Trouble managing anxiety around kid schooling decisions
January 7, 2019 5:22 PM   Subscribe

Due to my own background I have a lot of difficult feelings about school, and they are rearing their head now that my own kids are school age. Therapy has not been helpful. I’m looking for guidelines and tips about how to manage these feelings in such a way that they do not damage my kids. Blizzard of snowflakes within.

I grew up in a fairly anti-intellectual, rural environment and spent most of my years in school feeling incredibly bored and alienated. My parents and teachers tried, they really did, but I was very very bright (near ceiling on most tests, if it matters) and under-served educationally in ways that I only properly appreciated upon getting out. I sometimes feel that I should have been radically accelerated or homeschooled or something, but none of those were realistic options (for many good reasons) and probably would have come with their own raft of problems. I recognized this at the time and as a dutiful, rule-following child I was careful to not make waves or complain, even though most of my inner feelings were of boredom, depression, and constant gaslighting of myself that I was an arrogant shit or awful person for having these feelings in the first place. Although nothing I experienced was traumatic in a real “trauma” sense, in retrospect, I developed coping strategies that are reminiscent of a trauma response, like spending most of my time in school dissociating. It took a while as an adult to get past the depression and dissociation. I now feel like a reasonably happy person with a successful career and a lovely family and all is well.

Except that I have two kids and now that they are entering school age, all those old feelings are rearing their head again and I don’t know what to do with them. Most importantly, I don’t know how to make decisions about my own kids’ schooling and how to recognize when something in their experience is truly worrying vs a reflection of my own issues, and I am seeking guidance on that.

I’ll give a few examples to illustrate the kinds of things I struggle with.

Example A

My oldest child is in early elementary school and is, by all accounts, happy and doing exceedingly well. The school has a huge emphasis on developing all aspects of the child and has focused social and emotional growth, which both me and my partner appreciate and which has been great for my kid. When there have been academics, the teacher has made efforts to individuate the curriculum a bit for my child (e.g., giving them more advanced reading, recommending them for a pull-out program, etc). Most importantly, the kid appears to be very happy. I should have no problems.

And yet… I find myself distrusting happiness as a signal. I myself as a kid appeared happy (in fact I desperately tried really hard to appear that way) because I so thoroughly internalised the message that smartness was bad and that being bored shitless was a sign that I was a boring and arrogant person. (To be clear, my parents weren’t sending me this message, but it was thoroughly a part of the culture; and I also observed how difficult my parents found it to ensure that I was adequately challenged at school, and how relieved they became when they thought I was doing okay, so as a dutiful child I tried very hard to “be” the way I thought a good person should be: i.e., happy and not bored or intensely lonely, and judged myself harshly when I felt otherwise). So now when I observe my kid being happy — even though I know rationally that they are a different person than me, and have a different environment — a huge part of my brain is screaming that they could be going through the same exact shit that I found so awful and here I am as a parent doing nothing about it. After all, my child is the same kind of highly dutiful, compliant, and rule-abiding child I was, and their personality is such that things would have to be pretty extreme before they would say or do anything. I REALISE THAT FEELING THIS WAY IS LUDICROUS, and that there is literally no pattern of behavior that I wouldn’t worry about. This does not shut up the small panicked voice inside me.

Most of the time I can keep these feelings compartmentalized, but the moment something at all potentially worrisome happens, I get into spirals of anxiety and rumination that are hard to deal with. For instance, my kid’s recent report card included some assessments of their reading ability, which the teacher estimated as advanced for their age (about a year ahead) but which is radically off of my own estimate of about 3-4 years ahead (based on the lexile level of the books the kid is reading at home). I believe this kind of underestimation was part of what drove a lot of my problems at school: people didn’t have much training or understanding about test ceilings, never even gave me advanced enough content so I could never demonstrate that I was capable of it, etc. I saw this report and just (internally) spiralled: clearly the same! Thing! Is! Happening! To! My! Kid! And then this started the same old gaslighting and ruminating thoughts I had thought I left behind when I left childhood behind — alternating between, “who cares, the kid is happy, I’m being one of those arrogant jerks who thinks their kid is a special snowflake and I need to chill the fuck out”, to “maybe the kid is not actually reading as well as I think and the teacher is right” (which might very well be true but is basically calling on me to distrust all of my experience and is very reminiscent of all the gaslighting I did about my own intelligence), to “this is exactly how it starts and my kid is potentially in pain and I’m doing nothing” to “but what even could I do and how could I talk to either kid or teacher without making things worse” and it’s just all fucked up.

I can speak about this with my spouse, but I find I do not trust their assurances for the same reason that I don’t trust my kid’s apparent happiness. My spouse has a lot more faith in the system and the teachers than I do — they see teachers who evidently care and try, and think that this means it’ll be okay — but I see how my experience with teachers who cared and tried was still totally shit and I think that even caring and trying is not enough. Again, I realize that my mindset is such that almost nothing would be reassuring to me. But that still leaves me with all these feelings and no way to internally decide when a feeling of anxiety means something is wrong vs it is just me.

Example B

The youngest child (just turned three) has learned to read and write. In one way this is awesome and cool. But as soon as it became apparent that they had taught themselves this it sent me into another anxiety spiral. They are not set to start school for another two years. But they seem psychologically ready already, indeed, chomping at the bit for it: not just intellectually, but they preferentially play with older kids, play school at home all of the time, have the executive control and attention span for school, talk excitedly about when they can go to school, etc. I imagine them waiting two years and then starting when they’re, what, reading at 3rd or 4th grade level and then go into classes where everyone is learning the alphabet? My soul shrivels inside at the thought. I looked into starting them early, but that’s a huge bureaucratic nightmare and even if possible, won’t really solve the problem — they’ll still be advanced and still have to wade through a sea of boredom and alienation every fucking day for the next twelve years. Every time I think of sending them to school I want to cry.

At the same time, homeschool is not a possibility for us and I don’t even think it would be beneficial; please just trust that it is off the table right now for really good reasons. In any case the question is not about what schooling choices are right for my kids, but rather how do I handle and interpret my own overwhelming emotions about it all in such a way that I don’t fuck the kids up.

I’m fairly sure the answers here will be “get a therapist” but honestly, I’ve tried several therapists throughout the years and have found all such experiences to be actively detrimental. There is not exactly a specialty in this topic, and almost every thing the therapists have said has had a negative effect in some way: either (most commonly) they fail to see the problem at all and assume that I’m super lucky to be smart or just want to validation of How Great I Am or this is not actually about intelligence because I’m not that smart and there’s something deeper going on. Or there is a lot of suggesting that I fail to recognize that there are lots of other bigger problems in the world or do not realize that there are lots of things that matter other than intelligence. I agree with most of that, but they are all part of the huge number of messages our culture trots out regarding intelligence — and it was these messages that contributed so strongly to the self-gaslighting and anxiety in the first place. So hearing them and having to engage with them just reinforces it all AGAIN and makes everything worse.

What I am looking for, instead, is some precise and actionable suggestions for

1. How to identify when something in my kids’ situation is a thing to be actually concerned about and when I’m over-reacting based on my experience. Similarly, how to identify evidence about how they are doing that I will actually trust and believe. In other contexts I am actually pretty good at not letting anxiety rule my actions if I am convinced that it’s baseless anxiety; the question is how to determine when it is baseless in a way that is convincing to me.

2. How (and when) to speak to people (teachers especially) in a way that is productive and helpful. I think if I felt I could do this, the rest would be easier to deal with, but a huge part of my problem is a large sense of learned helplessness about this: my experience was overwhelmingly that talking to teachers or parents only made me feel much, much worse without materially changing anything about the situation. That is the strong feeling I have still.

I know this question reveals that I am an awful person and an arrogant jerk and most people have much bigger problems than this. I know this, but it’s still a problem I have and I don’t know how to solve it. I’m trying, I really am. Please be gentle.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Hey. I don’t think you’re a jerk. I’m a smart adult who was a gifted kid, who has gifted kids. What has worked for us is putting both kids in a challenging, individualized, private school environment. I also have lots of baggage around school for similar reasons. Memail me if you’d like to chat further!
posted by lizifer at 5:29 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]

I don't really understand why so much of this is about speaking to therapists and teachers and your spouse and so little of it is about speaking to your children - just to your older child, for now. the way you describe your concern over what their surface happiness might be concealing, it sounds like you feel limited to observing and analyzing and wondering. but you can talk to them. the smarter they are, the more they will get out of listening to you on this topic.

I don't think you should try to interrogate their innermost feelings if your instincts tell you not to, or if you don't think you would get or recognize an honest answer. but nothing should stop you from reminiscing with them about what your own schooldays were like. give them a benchmark for what that kind of misery is, so that they can identify it if they ever do feel it, so that they know it is acceptable to discuss with you, even if not with anybody else. so that they know they aren't unique or strange or special in feeling that way. because they wouldn't be, any more than you were.

if you do ever get confirmation that they feel that way, they should know that the natural ally of the miserable too-smart kid is the miserable art kid, the kid from the awful home, the poorer kid, the kid on the verge of dropping out: basically anybody and everybody except the average-smart middle-class high-grades placid Participator in all the college-track classes, with whom they are always grouped. too-smart kids are most miserable when they try to make common cause with those who are superficially similar and ignore those who are similar deeper down. school does a lot to convince brilliant kids that they are of another, finer material than the failing juvenile delinquents, but this is not true at all. pleasers have so much to learn from troublemakers.

if none of this helps or convinces you, in a couple years you can start looking at the various accelerated-learning summer camps that kids can test into. CTY has changed a lot since my day and is called something else now, but I think they have programs for kids as young as 10/11 or maybe younger. costs money, but not private school money, and the material can be much more advanced. most importantly, a good program of this type will give a kid the experience of not being the smartest person in the room. which is vital for them to have as early as possible.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:25 PM on January 7 [17 favorites]

This doesn't solve your trust issues of institutions, schools, and teachers, but if you're worried that your kids are not being (or will not be) challenged enough, you can explore letting them skip a grade (or similarly, take a more accelerating learning path). My sister started school a year early (kindergarten at age 4), and I skipped first grade (so I was 6 in second grade). Academically, we've never struggled (until college at least), and socially, we did fine (or at least no worse than we would have). In my experience, 1 year's age difference wasn't a big gap between my peers and me. You'd need to talk to your kid though to check if they'd be interested and to ensure they're mature enough. (I don't remember this at all, but my parents said I complained a lot about how bored I was in kindergarten, which is why they got me into second grade the next year. I loved second grade, and I definitely was more engaged afterwards). Public schools were a bit more wary, but private schools were more amenable. We did one year of private school for the skipped grade (so private school second grade for me, and kindergarten for my sister) and then switched back to public schools to save money.

Also depending on the school district, you may have "Gifted/Talented" (Gateway in my area) programs that are meant to be more rigorous. Montessori type schools that let kids learn at their own pace can work well, too.
posted by devrim at 6:30 PM on January 7

And seconding talking to your kid in school about how school is going. No need to second guess your kid's apparently happiness-- you can check in and see if it's a surface level happiness or actual contentment. I doubt your early elementary-school age kid would be able to hide strongly negative feelings for very long.
posted by devrim at 6:36 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]

Oh sorry, just reread the question & saw that you were concerned about starting school early for your second child! Please take my earlier answer as a testimonial that starting school early does not necessarily lead to alienation & boredom. I suspect my sister and I were a couple years ahead academics-wise of our peers (both of us were top-of-class in nearly every subject even after skipping a grade), but neither of us had any issue with easy classwork since we had other things to distract ourselves with (internet! video games! friends! sooo many books! We read 20+ books a week at the library...). If you find other things your kids are interested in, school does not have to be the most important thing in your kids' lives, which may help your stress about it.

(And also, sorry for posting so many times in a row!)
posted by devrim at 6:44 PM on January 7

In no way do I intend to minimize your specific lived experience (and I'm so sorry you went through that), but it may also be useful to point out that it is the extreme end of a common experience - no one really enjoys all of grade school. Even the kids who coast and/or like school have parts they don't enjoy. So perhaps it would help to reframe your expectations of what you want your kids to get out of it?

School could be the place where your kid learns to interact with age-matched peers, handle performance expectations, and complex social and group interactions. Later on, school can be the place that introduces them to a common knowledge background about history and geography, and the rules of capitalizing letters, and makes them practice their handwriting (which everyone hates, but is actually really important). Assuming you are in the US, they'll learn things like the words to the pledge of allegiance, which are useful pieces of cultural knowledge, regardless of of whether you choose to explore the problematic elements. Unless you are very very wealthy, or they are literally "geniuses who will finish college at age 12"-level smart, your kids will probably have to learn how to interact with people from a range of backgrounds who are worse at some things than them, and if that's the only thing that school teaches them, that's okay. However, to prevent them from suffering as you suffered, you can support them by validating their frustrations if/when the material is too slow for them, and redirecting their energies in to these other purposes (Q1). Finished their work early? Have them imagine a story to tell you over dinner that night. (Many schools will also let kids draw and/or doodle if they finish an activity early). Give them puzzles to solve and/or think about in their lunch bags. This can also help with Q2 - your conversations with teachers can be about the emotional and social growth that the school WANTS to focus on, rather than about trying to create and/or introduce more intellectual challenges (which may meet resistance because honestly, it does add work for the teacher).

School does NOT have to be the driver of their intellectual development. Give your kids access to all kinds of books (hooray libraries!), and youtube channels like TedEd, Numberphile, Khan Academy, PBS (and probably hundreds more) and let them go deep on learning stuff they care about at their own pace. Assuming you have the privilege of time with your children on weekends and holidays, you could borrow nature books and take hikes, or look for local art or free/cheap plays and concerts and lectures, or pick an urban thing to visit and learn about (how do skyscrapers stay up? How do traffic lights know when to change? Why does nearly every city seem to have a main street? Why do we see raccoons in our neighborhood, but not lions or cobras?)

I absolutely understand your worry based on how toxic your own experience was. But a little bit of boredom can even be constructive as long as those worries to be "a good boy or girl" are kept at bay - moments of boredom can lead to creativity as the kid learns how to fill the space with their own thoughts, plans, and ideas. This speaks to Q1 - you get to teach them that being bored, or finding things slow doesn't mean they are arrogant or jerks, it means that they have strengths. You can celebrate those strengths! And then ask them where they think their weaknesses are, and whether they might want to engage in things that would challenge those weaknesses.

I hope this helps in some ways. I think parenting is terrifying, as is the responsibility of helping someone become a person. You sound like a great parent to amazing kids, and I wish you and your family all the happiness in the world.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 7:39 PM on January 7 [16 favorites]

Hey there,

I am (to use Lizifer's words) a smart adult and former gifted kid, and a teacher.

First: yes yes yes to talking to your kid, as queenofbithynia suggests. They know what their experience is, and if you make it clear that you're an ally who is particularly sympathetic on this issue, they'll (hopefully) talk to you.

Regarding Kid A and the reading test, there are a few possibilities that came to mind. In schools where I've worked, the "reading level" assessment requires students to demonstrate a pretty thorough comprehension of the text. I have known many kids who could read -- as in, literally read the words -- a book that was 3-4 grade levels ahead, but many many fewer who actually understood what they were reading. (Try talking to a 1st grader versus a 5th grader about Harry Potter. It's wild what they get from it.) Also, our assessment tends to focus on nonfiction texts, because that's what we use the most in school; reading nonfiction is a slightly different skill, and so the test might not accurately reflect your kid's ability to read other kinds of texts. Another possibility, of course, is that your kid does read and comprehend texts that are way above grade level, and that the teacher didn't bother to continue testing, because "one grade level ahead" was sufficient information for the classroom (i.e. it puts your kid in the top reading group, and past that, it doesn't really matter given how her class is set up).

In any case, and specifically to your question, you absolutely can and should ask the teacher about the reading test if you want to know! She should be more than willing to tell you about how she arrived at that result -- it's information about your kid. I would seriously just call and say "Hi, I noticed that Kid's report card says they're reading at a third grade level. How does School test students' reading level, and how is that information used in the classroom?"

Regarding Kid B: yep, start that kid early! Depending on where you live this can indeed be a bureaucratic nightmare. Start early, and consider the nuclear option of enrolling Kid B in private school for a year for kindergarten. A relative did this recently, in a parochial school that was pretty affordable, and it was much easier than trying to get the public school system to let their son start early. He's doing great now. (I also started early, and am generally a big advocate of that over skipping grade later on.)

For both kids, remember that school doesn't have to be the be-all end-all of their childhood experience. I was deeply, deeply bored and disengaged with academic work until college, but I LOVED my G&T program and clubs and extracurriculars and the school library and hanging out with my friends and going to "nerd camps" like CTD during the summer (I even went back and worked there during college). Yeah, maybe I'd have gotten more academically out of an expensive private school, but my childhood was pretty good, all things considered.

p.s. you do not sound like an arrogant jerk. You sound like a good parent who is taking responsibility for your kids' education.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:57 PM on January 7 [7 favorites]

I have a few suggestions that are in conflict with each other, so take what you will.

First, have you addressed this in therapy since your kids have been older? It sounds like a kind of PTSD. Look for a therapist who specializes in PTSD, anxiety, and cognitive distortions. Maybe EMDR therapy, which can be helpful for letting go of past trauma.

You said therapists have either dismissed your concerns as illegitimate or said something deeper is going on. Why not explore the second? We go to therapy to examine exactly that question.

I also want to suggest a reframing: maybe the issue wasn’t school per de, but living in an anti-intellectual area. You do not! Your kids are going to grow up in a radically different situation. A much healthier one.

Another option: outsource. This a multi-step process. My spouse has a lot more faith in the system and the teachers than I do — they see teachers who evidently care and try, and think that this means it’ll be okay ...

Your spouse sounds sensible and level-headed. One of the big advantages of a parenting partnership is being able to share difficult tasks. If you truly think your anxieties are anxieties and not The Truth, then let your spouse be in charge of these decisions, and you cultivate ignorance. You let go.

Now, a few specific things: there are truly a lot of parents who think their kids are super bright and will be underserved. These parents often demand a lot of attention and gobble up resources on behalf of their kids. They can create a lot of unintended damage. So I’m wondering if it might be healthy to think about how you can advocate for the school in general, and all kids, rather than just your own.

Also, you are anxious for your little one to get to school. But to what end? The trend right now is for parents to hold kids back, often for physical and intellectual advantage, which means kids tend to be bigger and older than kids in the same grade 15+ years ago. School isn’t just about learning. It would be very complicated to be 11 years old and in high school and would likely lead to a host of problems different than yours. Lots of kids are reading before kindergarten now, especially in wealthier, white communities.

Good luck. You don’t sound like a jerk. You do sound super stressed.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:03 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]

how to identify evidence about how they are doing that I will actually trust and believe.

This is going to be hard for you, I suspect, because it sounds like for a long time you had little validation except via this route, but you badly need to get over the belief that tests are a powerful and reliable metric of anything. A little googling should be sufficient to identify for you scholarship showing testing's severe limitations. Tests have instrumental value if a high score can get you something you want, but that's about it. Presumably you have accomplishments in life that have nothing to do with testing well on some test--presumably most of your accomplishments, including your intellectual ones, have nothing to do with testing well on some test. Right? (I mean, I got a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT when I was fifteen, but, jeez, it'd be depressing as hell if that remained, relative to everything else I've done with my brain since then, significant evidence of my intelligence! ) What are the intellectual skills and disciplines that you think are valuable? It is infinitely more important for you to be focusing on whether your children are demonstrating progression in those than to be frantically trying to figure out whether your child is one or two levels ahead in some fairly arbitrary system, especially as it doesn't sound as if your family moves in a hypercompetitive environment. And as to whether they're happy in school or not--you figure that out (to the extent anyone can) by having a good relationship with them so they talk to you about how they are feeling, especially if they are feeling sad or frustrated. I can't stress enough how counterproductive displaying extreme anxiety about how they are feeling and doing in school will be in that context.

I'm saying this as a fellow-struggler with anxiety, not as a criticism: all is not well in your head. I would encourage you to continue to seek treatment, because eighteen-plus years of struggling with these kinds of anxieties will be a long haul for you, and because the degree of anxiety you're displaying here may well do some harm to your relationships with your kids and to their own attitudes about school and their intellects.
posted by praemunire at 8:36 PM on January 7 [12 favorites]

It sounds like you have a lot of awareness but get caught in anxiety spiral and project a lot of your own feelings and anxieties onto your kids, who are separate individuals with different experiences and personalities.

When I thought too much about my kids "abilities" and "happiness" , I wasn't focusing enough on myself.

Random thoughts:

1. Intelligence or IQ is neither good or bad. . Give your kids room to learn and opportunities to explore and create. Key word is room and space. Their minds and intelligence levels are their own and your interference or attempts at control won't make much of a difference on their ability levels, lack of boredom, or their contentment or happiness levels. If anything control will have a negative effect.

2. Your kids aren't in a state of lack. Boredom is okay. It's normal to feel restless at times. If your kids seem happy and content, trust that they are.

3. There will never be the perfect educational environment. It sounds like your elementary kid has a wonderful school. Focus more on yourself and let your kids be. Work on your inner calm and acceptance. That will rub off on your kids. Mantra: I let myself be. I let my kids be.

4. There is no need to rush anything. Your three-year-old will be fine when he goes to school. Don't worry about the future too much. It causes anxiety. When you live in the present, you are always content. Three-year-olds need their parents. They are still babies. You will see as they grow older. It doesn't matter if they can read, write, or have long or short attention spans. They will not compare themselves to other's reading and writing ability. Little children live in the moment. They are joyous and carefree. They aren't affected by the world (adults) yet and don't feel less or better than. They just are. Lots of young kids read at advanced levels. My kids did. I did. It levels off eventually and doesn't mean much to life and love.

5. Happiness is not a guarantee but if you want your kids to be happy, focus on yourself, and give them room to be themselves.

2. How (and when) to speak to people (teachers especially) in a way that is productive and helpful. I think if I felt I could do this, the rest would be easier to deal with, but a huge part of my problem is a large sense of learned helplessness about this: my experience was overwhelmingly that talking to teachers or parents only made me feel much, much worse without materially changing anything about the situation. That is the strong feeling I have still.

What is the situation? That your kids are happy and growing and doing fine? There is nothing to fix. There is nothing to analyze. There is nothing to improve upon. What do you want changed? Talking will not change much. Stepping back and trusting will. Be aware and be involved (but not overly involved). Take a step back and live your life and think about if you really need to talk about your kids. Being still and silent is usually the better route.

I can speak about this with my spouse, but I find I do not trust their assurances for the same reason that I don’t trust my kid’s apparent happiness. My spouse has a lot more faith in the system and the teachers than I do — they see teachers who evidently care and try, and think that this means it’ll be okay — but I see how my experience with teachers who cared and tried was still totally shit and I think that even caring and trying is not enough. Again, I realize that my mindset is such that almost nothing would be reassuring to me. But that still leaves me with all these feelings and no way to internally decide when a feeling of anxiety means something is wrong vs it is just me.

As a recovering anxious mother I will guess that it's just you. I don't say this to be harsh but from a place of understanding. I will say that you do not trust their assurances about your kids happiness because you are unhappy. As you said, there is nothing that reassures you.

With practice and acceptance and figuring out your own stuff maybe you can get to a place where you are more calm. Are you still judging yourself like you did when you were a kid? You paint a grim picture of your childhood school experience. Maybe try to reframe it as not so grim. People were trying the best they could at the time. Inner judgement causes outer judgement and anxiety. Thinking about the future and what-ifs causes anxiety. Thinking about the past and putting labels on it (I was bored, I was miserable, I was underserved, etc.) causes unresolved pain to come up. You are projecting your pain and you are painting yourself as victim when you were a kid in school. Your intelligence didn't change. It's still there.

So again, from a loving and understanding place: It's you. It's not them. It's never them. The more content and peaceful you are, the less you will fret about others or blame. And the thing about constantly asking for reassurance, but never accepting or trusting, is obviously high-level anxiety and immaturity and neediness and exhausting. Again, not saying this to be harsh but from a place of understanding. When we are in pain we will do all sorts of things to make ourselves feel better and it's neither good nor bad. If you are anxious about your kids, sit with that feeling. Accept it as just a feeling. Only a feeling that you are fearful about their future or their happiness or whatever. Let that feeling be. Accept it and let it pass. Keep doing that without anxiously asking for others help. Only you can set yourself free.

My advice:

1. Continue with therapy
2. Do more things for yourself that you love -- get outside and walk, go on a date with your husband, read good books (not about child eduction) , see friends and don't talk about your kids too much, etc.
3. Accept what is. Accept not knowing. Know that you are. There is only this moment. Breathe.
4. Give yourself a break from worrying about your kids school life, their inner state, or talking to their teachers. We repeatedly tell "our story" when we are anxious. You don't have to tell your story to other parents or teachers. Drop your story and your worries and trust that your kids are okay. And if you can't fully trust, keep practicing. Take it one day at a time, moment by moment.
5. Don't take your life too seriously.
6. Consider researching codependency. I read a lot of attempts to control and lots of worries over "happiness" of others.
7. Your anxiety, unease, and worry is all fear. This fear is caused by too much future and not enough presence.
8. What about you? What do you want from your life? Not your kid's life but your life? What do you want to do?

Love and peace to you and your family.
posted by loveandhappiness at 10:09 PM on January 7 [7 favorites]

K-8, even in the best school districts, is basically daycare. It's ok! It's how the USA system works.

Because you are a parent who cares, you just give your kid intellectual stimulation outside of school. My parents found me distance learning courses. /shrug

This is what I hear, re: homeschooling / kid 2: if you give your kid the accelerated homeschooling K-8, they're going to have a hell of a time becoming re-socialized in 9-12. Whereas if they go to school K-8 and maybe the only things they enjoy is the baked potato school lunch and music class, at least they don't get the pain of having to Suddenly Deal With People.

Also, you need to find a therapist that you really respect. I had a hard time with the people that my employer's EAP sent me to because I was like, 'oh you are a nice Lutheran lady who has taken a course for maybe two years, what do you know'. So I found someone with research experience and a degree that my parents would respect, and it's been much more effective! Like, we can work on the prejudices that led me to him together instead of my not getting anywhere with the previous people.
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:15 PM on January 7 [3 favorites]

Heyo, I'm an English teacher. Part of my role over the last little while is working with struggling readers, and something I want to push back on a little is the notion of the child being a certain reading level (perhaps Fountas and Pinnell?). These reading levels are meant to categorise books, not children.

More on this at the Cult of Pedagogy.

That is to say, a child can enjoy reading a variety of books, both 'within' and above their level (especially if it grabs their interest) so it's not surprising to me that you and the teacher got different levels.

Dealing with school can be tough for many parents, especially if they had bad experiences themselves. Don't feel alone or weird in this, and good on you for critically examining your feelings. Keep the good and make the changes you need to, and get rid of the bad- know when to let things go. A good therapist will help, as will open communication with your family.

All the best!
posted by freethefeet at 10:52 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]

This is a kind of random idea that may be totally inapplicable depending on where you live: could you send your three year old to a program in a different language? Especially if you have a significant group of native speakers in the area, there might be bilingual or fully foreign language daycares and schools. That would perhaps introduce a new challenge for them to avoid being too far ahead and bored.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:52 AM on January 8 [5 favorites]

I was a very asynchronous learner and elementary school was where I got bullied.

I don’t think this is really a school problem, not right now. You say: (To be clear, my parents weren’t sending me this message, but it was thoroughly a part of the culture; and I also observed how difficult my parents found it to ensure that I was adequately challenged at school, and how relieved they became when they thought I was doing okay, so as a dutiful child I tried very hard to “be” the way I thought a good person should be: i.e., happy and not bored or intensely lonely, and judged myself harshly when I felt otherwise).

This is the dynamic you need to address I think, not really the school. If you make your child’s happiness at school so important that they cannot express to you their actual feeling, then it becomes a trap. Boredom at school is different than feeling like a terrible person for being bored.

So you are so right, what you need to manage is your emotions. What if your kids do find school boring? What if it doesn’t meet their every need? Well, what do you do when you are worried or bored or having a bad day? Do you say “I’m bored!” When your children are having a bad day, are you helping them express it? Are you letting things be bad (briefly)? Are you able to say “that sounds really frustrating!” and not rush to fix it, not treat it as an emergency?

My oldest child hated school for several years. He learns in three dimensions (makes his own toys and worlds, creates gadgets.) He is not a big fan of sitting and using words. I’m a writer and his writing was, for quite awhile, atrocious and his teachers were not helpful. In those years we worked the school end but what has kept us a team and his heart alive is...doing martial arts together, singing, and visiting art shows. Watching special effects YouTube videos.

Making a home where he can hate school, and be himself. He is so smart but his grades are average. His school life is average. It is not his jam. It’s ok, he will find his tribe, and he is, slowly, slowly. He may have to go back and redo math later when he learns building needs it. That’s okay.

I am taking him to an admissions day for art school today.

I’m on his side. That’s what his family is for. I hope I got this across.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:02 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

School does NOT have to be the driver of their intellectual development. Give your kids access to all kinds of books (hooray libraries!), and youtube channels like TedEd, Numberphile, Khan Academy, PBS (and probably hundreds more) and let them go deep on learning stuff they care about at their own pace.

K-8, even in the best school districts, is basically daycare. It's ok! It's how the USA system works.

100% this. If you reframe your expectations of what school is or isn't, i.e. developer or obstacle to Learning with capital L and Education with capital E, then some of that anxiety may go away. School is a place where children develop their social skills in context of their peers: how to negotiate, how to make friends, how to cope with the end of friendship, how to communicate successfully to others, and yes, even how to cope with boredom.

There is so much stuff now that a child could do outside of school, for free -- youtube videos, online courses, the library, that you do not have to depend on the school structure to deliver what your child needs.
posted by moiraine at 4:07 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

I would suggest talking to a therapist about treatment for anxiety in general, not just in the context of your children's education. It's really normal for parents to get re-triggered by past stuff when their kids are the same age as the parent was when the bad stuff happened to the parent, and it sounds like you might benefit from working out coping mechanisms and exploring some of the causes of the overall anxiety.
posted by lazuli at 5:21 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I remember when kid 1 started school and I was flooded with bad memories and anxiety! It was overwhelming.

I, too, think you should talk about your own experiences with your kid. Both of mine LOVE hearing stories from when I was at school. They particularly love stories where mom suffered! And I got some super insights into what bugs them.

Make it about you, not your kid.

What I‘m hearing is, that as a sensitive child you well understood your parents’ anxiety about your own schooling and you tried to manage their anxiety by pretending to be happy when you weren‘t. It wasn’t (just) your boredom that made you miserable, it was the pain of hiding it. As an anxious parent, you are in danger of repeating that history with your own child. Intelligent, sensitive and loving kids will sense your distress and try to manage it by subduing parts of themselves.

Be open about your own childhood, reassure them that they can always tell you if they face similar challenges and then do your utmost to let it go, just like you would with other anxious thoughts. I assume you know some techniques? If not, that would be a good next question for AskMe, and there‘s loads in the archives.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:55 AM on January 8 [4 favorites]

I just want to nth the suggestion to look outside of school for academic enrichment. To be frank, this applies even beyond the eighth grade - I got the highest score on my AP Government pre-test just because I read the newspaper everyday. I felt similarly as you when I was a kid, but at some point I was able to get involved with other activities that I put as much importance on as school. So it no longer mattered that I was bored in math class, because I had more interesting math problems waiting for me at home, for example . And these days, especially with the internet, there are really so many ways to learn outside of school that didn't exist even just a few years ago.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of schools seem to have been really changing their views on acceleration over even just the 10 years since I've graduated. I'm seeing a lot more opportunities to take college level courses in high school, take self-paced courses, and so on. This seems to be mostly at the high school level, and as a response to the growing amount of college debt, but looking at the opportunities my old high school has now makes me really jealous of today's high school students. I think this also seems to be mostly present in more middle and lower-middle class school districts, whereas upper-middle class school districts seem to be more worried about stress and in some cases are even lowering opportunities for acceleration in attempt to lower stress. But in any case it might help to look around for what sorts of things are available for your kids, either now or later down the road
posted by chernoffhoeffding at 7:32 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

1) I like what was said above about letting your partner take the lead on schooling. That is indeed one of the benefits of a partnership--your partner can take on more responsibility in an area you find difficult.

2) School is indeed not just for intellectual learning. I often forget this and did not view it that way as a child, but it's true. As an adult, I kind of wish I had tried a few team sports and taken a few more art classes. Much of it is about learning to get along with other people.

3) My child is the same kind of highly dutiful, compliant, and rule-abiding child I was. May I suggest taking your kid out for a "break the rules" day annually? Eat ice cream before dinner, wear your pajamas all day, stay up late doing something fun (breaking the bedtime rule). Whatever low-risk "rules" you have to break. Only if this wouldn't stress you and your kid out, but I think there is inherent value in understanding that sometimes you gotta break the rules. Knowing that you would back them up even if they have broken the rules could also help keep them safe later on in life. (For example, they might call you when they get into a shifty situation, even though they weren't supposed to be at so-and-so's house in the first place, or whatever.)

3a) This might have the side effect of your kid suggesting solutions to their boredom when it becomes an issue. I was the kind of kid that was smart and bored, but I was also a rule breaker. So I would suggest to a teacher that rather than doing the math worksheet I would create my own math problems to solve. Or rather than reading that book, I would read these three other tougher books. Most teachers went for it. (Yeah, I was kind of cheeky.)

4) Talk to your kid about whether they are bored and how often and what they want to learn, etc.

5) The environment where you are raising your child is not anti-intellectual, correct? Can you imagine what kind of difference that would have made for you?
posted by purple_bird at 9:35 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

this is not actually about intelligence because I’m not that smart and there’s something deeper going on

I don’t doubt that you and your kids are above average (truly; I grew up in similar circumstances to the ones you describe) but it is true that test-taking intelligence is not highly important. I was never challenged in grade school but I still didn’t mind school because I had a best friend I loved, a social life, and lots of intellectually challenging personal hobbies I did at home. I did receive mockery for not being like everyone else and there was definite who-do-you-think-you-are tall poppy syndrome, but on the whole things were OK. I do have “issues” to this day about feeling different or unvalued as a child. But none of them have much to do with my teachers or school itself.

Which is to say that this probably IS something deeper; it’s not just that the educational system failed you but that the people around you also failed you. Your child will hopefully not be in that same situation. And the more anxious you are about their school lives, the more likely they are to develop a compensatory “no it’s ok!” reaction as they love you and don’t want you to be worried. So therapy— to separate these issues of 1) inadequate schooling and 2) feelings of abandonment, mistrust, etc. is good for you and your children, transitively.

If you haven’t read the Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, it’s basically written for you (by “gifted” she means emotionally gifted, adept at meeting the needs of others).
posted by stoneandstar at 10:07 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

In other words, it sounds like you had certain needs as a child that you learned to cut off from yourself because of the guilt or consternation they caused in your loved ones (your family). The anecdote is to be attentive to your own needs and the needs of your children and try not to send the message that they need to ape certain emotions to appease you. (Easier said than done.)
posted by stoneandstar at 10:10 AM on January 8

I know this question reveals that I am an awful person and an arrogant jerk and most people have much bigger problems than this.

Another smart person/former "gifted child" here, and my heart is going out to you! You're not awful or arrogant, and the size of other people's problems has no effect on your own. If you had a sprained wrist, your neighbor having a broken leg wouldn't mean that your wrist wasn't sprained.

I don't have kids and so won't offer any advice on that front. Please do listen to the folks who have experience living with and parenting with anxiety, though. It sounds like you're suffering badly now.
posted by Lexica at 11:18 AM on January 8

K-8, even in the best school districts, is basically daycare. It's ok! It's how the USA system works.

This was absolutely NOT my experience-- not even close. I went to gifted schools for grades 1-8, and although I was still bored out of my mind most of the time (and busy pretending I was fine and happy, even to myself), I was receiving a solid, rigorous education.

Personally, I am especially terrified of my future children being in an even worse position than I was a child, because while my parents eased my boredom with a thousand different activities that kept me busy morning till night (which I absolutely loved), I will never have the kind of money necessary to pay for all (any) of those activities and smart-kid camps and language classes and theater troupes and speed-reading classes and violin lessons and dance/art classes, etc. I fully expect to be in permanent turmoil like OP.

So OP, I do not think you're crazy or obsessed with your own intelligence. All I can say is try to game the system to skip grades (the private school route for a year), get them into G&T programs or schools, and provide as many interesting, culturally/intellectually engaging activities/classes outside of school as you can afford (assuming the kids are into it.) That can go far. Good luck!
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 1:23 PM on January 8

Another thing to consider— I have a friend who went to a good private school where he worked extremely hard, got good grades, excelled in extracurriculars... and had an EXTREMELY difficult time adjusting to the relatively independent atmosphere of college. He graduated but it wasn’t until earning another degree years later that he said he really felt on the ball.

Which is to say that I agree with queenofbithynia. What your children need is your love and attention and generosity. Make them feel it’s OK to express dissatisfaction and you’ll have a much higher probability of both raising emotionally intelligent children and escaping the snare that concerns you.

I am not your therapist but it’s often the case that we look back and, for reasons of love and gratitude and often fear, want to say our parents did nothing (or very little) wrong. The closer a child comes to realizing that they don’t have to protect their parent that way— they can be true to their own feelings and needs— the better.*

*The point being that all parents do SOMETHING wrong, human communication is imperfect in the best circumstances, but the goal is for the child not to feel overly responsible for protecting their parents from that fact.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:25 PM on January 8

*** Hi, OP here. ***

I had to make a sock puppet just to say THANK YOU. This was one of those AskMe moments where most of you didn’t answer the question I asked, but answered the real question that I couldn’t even figure out how to formulate, and it’s been so much more helpful than I imagined it would be.

I’m going to give a rather lengthy update, partly because I think writing it down will help me make sense of things, but also in case anybody comes along later with similar issues who would find it helpful. Obviously, no need to read or respond to this.

The last few days have been marked by what feels revelation after revelation. The key insight — which I somehow missed until now despite typing out that entire question and agonizing over this issue for decades — is that my problem wasn’t the boredom and alienation, or at least not mainly: my problem was the shame and gaslighting, feeling trapped with no solution, feeling like there was nobody who could help, feeling that I was at heart a horrible and unlovable person and needed to hide my true self from everybody.

This explains so much:

Mystery 1: Why did I have such a severe response to my childhood?

This has puzzled me for years; as an adult, I know people who are similarly intelligent (like many of y’all) and while they — like you — were bored as children, they didn’t have nearly the same trauma and shame I’ve been wrestling with for so long. Why? I’ve been baffled, but the insight above explains it. Dissociation, depression, and anxiety is a weird and overdramatic response to boredom and loneliness alone, but it’s kind of a natural response to feeling like there are giant parts of yourself that must be hidden at all costs, that who you are inside is Bad with a capital B, that you aren’t normal and anyone who isn’t normal is freakish and awful. All of these things were basically my inner voice as a kid whenever I felt bored or lonely, and I felt bored and lonely much of the time. No wonder I dissociated so much. No wonder simply feeling bored throws me into a depressive tailspin. Trauma reactions are a natural response to ongoing, deep, pervasive feelings of shame, and that’s what I’ve been wrestling with.

Mystery 2: Why have I put so much value on intelligence and tests despite knowing their limitations and believing strongly that there are many more important things in life?

There are two things here.

First, I think that I put that value on it because of my bafflement at my “overreaction.” I could see only two logical possibilities for why I overreacted: either I was vastly more intelligent than almost everybody and my environment was much more horrible (in which case it wasn’t an over-reaction but that the situation was just THAT BAD) or I was extremely weak or attention-seeking. Unfortunately, the first possibility is highly unlikely: I lived in an anti-intellectual area, but it wasn’t like cult-level horrible; and I’m smart like needed-to-be-accelerated-multiple-grades smart, but not like 12-year-old-with-PhD-smart. But the problem is that if it’s not that I’m just SO smart, then the only remaining possibility is extremely shameful: I am weak and pathetic. This chain of logic meant that even contemplating this issue has always meant feeling more and more shitty about myself. And thus my only way to get myself to think about it was to try to persuade myself that I’m some kind of unparalleled genius, which I knew was ridiculous for many reasons but it was better than feeling so horrible. But at the same time I couldn’t actually convince myself of it so instead I got into these awful back-and-forth spirals.

Second, my parents — probably because of mental turmoil very similar to the kind that I'm dealing with now — never ever talked to me about intelligence or anything that touched on it, like my happiness in school. Somebody above asked why I haven’t asked my children about their happiness at school. I have, but only very lightly and superficially, and the reason I’ve refrained is that I have feared that my issues are so pervasive that simply having these conversations will give my kids issues themselves. In hindsight, I think my parents were probably coming from a similar place in refusing to talk to me about it. Unfortunately, the net effect was that not only did they never talk about this stuff, they also rarely verbally expressed pride in any of our accomplishments. So the only signal I had to what they were proud of me for was their actions. I could tell that they thought about intelligence and education all of the time (based on their comments about other people, the fact that we were just expected to get straight A’s, the efforts they made to see that we were at least somewhat challenged, etc) and thus that these were valuable things. For instance, one of the few times I was seriously in trouble as a child was soon after I skipped a grade and forgot to turn into a trivial piece of homework in my new class. I realized later (by spying on them) that they were so upset because they’d seriously gone out on a limb (in a way that ruffled feathers in our small community) to even get me to skip a grade at all and they did not want anyone to conclude that skipping had been a mistake. Even this realization only showed me how much they valued me for my intelligence. In the immediate aftermath I just remember thinking that I had to be perfect so that they never had a reason to be upset like that again.

On top of that, however, my parents also were really focused on being normal, or at least appearing normal. One of my dad’s favorite sayings was “If you’re bored, you’re boring” and he massively disapproved of anybody ever complaining about boredom or finding things too easy. My parents often spoke disparagingly of people who were weird. The only time my mom ever told me she was proud of me was for my SAT scores, but she immediately followed it up with the statement that she was even happier that I was a nice, normal person “despite” them. In combination with the messages from my extremely anti-intellectual, conservative, super-religious small town — in which learning and reading and excelling meant you thought too highly of yourself — the result was this horrible toxic sludge where I felt that the only thing valuable about me to my parents was also a shameful and bad thing that must always be hidden.

I don’t blame my parents. They had even more crap of their own to overcome than I have and raised us well in some pretty challenging circumstances. And I never ever doubted that they loved me. But still. I can see how this was really toxic.


Anyway, this realization — that it wasn’t the boredom, it was the rest of it, is wonderfully freeing and so amazing! For one thing, I can now think about this without the very thinking of it being triggering. This by itself is huge. I am not a bad person for needing to wrestle with this stuff. Wow.

More importantly, it means that my children are not doomed and there are loads of things that I can do to make sure that their childhood is better than mine was.

(a) I can go to therapy and achieve something by coming in with an outline of things I can work on in topics that therapists are actually trained for. Topics like managing anxiety and dealing with childhood trauma (even if it wasn’t really trauma, maybe some of the ways of thinking about it will be helpful for me to process what went on).

(b) I can learn have conversations with my kids about intelligence and school and happiness. I think that just these past few days have given me confidence and a lot of ideas about how to do that already, but I imagine therapy might help a lot too. The key thing, though, is realizing that the single biggest thing I can do to ensure that their childhood is different from mine is to build those lines of communication, so they can trust me enough to tell me things. This might be hard but it is a thing I can do. It will be way easier than the impossible and self-contradictory task I thought I had to do. And if my kids can tell me things and we can find solutions together, they won’t be dealing with the toxic shame or feeling trapped and alone and hopeless.

(c) I can let my kids know they don’t have to be perfect and it’s okay to be sad or bored or lonely. It is far less scary for me to contemplate the prospect of them feeling bored or lonely if I know they won’t also be feeling the intense shame and self-loathing that for me are inextricably intertwined. I hadn’t realized until now that they are so inseparable for me, nor that for most people they are distinct. But they are! For my kids, boredom could just be boredom. This is amazing.

(d) I can cultivate a habit of noticing things in my kids that aren’t intelligence. I think intelligence has been such an issue for me for a long time, and has been so triggering, that a part of my brain has always been on anxiety alert about it… which of course makes anything related to it stand out. So despite all my conscious efforts, I’ve been primed to notice and think about those of my kids’ behaviors that relate to intelligence more than to others. And the harder I’ve tried to be otherwise, the more anxious I’ve become, and the harder it has gotten. Already, with the trigger of thinking about this stuff defused somewhat, I am finding it easier to think about and notice other things — and if I do notice something brilliant or funny one of them said, I am getting better at just enjoying the moment and letting the thought go without having it turn into an anxiety spiral about what this means about their future and their potential for happiness and connection.

(e) I can realize that the level of boredom and isolation I felt is probably not going to be as bad for my kids as mine was. As many of you pointed out, my kids’ world is so different now. They have the internet and all of the resources and enrichment that that entails; our community is warm, values learning, and really embraces weirdos and individuals; my partner is sane and great at giving them what they need; and we can afford many kinds of out-of-school programs that my parents just couldn’t.

But, fundamentally, I also know that even if my kids do feel as bored and isolated as I felt, it’s not the end of the world. Because those things weren’t the main problem. And I can do something about the main problem. I can act to ensure that my kids never end up gaslighting themselves and hating themselves to the degree I did.

Thank you.
posted by Babbling Blatherskite at 3:51 AM on January 10 [10 favorites]

Aw man, what a happy update! Good luck with all your plans, your kids are lucky to have such an insightful parent!

About noticing other stuff than intelligence, I have a few things I‘m always on the look out for in my girls, I like to „catch them“ at it.

„That was so kind of you!“
„I‘m so proud of you, that was so hard/frustrating/scary for you, but you were one tough cookie and you made it!“
„Haha! That was really funny!“
„Wow, you practised soooo much and look how much better you are already!“

Basically, all the things I like to see more of. :D
I do it because it gives me a bit of a script to fall back on instead of „you look pretty today“ or „you‘re so intelligent!“

I also learnt (here on Metafilter?) that you should always praise the behaviour, not the person so kids don‘t end up thinking of occasional mistakes and failures as character flaws, with all the attendant fear and shame of failing.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:29 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]

Your update makes me so, so happy and I am so pleased that you're on the route to making your life, and your kids' lives, so much easier. Go, you!
posted by lazuli at 6:08 AM on January 10

Great update and thank you for letting us know! Just gotta add, I was bored academically at school, but I had awesome friends who were as weird and crazy as I was, and it made school SO MUCH FUN.

Also, even though my parents were straight-laced "normal" people with no clue about how to support me academically, they gave me a safe space to explore unconventional activities, and even driving at the crack of dawn on Sunday mornings so I could go to Particular Activity. Their support has made all the difference. Be that parent for your child.
posted by moiraine at 10:01 AM on January 10

So, this article is a few years old, but I think the research discussed is still pretty solid. And I bet your personal experience confirms this. Basically, some research found that when adults/parents/teachers praise kids for being smart, then they want to appear smart all the time... and then they don't always push themselves intellectually because they are so scared of failing.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

There's a lot more in this piece. What we tell our kids about intelligence makes a big difference.

So I think you're on the right track by making sure to note other qualities they have. Praising intelligence seems like the right thing to do, especially with daughters, who too often get complimented for being nice and pretty rather than smart or strong, but instead focusing on effort and other qualities is apparently really good for building resilience and willingness to try new things.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:36 PM on January 10

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