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Love the Child, Not the Gift

A conversation with Sidney Moon and Felicia Dixon

Why should we help gifted students? What is the impact of the Common Core standards on gifted students? What are the greatest myths about gifted students? What can be considered good advice for parents who have gifted children?

I recently had the opportunity to ask these questions to two giants in the field of gifted education, Sidney Moon and Felicia Dixon. Together they recently published the second edition of The Handbook of Secondary Gifted Education which “offers an in-depth, research-based look at ways schools and classrooms can support the development of gifted adolescents” and is the most comprehensive resource available.

I have tried to pull out some highlights from each of their responses, but anyone interested in helping gifted kids can learn something from their wise insights which should be read in full. My favorite passage in the interview is: “Love the child, not the gift. Reward your child for effort, dedication, and discipline, not their gifts. Be there for them throughout their development. Listen to their struggles and support their dreams.” I couldn’t agree more.

Why help gifted students? Because the first rule of education is “do no harm.”

JON: What are the most important reasons why we need to invest in gifted students?

SIDNEY and FELICIA: The first rule of education is to “do no harm.” There is considerable research suggesting that gifted students can be harmed if they do not receive appropriate educational interventions. This is especially true in elementary school and among at risk populations, such as children who live in poverty or children who have both gifts and disabilities. The harm can manifest as disturbances in social and emotional development, such as behavior problems, depression, loneliness, and alienation. It almost always manifests as lost academic potential. Hence, the first reason to invest in gifted students is to ensure that they are not harmed by their school experiences. We might call this a moral imperative for investment in gifted students. A second reason to invest in gifted students is to enable them to fulfill their potential. Gifted students by definition have unusual capabilities, but those capabilities cannot be fully realized without a long process of talent development. For gifted individuals, talent development is a prerequisite for self-actualization. We might call this a humanitarian reason to invest in gifted children. The third and final reason we propose for investing in gifted students is because of the potential return that investment might yield for society. Gifted individuals have tremendous potential to benefit society as adults, whether they choose to focus their talents on raising their children, excelling in their professions, performing at high levels in the arts, making discoveries in the sciences, and/or creating inventions that enhance our lives. We might call this the pragmatic reason to invest in gifted children—the investment may return substantial gains to society in the future.

The Common Core has both strengths and weaknesses for gifted students.

In your view, how will the Common Core State Standards impact gifted students?

In our view, the Common Core has both strengths and weaknesses for gifted students. On the plus side, the standards are clear and rigorous. Even better, they tend to emphasize higher level thinking and problem solving, the very things that we want gifted students to experience in their academic lives. If they are used in a diagnostic-prescriptive manner, they can facilitate acceleration of gifted students who have already mastered grade level material. On the negative side, the grade level standards tend to be too easy for academically gifted students, so may lead to boredom and stagnation unless teachers and school districts make provision to differentiate the standards for students of different ability levels. A “one size fits all” approach to education is never effective for gifted students, who, by definition, are outside normal ability ranges. To address this issue, the National Association for Gifted Children has developed a series of guidebooks to help teachers use the common core standards in ways that will be helpful to gifted students. In addition, unintended consequences of the development of the common core standards include a narrowing of the curriculum to focus almost exclusively on Math and English/Language Arts and an increased focusing on testing as the ultimate outcome of education. These trends have reduced the amount of time gifted students are exposed to science, social studies, and the arts and have limited the ability of creative teachers to teach enrichment units that cover material that is not on the tests. Both trends are negative for all students, but especially negative for the most talented students.

Myth: High-ability students don’t face problems and challenges

What are the biggest myths about gifted students and their education that parents, teachers, practitioners, and policy makers should know?

There are numerous myths about gifted education and gifted students. For example, in October 2009, Gifted Child Quarterly, the top research journal in the field of gifted education, published an entire issue on myths about gifted children. In this issue, each myth is explored by one or more experts in gifted education and refuted on the basis of accumulated research evidence. Among the most important myths that were explored in this issue, we would highlight three: Myth 1: The gifted and talented constitute one single homogeneous group; Myth 4: A single test score or indicator tells us all we need to know about gifted students; Myth 15: High-ability students don’t face problems and challenges.

Sidney Moon and Felicia Dixon
Source: Sidney Moon and Felicia Dixon

Love the child, not the gift. Listen to their struggles and support their dreams.

What advice would you give to a parent who has a gifted child?

It is very difficult to give generic advice to parents of gifted children because gifted children are not a homogeneous group (Myth 1). In addition, the needs of gifted children, like all children, change over time as they develop. The needs of a preschooler are quite different from the needs of a senior in high school. With that said, our first recommendation, especially for parents of young gifted children, would be to join the National Association for Gifted Children, an organization devoted to advocating for gifted children and educating parents and teachers about how to nurture gifted children. The mission of this organization is “To nurture potential giftedness and develop diverse talents.” Parents who join NAGC will receive Parenting for High Potential, a magazine devoted to helping parents nurture their gifted children. For parents of older gifted children, we recommend finding ways to support the talent development process by making them aware of potential opportunities, scholarships, and talent development programs in their talent area. Many universities offer summer programs for talented youth and participation in these summer programs can be life changing for talented teens, especially if they live in areas that lack opportunities for them to interact with equally talented peers who share their interests. Finally, for all parents of gifted children, be sure you communicate unconditional love for your child throughout his/her development. Love the child, not the gift. Reward your child for effort, dedication, and discipline, not their gifts. Be there for them throughout their development. Listen to their struggles and support their dreams.

© 2015 by Jonathan Wai

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