by Elizabeth Shaunessy
As parents, teachers, and volunteers in gifted education, we may be acutely aware of how our culture reacts to the term and phenomenon of giftedness, and we likely have seen a variety of responses to individuals who are gifted and discussions of giftedness among learners – ranging from negative to positive. When we consider the lightning-rod effect the term giftedness can have, it is no surprise that gifted children become socialized to the often mystifying reactions to others’ understanding of giftedness and become guarded about when and how they talk about themselves as gifted students. Even when listeners are themselves gifted, the atmosphere that surrounds conversations about giftedness can be polarizing, as was the case in a recent class where an individual began to share his story of being a gifted learner.
As a faculty member at a large urban institution, I am often invited to a variety of graduate and undergraduate classes to share information about gifted individuals – and my audience is usually pre-service teachers. Recently, however, I spoke with a group of undergraduates enrolled in “Narratives of Individuals with Exceptionalities,” an upper-division exit course that is open to students in any major. I have since thought a great deal about the very issue my visit to the class eventually encountered: who can tell the narratives of the gifted, and how can we, as advocates of gifted individuals, teach our gifted children to tell their stories without societal backlash? How, then, can the gifted tell who they are and what it’s like for them, and when can they do so?
Shouldn’t everyone have the right to express who they are? Sure – and this is one of the basic tenets of our Constitution. From a developmental perspective, researchers have documented the importance of elaborating on our lives as a stepping stone toward identity formation, and as we mature from childhood to young adulthood, our narratives generally become richer in both factual and interpretive detail (Bauer, 2006; Fivush & Nelson, 2004). Research shows that the development of children’s narratives is greatly influenced by their caregivers, and that parents who are more elaborative in discussions foster elaboration among their children, and parental listening (i.e., expressing interest, attentiveness, warmth, asking questions) is also critical to a child’s long-term recollection of life events. The responsiveness of parents has been linked to the development of a child’s early identity formation, particularly in early childhood.
As children mature and develop into more autonomous beings as adolescents, they continue to develop their identities, less through conversations with parents and more with peers, though exchanges with parents remain important throughout life. During late adolescence and early adulthood, narrative identity is greatly influenced by the responsiveness of one’s friends; with more responsive listeners, individuals are more likely to share interpretations of life events, which is a critical element of how we continue to form our identity and understanding of self (Pasupathi & Hoyt, 2009). Conversely, distracted friends tend to elicit fewer interpretations from narrators, which suggests that such listeners may cut short the voice of the storyteller, limiting the speaker’s expression of feelings, goals, and desires: “unresponsive listeners do not allow us to be who we are and who we are becoming, by telling stories in ways that express and further that uniqueness” (Pasupathi & Hoyt, p. 569).
The notion of interested and disinterested listeners has a unique application for individuals who are gifted. Children and young adults who have peers who are responsive to their reconstruction of events and interpretation of these situations (which likely have great bearing on how they come to understand their abilities and gifts) have a forum for thinking through what makes them distinctive individuals. They have the opportunities to construct identities through narrative in a way that can validate who they are, to think through the tensions they encounter in the world as a gifted individual, and to make sense of what these events mean for them. Gifted teens and young adults without such responsive friends have fewer opportunities (if any) to voice who they are. Imagine the frustration these individuals experience in a world that tells them their voice isn’t important and their stories as gifted individuals aren’t worthy of being heard.
Thinking back to the event above about the college student who disclosed his giftedness to his class (which included several gifted students) and the subsequent discomfort of the students, I wondered if the student who spoke out had a peer group during adolescence that was receptive to his narrative construction of himself as a gifted learner. If he didn’t, and college was the first place he felt he might be able to connect with others who would understand, what message about his uniqueness did he receive about his identity from his self-disclosure to peers? And the question I’m still grappling with: what is the effect of one’s identity formation and long-term well being when unresponsive peers are the only peers one has?
While parents serve as the initial listeners of their children’s stories, parents should also consider the importance of helping their child find responsive friends. Often, these friends are intellectual peers that attend the same school or are served in the gifted program, but in some cases, a responsive peer might not be found in school. Providing gifted children with exposure to extra-curricular opportunities, such as local clubs, competitions, or Saturday or summer programs might be just the opportunity a child needs to forge a relationship with a peer who understands, is receptive to, and cares about another child’s experiences and narratives as a gifted learner.
Bauer, P. J. (2006). Remembering the times of our lives: Memory in infancy and beyond. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Fivush, R., & Nelson, K. (2004). Culture and language in the emergence of autobiographical memory.Psychological Science, 15, 586–590.
Pasupathi, M., & Hoyt, T. (2009). The development of narrative identity in late adolescence and emergent adulthood: The continued importance of listeners. Developmental Psychology, 45(2), 558-574.
Elizabeth Shaunessy is an assistant professor at the University of South Florida where she teaches a course that is required for the state’s endorsement program for teachers of the gifted, “Guidance, Consultation, and Counseling of the Gifted.” She is Gifted Program Coordinator in the College of Education and a member of the Florida Association for the Gifted Board of Directors. Her research addresses several facets of affective needs of the gifted such as bilingual Hispanic gifted learners and identity development and the voices of parents of children with disabilities including those who are twice exceptional.