Talking about Giftedness: The Elephant in the Room
by Nancy M. Robinson, Ph.D.
One of the special advantages of SENG gatherings is the fact that parents and kids can talk about giftedness without fear of being misunderstood, or worse, teased or belittled. Being with others who are equally relieved at not having to wend their way among the contradictory social rules and unspoken accusations is a pleasure. Let’s face it: Most of us, proud as we may be, are uncomfortable talking about our gifted children. We’re even more uncomfortable discussing with our children how to talk about themselves. In some ways, it’s more fearsome than the birds-and-bees talk, but just as important. If we don’t offer guidance, we are likely to hear our offspring making remarks like the following. I am not making these up.
(To a psychologist reassuring a preschooler that some tasks would surely be too difficult): “Obviously, you haven’t met a boy like me before.”
(To a pre-reading kindergartner wondering how his classmate had mastered chapter books): “I’m just much smarter than you.”
(To a teacher): “I already know everything I need to know about biology. Biology is boring.”
(Explaining to an interviewer why she had skipped high school): “Middle school was like a prison. I was totally superior to others in my class.” (This embarrassing remark by an American student was broadcast in a BBC documentary!)
Generally, as gifted youngsters mature, they do come to appreciate the diverse abilities of others and acquire a socially sensitive degree of modesty. For the most part, though, their environments are not well designed to give them such appreciation. If they are always the quickest to catch onto a new idea; if the whole day seems, as one of my students described it, “like a six-hour slow-motion movie;” if their friends don’t “get” their language or their jokes, then how are they to learn this valuable lesson? Or, indeed, not secretly suspect that they are some kind of royalty or alien child who mistakenly landed on this planet?
You may be surprised to discover how your child sees the world. My husband and I were “in the business of giftedness,” with our children attending a perfectly fine neighborhood school that practiced some differentiation even in pre-gifted-education days. When finally we took our youngest, a fifth-grader, to visit an independent school for gifted students, she came out after only an hour and said, so sadly, “Why didn’t you ever tell me there were other kids like me?” Thinking of it, 37 years later, still hurts.
Handling Matters with Other Adults
Before we broach matters with our children, it helps to think through our own responses to remarks such as, “Where’d you get that little Picasso?” or “What a genius she is!” You’ve probably also been accused of “overestimating” or “pushing” your children or “robbing them of their childhood,” when you sign them up for advanced learning opportunities. No “normal parent” would do that! We all know that being the parents of bright children – even more, being parents of super-bright children – is a mixed bag. Of course there are great joys, and of course we are proud of them, but we are also probably wearier, poorer, and more sleep-deprived than we would be were our children more typical. Try some of the following:
“Thank you.” (It’s surprising how often this is all you need.)
“She’s a lot of fun to be around. I am lucky.”
“Sometimes he does seem older, but at other times he seems like half his age.”
“It’s a pleasure to watch how he lights up in that science class.”
“She certainly has to work harder in that (music, art, writing, math…) class, and sometimes she gets really frustrated because she wants to get everything just right.”
“We do put in a lot of time going to swim meets…at the library…looking for plants for his collection…trekking to youth symphony rehearsals and concerts… and finding special times for her sisters and brothers as well.”
“It may look like pushing, but we are really running to keep up with him.”
Talking to Your Children
Once you have yourself in hand, it’s easier to discuss the issues with your kids. They need a chance to come to terms with who they are, how they are different and how very like their classmates they are, and what to do when they encounter the inevitable labels, misconceptions, and even insults. You may be dismayed to hear some of the stories they tell you when you ask.
First, they need a realistic appraisal of how bright they really are and in what areas (seldom are people equally advanced across the board). Moderately advanced? It may not be too difficult to find others who share their interests and talents, increasingly easy as they grow older and go to larger schools. Off-scale? This one is harder, since differentness permeates so many aspects of their lives, and others like themselves are rarer. It helps to understand the range of abilities that exist in the world (a little diagram of the normal curve may help) and to be reassured that, as time goes by, their choices will broaden.
Anticipating uncomfortable scenarios can be very useful, maybe accompanied by a bit of role-playing. Pose some questions:
What are some ways to handle the following?
“How’d you get so smart?”
“Nerds like you make me feel really dumb.”
“I don’t like all your big words.”
“How can you like math so much? I think it’s boring.”
“Are you trying to be teacher’s pet?”
“Where did you copy that report? You must be cheating.”
“Enough! Other children need their turn.”
“You’ll be sorry when you miss the prom.”
Here are some ideas for formulating alternative responses:
Simply acknowledge the fact that you are a good learner: “Some things do seem to come a little more easily.” (“A little bit” is handy, as in, “Sometimes I wish things would move a little bit faster.”)
Being smart is only one way of being different.
Emphasize interest over ability: “Extra credit projects let me pick something I’m really interested in.”
Be specific about what you find harder and easier: “Sometimes it’s harder to get a paper started than to write it.”
Acknowledge your hard work, even if it doesn’t show: “I read a lot for that project because I got more and more into it.” “All that time I put into learning to type really helps when I write things.”
Acknowledge that every choice has positives and negatives: “I do miss having neighborhood friends but this program seems to fit me better.” “Being younger than my classmates has some drawbacks, but I really love the class.” “Practicing so many hours cuts into my free time, that’s true.”
No doubt you’ve encountered other situations and have other suggestions for fellow SENG parents and kids. You’re welcome to e-mail me! I’d love to hear from you.