Lean In for Gifted Girls

I just finished reading Lean In, the much talked about book by Sheryl Sandberg. In it she makes the point that women need to put more into their careers. That while women are outpacing men in educational achievements and taking more of the entry-level jobs, men still run the world. The book is heavy on statistics that are all carefully footnoted. While women earn 60% of the masters degrees in the United States, these highly educated women steadily drop out of the workforce in the years after graduation. This is especially true of highly educated women with children. Permanently dropping out of the work force hurts women’s long-term economic stability. It curtails their independence and may even be a contributing factor in lower self-esteem and depression. While the book was directed at women, the information is perhaps more valuable for those of us raising gifted girls. How can we set them up for fuller, more fulfilling lives? Should we put more emphasis on giving them the skills they will need for life after school, rather than just focusing on their academic careers?

Girls are different from boys. They are, on average, more concerned with following rules, pleasing people, and not hurting other’s feelings. They generally mature earlier and act more responsible at a younger age than boys. This tendency to compliantly follow adult directions makes girls easier to live with (most of the time) at home and creates a more studious, “teachable” student body in our educational institutions. Throughout their education, we reward girls for their hard work and positive, conforming attitudes. However, once they enter into the work world, different criteria govern who gets promotions and power. Businesses reward innovation, ambition, and results. Aggressively pursuing opportunities leads to rewards. However, women and girls generally do not want to appear ruthlessly ambitious. They fear (consciously or subconsciously) that if they really put themselves out there, promoting themselves, networking, and striving, they will be viewed less positively and this likeability hit will hurt their careers. Research shows they are correct. Our society wants men to be decisive, driven providers and women to be communal, sensitive caregivers. Women who “act like men” are less liked and this negatively affects their career trajectory.

So what do we tell our hard-working, ambitious daughters? How do we raise them to succeed not only in school but in the work world?

I am beginning to believe we as parents and teachers must start by giving up some of the benefits we get from having nice, compliant girls. My own personal experience is that my daughter tries hard to follow both spoken and unspoken rules. She frequently makes the extra effort to please teachers, yet is very reluctant to call attention to her achievements. My sons on the other hand are naturals at self-promotion. They also take the edict that it is far better to ask for forgiveness than permission one step further by adding in the caveat that neither is necessary if you avoid getting caught or can put the proper spin on your transgression. These different approaches often have my daughter complaining that “it” isn’t fair. That the boys get to do more without getting in trouble and that they don’t put in as much work at school or at home. She has a point and we do try to monitor the boys to make sure they are putting in the same effort to get the same rewards as our daughter. After reading “Lean In” though, I’m starting to wonder if this approach will actually help her in the long run.

Yes, the boys need more monitoring and it is our job to encourage them to be more thoughtful, diligent, and hardworking. On the other hand, our daughter may need a different message. Perhaps we should stop giving girls the idea that the way to get their efforts appreciated is to level the playing field and make things more fair by complaining to the local authorities. Title IX only applies to educational institutions, not the business world. Career opportunities are not automatically equal for men and women. Absent overt discrimination, positions are open to everyone, male or female but men end up in the executive suite far more often than women. Males generally approach the world differently and this can lead to more success for them in the work world. Our daughters need to know that being good workers and nice people will not automatically give them the careers they want. In addition they need to build their self-confidence, knowledge, and social work skills. We need to raise daughters that are a bit more of a pain. Ones that follow their own passions instead of our suggestions. Ones that are more interested in being themselves than in being liked by everyone. Ones that are willing to take chances and break some rules because they understand that their worth does not depend on always being good. Ones that are comfortable taking a seat at the table because they know they have a great deal to contribute. We need to become much more accepting and tolerant of noisy girls that speak even when they are not spoken to and shout out answers without raising their hands.

Well-behaved women seldom make history — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

We must encourage our girls to follow their own interests even when it means ignoring our suggestions. We should go beyond tolerating their arguing and teach them how to become more effective in advocating their positions.

In general, girls have less professional ambition than boys. While some of this may be due to innate biological differences between boys and girls, even in our enlightened times we are still raising them differently with different messages. Boys get the message that when they grow up they will be full-time, ambitious providers. Girls get the message that while they should do well in school and start a career, it is at least equally important for them to be supportive of their boyfriends, husbands, and children. That if they are too career oriented, their family may suffer. While society sometimes questions whether a mother who takes a big promotion may be hurting her family, the same is virtually never true of fathers.

Ambitious girls are labeled as bossy instead of what they actually are, naturally driven leaders. We need to do a better job of helping our girls develop these emerging managerial skills. Instead of telling our girls to “be nice” we should teach them how to lead so that others will want to follow.

Knowledge is power and our girls need to know:

  • That on average men apply for jobs if they feel they meet 60% of the requirements while women only apply if they think they meet 100% of the requirements. Our girls need to understand that this desire to cross the T’s and dot the I’s is a false strategy designed to avoid rejection and holds women back. We should encourage our girls to put themselves out there and teach them that rejection is not the same as failure. And failure isn’t that bad anyways.
  • Effective ways for girls and women to negotiate. While women who tout their own achievements take a likeability hit compared to men who do the same, there are techniques to get around this. If women are negotiating for a higher starting salary, a raise, or other benefits, they can minimize negative blowback by “thinking personally and acting communally.” Men who fail to negotiate are viewed as weak, pushovers yet women need to provide a legitimate explanation for their negotiations. That explanation is frequently received more positively if it ties into positive societal stereotypes of women. For example, if women start negotiations by explaining that they know women often get paid less than men, in part, because men are more likely to reject initial offers and that this knowledge is why they are negotiating, the women position themselves as more communal and less selfish. Requests from women are also viewed more favorably if they say a senior person encouraged them to negotiate or that their negotiations are inspired by objective, industry standards. Until and unless society changes and starts to view aggressive women as positively as it views aggressive men, our daughters need the inside information on how effectively propel their careers forward while still appearing “appropriately” female.
  • How and why to work together. Frequently girls, especially in the middle school years, setup a social hierarchy where girls actively put other girls down to build themselves up. They are too concerned about popularity and boys and they view the social scene as a zero-sum game. This attitude too often stays with them as they enter the work world. Yet one of the most effective ways for women to advance their careers is to have their achievements and skills endorsed by others. Girls need to get in the habit of banding together and speaking positively about each other. We should coach them on how to call attention to each other’s ideas and achievements. By becoming effective promoters for each other they can learn at an early age how to make sure their accomplishments are known without appearing unseemingly “cocky” for a female.
  • That they should approach their education, networking, and initial jobs as if they will have a full and fulfilling life-long career. They should not question whether their work and career choices will fit with a later decision to have a family. When women doubt their ability to combine work and family before they even have a baby, they avoid advancements and assignments that will give them more money, power, and flexibility — items that can make a huge difference when they later need to combine work and family.
  • That there is currently a false “competition” between stay-at-home moms and career moms. The reality is that more and more women, and a few men, move back and forth between work and home, spending more time with their families when that need is greater and spending more hours on their career when it is best for them and their families. Our daughters can succeed where adult women have failed. They should grow up expecting to work together and stay connected no matter whether they are going through a period of full-time office work, full-time at-home work, or something in-between. Guilt over not being with the kids enough or not being at work enough need to stop influencing how mothers view each others’ choices. Families and careers go through phases and one or the other will, at times, demand more attention. Girls should learn the importance of supporting and helping each other, especially during transitions into or out of the work force.

Those of you who are raising boys aren’t off the hook either. Even if your home follows the statistical pattern of mom spending more hours on cleaning and childcare than dad, explain to your son that the world is changing. Teach him how to clean and cook tell him that as an adult, he will be just as responsible for the household chores as his wife. We should talk with our boys about work/life balance. “How do you plan to juggle it all?” should not just be something for girls to ponder. In fact, we can start changing the conversation today. Start ask the men you work with who have young children, “How to you do it all?”

Giving Gifted Kids a Kinder Mirror

The latest ad in the Dove Real Beauty campaign is getting a fair amount of press. In it, a police forensic artist draws a picture of a woman based on the woman’s description of herself (he cannot see her). Then the artist draws the same woman based on a stranger’s description of her after having met and chatted with her briefly. The images clearly show that women can be their own worse critics and that strangers can sometimes see beauty in us that we miss.

The same is true for gifted children. The wrong environment can destroy a positive self-image. Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children are especially at risk. If their teachers don’t understand their intensity and asynchronous development they may not be respected or valued in class. They may get in trouble more, feel misunderstood, and start to incorporate the negative view their teacher has of them into their self concept. While their external appearance hasn’t changed, internally they may start to feel less engaged and uglier. If they have the misfortune of being in an educational environment where their teacher is giving them neutral to negative feedback and none of their classmates get their jokes, share their interests, or even just accept them, this can lead to a downward spiral.

Giftedness is a risk factor for depression, drug use, and suicide. Gifted children can feel alone and closed off from the world when they never get a chance to be with kids like them. In most of the sketches from the Dove campaign, the women’s faces and eyes are more open and interactive in the pictures created based on the stranger’s description. Perhaps this is in part because the women faces were actually different when they were chatting with the stranger. A friendly conversation, with smiles, laughter, and eye contact can animate and positively transform anyone’s face. Perhaps this isn’t just about women’s or gifted children’s less than optimal view of themselves. Perhaps the women saw themselves as they are when they are alone, staring into a mirror and not connecting with anyone. The strangers saw them as they are when a friendly person takes the time to chat with them, engage them, and value them. Gifted children need to feel treasured in this way too.

Especially in elementary and middle school, gifted students need gifted programs not just to help them excel academically. They need gifted programs to help them form a positive self-image. Too often giftedness is narrowly defined by academic achievement or potential. The emotional piece, which can make gifted children feel more passionate than the average kid their age and hyper-aware of not quite fitting in socially, is as important. It is easier for a gifted learner to fill in missing academic pieces than to change the story they tell themselves about their place in the world, who values them, and why. If we just focus on academics, we may accidentally give gifted children the impressing that they are their achievements and nothing more. This is one of the reasons we need special programs for the highly gifted. Good programs aren’t just about academics or enrichments that could benefit any top student. Quality programs for highly gifted students take into account the whole person. They can transform a child who feels unattractive and out-of-place into a child that radiates confidence and self-acceptance.


Expect to Suck

Like other highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students, many things come easily to my kids. Concepts that others their age may struggle with, are, to them, obvious. The basic topics covered repetitively in standard elementary school classrooms they learn on their own or on the first classroom iteration.

This effortless learning is wonderful, until they come across a subject or activity that actually requires them to put out some energy. When they stop cruising and hit a wall it can feel devastating. Many gifted kids, especially those on the upper end of the spectrum, have limited experience with real challenges. Their ability to rationalize that they just aren’t good at something is more advanced than their ability to work through initial failures and frustrations. If they aren’t instantly good at something, if they don’t intuitively know where the instructor is going, if they experience confusion, their instinct may be to just give up and quit.

My young son was recently frustrated with the prospect of writing 5 sentences (on a topic of his choice). He rationalized his lack of output with the explanation that he is, “only gifted in math.” He has been writing sentences and paragraphs for less than 6 months and he still hasn’t quite figured out how to get the rapidly moving thoughts in his head down in sentences. He is convinced that because writing is difficult for him now, he just has no gifted talent in that area and we should lower our expectations. He doesn’t believe that even highly talented writers have to put long hours and effort into their writing. We have seen our other kids avoid subjects that take work as well, either obviously with loud fits of frustration or with quiet avoidance.

As parents of significantly gifted kids, one of our primary parental responsibilities is to teach them the power of hard work and that many things that do not initially come easily are still worth doing. One of the first hurdles we are helping them get over is the perfectionist attitude that they should be good at something, even if they have never done it before. From tennis lessons to soccer, from writing to math, this summer’s message has been that if they have never done something before, they should expect to suck and that is okay to suck. People, even gifted people, invest thousands of hours of work and practice in the areas where they excel — ten thousand hours of work in the areas where they are elite. The reasoning that since something takes effort, they aren’t gifted in that area, when left unchallenged becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Even within areas where they are amazingly gifted, our kids need to learn how to put in sweat equity. If they coast along on their innate talents they will miss out on the magical combination of inborn talent plus hard work which creates true greatness.

SENG 2012 Conference Overview

This past weekend my older kids and I attended the annual SENG conference in Milwaukee. This was our first time attending a SENG event and I’m sure it will not be our last. The kids, ages 9 and 11, had a great time in the children’s program. They toured the Harley Davidson Museum, spent a day at Discovery World, took a boat ride, learned about Nikola Tesla, and visited the aquarium. The most enjoyable part of the children’s programming was the chance to spend two days with other gifted kids and, perhaps more important, wonderful adults that understood them.

While the kids were off exploring, I attended a steady stream of seminars, many given by nationally renowned experts on gifted kids. Sessions I attended included ones on misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis of gifted children, depression in gifted individuals, exceptionally gifted children, giftedness from a lifespan perspective, anxiety in gifted children, and executive function disorder.

Being able to listen to the experts whose books I have read was great. One of the overarching themes was that gifted kids, especially ones that are highly, exceptionally, or profoundly gifted, really are different from other kids in terms of their intensity, excitability, and how they interact with and view the world. Parents and teachers need to be aware of these differences and work with them, not against them.

Some take away comments that resonated with me from the experts are:

Gifted does not equal good. – Joy Lawson Davis,  PhD (In reference to the fact that many gifted children growing up in rough neighborhoods may not be using their gifted abilities solely (or possible at all) for academic pursuits vs. other pursuits.

I was hoping for a solid 120. – Edward R. Amend, PsyD (When joking about his child’s IQ. Recognizing that the more gifted a child is, the more likely they are to have issues ranging from asynchronous development, to anxiety, depression, and intensity.

Understanding the normal but unusual function of this tribe. – P. Susan jackson, MA, RC (Referring to her work with highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted kids and the fact that they have behaviors, thoughts and intensities that are very different from average kids, but are entirely normal within the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted population. It is important for parents and teachers who live and work with this population to better understand them to create a supportive environment and not wrongly pathologize normal behavior.)

Many gifted kids identify themselves by what they are bad at.  Dan Peters, PhD

We have a worry culture where you’re never doing enough for your kids.  Dan Peters, PhD

The more highly gifted a child is the longer it can take for them to develop the high level circuits in their brains that control executive function.  There are a lot of highly gifted kids that do not do well in school because they are highly gifted.  – Lisa Rivero, MA

Many gifted kids have high psychomotor energy. For career counseling see how kids want to spend their days — moving or sitting.  – Lisa Rivero, MA

One of the most thought-provoking sessions I went to was the one on executive function disorder. In it Bill Dickerman, PhD, introduced the idea that kids that appear to adults as less organized with less self-control than their age mates might actually have a huge learning advantage. These explorers and experimenters may be learning about the world in a fundamentally different way than the kids who are always sitting still and properly listening to their teachers. Most learners develop executive function around ages 3 to 4, some around ages 7 to 8, and a few around ages 12 to 13. This last group struggles because they are surrounded by adults that expect them to be more organized and other students who have more self-control and better work habits. By middle school, students are expected to be able to keep track of all their classes and work assignments on their own and in some, that part of their brain hasn’t finished developing. The idea that this may give them a learning advantage, if we structure their environment and education properly, is a revolutionary idea that warrants further exploration.