Giftedness: A Curse or a Blessing?

Your (smart) snowflake may not have it that easy...

Posted Mar 29, 2017

What do you think of when you hear the word “gifted” in reference to children? Is it the first grader who can master fractions, the 10-year old who is taking AP college classes or the kindergartner already playing Bach on the piano?  Parents in perpetuity have watched for signs of giftedness in their children, hoping it will offer their offspring an advantage in this very competitive and challenging world. The reality of being gifted, however, may not be as celebratory as it’s cracked up to be, and is in serious need of redefinition.

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"Giftedness” in children is an attribute that has been abused over the past few decades until few of us grasp any clear meaning of it any more. To those on the outside, it smacks of a sense of annoying superiority – as if the parents of these children can go on autopilot while everyone else has to help their kid pass the next math test.  But not all children who have off-the-charts abilities at a young age are equally advanced in all their behaviors. Because their brains fire differently than those of their peers, many of these kids fail to grasp the meaning in life’s compromises at school or at home. Apple founder Steve Jobs was bright – even considered gifted – but he was a troublemaker, making his parents wring their hands in despair from time to time. Sir Richard Branson, who struggled with dyslexia, nearly flunked out of school before starting his own youth-culture magazine at age 16 and going on to form huge companies later in life.  These individuals, as well as others on whom nature chose to place blinders regarding what they could and could not do with their talents, are people we are constantly curious about. We study their paths, read the stories of their ascent and tribulation, and often hope to apply just a fraction of their thinking to our own.

I write about this topic and its misconceptions from my own experience. My daughter tested out at a high IQ by 2nd grade and was placed in a special 3rd grade class in a school across town.  We were excited to see if she would be more stimulated and less bored in a class of her intellectual peers. We were to discover that while she had no problem academically in this “Rapid Learner” class, it was to become our school year from hell. The teacher expected all her students to be as equally advanced socially and emotionally as they were intellectually and our daughter (later to be diagnosed with ADHD) was both undisciplined and somewhat impulsive – to the point where the teacher pasted a list to her desktop to keep her on track. And while it did motivate her to get with the program, she began making a spectacle of our child, refusing to remove the now very publicly embarrassing list she had long ago mastered.  The school year ended with our trying to pull our daughter out of the school in favor of placing her elsewhere just to salvage what we could of her 3rd grade year. Even then, the teacher found a way to sabotage that effort.  I wrote a 4-page letter to the school district. After this experience, despite knowing in our hearts that she was an unusual child (who went on to be an outrageously successful business owner), the term “gifted” became one we stopped using.

The Guardian’s Annalisa Barbieri, in her article Young, Gifted and Likely to Suffer For It, chronicles the work of psychologist Joan Freeman, who, in 1974, followed the lives 20 individuals for 35 years who tested out as gifted beginning at ages ranging from 5 to 14. It was the longest-range study that had ever been done. “She found that they did have ‘extraordinary abilities’,” says Barbieri. “But children can be gifted at things you can't take public exams in, such as empathy or emotional intelligence.”

Barbieri goes on to say, “What they seem to need is recognition and resources from teachers, love, support and understanding from families. There are tales in Freeman's book of teachers squashing precociousness, of being so incredulous about a pupil's talent that they have ripped to shreds the child's work in front of the whole class. Some people think the gifted need to be taken down a peg or two, not realizing that they are doing what comes naturally. While it's considered unacceptable today to heap scorn on a child who is slower than average, a bright one gets no such protection.”

Nancy Delano Moore speaks as the mother of a gifted daughter the Davidson Institute’s article, The Joys and Challenges of Raising a Gifted Child. In it, she tells of her journey with her daughter, Sara. In her story, many of the same issues I experienced with my own daughter beginning in 3rd grade began to sound familiar. “In the third and forth grades frustrations developed,” she recalls. “This was in part due to her new teachers and in part due to the fact that school did not offer her enough hard and interesting work. Also Sara's abilities were accelerating, the novelty of school was wearing off, and her relationship with other children was becoming difficult. By then Sara knew she was different, the other students knew she was different, and she knew that they knew. She restrained her natural inclination to share answers she could quickly see. She tried to reign in her independent thinking and behavior in order to be less conspicuous in a highly structured classroom. When she mastered material, her teacher refused her new challenges, instead assigning her unnecessary drills and errands while the rest of the class learned the lesson. Since her skills were mushrooming with no means of expression, she became bored and frustrated. Rather than disrupt the class, she daydreamed and doodled in order to escape.”

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I have often reflected on how parents can be part of the problem with their kids’ development in school as well as at home, especially with children who don't seem to fit in. In my personal opinion, mothers tend to be more Pollyanna-like – constantly searching for that special key that opens the lock that places her somewhat oddball child in just the right setting – challenged, happy and well adjusted. Fathers’ more black-and-white perceptions see no special treatment being needed for their already-smart child, citing boredom with school or even depression (which many of these children experience) by high school to be willful acts. This can often cause strife at home and send mixed messages to the child, as well as landing him or her on a therapist’s couch in later life.

In the end, Barbieri asks Freeman to sum up her advice to both gifted children and those who love them:  "’Relax and enjoy life, but hard work is important if you want to realize your potential. To some extent you've got to follow your heart,’" she says.  For parents she warns, “’The love parents give should be without strings, not dependent on achievement. Learn with your child. Don't send them out to name flowers – go out with them. Discover things together. This is particularly important in the early years. It's much more effective to learn with them.'"