Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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Here’s the “prescription” I give the families I work with for the perfect summer: “Take two genuine interests, explore them thoroughly, and call me in September.”

When parents actively help their child explore their interests and delve deeply into their passions, everyone in the family ends up having a rewarding summer. Whether the passion is marine biology or engineering, art or writing, programs can be found or designed to address every child’s interests. For the parent whose child happens to be interested in something offered at a nearby summer camp, this can be easy to arrange. For the parent who lives far from such resources or for whom high program fees are prohibitive, or whose child has unusual interests, planning a summer of enrichment can be a bit more challenging. It is my view, though, that parents can give no greater gift than helping their child design and implement a summer of exploring their genuine interests, utilizing talents, accomplishing something of value, and building self-esteem.

Benefits of Engagement

The benefits for children of a summer engaged in enrichment in their interests are manifold: intellectual stimulation, increased motivation to achieve, enhanced marketability to colleges, the chance of finding passions or a future career, validation of self, increased self-esteem, increased happiness, and social connectedness.

Intellectually, students who work on something they are interested in at their pace of learning are stimulated at a level rarely possible during the school year. The opportunity to study something of intrinsic interest and challenge is the most thrilling intellectual experience possible. Kindling an intrinsic motivation can even lead to a transfer of motivation and stronger desire to achieve throughout the school year. Students can build a résumé showing the pursuit of interests and achievement, positioning the student well for college applications. Selective colleges are far more interested in applicants who have pursued their genuine interests over the years than in those who engage only in what is required and valued at school. Children may find their true calling in life by exploring their interests.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of an enrichment-focused summer is in the emotional area. By valuing our child’s interests, we show that we truly care about them for who they are, not who we think they should be. By taking their interests seriously, we validate their unique sense of self. Knowing that they have their parents’ support can give students a sense of security and help them become the person they really want to be. Furthermore, children who spend their summers pursuing personally meaningful goals are happier than children who just “hang out.” Children who pursue their interests during the summer often come into frequent contact with peers or mentors in their interest area. Relationships with others who share their interests can be deeply fulfilling in a way that interactions with school-year classmates and video-game buddies are not.

Tips for Parents

Summer is upon us. How can parents design an enrichment-focused summer for their child?

Begin with an assessment of your child’s genuine interests. In a non-judgmental way, directly ask what they want to learn more about, from anthropology to zoology, archery to yoga, animation to  film making. Making a broad list of different kinds of hobbies and fields of interest and discussing them with your child can be helpful. Reflect on how your child chooses to spend his or her free time, the books that absorb their interest, the kinds of exhibits that engage them in museums, and any other clues to what intrigues them. Even interests that on the surface don’t appear to lend themselves to productive enrichment can be turned in interesting directions. For example, if your daughter spends most of her free time on the phone with friends in conversations about their social relationships, recognize that this could be a clue that she may be good at and interested in helping people solve problems. Consider exposing her to psychology.

Once parents have a better understanding of their child’s interests, what next?

Embrace them. Don’t try to influence your child into pursuing something you consider to be more impressive, or something that you wish you could have done, but didn’t. Remember, it’s your child’s life, not yours.

Search for opportunities for your child to delve deeply into exploring their interests. Discourage your child from following friends to a camp that may interest the friends, but might not be a good fit for your child.

Don’t limit yourself to organized programs (although there are many terrific ones). Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones that the two of you initiate together.

Don’t be shy about asking experts for their advice. Most experts who have a consuming interest in something are flattered when they’re approached by a parent with a child who’s intrigued by it. I know of children who interned with a scientist and co-published articles in journals by the time they were out of middle school. Professional musicians can often recommend teachers, competitions, and music schools. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals might allow your child to “job shadow” for a day.

Plan family vacations and day outings around your child’s interests. Paleontology fits with a trip to the Southwest to volunteer on a dinosaur dig. Engineering fits with outings to science museums and factory tours. Law fits with visits to courtrooms or state or federal legislatures.

Find books and do internet searches to learn more about your child’s interests. Discover topic-specific magazines, websites, podcasts, and YouTubes. Find out about lectures, conferences, webinars, and other special events.

Learn about local special interest clubs and organizations. Most communities have star watching groups, book groups, birding clubs, speech-making clubs, and other groups that offer events and information.

Be involved. Don’t just sign your child up. Accompany him or her to events. Help him practice his musical instrument. Read the books he or she is reading and discuss them over dinner. Studies repeatedly show that parental involvement is essential if children are to fully develop their potential.

If you follow this “prescription” for the perfect summer, your child will begin the school year with renewed energy, enthusiasm for learning, and one step closer to achieving the joy of true fulfillment. And you’ll have quite an interesting ride along the way!

Note: This article is an update of one I published in 2012 on the SENG  (Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website: www.seng.org.

Brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

As adults we respect and admire the accomplishments of renegades and creative minds like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Nikolai Tesla, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Vincent van Gogh, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg, and Robin Williams. They’re the inventors, imaginers, healers, explorers, creators, and inspirers who change the world. Without minds like theirs society would not move forward. We need them more than ever today.

But these very same individuals, as children, were the kinds of student teachers found most difficult, parents worried about and lost sleep over, and whose peers scorned or bullied them. Why? For the very same qualities that made them so successful as adults. Being different, rebelling against the status quo, refusing (or being constitutionally unable) to fit in, breaking or questioning the rules.

Most parents want their children to be happy, make friends, and do well in school and extracurricular activities like sports and music. Down the road they want them to get into a good college and launch a career that supports them and provides job satisfaction. Get married, have a family. Maybe they will even make a meaningful contribution to society.

But what many parents don’t realize or lose sight of in the trenches of elementary, middle, and high school is that for some children – especially twice-exceptional and gifted children – being “successful” in traditional ways as a child is not necessarily a good predictor of being successful as an adult.

I was guilty of this kind of myopic thinking as a parent myself, before an encounter made me rethink my values. My children were happy and had friends before formal schooling began, but once they started Kindergarten things began to go downhill. Teachers sent home notices about their behavior (inattentive, questioned authority, lacking focus, failed to complete assignments, etc.). Grades were spotty. Playdate invitations were less frequent than they would have liked. Uninterested in and not very good at organized sports, they were basically off the grid in terms of the kinds of extracurricular interests their peers were engaging in. The things they did like to do – building and taking things apart for my son and imagination and telling stories for my daughter – weren’t easily shared with peers and certainly didn’t give them any attention in the community. They were diagnosed with giftedness, learning disabilities, and ADHD, and I spent countless nights lying awake in bed worrying about their futures.

My “awakening” happened after an elementary school band concert when my then 4th grade daughter was called to the stage to play a clarinet solo she’d practiced for weeks in front of about 200 people. She stood there for a full minute rifling through her music and then said: “I’m afraid I forgot my sheet music for the piece I was supposed to play. So I think it’s appropriate under the circumstances to play “If I Only Had a Brain” by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.” I’m embarrassed to say now that I was mortified. I had hoped she’d play her piece brilliantly, reflecting glory on me as her proud parent. After the concert a man in front of me turned around and complimented her performance. I said, “Thank you – you’re too kind. It would have been nice if she had done the piece she practiced.” He responded: “You should be proud to have a daughter who can think on her feet, improvise, and deal creatively and with humor with the cards she’s been dealt. That’s much more important in the long run.” His words brought me up short.

I thought about it a lot. I realized I had wanted my child to excel in ways others in our community would judge to be impressive. How shallow of me! I had also been trying to shape her into some image in my mind of the “perfect” child. Top student, accomplished musician, popular, athletic. My own (questionable) values had gotten in the way of my appreciating my daughter for who she was and seeing the unique strengths she did possess. Inventive. Confident. Creative. Funny. Smart.

This was about the same time I went back to school for a PhD, so I was able to study motivation and achievement from a developmental perspective. I learned that the many of the attributes it takes to be a “successful” young student (compliance, diligence, eagerness to please, ability to memorize) are quite different from those required to be a successful older student and adult (challenging the status quo, intrinsic motivation, pursuit of one’s own interests, open-mindedness, a questioning mind). I also learned that individuals who pursue their genuine interests – and don’t let themselves be influenced by what everyone else is doing – are more successful as adults. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on the joy of experiencing “flow” and how flow is also associated with achievement were particularly inspiring. I learned that popularity through high school is negatively correlated with achievement in most fields for girls. And, as students move through school the demands shift from more lower-level tasks like memorization of math facts and tidy handwriting to higher-level tasks like reading complex text and understanding it. Thomas West’s ground-breaking book In the Mind’s Eye (1997) about creativity in visual thinkers was the first to get me thinking about the possibility that even having a “disability” could confer certain advantages. Now I’m a firm believer that being wired differently can enable certain “superpowers” that most people can’t tap into in the same way.

Children who are “different” have enormous potential. As parents, we should try to keep the long-view in sight. Applaud and develop our children’s individuality. Encourage their pursuit of unusual interests and passions. Let them know we value them the way they are, and don’t want them to try to be like everyone else. It may take courage, but the results are worth it. Our misfits, rebels, trouble-makers, and square pegs in round holes may be the ones who change the world.

If your child has ADD or ADHD, or you think they might, do you worry that it will affect their life and future in only negative ways? Distractibility, disorganization, hyperactivity, interrupting the teacher, not completing assignments, poor time management, underachievement – the list goes on.

I agree there are significant challenges associated with having ADHD, and certainly being the parent of a child with ADHD is not easy!

But today let’s look at the flip side of the coin – the positive aspects. I’ll use the term ADHD because our diagnostic manual (the DSM-5) groups all of these attention disorders under Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), allowing us to specify predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, or combined presentation subtypes.

Recently, research has been focused on uncovering the strengths associated with being wired differently. Dyslexics have trouble with sounds and language (housed in the brain’s left hemisphere), but they are often great at visual spatial thinking (housed in the right hemisphere). This may explain why we have so many successful dyslexic architects, engineers, and artists. Individuals with Asperger’s may have difficulty thinking at the “big picture” level (this requires a broad network of neural connections), but are better than most people at narrowing in on a specific topic. This may be why the Israeli army recruits people with Asperger’s into an elite intelligence unit dedicated to interpreting aerial and satellite photographs. They can see details that others can’t.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if your brain is weak in one area that another might pick up the slack? In her book The Autistic Brain,  Temple Grandin explains that some areas of her brain are smaller than normal, and others are larger. Dr. Grandin is brilliant at visualizing how things work, and she feels this is because the volume of axons (the pathway) projecting from the area of visual object information to her frontal and motor cortex is 10x larger than most people’s. Being different need not always be a bad thing.

Let’s look at the strengths associated with ADHD. The hunter/farmer hypothesis proposes that ADHD was an evolutionary advantage to nomadic hunter-gatherers who could both hyperfocus and were better able to sense and respond quickly to predators. It is only as agriculture developed and people became farmers that these behaviors – so useful hunting mammoths on the plains – became maladaptive in environments like the modern classroom. Maybe ADHD was an advantageous variation in human evolution. Could it still be?

In an article I wrote for CHADD a few years ago I touched on this topic: Looking for Silver Linings in the ADHD Playbook.

Here are the top ten benefits or “superpowers” associated with having ADHD in modern society:

  1. Creativity
  2. High energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, zest for life
  3. More sensitive/attuned to environment, 360-degree awareness
  4. Interpersonal intuition/emotional sensitivity (e.g. strong radar for other’s feelings)
  5. Entrepreneurial drive and talent, willingness to take risks
  6. Innovative, willing to explore, invent, think differently, fresh perspective, divergent thinking
  7. Holistic thinking coupled with ability to make quick thought connections
  8. Ability to multi-task
  9. Sense of humor
  10. Spontaneity

Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

My favorite strength, and the one with the most evidence to support it, is creativity. Why would ADHD support enhanced creativity? Because weak ability to inhibit distraction and lapses in attention facilitate divergent thinking and the generation of random thoughts and ideas. Also a wider attentional span allows more elements and ideas to be combined, generating novel and original ideas. And the willingness to take risks is one of the core underpinnings of creativity. Researchers at UConn recently published a study about Engineering Students with ADHD, finding they possess “unparalleled creativity and risk-taking potential.”  They can draw on the kind of non-traditional divergent thinking essential for making radical technological breakthroughs – just the kind of thinking that moves society forward.

Forbes magazine describes ADHD as “the entrepreneurs superpower”. Sir Richard Branson, Ikea founder Ingar Kamprad, and JetBlue founder David Neelman are exemplars. Success magazine reports that “some of the most successful entrepreneurs credit their attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder for their accomplishments.” Creative people in fields from acting to politics attribute their success to their ADHD (actors Justin Timberlake, Channing Tatum, and Ryan Gosling, swimmer Michael Phelps (the most decorated Olympian of all time), political strategist James Carville, and others).

I’m a big believer in nurturing the strengths and interests of every child, not just trying to “fix” their weaknesses and make them be like everyone else. A strengths-based approach is especially important for students diagnosed with a disability. Yes, we need to help the child with ADHD get through school by addressing the challenges associated with their profile. But to help them fulfill their potential and become happy and productive members of society, we need to place an equal or perhaps even greater emphasis on helping them discover and celebrate their unique abilities.

Look for the ADHD “superpowers” in your child, and help them become the successful adult they have the potential to be!

If you’d like to talk with me about how to reinforce and develop the strengths of your child with ADHD, please e-mail me to plan a time to chat. I can be reached at: dm@drdevon.com.