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When It's Time to Cut Your Gifted Child Some Slack

Knowing one (inescapable) fact may be the key to understanding what's "normal."

I am standing in a classroom, a second grade room if the décor on the walls and bulletin boards is any indication. Before me is a small mixed group of parents and teachers, about 45 in total, some standing, some leaning, some seated in the too-small chairs. I have been asked to join this group as part of an information night seminar because the one thing all these folks have in common is that their kids have been identified for placement in this school division’s gifted program. In some cases, they want information as they make the decision of whether or not to place their child in such a program; in other cases, their children have already been enrolled in the program, but they still want to learn more about, as one parent has put it: “what makes my child kid tick.”

I enjoy leading these sorts of meetings, and I am lucky enough to be asked to do them in areas outside of my own school district on a fairly regular basis. Tonight, for example, I am at a public school in North Carolina; but last month I was in Virginia (my home state) about two hours from where I live and on that occasion I was speaking before the staff and parents of a newly opened private school. Although I am quite used to speaking about gifted education issues and could easily prattle on for the duration I have been allotted, I nearly always take time to let the attendees express their concerns, ask questions, or pose their own dilemmas for the group to consider. Tonight, one young lady, the parent of a fifth grader at the school, begins to speak and, as she does, I note that she gets quite a few “Amens” and nods of the head from others who are listening.

“I guess that I need help figuring out how to judge what my child should be doing or how he should be acting, and then squaring that with his giftedness. I mean… for example, he can talk about all kinds of things so well. His vocabulary is tremendous. His teachers tell us that he knows about the class topics in a way that is much deeper than his classmates. Ms. Soltace also says he is a group leader a lot of the time because the other kids want him to be it. But then we also get comments on his report card that sometimes acts so silly--and we see it at home too. He sings songs about geese and penguins, he quotes completely random movie scenes all the time, and he cannot sit on our bed without tunneling under all the sheets or doing cartwheels while we’re trying to talk to him. I guess I want to know if this is normal behavior for a kid who is gifted.”

I cannot tell you how very very common this type of question/comment/concern is shared with me. In an article I wrote more than a year ago, I discussed the double-edged sword of giftedness. In that article I focused on the cognitive and affective traits that gifted people tend to exhibit—as well as the good and the not-so-positive aspects of that intellectual talent. Tonight’s comment harkens me back to that material, but I note that there is a critical difference here now. This parent wants to know if the “silliness” in her gifted son is “normal behavior” for one who is so bright and otherwise mature. And what I now need to carefully explain to her (and the larger audience who is equally flummoxed by similar observations of their own children) is that giftedness does not exempt that individual from going through the same behavioral developmental stages and benchmarks that any other person must inevitably go through.

It seems obvious to some but it’s a common paradoxical mind trap to new parents or teachers of the gifted: the child who is generally so utterly capable in so many settings… is equally and seemingly incapable of exhibiting similar control in other circumstances.

  • At school, she is praised by her teachers for having insights into issues under class discussion that are deeper and more carefully considered than her other high school government AP classmates. And yet, two days ago, she was pulled over and fined for trying to outrace the yellow light.
  • At school, he was complimented on how well he kept his fifth grade science group on task to finish a worksheet. But then, a week later, a note comes home expressing some concern about how he “played with today’s experiment materials.”
  • She wins contests for her essays, but on the day-to-day homework, you notice that she makes rather simple spelling mistakes or word omissions—and she could care less about fixing the paper, often even arguing that “this one doesn’t count.”

Perhaps it’s a yet another aspect of how being gifted can often be a double-edged sword. Both parents and teachers alike tend to “expect more” of their gifted children. And yet that expectation is, fundamentally, unfair. There is no “fix” to this kind of “problem.” It’s life. Even gifted children are allowed to have their silly moments, just like their elementary peers. That high school girl who should have “known better” than to do something as foolish as beating out a traffic light at a busy (and apparently well patrolled) intersection? Yes, even she is subject to the same brain development benchmarks that are the hallmark of the “foolish, dangerous things those teens will do.”

What’s equally frustrating is that many times, gifted children themselves often don’t recognize that these ordinary and normal developmental benchmarks are a part of who they are. Take, for example, the first grader who has a wonderful idea of making a comic book so show what he knows. But then he is frustrated by the poor execution of it; he complains that his lines are not straight and he is angered that his command of spelling is too limited for the dialogue he wants to depict. When you offer to help, he argues about not wanting assistance, while simultaneously begging for it.

In both cases you, as parent or teacher, have a clear role. First, you must be patient! Remind yourself of what really is normal in a world where giftedness easily skews the definition of that word. Not sure what is “normal”? Read, ask around, observe other kids and talk to other parents. Find out what their kids are doing and acting like at that age. And where it is appropriate, explain what are reasonable expectations of that child at that age. You might have to explain this to your first grader himself or maybe your husband.

And, yes, you might have to explain this to your child’s fifth grade teacher who tells you at a conference that she “expects more from him.” In the end, the very traits that qualify a person as academically gifted do not also act as some sort of “pass” that allows him or her to get through all the other regular ol’ life development.

Try recalling that when you fork over some money to help pay her off that driving fine.