The "G" word

Andrea, the mother of three year old Max, was stressed when she called me. “He’s driving me crazy,” she said, “he insists that I drop everything to look something up about the Tigris River and when I tell him that he has to wait he has the most explosive temper tantrum you’ve ever seen. Then, when I put him in a time out, just to calm him down, he writes me a note of apology, so that was sweet, but I just can’t take the irrational behavior!”

Another mother, Joan, called to tell me that her daughter, Suzanna, was in danger of being kicked out of preschool for being argumentative. The most recent incident involved her daughter being the “weather person” for the day. When asked to look out the window and say whether it was a sunny or rainy day, she refused to look and simply said “Rainy.” The teacher corrected her, saying, “No, Suzanna. Go to the window and actually look. The sun is out.” Suzanna began to yell, “No! No! You’re wrong, you don’t know. It’s a rainy day!” Her mother explained to me that the meteorologist on television that morning had said there was a 90% chance of precipitation for the day. Hearing that, Suzanna had correctly ascertained that, while it might be sunny at the moment she looked out of the window, the majority of the day was indeed predicted to be “rainy.”

One final story: Ahmed’s parents called because while they believed that he was very smart, he was having tremendous difficulty doing his homework. In fourth grade, he would receive even the simplest homework sheet and immediately become anxious, saying, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to do this.” They would patiently ask him to read the directions printed at the top. He would insist, “I can’t. I don’t know what it means.” They would read the directions to him. He would become very intense and begin to cry, “But what does it mean, what does the teacher want? I don’t know what she wants.”

These children are gifted. But I didn’t need to see a number or percentile on an IQ test to figure that out, because being “gifted” doesn’t mean the same thing as being “smart.” Rather, the gifted child has a collection of traits that define them and all of the children above fit the profile.

Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of parents like these. For the most part, they initially have no idea that their child is gifted -- in part because they’ve bought into the idea that being very smart equals being “gifted.”

When people hear the word “gifted” they automatically think, “Wow, that’s terrific!” They believe that the smarter a child is, the more successful he’ll be. They assume that gifted kids will have an easier time in school. They think they’re more rational than other kids. In fact, having a gifted child sounds like something you’d brag about to the grandparents or to the neighbors! In truth, however, a gifted child is actually a “special needs” child and most parents of gifted children don’t choose to brag about them because they’re too busy dealing with the challenges they present.

So what do I mean when I say that the gifted child is a “special needs” child? Think for a moment about the Bell Curve. In terms of children and intelligence, you’ll recognize that the vast majority of children fall under the “bell” of the curve. At one end of the curve, however, are the children who have learning issues and delays – things like dyslexia, processing disorders, etc. These are “special needs” children, which simply means that in order to reach their maximum potential, they need well-informed teachers and parents who understand the unique ways in which they learn. They need to have people who will nurture their particular learning styles and support them in overcoming the issues which might otherwise hinder them.

At the other end of the Bell Curve are the gifted children. They, too, are special needs children. While they may, indeed, possess a high IQ, being “gifted” (as opposed to being “very smart”) has more to do with the fact that they think differently from the people who fall under the bell. This does not make them “better than” the typical learner, any more than being on the other end of the curve makes a person “worse than” a typical learner.

The gifted child’s social and emotional characteristics and traits, in addition to their IQ, are part of the “gifted package” so let’s talk about what those look like.

Perhaps the most common trait of the gifted child is asynchronous development. This is also the quality that causes adults to wonder if the child is gifted at all. Asynchronous development basically means “uneven development” and refers to the fact that the social and emotional development of a gifted child lags behind their intellectual development.

As an example, the gifted child may be reading and fully understanding Shakespeare one moment, then falling to pieces the next moment because his Lego tower collapsed. While he can cognitively handle the advanced concepts and language of Elizabethan literature, he cannot emotionally handle the inconvenience of having to rebuild his Lego structure.

In addition to asynchronous development, gifted children possess a mixture of temperamental traits that almost universally confuse and confound the adults around them. Gifted children have been described as excitable, overly sensitive, quick to anger, intense, anxious, or shy. They can swing between being highly rational and highly irrational in a matter of moments. They may experience pain (physical and emotional) more intensely than a typical child. They often have difficulty connecting with their peers, especially when they are younger.

Some people maintain that “all children are gifted” in some way. It’s simply not true. Just as it’s not true that all children are dyslexic in some way, or all children have some sort of auditory processing issue, not all children are gifted. What is true, however, is that all children are unique. All children learn in their own particular way. In a truly just educational system, we wouldn’t teach to the “norm.” Rather, each child would be looked at as an individual and taught in ways that they could learn optimally.

One final thought. As I was writing this, I was reminded by a gifted young person that the word “gifted” is problematic. She said that a lot of parents use it in a masturbatory way – exercising bragging rights and lording it over others who don’t have a “gifted” child. (I actually have always maintained that if you say you have a gifted child with a smile on your face, chances are that your child is very smart, but not actually gifted.) She also reminded me that, like parents of the special needs children at the other end of the Bell Curve, some parents of gifted children moan about how hard it is raising a challenging child.

The word “gifted” should actually be used as a clinical term – a shortcut that allows us to communicate about the package of unique traits and qualities possessed by a small group of children.

Finally, whatever traits and qualities your child possesses should not be used as ‘bragging rights.” You should never compare your child with someone else’s in some sort of artificially constructed hierarchy. Likewise, you should not "beat your breast” about the hard road you have as a parent raising a particularly challenging child. All children deserve to be respected and valued for who they are – no matter what their "package" looks like and no matter where they fall on the Bell Curve.