I didn't become familiar with the terms 'poppy' and 'tall poppy syndrome' when referring to a gifted child and the phrase, 'cutting (or crushing) tall poppies,' until recently; however, my experience with a tall poppy began years ago when my youngest son was just a baby.
He hit all of his developmental milestones and established his independence much earlier than my other two children. He began speaking quite early. Forming understandable babble at about six months old and coherently speaking words by nine months. He refused to let me feed him with a spoon and insisted upon doing it himself as soon as he was able to sit up in a high chair. When he started walking (just shy of nine months), he no longer wanted to be carried or pushed in a stroller — he would insist, "I do!" At the time, I did think it odd; however, I chalked it all up to being a third child (after a set of twins) and him just trying to keep up with his older siblings.
That was until one day — when he picked up an unfamiliar book at the local Barnes and Noble (about two and a half months before his third birthday) and said, "Mommy, Daddy, I'm gonna read you a book." My husband and I looked over his head, at one another, and each did the obligatory eye-roll — like 'sure'; however, we gave Mikee the encouraging, "Okay buddy, that sounds great!" We expected him to look at the pictures and make up a story of his own — as many children will do at that age. But instead, he started reading the book — word for word — verbatim! You could have knocked us over with a feather! I hadn't taught him to read; he had done that all by himself!
I also noted that everything was always very literal with him. One day, when he was about fifteen months old, he was having a hard time keeping up with us on the walking/bike path near the shores of Lake Champlain. I turned around and said, "Mikee, you have to pick up the pace, or else Mommy will have to put you in the stroller." I continued walking and pushing the empty stroller, but when I turned again to check on him, he had stopped dead in his tracks and was searching the ground around him — I realized he was searching for the 'pace' that I had asked him to pick up.
So what exactly does the phrase 'cutting tall poppies' mean? And what is its origin?
As the legend goes, there was once a Chinese general who had conquered many new territories. After his significant accomplishments, he was unsure of what he should do with the leaders of the defeated tribes — whether he should keep them around and use them for their knowledge or imprison them because of the potential threat they might pose to his newly acquired wealth of land. He asked his father for advice. His father promptly took him to a field of poppies and, without saying a word, started cutting down the flowers that had grown taller than the others. From this demonstration, the general knew what his father thought he should do. He knew that he must destroy anything that could grow taller and in this case more powerful than himself — in other words, anything that could potentially threaten the status-quo. So, he went back and killed all the leaders he had defeated.
Somewhat of a morbid origin for the term 'poppy,' which we now use to refer to the gifted child; the child who has grown taller or faster (academically) than the rest. The child who is at risk of being cut down because of an educational status-quo. The child who must conform to an educational system based solely on age and not levels of achievement. I soon learned that attending a public school would most definitely seal the fate of being cut down to size for my tall poppy.
For those of you who have been following my blog, you probably know by now that I homeschooled my three children. I will now, as I have always done, admit that in the beginning, I chose to homeschool for a very selfish reason. That being — I simply wasn't ready to be separated from my babies for eight hours a day. My twins, Matty and Meggie, did attend half-day kindergarten at our local elementary school; however, it was after the experience that I emphatically declared homeschooling as our path.
When Mikee was four years old, reading at second-grade level, I had already been officially homeschooling Matty and Meggie for a year. My plan was always to homeschool Mikee as well; however, it seemed like a good idea to have him do kindergarten at the local elementary school — as I had done with Matty and Meggie. It would enable him to meet children his age in the community, experience being in school, and give me a year to focus on homeschooling with my other two. So, I marched into my local elementary school in mid-August with my four-year-old poppy (who would have been five that December) and met with the principal to enroll him in kindergarten for September of that year — or so I thought.
I explained to the principal that I understood that the age cutoff was five years old by an October birthday and that Mikee wouldn't be five until December, but that he was gifted. I told her that he had been reading since before he was three years old and that he was exceptionally bright for his age. I was confident that he was ready to start school and that if I waited the extra year, he would be so far advanced that kindergarten would probably bore him to death.
She politely listened intently and then patronizingly responded, "Yes, Mrs. Owens, I understand your concerns; however, we are the educators here, and I have been administrating in schools for nearly twenty years. I can tell you that you're not alone. I have at least ten parents coming to me every year thinking that their child is 'gifted.' But it turns out they are never any more gifted than the next child."
Then, are you ready for this? Seated half on her desktop in front of me as I sat in a chair, she leaned forward, patted my knee, and said, "We all think our children are special, dear. But trust me, someday when Mikee is in high-school, you'll thank me that he's not 14 years old and riding around in cars with 16-year-old classmates. We will gladly enroll Mikee next year into kindergarten."
Really?! Shouldn't our schools be more concerned with the best education for our children possible and not with who their peers will be and who's car they'll be riding in ten years down the road? This logic seemed anything but logical — it seemed absurd!
I tried hard to keep my cool, thanked her, and said, "We will not be back. Honestly, by next year Mikee will probably be reading at third, possibly fourth-grade level, and will be bored out of his mind in a kindergarten class. TRUST ME, I know my son better than anyone, and when he's bored, he'll try to make his own amusement and then you'll label him 'a troublemaker.' Not to mention boredom will only lead him to despise learning and right now he loves it. No thank you; I'll nurture his learning needs at home." And we left. And we never looked back.
Truthfully, it was the best decision. And actually at that point, in hindsight, I recalled that even when my twins (who were also very bright) attended kindergarten, they did not thrive educationally. Instead, they were 'held back' to conform to the level at which the rest of the children were. I was shocked at the time because when they entered kindergarten, they knew all the letters and vowels and the sounds they made. By the time I attended their first parent-teacher conferences that fall, I was mystified to learn that they had been 'crushed' down to the same level as the other children in the class who were just learning the alphabet.
I return to my original statement and the title of this blog, 'How to Avoid the Cutting Down of Your Tall Poppy at School':
First of all, most schools do not have the budget to invest in individualized programming for poppies, nor do they have the talent to support it. Schools without programs or services for gifted children force them to remain in a classroom where they are not challenged to reach their full potential. Also, the majority of schools push for uniformity. They want all kids of the same age to be in the same grade level, no matter their academic level. If your child is seven and going to turn eight in the next academic year, that child is entering second grade — no matter whether that child performs at second-grade level or fifth-grade level. The reason, quite obviously — it's more comfortable on the staff.
That means, just like was the case for Matty and Meggie in kindergarten — and would have been the case for Mikee — bright children and poppies are forced to sit through six to eight hours a day reviewing things they have already known how to do for, in some cases, years.
This policy fuels the number one reason for boredom among children in schools. And as I predicted for Mikee, a bored child is a restless child and is often seen as one with behavior problems. Most teachers focus on these behavioral issues, overlook talents, and fail to nurture the gifted child's potential. This crushing of a poppy's academic soul will facilitate a downward spiral and cause a gifted child to settle into a pattern of underachievement very quickly.
So, if you have a poppy, you're probably asking yourself, "What should I do to avoid them being cut down and made to conform to a grade-level beneath their ability? Great question!
1.) You could push the school to advance your child. There are some pros and cons to this approach. Some gifted children perform far above their chronological age, so one-grade level advancement does not always do the trick. While you might very well convince a school to let your child move up one grade, it is very rare for a school to allow a child skip two or even three grade levels. Not to mention that it's an incredibly tough decision for a parent to make because typically the child who moves ahead will be much smaller and less mature than classmates. That’s where it gets hard. If your child skips grades they are at risk of being bullied for being small and also for being smart; however, the upside is that they will be working to their full potential. If you keep them with other students their age, they are around the same size and maturity as their peers, but you are dealing with a bored child who probably will become a behavior problem and most likely will not love learning and enjoy school.
2.) You can keep your gifted child in a public school and supplement that education with learning in the home; however, it won't alleviate the boredom at school. In this case, you will have to advocate for your child during their time spent at school. This strategy might include volunteering in the classroom as well as encouraging the teacher to supplement your children's learning with challenging tasks. We all recognize that teachers are over-worked and underpaid and demanding one more thing of them could be met with resistance.
3.) If you can afford to do so, I would recommend looking into an alternative private school (like Montessori) or a charter school. These institutions might already facilitate a faster pace or be more willing to tailor an individual program for your child.
4.) And of course, the last solution I'll mention is homeschooling. I recognize that not everyone is confident in their ability to homeschool and it is an incredibly daunting prospect for some. I will say that my 16-year stint homeschooling was by far the best thing I could have ever done for all three of my children and our family. I can't even begin to tell you the benefits and rewards we have reaped. If you would like more information or a free consultation about homeschooling, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd be more than happy to help.
Those are my four suggestions for educating the gifted child. However, remember the most important thing is that you help your child stand tall for his or her education and not allow anyone to cut your poppy down!
If you have personal experience with educating a gifted child or have any additional ideas, please pop a comment below. We'd love to learn more about how you have learned to cope with the challenge and I'm sure our readers would appreciate it as well!
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...