Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up? (Part Two)

What happens to gifted kids - 35 years later?

Posted Sep 24, 2010

“I don’t want to see little children bent over books while the world calls to them from outside; well at least not all the time. I want them to discover what life is about by interacting, experimenting, dreaming, playing, making friends—and learning from their mistakes,” writes Dr. Joan Freeman in her newest book, Gifted Lives.  “The pleasures and creativity of childhood are the basis of all great work.  Take childhood away from children,” Freeman warns, “and not only is the adult diminished, the world pays the price.”

For readers just joining in this series, Professor Joan Freeman, as well as being the author of Gifted Lives, 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.

You may wish to refer to my earlier interview with Dr. Freeman, Gifted Children:  What Happens When They Grow Up? (Part One), to see how the discussion has evolved.

Dr. Freeman’s years of work, in addition to the discussions we have recently had about it,  have led me to believe that much more care needs to be given to the way we perceive the needs of gifted children, the type of guidance we offer them—and especially the  demands that are often levied upon them.  Talking about her 35 year, tracking study of gifted children, Freeman explains, “Their aim for high flyers was usually limited to which university they [gifted children] might go to, a matter which the subject teachers usually took care of.   Such major life decisions were often made on the basis of school marks rather than individual inclinations or deeper personal guidance.” Freeman’s study provided the foundation for her inspiring and essential new book, which I have recommended to all parents and educators, whether you have a gifted child or not. This is because, at the core, Gifted Lives is about living well and deeply and meaningfully—and ultimately the life you want and will be satisfied with. And this book is loaded with strategies to help us help children get there.

Freeman explains that in her study it often appeared that high pressured academic institutions could be the least flexible. And, with the advantage of a long-range zoom, this kind of inflexibility, which may look good in the short run, can potentially lead to problems further down the line for such individuals. “Pressure to succeed,” she insists, “can cripple the gifted with perfectionism.”

Along the same line of concern is whether to call/label a child gifted.  This, according to Freeman, is a “delicate” and “complex “decision.  “From a child’s point of view,” she writes, “being labeled gifted is always a challenge.” Either way, the decision must be based on “truth” and “acceptance” of the child. Helping a child reach his or her capabilities is all about the art of parenting and teaching. But the label itself can have different effects—e.g. one child may be “driven to low feelings of self, even depression, under the threat of failure, another might benefit from the challenge and love [in] being distinguished as gifted.” Note: Overall, insofar as Freeman’s study is concerned, “children who had been volunteered by their parents as gifted were more likely to have more emotional problems.” What can we glean? Most importantly—and again— that we should put on the breaks and take a look at the issue one kid at a time—stop, see what is best for the individual child, and then compassionately move forward, and as Joan Freeman implores:  To help these children realize their deepest happiness and success.

According to Freeman, U.S. and U.K. treatment of gifted children differs.  For Dr. Freeman, the major difference becomes one of recognition. “They get more money,” she explains, “and more specific programs, but not necessarily a better education in general! The overall standard of education in the USA is lower than in the UK (according to international ratings) so there is greater need for specific gifted education to rescue the brightest.”

In New York State, however, where my family and I have a home, the only thing that has been mandatory in terms of specialized education for the gifted is screening for giftedness.  There is no mandated programming, unless legislation, which has been up until now “under consideration,” does something in this regard.  As well, New York State funding in the past few years has, in fact, dropped from (a modest) 15 million dollars to zero. And as I have written before:

We in the U.S. have taken some very productive steps in meeting the needs of low-achievers, middle-achievers, and even high-achievers. All kids deserve this. However…

To this writer it seems discriminatory to exclude anyone, regardless of his or her level of achievement—including the profoundly gifted. Unfortunately, it is easy to write these children off—thinking they are getting straight A+s.  They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.

In the U.K., schools do not use IQ tests because they are not approved of.  Private Psychologists like Dr. Freeman will, however, do use them.

Freeman defines giftedness in 2 ways.  The first is by IQ measure.  “There is,” she says, “also a certain [other] quality which is not measureable and which experience gives you.”   As such, she has some children that come out in the upper 1 percent that she wouldn’t call gifted because they haven’t got that “something extra” … a particular sense of curiosity,  a certain intellectual power that distinguishes some higher IQ children from other higher IQ children.

In Gifted Lives, Dr. Freeman refers to what she calls an “unstoppable urge to create.”  This phrase struck me because I have witnessed the energy myself.  In my experience, for example, I have seen children walk into a room loaded with toys and games and gravitate toward those that have “rules.” On the other hand, some kids routinely stay away from these, preferring instead to play those with no rules or those where rules are more open for interpretation. Such children tend to create out of anything, any time, and anywhere. 

Referring back to my comment on the unstoppable urge to create, Freeman explains, “That would be some of it. That sort of thing comes out when some highly gifted children take a regular IQ test, and they say [things like] oh that’s not a very good question; if you had asked it this way, it would  improve the question—that sort of thing; I find that very creative,” she emphasizes.

Joan Freeman’s voice is melodic and brightly pitched.  She likes to speak in quick energetic bursts and then pause. 

She thought for a moment and then offered another example of this kind of relentless creative activity.  “Recently,” she continues, “a 3 year old, who can do extraordinary things, wanted to write the number 36, and he kept drawing circles.” She pauses again.  “You said you were going to write 36,” she narrates.  “And he says, I am doing it, but I’m picking up the idea of the numbers. Which he did,” she explains, “so he drew his pictures of the numbers and eventually he had thirty-six in it.”

Back to the idea of rules, she explains, “It’s a problem for gifted children, I think, because the other children you can’t treat that way so if they get into a game that has rules, the creative, gifted child may want to change the rule(s) because the game becomes boring.”

And this issue will, to this writer’s perspective, filter its way into classrooms, where the teacher’s training and ability to work with gifted children as well as his or her ability to remain flexible becomes significant.  As I have said in previous articles, this kind of teaching is harder, yet essential and packs a bigger payoff all around.

According to Freeman and several other experts on gifted children, paying attention to a child’s giftedness should start from the moment they are born.  You can begin by looking for early physical signs (which may or may not, however, be indicative). These include things like sitting up, walking, and that sort of thing—the milestones—and then you go to parent comprehension , the child’s comprehension and reactions to other people, and then to symbolic things like talking and number concepts.  These are early signs.

“Parents can provide nourishment,” says Freeman, “like you would for any child.  If the child wants to read books, then you read books.  One problem that comes out repeatedly in the book [Gifted Lives] is that parents see that the children are advanced, and they start treating them differently. And they are not, they are normal children.  They are advanced in certain areas. One of the problems is that people think these children should be different because they are gifted but things happen to them in the normal world.”

We pursued the idea further. “The normal world sends its 'slings and arrows' to everyone:  Being gifted means being better able to deal with things intellectually, but not always emotionally. You cannot assume, [however] as some people do, that the gifted are emotionally more fragile. All the evidence points to their greater emotional strength. They couldn't reach success and prominence if they were not strong. Again, however, bear in mind that if you identify children as gifted you have then different expectations and that plays into how they will respond.

Gifted Lives places a lot of emphasis on paying close attention and on self-awareness.

“Knowing who you are and what you are capable of is of great benefit to everyone,” Dr. Freeman says. “Because the gifted are unusual, they often try to fit in with the rest and so their potential may be missed. They may need help to find what they can do.”

But another of her messages is not to always push.  This can make a difference in how things turn out.  Showing disappointment that a child is not going where you want the child to go is not good.  So Freeman’s general message is don’t push, but then with careful observation, you might at the right time say “go for it.” Because gifted children need that too.

On the issue of home schooling, Freeman suggests, “It can work when care is taken for the social lives of the children, but it can limit development of the child's social skills. Home education may also be very limited to what the home-schoolers think is important, which is less varied educational nourishment than school.”

So there is a lot of watching both heart and mind in working with gifted lives. “Ah. What you love to do is probably what you are best at,” says Freeman, speaking of the heart.  “But the gifted may have to try out a few things before they settle in one discipline because they may be able to excel at many things.”

Her message in Gifted Children as she sees it? “I want to stress that the gifted are normal people. 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.”

And so as parents we need flexibility as well. We have to learn to walk with the child, to encourage and assist that which they are tending toward—and see that this is a fine line. As parents we may, at times, have to advocate with a teacher or a program. And at another time, step in and say [as Freeman suggests], “go for it.”


Thanks to Dr. Joan Freeman for sharing her time and for deep commitment to gifted children and for her profound understanding and compassion for them.

Check out her new book [amazon 0415470099].

For a scientific adventure into the world of human attention see my newest book [amazon1601630638].  

Image: ccarlstead