In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we find that Kylo Ren, son of celebrity-rebels Leia Organa and Han Solo, has chosen to use his powers for less-than-positive activities (spoilers!). From tidbits gleaned from various interviews with director J.J. Abrams, we learn that Kylo Ren may have been frustrated with the weight of the expectations placed on him, and by his inability to reach his perceived potential. Apparently, Supreme Leader Snoke seduced him when he was vulnerable, using the lure of power to induce him to transfer his allegiance to the Dark Side.
While these teasers may metamorphose into a completely different backstory by the time the next Star Wars episodes hit the screen, they still serve to illustrate a common theme that regularly tortures parents of geeky and gifted children.
What is to prevent my clever and uniquely charismatic child from becoming frustrated with his lot as an outsider and turning to the Dark Side?
We know that gifted children often embrace geek culture, and we also know that, until very recently, geekiness was closely associated with being a social outcast. We even talked about on GeekMom about trying not to raise Kylo Ren.
Statistically, as few as 2.5 percent of children can be considered gifted. It can be difficult for these children to “find their tribe,” or to be accepted into a supportive peer group, simply because of their small numbers. There may not be anyone else in their classroom or grade who thinks the same way they do or likes the same sorts of geeky (or intellectual, or scientific, or tech-y) things. It’s hard to find a friend when you’re the only one of your kind for miles around.
Some studies suggest that gifted (and especially highly gifted) children may not form strong friendship bonds until they enter college, when they can finally benefit from the process of selectivity that brings groups of like-minded students together to study the same specific thing.
But it can be lonely being an outsider. Who wants to wait until college to find a friend? What can a parent do to help shepherd an outsider through those dreadful adolescent and teenage years? How can we build up our children’s inner strength to the point where they will never be vulnerable enough to be seduced by a Supreme Leader Snoke (or anything else, for that matter)?
Let’s look again at Kylo Ren. He has three interrelated problems. One, he is one of a very few people with a rare skill, which makes him an immediate outsider, and chances are, his peers are more envious than supportive that he can control The Force. And what do kids do when they’re envious? They try to cut the successful kid down to size. Not a fun spot to be in. Clearly causes anxiety.
Two, as the only child (we think) of two Rebel Superstars, Kylo Ren (or Ben Solo, to be precise) bears the weight of tremendous expectations. Will he become the force that the rebel cause can rally around and perhaps finish this endless galactic war? That’s a lot of pressure on one person, and it’s not surprising that the situation causes stress and weakens the family bond.
Third, if he perhaps buys into the hope that he is destined to become a pivotal part of an insanely complicated political situation, and yet he has not been able to accomplish anything to date because of his youth, he is clearly setting himself up for failure because his expectations are too high. His supposed inability to reach his potential is exacerbated by his own perfectionism, and this cannot end well.
Gifted children are often in the same predicaments. As parents, our best hope for providing meaningful help lies in our ability to tune into our children.
So often, we only see the tip of the iceberg and are unaware of how deeply our kids are feeling the slights, large and small, of their daily lives. We can’t know what they don’t tell us, so we need to cultivate our own Rebel skills and use “The Force” to essentially read their minds.
I’m joking, of course, but not really. Kids who are outsiders need to know that their home is an unassailably safe place for them to be known and appreciated for themselves, and they really need to know that they have a parent or two who gets them, understands their strengths and weaknesses, and loves them for who they are, not what they may or may not achieve.
And how do we find out these secrets that our children hide? Who is teasing whom, who wasn’t invited to what social event, what flippant remark did a teacher toss off that really hurt whose feelings?
1. Just ask. Teens are adept at deflecting direct questioning, but once in a while you’ll score a direct hit and be rewarded with a torrent of information that your child just needs to get off his chest. “How’s everyone at school acting? Did anyone say anything ridiculous today?” It’s hit or miss, but worth a shot.
2. Cultivate a regular BS session. Maybe it’s just before you say goodnight. Come prepared with an interesting tidbit of information about news from geekdom, such as the date for a new videogame launch, and use it as your entrée to a freewheeling, casual conversation. When they’re comfortable chatting with you about nothing, you can occasionally slip in questions that lead the witness around to discussions about important stuff. “That totally reminds me of Pretty in Pink. Hey, are you thinking about going to the prom?”
3. Resort to subterfuge. Perhaps you suggest playing a game of “Would You Rather” at a restaurant while you’re waiting for the food, then slip in a question about being popular versus being smart. Or maybe you create a questionnaire for a “project” you’re doing (Are you taking a class? Meeting with other parents?), and include spaces for your child to rank their best and worst qualities. Sure, your kids are smart, but you’re smarter. How do you think they got that way? If there’s a way to get that information you need, you’ll find it.
4. When you hit a nerve, validate it. When you’re lucky enough to get a glimpse into a problem area, your first response must be a variation of “I totally see how that must suck.” Whether it seems minor to you or not, don’t immediately fall back on the “shake it off” vein of advice, or worse, the “don’t worry about that, it’s nothing” platitude. That’s the quickest way to get them to clam up and assume you don’t care.
5. Help them move away from the worst-case scenario and see the big picture. Having confirmed that you understand how deeply a situation is affecting them, now gently show them that whatever it is could be much worse. It’s all relative. Follow up with redirection toward positive future events. Practice your subtlety. It’s all in the wrist (just kidding).
6. Suggest strategies, but stay flexible. “I have a couple of ideas for you,” works better than “Do this because I said so.” You’re a team; you just happen to have more experience than your partner. Give him/her something to try, but remember–you don’t have all the data because you weren’t there. Be prepared to debrief after the trial and come back with adjusted suggestions.
7. Share your own experiences, but at the right time. Sure, your high school experience might have had its desperate moments, but this isn’t a contest. Don’t respond to a wail about unfairness with a louder one of your own. Let your child have the whole spotlight. Save the self-effacing narration of the time you tripped in front of the entire football team for one of those moments when you’re driving and they’re huddled in the back seat over their phone. Then they can roll their eyes at you in private. And store that tidbit away for a quiet time when they can marvel about not being the only one.
8. Monitor your casual, one-off comments. When you hear yourself saying anything along the lines of “You’re so smart, it should be easy for you to (fill in the blank),” it’s time to launch the damage control. Giftedness means learning quickly, not being good at everything, and certainly not being more mature than one’s chronological age. Gifted kids are incredibly sensitive and exceedingly intuitive. Couple that with immaturity, and your child may be hearing “You’re not good enough.” Be very careful that you’re not contributing to any measure of perfectionistic behavior or unrealistic goals.
9. Provide the environment she craves. Let your geek be a geek. Surround her with the games or the movies or the goofy jokes that make her happy. Even if it’s not your thing, learn about it so you have something in common to chat about. Seek out unusual opportunities for her to pursue her passions, whether it be summer programming camp or online Latin classes or a weekend LARPing event. Help her find her tribe, if even for just a short time. She’ll internalize the message that she’s one of many, not some bizarre, freakish specimen.
May the Force be with you!