By Wenda Sheard.
Hello! I enthusiastically joined the SENG Board of Directors in January. Today I offer you snippets of my parenting experiences, and I offer you four excerpts from John Stuart Mill’s 1869 essay On Liberty. I hope Mill’s words, italicized below, will help you feel the timeless nature of the SENG mission.
Although my youngest child became an adult last month, I’ll likely never recover from years of parenting children so very different from the norm. My parenting journey led me to become friends with teachers and school officials in three states, led me to earn a Ph.D. focusing on education policy, and led me to delve deep into my religious beliefs, my upbringing, and elsewhere for answers to questions about how to best educate all children on limited taxpayer resources.
I am forever grateful to all the teachers who spent time with my children through their schooling years, and to John Stuart Mill, the 19th century philosopher who must have known our family in another dimension. Mill recognized that genius requires freedom.
Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.
Like most parents, we welcomed our newborn babies into the world with kisses and wishes and cuddles. While they were learning to crawl, they enjoyed books and blocks and puzzles. My husband and I gave them great freedom to explore. They enjoyed life, they enjoyed us, and they enjoyed freedom.
Gradually we realized that our babies had minds much quicker than average. School entrance brought difficulties to our entire family. Children suffer when placed in classrooms covering material already mastered. Children suffer when confined in uninteresting, unchallenging environments. Parents tire of the task of advocating for “square peg” children assigned to “round hole” schools. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people — less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.
Mill’s words speak clearly to what I learned during two decades of advocating for gifted children. He realized that our primary concern should be their social and emotional needs, and our secondary concern should be their academic needs.
Whenever I asked schools for academic accommodations for my children, I based my request on their social and emotional needs. I did not worry about academic achievement; we had that in spades. What I found far more compelling was insuring that my children and their minds didn’t feel imprisoned by curricula and instruction suited to the majority of children.
If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters, they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to commonplace, to point at with solemn warning as “wild,” “erratic,” and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.
During my parenting years, I learned that we must teach gifted children not merely academic matters, but also matters of the heart. We need to validate their feelings about their differences from the norm. We need to validate their feelings about how society treats genius. We need to tell our children that whatever makes them smart in academic senses likely also makes them smart in other senses.
We also need to tell our children that many new discoveries and works of great literature have come with social and emotional costs, including social rejection and emotional turmoil. Galileo was held under house arrest until his death. Darwin was attacked by the churches of his time. Orville and Wilbur Wright felt great skepticism. More than a few Nobel Laureates suffered forms of ostracism during the initial years after their great works.
I support the work of SENG because I believe that gifted children and adults need social and emotional support. The failure of society as a whole to accept genius causes gifted children and adults very real social and emotional pain. As Mill wrote in the 19th century:
People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think that they can do very well without it.
Let us all join together to support SENG and its timeless mission.
Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D. is an emeritus board member and past president of SENG. She currently serves as a trustee on the Council of Management of the UK’s National Association for Gifted Children. Before moving to England in 2009 to teach at an international school, Dr. Sheard taught in the United States and China, practiced law in Ohio, and worked in Connecticut as a disability policy researcher exploring the educational and workforce lives of people with disabilities. She has won advocacy awards, published articles, taught teachers, and presented at numerous conferences on three continents.