Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Raising Bill Gates

Based on an excellent suggestion by GE reader Taia, today's post deals with a recent Wall Street Journal article on Bill Gates Sr. and Bill Gates Jr.

Bill Gates Sr. has mostly stayed out of the limelight, but with a short book coming out, he agreed to talk to the WSJ about Bill Gates' childhood. The article reveals some fascinating details. Young Bill read the encyclopedia at a young age, and became very intellectually curious. Mrs. Gates (Bill Gates Jr.'s mother) was fairly strict with young Bill. When he started to become rather obnoxious -- a not uncommon thing for highly gifted young people -- and talking back to her, questioning her authority, the two fought a lot. This resulted in one dinner table incident of Bill Gates Sr. throwing a glass of water in Bill Jr.'s face.

After that, the parents enrolled Bill Jr. in counseling. The counselor advised them to ease up on the boy a bit. While this may or may not be the right move for other gifted young people, having the freedom to explore lots of things in the real, grown-up world, definitely helped satisfy Bill Jr.'s curiosity. His parents transferred him to Lakeside (known as the school where he learned about computers) and let him spend late nights working with the University of Washington's computer facilities. This helped him build up programming expertise, which became necessary when he started Microsoft a few years later. They also still provided a lot of familial support even after Bill Jr. dropped out of college (his mom actually checked on whether he had clean shirts!)

Lots of parents of highly gifted kids struggle with what to do with their precocious adolescents. On one hand, these young people have the minds of adults. They can interact with adults on their level or beyond, and are often capable of thinking into the future and accepting responsibility. But, on the other hand, they can still have some of the impulses and generalized stupidity that come from being 13. And even if they are quite mature, the outside world is not willing to let such young people accept the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood.

I'm curious how readers of Gifted Exchange have dealt with the conflicts involved in raising a gifted teenager. How do you give the child the freedom to explore his or her interests, while protecting them from making life-altering mistakes? And how do you know if those "mistakes" aren't really mistakes (such as Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard)?


Jeremy said...

We have a gifted seven-year-old daughter, so I can't comment on the experience of having older gifted kids, but we often remark that it feels like we already have a teenager -- the quest for independence and privacy, questioning authority, the constant critiques of everything...it's exhausting. But maybe regular seven-year-olds are like this too...we've only got one, so it's hard to tell.

The Princess Mom said...

We have three teen boys. One is the "Bill Gates-type," strong sense of self and own morality from the age of 2. He's the only one I had to spank and even that didn't work for discipline.

Once he got to middle school, he completely refused to cooperate with the teachers anymore, even though he'd been a perfect student up to that point. He just won't do anything if he doesn't see any value to it.

So what do we do? First, I made sure when he was a toddler that he knew who was boss (that being me). Second, we do give him as many choices as we can. When he was refusing school, we took him out to homeschool and let him skip himself two grades (directly to high school level courses). The nicest thing about those extra high school years is that he can study things that interest him (animal behavior, medieval weapons and warfare, oceanography) without worrying about having time for the basics (biology, chemistry, physics). Having that academic freedom, as opposed to marching lock-step through high school to college, has helped his attitude tremendously.

everhopeful said...

Your question about letting the gifted teenage make mistakes is a good one. Our son, almost 19 now, was a paragon of good behavior, smart and compliant, until he was 16-17. I was patting myself on the back for being such a great parent! That was pride before a fall, and I got what was coming to me with a vengeance in the last two years. Our son was so good at thinking things out, and saw that he was smarter than most adults, and then the inexperience kicked in. He took what he thought were calculated risks and lost. Some of the things he did we could not save him from, and those are probably the most valuable lessons in his life so far. Smart does not mean wise, and humility is a great leaven and leveler. He now has a more realistic view of the world, at some pain to himself and us that we would have preferred he avoided.

Kim Moldofsky said...

My 11-year-old boy crossed a busy six-lane street in the middle of the block instead of going to the end where the traffic light and crosswalk were "because it was more convenient and seemed safe." I did not realize what was happening until he was safely on the the other side, but still.

He questions our decisions and our authority and as Princess Mom commented typical discipline methods don't seem to have much impact on him.
It will be a miracle if I have any shred of sanity left by the time he leaves for college.

I hope you get some parents of teens to weigh in here. I need all the advice I can get.

SwitchedOnMom said...

I liken raising a PG teen to raising a thoroughbred: incredibly talented, incredibly high strung. Just hoping to hang on for the ride and cross the finish line. These are not necessarily easy people to live with.

I'm in the midst of this, so no really sage advice. I do think homeschooling during middle school is optimal. I've had to remind myself to listen to my kids...sometimes they actually do know what's best for them long before I admit it. (See previous sentence.) Trust. Surprise them with your trust and they'll rise to the occasion. DD recently took the Metro downtown with some friends to participate in a chaperoned protest on the National Mall (Invisible Children). Afterwards I told her that this summer she can go into the city to visit museums and such on her own via public transportation, armed with a cell phone (she'll be 15). She was tickled.

Other things that help? As others mention, choice. Also being listened to, being given space and time to just "be" and decompress. Support..support for who they are no matter how "different" they may be. Facilitate opportunities to experience new things and to meet others with similar interests. Model optimism and hope, that things *will* and can get better.

J. said...

I like your comments, SwitchedOnMom. I remember reading your blog, got the link off a discussion group I participate in.

Wish your daughter was my DD's age. They could ride the metro in together! My daughter was itching to do this at 14 without us, but we could not find parents willing to let their kids go off on their own. My daughter takes city buses into school all the time. She just turned seventeen.

I homeschooled one year of middle and wish I could turn back the clock and do all of elementary through 8th grade. It is such a marvelous lifestyle, I feel everyone should have the opportunity to try it for at least one year.

My daughter as a child was priceless and still is. She was a handful, still is. But she is insatiably curious, funny, headstrong, introverted and has the reading disease. Reading incessantly is her passion. She still skips up the street when we walk and I find it delicious. But her insights at age three would have knocked your socks off.

School is almost always a bad fit for these kids. Especially if they are also 2e. But homeschool is a dream. Imagine. You know your child so well that coming up with curricula and material that works for her is a cinch, compared with fighting the schools to get what you need. Now that I know what homeschooling can do, it's hard for me to listen to parents gnash their teeth over school. I feel like shouting, why waste your time?
Bottle that energy and intelligence and do it yourself!


Catherine said...

My son is super social and out going, but very interested in knowing everything. I can't stop him from learning and arguing. He would prefer talking to adults over talking to children his age. He's been getting into trouble at school and his teacher thinks he's immature, but I think he's not being challenged. He questions everything, was born independent, and has a great sense of humor. I can't keep him busy enough or engaged constantly enough. If I'm hard on him, I stress him out for expecting too much. Usually he makes very good decisions on his own - that's wild considering he's 4. I think we're headed for homeschooling...

Catherine said...

I was in the gifted programs in elementary school and dropped off in interest by middle school. I was advanced, but youngest in my class. I spent most of my days at school learning nothing and doing nothing that interested me. After my 9th grade year in which I made good grades without doing home work or studying, I begged my parents to let me home school myself. They suprisingly agreed. I joined social service community groups, started traveling overseas, and worked full time as a nanny. By the time I graduated from High School, I had been to Greece, Albania, Italy, Macedonia, England, and India and arrived at college with a stronger foundation for learning.
Sometimes I feel like I missed out on social things, but the trade off is that I was far better adjusted to the real world and was able to explore a vast array of interests. Later I taught myself to play classical piano and speak German. It's only been in the last few years that I've realized it's not normal.
My parents were controlling to a fault and I don't have a good relationship with them at all. It would have been more helpful if they had recognized I was willing and capable of making very smart decisions at a young age instead of trying to control those decisions. They were authoritarian in their parenting when it would have been far more helpful to have good guidance. The lack of relationship I have with them now is part of the weight I feel in directing my own bright preschooler without squelching his personality. There's certainly a balance. I've learned more from the natural consequences and rewards of my own decisions. I've also learned quite a lot from watching my three older siblings make really bad decisions in rebellion.

SwitchedOnMom said...

Thanks, J. "The reading disease"...I love that!

Anonymous said...

Upon entering 8th grade I agreed to let my son homeschool himself. He developed "Bartleby Syndrome", a refusal to do anything -- what he calls "Amotivational Syndrome". Unfortunately, he slid into major depression. Then got kicked out of the adolescent psych hospital. Then into jail for refusing to go with his father. Then, he went into therapeutic foster care, and wore her out. Now the only thing he's doing is reading pharmacology books to find out what magic pill will cure him. And, yikes, coming home soon. Hasn't budged one iota on his position -- which is do nothing till the cure comes.

Anonymous said...

I am a gifted individual almost 50 years of age now and have always been very bright at maths. I stood out throughout junior school and in the last year was described as

“A very capable boy who has been most cooperative during the year. He has good all round ability but is particularly good in maths at which he could go a long way.”

Unfortunately, less than a year later I started having temporal lobe epilepsy and the interfering state started seeing me as more worthy of having ‘below average’ capabilities, treating me as if I was problematic and restricting my natural progress.

It didn’t go down well and I became destructive and would lash out at people - I ended up being taken out of mainstream school which I kept running away from and threatening to kill myself. I wasn’t going to settle down and let those in authority decide my future for me and hold me at ransom to their control. I have hit out at a few teachers for insulting my intelligence because of the epilepsy and given a few of them black eyes.

I had to do this to get myself heard and make others aware of the mental torture I was going through as nobody would listen to me and take these issues seriously.

In my thirties I became too much for most and decided it was time to relocate. Within months of relocation to another area I went to a specialist centre and was on track for brain surgery which I had done and am cured now.

My education and early career both suffered but I have moved on now.

Since recovering from brain surgery I have risen above many who ridiculed me in the past. I now give private tuition in maths and offer support to get youngsters engaged in the subject more and this helps prevent their development from slipping through the net. It is so rewarding to help youngsters put their unrecognised potential to use and not wasting their talents which I have helped uncover for them.

I am determined to help those who deserve it and I am not interested about my image like the many posers I have come across who think they are a cut above.

I go about my life my way and aim to make a difference for many in spite of the criticism I get from some - I don’t care about moving on or getting to the top since the best never make it to the top - it is mostly cheats who get there and so many lose their integrity for the urge of power and control, so I don’t respect anyone who abuses their authority. I am not interested in power, status or wealth since these are man made quantities and not real qualities such as gifts from Mother Nature. I treasure my gift more than anything that can be given to me and want to use it to the full.

I know how gifted people, especially children are so intensely emotional, have high standards and morals, integrity and aim to do things for the best of all, and won’t tolerate any element of unfairness, injustice or double standards. I have made a lot of enemies over standing up for myself.

Here is an email address to get in touch to share ideas and methods I used to see the real value sand truth in life - not the distorted values used by posers and control freaks who like to look stronger and more sophisticated than they really are. I have had real pleasure in making times difficult for these false ones who have tried to suppress my progress but I have proven to be too much for them.