, critical thinking, and problem solving that is inherent in their learning process is.
As we continue down our radical unschooling path, the journey becomes clearer. The doubts and fears dissipate when the love of learning is omnipresent in our days. Each day is a new adventure and the interests come and go. Critical thinking, problem solving, fostering authenticity, and life learning are how we spend our time. The factoids are irrelevant but personal, emotional, psychological, and intellectual growth are at the forefront of my children’s development. Gifted children are born with heightened abilities and senses and by honoring my children’s individual needs, they are able to flourish as they are meant to without anyone’s agenda interfering, including my own. As a facilitator, I am here to offer them support and guidance.
They don’t need me to teach them, as they are teaching me.
We are partners in this unschooling journey and I am learning and expanding my knowledge as much as they are. When you are curious about the world, then learning doesn’t stop with a diploma and age maturation. Unschooling is a life-long journey for curious minds to wander, create, and explore.
Amy has helped families with gifted and twice-exceptional children from all over the world transition to home education and has guided them to seek appropriate assessment, treatment, counseling, and school accommodations. She is a multilingual transactional attorney and a former internet entrepreneur, interested in educating teachers, school counselors, and parents about the unique social, emotional, and intellectual needs of gifted and twice-exceptional children.