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Advanced But Not Mature

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H20 TO GO!

Growing Emotional Resiliency & Navigating Through Childhood

with Heart, Humor & Optimism

By Margo Judge
Installment #25
Advanced but Not Mature

Installment #25
Chapter 3/ issue #7

What if our child shows a gift for math or science, art or music, singing or dancing, throwing or batting, swimming or skating, etc, etc.  Does that talent parallel  his/her emotional development?  Many times, especially in middle school,  being gifted and having emotional maturity are at such opposite points, that shutdowns and meltdowns will inevitably result.  If our child is unable to cope with the pressures  of being advanced and the expectations of performance and competition, it will affect motivation, commitment, parent relationships as well as academics.                                                                                                                                                                        On The Fast Track-Advanced but Not Mature

A very talented, twelve year old swimmer was training for future Olympics. He had been swimming since infancy—clearly his passion, and so, his entire family had dedicated their time and money to help their son follow his dream. But, one day, out of the blue, he came home and declared it all quits. He no longer wanted to swim. Needless to say, this boy's mother was more than shocked. She tried to extract from him a coherent reason. He gave none. She found herself angry. All this time, sacrifice, and dedication for her son to say it was over? Perhaps this was as much a dream for her as it was for him—but no matter--abruptly, without warning, he wanted to stop. His father took a different approach. Perhaps his son just needed some time and space to rethink this. So, he decided to take him camping for the weekend. And, sure enough out in the woods, away from everyone, the reason slowly unfolded.

It turned out that at this stage of training, all the boys on the team had to switch from wearing swimming trunks to Speedos (bikini type briefs). He was going through puberty, he was totally embarrassed about his body, and simply unable to handle this change in uniform. But, there was no choice. If he wanted to continue to train and compete, he would have to wear Speedos, he would have to travel and share showers. He could not do it

His father, so wisely told his son to take the year off, realizing that all he needed was time to grow into his body, and feel less self-conscious. His son was a talented swimmer. He could forgo competition for one year. He would make it up. The world would not come to an end. Lucky for him to have had such a dad.

A parent friend of mine, and a former national, ice skating champion coached very young wannabes. She told me that in all her years of teaching, she had come to realize it was not the most talented skaters who become champions—it was the ones who though talented, could also handle the rigor, the sacrifice, the failures, the slumps—the ones who were emotionally ready for the pressure and stress that came with constant training and competition. How true. I knew a young lady, a gifted young skater who did not make it past the initial level of competition for just that reason. I also knew a talented baseball player, and designated starter on his high school varsity team, who was continually late to practice, or absent altogether. The coach kicked him off the team. When I asked why this had happened, I was given this reason-

He doesn't want to start—feels it's too much pressure, can't handle that level of play.

I cannot tell you how many other examples I had seen of this, throughout my son's school life--smart and talented kids who were emotionally immature. And I have to wonder whether this might be why kids today are having a harder and harder time handling stress. Are they just emotionally too young and unprepared to handle the fast track they've been put on physically, socially, and academically? 

Today’s children are in a bind. They're reading college level books in high school. They're doing advance math in middle school. They're on travel teams in elementary school. And in the United States, puberty is beginning earlier and earlier. But the simple fact remains that emotions cannot be speeded up. They continue to evolve at a given pace that refuses to be affected by technology or diet, a pace that will only adhere to a timetable age-specific to each child and that child's environment.

My grandmother came to this country alone, on a boat, at fifteen! My mother was working full time at seventeen! Being in the workplace, having responsibilities and older mentors probably offered a great advantage, and I have no doubt they were more emotionally mature than young people their age, are today. Contrarily, my enormously talented cousin who was sent off to Hollywood at age sixteen (her parents were living in London and raising her younger sister) was absolutely not emotionally ready to be in such an environment without grounding of family, and compensated in tragic ways, ultimately.

And so, while our kids might be intellectually gifted, physically advanced and/or developed or creatively gifted (as was my cousin), their emotions are neither gifted, talented, nor in the least advanced.  In fact, emotions tend to run a distant third in this developmental race, ending up in high stress mode trying to catch up, keep up and stay in the race without collapsing.

Intellectually Advanced:

If we have children who begin reading at a very young age, they may be able to read anything by the time they are in sixth grade. But, does that mean they will understand more sophisticated themes, complex characters, or nuanced symbolism? Not at all. It takes more than an ability to read proficiently to comprehend literature. It requires a maturity of thought and insight that only comes with the perspective of age and experience, and understanding. Therefore, (and I have argued this before) reading Catcher in the Rye at age 12 or 13 makes absolutely no sense!

Physically Advanced:

So too, an athlete might develop coordination skills early. But, does that mean he can handle the level of play and pressure that goes along with his skill? Not necessarily.

I saw this first hand, with a pitcher, in grade school who could throw a 65-mile an hour fastball and he could hit! But, emotionally, he was still a child. He'd fall apart when he walked runners, or struck out. I watched him slam his mitt down, throw his helmet, have attitude, get into fights with the umpires. After observing him over a long period of time, I came to feel that expectations for this young boy went far beyond his capacity to cope. And I so hoped that his father would slow his baseball track down for a while. Even with my advice, unfortunately, that was not going to happen. The family relocated to Florida. I wonder what has become of him.

Physically Developed:

And what about young girls? I sat down with a gynecologist and she spoke of the dilemma posed by early physical and social development in today's society: If puberty, in the United States, is occurring earlier and earlier, how is a very young girl, who gets her period at age ten (the average age now), supposed to handle her feelings? How is she supposed to act when her body is racing way ahead of her emotional maturity? And, if sexual activity is beginning at a younger and younger age, and there follows a longer period of having multiple sexual partners, what does that mean for the future health of that child, and that child's later ability to develop an understanding of intimacy, of relationships, and commitment? These young girls may look physically older, and wear sexier clothes, but inside, they are still children, with all the fears, and apprehensions, and confusions that mark their age, not their appearance.

So, we as parents, have to watch our kids' emotional development very carefully. We know that while they might be able to breeze through books, do advanced algebra equations, shoot 3 pointers, or hit home runs, make touchdowns, have a killer swing in golf or tennis, make goals in soccer, sing, dance, act, paint, or do anything more than well; that they might have developed muscles, or breasts very early and look sixteen or eighteen, have command of language, or prose, their emotions will still remain age-appropriate, if not younger.

It is up to us to help our children grow emotional resilience, emotional strength and emotional maturity. That must take precedence over growing their talent for their talent will be hollow and weak without such emotional grounding. We do that by allowing them to fail and make mistakes and discover that they can overcome a setback and move on.  We do that by having them take responsibility for various aspects of their lives. We do that by allowing them to make some choices and then live with the consequences of those choices.  We do that by supporting them, not doing FOR them. And this is what I discuss in the next chapter of H20.

(And in this regard, I have read the cover story in Time Magazine, November 30, 2009-The Case Against Over-Parenting  by Nancy Gibbs and I will respond in a separate article, for there are a number of issues not covered in that article (e.g. disadvantaged youth who have a whole other set of parental issues).  But with all due respect to  Time's article, I have been arguing the importance of emotional resilience in advance of intellectual development for as long as I have been interested in children's emotional health-20 years! It may be the parenting “flavor of the month” theory but I believe it to be a profound tenet of childrearing and the foundation of my entire H20 Philosophy. The original Advanced But Not Mature article was posted as a blog back in 2004).

When our advanced kids start to tune out, turn off, shut down, avoid, run away, act destructively—red alert, red alert-- the stress level is in over drive. Trying to keep up emotionally, has become too difficult and reached too uncomfortable a point--a warning sign that it's time to slow down, scale back on achievement and concentrate more on emotional resilience and growth.

Kids will be self-absorbed. It comes with their age. But, a gifted or talented child has double emphasis placed upon his/her ego. The best way to guard against the constant glare of that spotlighted ego is to incorporate that child into a larger, non-competitive entity, where he/she shares the light and takes on responsibilities with and for others; where he/she can see themselves as equal to, but not greater in value than anyone else. This, surprisingly, frees kids and makes them feel more grounded and secure. It offers a safe haven where they can just be. And by having to contribute as member to family and/or community, children learn to see themselves as part of a whole in which they are active participants with shared roles.  So, for example if a talented young athlete exhibits a low frustration level, it’s time to cut back and redirect focus away from self.  You can give him/her some choices: Take a community service day. Help a neighbor. Offer to give a younger child some tips regarding your skill. Participate with Mom or Dad or sibling in a difficult project.(cleaning out closets, or garage or basement) By the way, I know we might think that chores come with the territory of belonging to a family, and that’s true, and we will expect our children to do them, but we can still let our child know how much we appreciate his/her help by simply saying thank you. If it’s a bigger project-thank you so-o-o- much.  I really needed your help with this. I couldn’t have done it without you. Trust me, it is truly music to a child’s ear. Nothing offers greater instant emotional gratification than having felt they contributed to someone else’s well being especially loved ones.  It makes our children feel really good about themselves. And they need that kind of emotional pride building, no matter how talented or skilled or popular they are in other areas. When children feel good about themselves they are emotionally more resilient. When they are emotionally more resilient, they can handle more stress.  When they can handle more stress, they can overcome setbacks.  When they can overcome setbacks, they can continue moving forward.  When they can continue moving forward, they will accomplish.  And when they can accomplish they will experience success.

The worse thing we can do is to assume that because our children might appear older, smarter and more talented that they can handle themselves. Teachers understand this very well when we apply our children to kindergarten and we’re told ever so tactfully that academically our child is right there, but socially-- not yet. This is usually the last time we hear such words of advice (although at the time it sounds like criticism, no?). When our children grow older and enter middle school, and these issues come up again, there is no one, this time, to tell us of a possible discrepancy. We have to discover it all on our own, and make decisions accordingly.

I remember a mother telling me that I should insist my son go to the school dance because it was good social experience. I also remember thinking she was out of her mind! My son was no more ready to go to his sixth grade school dance than I was to parachute out of a plane! And why did he need to go? He had the rest of middle school, not to mention high school to go to a dance—what was so urgent about making him go at that point? When he was ready, he’d let me know. He did! A year later. And he never looked back!

Being There-Who Owns What?

If we are going to fast track our kids, we need to be there as moral and emotional support—that means-- in availability. It does not mean over protecting (as in, I will talk to the coach and/or instructor and fix this problem) or managing (I need to set up your summer schedule so that time and opportunity are not wasted) and taking over every aspect of their climb (the long term plan here is if you does well in this, then you can compete there, and the you’ll will be a shoo-in for college)

It also means that our kids need to take possession of their passion. When it became clear that my son was passionate about baseball, I made him invest in that passion.  He had to use his allowance towards his bat, and mitt and gloves. I was not going to pre-furnish his dream for him.  If he truly loved baseball then he would have to forgo buying something else he wanted for those gloves.  This was important.  Was he willing to do that? Our children must own their gift and/or talent.  It belongs to them, not us. If we are pushing or supplying because our dream is intertwined with theirs, then it is NOT their dream, it is ours no matter what face we put on it. If both of us are going to make the sacrifices and commitment required in time and money, our children must feel devoted to what they are doing and take responsibility for it. We are there to drive to and from, to pay for classes and travel, to fix meals and snacks. We are there in spirit and with enthusiasm. We are there to give encouragement and sustenance-with hard work comes achievement; to listen and to console-there is no such thing as success without failure; to offer some words of advice and wisdom-empathy and ethics must always accompany your accomplishments; and most of all to believe in their tomorrow no matter what that tomorrow might end up looking like-Good times always follow bad. Everything comes in its own time. I have no doubt you will accomplish and achieve.

We are NOT there to over-protect, we are also NOT there to delegate support and moral grounding to their peers. Peers cannot provide the perspective or ethical guidance our kids will need to navigate through pressures and expectations.

Our children have their whole growing up to be ready for success. If they achieve success too early, before they have developed resilience then their early accomplishments will stay raw talent, undisciplined and untested. So, while kids are revealing their developing skills, creative talents and God-given gifts, it is up to us to keep their raw potential in perspective and help them first mature emotionally. If our child shows an advanced bent, and if it is put on a low heat, and allowed to cook slowly, it will still be ready in plenty of time. And, best of all, the pot will not burn! Promise!

Final Word- Tiger Woods-Quintessential Advanced But Not Mature/Installment #26


Updated 2009

H20 to Go! Copyright, 2004
By  Margo Judge

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