“Had I stopped the story [there], what a different story I would have offered to research in the development of gifts and talents,” writes Dr. Joan Freeman in her newest book, Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up? Professor Joan Freeman, PhD, is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, which has also honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work with the gifted and talented. She is the Founding President of the European Council for High Ability and the author of numerous books and papers on the subject of gifted children.
This past summer, I wrote a series of articles on gifted youth, addressing a wide variety of needs in terms of the children themselves, but also parental needs as well as needs within our public education system. The response to these articles has been widespread, heart-felt, and insightful. One thing for sure, there is a lot of concern out there, mostly parental, about helping gifted children get a fair shake at developing their talents and lives. To facilitate this concern, last July (2010), I interviewed Jill Adrian, Director of Family Services at the Davidson Institute. See: Gifted Children: Nurturing Genius (Part One). The interview resulted in three articles on the subject and some immediate discussion. The discussion, however, has continued, with colleagues around the U.S. and overseas, in emails I have received, and in some of the presentations I have given of late. Then in one of those small world ways I was brought to Joan Freeman’s work and the release of Gifted Lives.
Dr. Freeman has a keen and honest eye for gifted children and their daily encounters. This is immediately apparent in her new book, based on her 35 year study which meticulously tracks the lives of gifted children from early promise to maturity. And I want to say before I say anything else that should you decide to read this book (which I hope you do) that you will get the feeling that you are amidst the deepest, most humanitarian, and sensitive encounter with giftedness that paper and print can offer—regardless of your final take on arguments the text offers. The book has the feel, and I say this with reservations, but it has the feel of an intellectual reality show and Joan Freeman puts you right in the middle of all the action.
“By comparing the gifted growing up with the more average,” Freeman writes, “I have been able to shine a light on how the gifted, each in their different ways, faced challenges which only they were likely to encounter.” And by revealing the stories of 20 outstandingly gifted people (selected from her study) through a lens that trails them from early childhood to adulthood, she shows how their individual reactions to even very early experiences—including their parent’s attitudes and actions toward them—continue to affect their lives as they enter middle-age.
She goes on to say, “None of us has the ability to turn the clock back, as much as we would like, to edit the past.” However, perhaps her studies and life’s work, she explains, “will demolish some detrimental myths about the gifted, and provide understanding about ways to bring about the greatest success and happiness in gifted lives.” In this author’s opinion, Dr. Freeman does just that.
Here’s a taste. Gifted Lives opens very unexpectedly—and dramatically—with a story/biography about a young genius girl, Rachel, whom you know from the get-go will die at early middle age—not at all what anyone would expect in a book about gifted lives. But a powerful hook that gets you thinking and feeling quickly. Knowing of Rachel’s untimely death as the epic of her youth unravels into adulthood spikes the drama you feel at each turn, strengthening your own sensitivities to her emerging struggle to identify and blossom her potentialities, as well as to the obstacles strangling her gifts as she attempts to realize them into life.
Freeman’s writing throughout is disciplined and carefully objective, without sacrificing any narrative power. In fact, she ultimately increases the intensity of her stories by letting you see cleanly into each character’s life without narrative contamination.
Freeman insists that many myths about the gifted are often based on partial data rather than long term studies, which may lead to various other conclusions, some of which could be in diametric opposition to the myths themselves. The emergency in Rachel’s story is clear and intense. You can observe its rising of myths and behaviors these myths generate in families and educational systems that can, in turn, traumatize and cripple living, gifted or not.
Lessons gleaned will be useful to all in a wide variety of ways. But they are only visible from the vantage point of a distant zoom, like that provided in Gifted Lives. Apparent academic success, for instance, that has been pressured out of a person may look pretty good at age 9 and maybe still look good at age 16, but what happens further down the line? Say from 20 onward? Freeman invites her readers to enter that kind of zoom.
Had the story stopped there, how different your conclusions might be.
This line becomes a kind of mantra for Freeman throughout her study and book. When Dr. Freeman and I recently spoke, she expressed concern that she may have mentioned that notion too many times in the text. But that didn’t seem the case at all. If anything, I enjoyed how each character’s story reveals this theme, from a cascade of different angles, amplifying Freeman’s arguments about parental expectation, non-recognition of the gifted, myths about the gifted, pushing a gifted child at the wrong time, not pushing at the right time, over-excitability, skipping grades…and more.
I asked her what had drawn her to enter into this particular area of research. It all began because there was so little work being done, she explained. “There was a hole in the market. Nobody was doing studies; so I did it,” she said. And she still wants more to be done, as does this writer.
“And now that you’ve completed this research, written this book, now what?” I asked. “What message do you want to send out now?”
“I want to stress that the gifted are normal people,” she answered. “But they face special challenges, especially unreal expectations, notably being seen as strange and unhappy. Others, such as parents and teachers, can feel threatened by them and react with put-downs. What they need is acceptance for who they are, appropriate opportunities to develop their potential and reliable moral support.”
Gifted Lives—with its many twists and turns—is captivating, inspiring, and educating. I want to recommend the book to parents and educators everywhere. It seems to me it will be easy to find a nugget of information that you can utilize almost immediately. Joan Freeman is right: “None of us has the ability to turn the clock back, as much as we would like, to edit the past.” Perhaps, however, the stories of these brilliant children can give us all a sense of pause and the momentum to look more closely at what appear to be, at times, mundane innocuous events and the effects these have on their lives.
Gifted Lives should—at the very least—make us put on the breaks, stop, see where we are headed, re-evaluate some (or a lot), and then move forward with added passion, compassion, and strength toward this issue that is so important to us: the recognition of giftedness and the nurturing of gifted lives.
Stay tuned as Dr. Freeman and I explore these issues further in Gifted Children: What Happens When They Grow Up? (Part Two). Still ahead we will discuss:
Early signs of giftedness
When parents should get involved
Problems gifted kids face
Nature and nurture
Differences in treatment between the U.K. and the U.S
When a push is needed
When to follow your heart
Notes: For a scientific adventure into the world of human attention see my newest book
Can I Have Your Attention?: How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration