Why I advocate for gifted children

by Suki Wessling July 6, 2012

Parents with kids designated “gifted” have a choice to make: When they’re out in public, will they use the word? You’d be amazed at how often I see this theme recur on gifted parenting lists: “Do you tell people your child is gifted?”

Of course, parents have no trouble admitting to their children’s other qualities. You don’t hear people trying to find ways not to refer to their kid’s red hair or skill at catching a baseball. But somehow, when your kid is smart you’re supposed to hide it. Some parents go so far as to deny it—they don’t want their children set apart.

In my case, I had no interest in the word until I needed it. We were having troubles with our second child that didn’t fit any parenting manual, and didn’t fall neatly into any psychological profile. I finally found the answers amongst literature about gifted children. Like other parents of gifted kids, I found my parenting manual in A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children.

The thing that I’ve noticed since is that in general, people really don’t understand what this is all about. The most common reaction is confusion—my old reaction: why do you care?—but I also get people thinking that I’m bragging about my kids, thinking that I’m some sort of pushy helicopter parent who wants to promote her kids, and probably lots of other unflattering things I haven’t heard.

So why do we care?

There’s a national organization dedicated to gifted children. There are many state organizations. They all have conferences. Teachers get special training. Parents seek each other out on the Internet and in person. All of us care about gifted kids and their welfare. But why? Aren’t gifted kids automatically successful? Aren’t they every teacher’s dream? Aren’t they bound for success and happiness?

Well, no. We care about the welfare of gifted kids because things aren’t always so rosy for them. Yes, I’m sure you know a kid who’s a straight-A student, has the most wonderful boyfriend, is polite and kind and well-mannered, plays violin like a dream, volunteers at her local soup kitchen, speaks three languages, and, well, you get the picture. There are gifted kids like this, and they don’t need much help. For whatever reason, they are thriving within society as it’s presented to them. (It’s also possible that these kids are getting a lot of help you don’t see.)

The gifted kids who need advocacy are the ones who aren’t thriving. They are more often bullied than kids of average intelligence. They are more likely to have unusual sensitivities and have trouble with social interactions. They are more likely to check out at school if their teachers aren’t trained to deal with them. And surprisingly, they are more likely to drop out of high school than kids closer to the academic median.

It’s true that these kids sometimes come out ahead in the end—choose your favorite billionaire Silicon Valley nerd. But they suffer a lot of pain and risk being lost as productive members of society because they don’t get the help they need. And those of us who advocate for these kids think that is just as much a shame as when other kids are at risk. These kids are not better than other kids; they’re just kids and they need help.

How and why are gifted kids different?

The How is much easier to answer than the Why. First of all, there does seem to be a correlation with the sorts of mental acrobatics tested by IQ tests and various patterns of development. Gifted kids are:

  • More likely to show asynchronous development. This means that they are “many ages at once”—a math-smart fifteen-year-old boy who still cries easily or a six-year-old with adult verbal skills and a two-year-old’s temper tantrums. [Read more about asynchronous development.]
  • Likely to exhibit what are called “overexcitabilities.” They have certain quirks that are more easily triggered than the general population. It’s very common for gifted kids to show sensory processing disorders, to become belligerent when they are bored in school, or to need to run around and flap their hands when they are learning something fun. [Read more about overexcitabilities.]
  • Likely to learn in fundamentally different ways than the “average” child (whatever that is) such that classroom learning can be frustrating and fruitless for them. Gifted kids’ learning speed often means that they so quickly grasp the material presented that they become disruptive in the classroom, asking the teacher questions that derail the discussion. Also, lots of gifted kids are visual-spatial learners. They simply don’t learn from reading a textbook and never will. It’s not uncommon to hear from parents on gifted parenting e-mail lists whose kids had gone from a special education classroom to being designated at the very top of the IQ scale. Sometimes giftedness looks like something else. [Watch a video about misdiagnosis of gifted kids.]
  • Often found to have learning deficits that mask their strengths. So-called “twice-exceptional” kids suffer doubly, from the same frustrations in the classroom and social groups, and also from the fact that they often don’t get help for their LDs due to their ability to mask them. [Read more about 2e kids.]

Why gifted kids are different is under much discussion at the moment. The question is being looked at by everyone from neurologists to popular writers. Stay tuned for the conclusive answer. But parents and teachers of gifted kids can tell you that they are clearly different, whether by nurture, nature, or something much more complicated (my opinion).

Are gifted kids “better” than other kids?

This is the crux of the matter. This misconception stems from two roots: First, the longstanding anti-intellectual tradition of American culture. Think we don’t have a longstanding anti-intellectual tradition? Just read a few biographies of gifted kids of the past. Torturing the smart kid isn’t a new phenomenon. The dislike and distrust of smart people is so deeply rooted in our culture parents are afraid to describe their kids as smart for fear it will elicit a negative reaction. Second, there’s that stupid word: “Gifted.” The word implies a value judgment. It implies that other kids don’t have gifts. Many of us who write about gifted kids prefer a neutral term like “non-neurotypical,” but that’s a mouthful, and that’s not the one people recognize. (Also, spellcheck hates that word!)

The designation of gifted is a description, not a prediction. Gifted kids are no more likely to be successful than the general population, no more likely to be happily married, no more likely to win the lottery. But intelligence is, in fact, part of the description of some activities. So you will see that Nobel Prize winners are more likely to be gifted. You will see fewer math-savvy people winning the lottery (because they don’t play). You will see more voracious readers teaching in college classrooms. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs largely fit the gifted description.

But none of this is surprising. If you trade a gifted brain for height and coordination, would it surprise you that taller, more coordinated people are more likely to become basketball players? But in the end, it’s the people who work hard, have some lucky breaks, and believe in their own capabilities who achieve success. Giftedness is not a ticket to success—it can just be one of the cards in a winning hand.

Do I think my kids are special?

Sure I do, and I hope you think your kids are special, too. But I don’t think there is anything fundamentally more special or more important about any “type” of person. Old sayings like “it takes all kinds” don’t become old sayings for nothing. This world would be one heck of a terrible place if we were all alike. And this world is a worse place when any child is not able to reach his or her potential.

I was chatting with a woman recently who told me her daughter’s story: She said, “She really hated school, so I took her out. She decided that she’d just skip high school and go straight to college. She’s eighteen now and on her way to university… to get her PhD.”

Would the world really be a better place if that girl had been forced to sit through high school because it’s “what we do”? Would it really be a better place if she had been forced to hide how smart she was to get along with others? Not all gifted kids end up starting PhDs at eighteen (I doubt mine will), but all gifted kids are kids with special needs. And like all kids with special needs, our society benefits when those needs are taken care of.

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