Pulling our son Dan out of middle school was one of the most difficult parenting decisions my husband and I ever made. Labeled as gifted, Dan did well in elementary school. He earned As and Bs, and we seldom heard complaints about his behavior. However, when he entered middle school, he became lazy and inattentive. During the third week Dan acknowledged that his classes weren’t challenging. We had talked about homeschooling before, but it wasn’t until then that we decided to take him out of school. He was 12.
Over the next year my husband and I—both English professors at a small liberal arts college—began educating Dan. At first we worked with him ourselves, adjusting our teaching schedules so that one of us was always at home. We assigned reading and writing projects in the humanities and social sciences and hired bright undergraduate tutors to mentor him in math and science. Dan worked through his seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade curricula rapidly, and by the end of the academic year his tutors were teaching him out of college textbooks. Dan took the SAT and scored around 1300. That fall, just one year after his withdrawal from middle school, he was allowed to attend college classes as a visiting student. Dan did well, and at the end of the year he had a grade point average (GPA) of 3.6.
However, he had no school friends, and, even though he maintained friendships in the neighborhood, he wanted to be with kids more like himself—intellectually and philosophically—in a college environment. We looked into programs and found Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts, a liberal arts college for early entrants. It accepts only high school students and promotes itself as appropriate for young scholars. So, when Dan was 14 (soon to be 15), we allowed him to attend this unique program far from our home in North Carolina.
Dan had difficulties right from the start. Most of the students at Simon’s Rock were 16 or 17 years old and seemed pretty wild to my husband and me. The students were supposed to be carefully supervised—and perhaps they were—but not carefully enough for Dan. His grades fell, and he began to experiment with sex, alcohol, and drugs.
Meanwhile, my husband and I were troubled over what to do. Should we pull Dan out? He was getting an excellent education, and his schoolmates challenged and excited him. When Dan came home during breaks, we could tell that he had changed. However, we wondered whether those changes were all for the better.
Dan told us that he was enjoying his life and finally felt that he was among intellectual equals. Yet because of our concerns over sex, drugs, and alcohol—the same concerns that most parents of teenagers have—we insisted that Dan transfer to a college closer to home.
After receiving an associate’s degree in general studies from Simon’s Rock, Dan transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where, closer to home, he seemed to make better choices. At 18 he graduated with a high GPA and a degree in political science. Last September, three months later, he turned 19. Dan now lives independently, works for a software company, and is applying to graduate schools.
Did we make the right decisions in pulling Dan out of the public schools, allowing him to attend a college in another state, and letting him do it at such a young age? If we had kept Dan in middle school and had had him attend the local high school, would he have had similar problems or dropped out? Many very bright kids who are unchallenged do.
Looking back, I believe that we made the best decisions we could. Most parents of the gifted would agree that raising such children is not easy. Sometimes it demands that we take risks to help them realize their potential.