Touching the Mystery: Spiritually Gifted Children

by Joy Navan

Annemarie Roeper often commented that many gifted children have a greater sensitivity to and awareness of that which lies beyond what we perceive and know. Dr. Roeper called this the mystery and felt that many gifted children see themselves as travelers on a more profound journey. Writers who study gifted children often note that they are the ones who ask the existential questions –  “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “What will become of me?”  In this issue of Talking Circles, I wish to address gifted spirituality, with an eye to exploring the dimensions of spirituality as we observe them in gifted individuals. Whether we refer to the mystery as universal connectedness, the great unknown, that beyond which nothing greater can be imagined, or the uncaused cause, many gifted children demonstrate a familiarity with these abstractions.

Expressions of Spiritual Giftedness

Researchers and writers who work with children describe a number of ways that they find and express their spirituality. In a series of books, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles researched the inner lives of children for the better part of his career. In the final book of his eight volume Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series, The Spiritual Life of Children, he wrote that he discovered, “children as seekers, as young pilgrims well aware that life is a finite journey and as anxious to make sense of it” (Coles, 1990, p. xvi). Furthermore, Cole describes them as having an innate sense of the spiritual. As noted earlier, Roeper sees spiritually gifted children as seekers of the mystery. Deidre Lovecky, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with gifted children, writes, “In gifted children, spiritual sensitivity encompasses precocious questioning, unusual types of questions asked at an early age, and reported experiences of transcendent moments” (Lovecky, 1998, p. 179). Tolan expresses spirituality in the highly gifted adolescent as, “an individual’s experience of and relationship with a fundamental, nonmaterial aspect of the universe” (Tolan, 2007).

In my research and experience, I find that children’s spiritual awareness seems to express itself in one or more of four ways, which are not necessarily exclusive one from another. Rather, I use them as an organizer for advancing our understanding of how spirituality manifests itself in gifted students.

They are, as Cole wrote, seekers, and their awareness manifests itself as a Quest. They have an awareness of the finite nature of their present world and, as Roeper implied, they conceive of a spiritual Journey. They are aware of themselves as a part of the vast Interconnectedness which encompasses all living things, similar to what Lovecky described. Or, they have incredibly rich moments of spiritual Transcendence, and, as Tolan suggests, this transcendence promotes a relationship with the Other (i.e., anything that is not Self).

Quest. A key characteristic of many gifted children in terms of their emotional lives is their early interest in death and what lies beyond. This is representative of the conceptualization of spirituality as Quest. I recall a young girl who demonstrated this characteristic. Crystal was two when she visited a butterfly house with her family and became fixated on a butterfly with a wounded wing. She talked for hours afterward about it and what would happen to it, and what if it did not survive? Her mother recalled that she continued to bring up the incident and to question it up to two years later.

Journey. The best example I encountered of a child’s perception of Journey through time and dimensions is the story of Moriah, at age two. In the words of her mother,

“Moriah was two and a half, and came to us sobbing for her children and begging desperately for us to find them. This went on over the course of a couple of weeks, or maybe a bit longer. During each episode she would try to tell us more of what she thought we needed to know in order to find them. She named the French village where she lived and described the round barn where she raised ‘fire horses.’ We could tell that she truly believed if she could make us understand where they were that we could find them. The short of it was she identified five children by name – three girls and two boys. She told us that two of those children belonged to her sister and the sister had passed. Had Moriah not been so distraught and obviously grieving we most likely wouldn’t have thought much of her saying she had children. But because of the sorrow, and real emotion we knew there was something to it. Moriah during that time also described her passing. I don’t think she knew that as anything more than the last thing she remembered and it was vague, she said she was traveling on the road in her wagon, and she hit a boulder and remembered that she flipped off the road.”

Interconnectedness. Rachel, an eight year-old, opened the practitioner/child part of our interview with the statement, in an almost defiant manner, “I can communicate with animals. I can! I see it in their eyes and they sense my caring.” Wade’s parents told me of how at age three, several months after the death of his grandfather who he was very close to, they came upon Wade, reaching up his arms the way he used to with his grandfather and conversing as he used to do with him. Claudio was an internationally well-recognized pianist at the age of 15. His father remembered that he first became aware of his need for music when, at age two, he was playing Rossini’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa and looked down to see his child weeping uncontrollably. Claudio later related to me that from a very early age he felt connected to each note of music he heard and he knew that music was an expression of his soul. These are examples of the concept of Interconnectedness.

Transcendence. As an example of the concept of spiritual Transcendence, Elizabeth remembered when she, at age 16, while sitting on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, felt her mind transported beyond the ocean, beyond the earth and she beheld the total interconnectedness of the universe. Lovecky (1998) described Ian, who at six years spoke of feeling holes in the fabric of the universe with the extinction of every species. He felt a part of himself had died also. And finally Beth, while out walking, was debating within herself the existence of God and experienced the transcendence of a universal love as a reality that could not have been conceived by the human mind, nor induced by chemicals within the brain. Thus, for her, the spiritual was experienced as an intense, transcendent love.

Supporting Spiritual Giftedness

As parents and educators, we can assist our children’s growth and their own acceptance of the spiritual dimension by being fully conscious of and aware of the impact their spirituality. Below are some of characteristics that spiritually gifted children may demonstrate.

  • They exhibit extreme sensitivity.
  • They are often able to think abstractly before having the emotional ability to handle it.
  • Young gifted children may ask content-related questions without recognizing the potential emotional impact. For example, the four-year-old child may be able to ask complex questions about the finality and universality of death, and then have difficulty coping with the realization that she herself will also die.
  • They may ask questions when adults are not ready or willing to discuss them, yet they need answers.

It often is difficult for children who ask questions that adults are not ready or unwilling to discuss. Thus, young children may be discouraged from asking questions. However, our spiritually gifted children need our constant emotional acceptance and reassurance. Despite very high-level questions, they may not be questioning matters of faith or religion.  Instead, they may merely be trying to make sense of their feelings about an issue.

These are approaches parents may use in assisting the spiritual and emotional growth of their children.

  • Sense. Become aware of the seeking out of connections and transcendence that our children disclose.
  • Perceive. Allowing time for the child to explore outside of the business of school, lessons, sports and other activities is essential.
  • Experience. One of the highpoints of assessment for me, beyond experiencing the gifted child, is to observe parents re-connecting with their own childhood. They remember how they would ask the “big” questions about the universe and what lies beyond and how others would look at them as if they were weird. They often felt a sense of isolation because their needs and interests were so different from their age peers. My advice here is that, while you are allowing yourself to experience the inner self of your child, allow yourself also to reconnect with your own childhood experiences. From that process, perhaps you might find your child more trusting and self-revealing.
  • Reflect. Finally, be prepared to reflect your child to others who have no understanding of the many dimensions of giftedness. Instead of seeing your child with the eyes of the realist, or the scientist, open yourself to his or her spirituality, and honor it. You are your child’s best advocate.

References

Coles, R. (1990). The Spiritual life of children. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Lovecky, Deirdre V.(1998). Spiritual sensitivity in gifted children, Roeper Review, 20: 3, 178-183.

Roeper, A. (2010). The Annemarie Roeper method of qualitative assessment. Retrieved from http://roeperconsulationservice.blogspot.com/p/annemarie-roeper-method-sm-of.html

Tolan, S. S. (2007). Spirituality and the highly gifted adolescent. Retrieved from http://www.stephanietolan.com/spirituality.htm


Joy Navan, PhD, is a professor emeritus of Murray State University and president of Navan Consultation Services, LLC. She provides services in Spanish and English to gifted children and their families through assessments, SENG Model Parent Discussion Groups, professional development and educational planning. She is a member of the SENG Board of Directors.

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