Social Development of the Gifted
By Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D.
Socialization means adapting to the needs of the group, whereas social development indicates positive self-concept and concern for the welfare of others. The former may result in alienation from one’s inner self, while the latter leads to self-actualization. Gifted children have positive social development when they are respected in their families; when their parents value the inherent worth of all human beings; when they find true peers of similar ability at an early age; and when they interact with the mainstream after they have developed a strong sense of their own acceptability.
Social Development vs. Socialization
There has been a remarkable prioritization in American education on the process of socialization. This emphasis has intensified in the last two decades at the expense of learning, particularly in middle school philosophy. Students who love learning the most, and who are capable of learning the fastest, are the ones who have paid the highest price for this agenda.
It is generally assumed that unless the gifted are grouped with students of diverse abilities, they will “never learn to get along with others.” Therefore, all provisions for gifted students—ability grouping, acceleration, pull-out programs, full day programs, special schools, homeschooling—are held suspect on the grounds that they will “seriously interfere with social adjustment.” Contrary to popular beliefs, an immense amount of research accumulated over the last century indicates that gifted children tend to enjoy greater popularity, greater social competence, more mature social relations, earlier psychological maturity, and fewer indications of psychological problems than their less gifted peers (Silverman, 1993, 2013). Almost all of this research was conducted with students involved with special provisions, such as acceleration or special classes. Clearly, socialization does not suffer when special provisions are made for these students’ learning needs. There is no evidence that regular classroom placement enhances the socialization of gifted students to a greater degree than grouping them for instruction with others of similar abilities, level of mastery, and readiness to learn advanced content.
Terms such as socialization and social development are used interchangeably in the gifted education literature, but these actually are very different concepts. Socialization is defined as adapting to the common needs of the social group (Webster, 1979, p. 1723) or acquiring “the beliefs, behaviors, and values deemed significant and appropriate by other members of society” (Shaffer, 1988, p. 2). Gifted youth do have the inclination to adapt to the group, but at what price? If one works very hard at fitting in with others, especially when one feels very different from others, self-alienation can result. In their desperation to belong, many “well-adjusted” gifted youth and adults have given up or lost touch with vital parts of themselves.
Social development is a much broader concept than socialization; it may be thought of as awareness of socially acceptable behavior, enjoyment of other people, concern for humanity and the development of mutually rewarding relationships with at least a few kindred spirits. Lasting friendships are based on mutual interests and values, not on age. Self-acceptance is a related goal, as people who like themselves are more capable of liking others. When framed in this way, social development becomes a precursor to self-actualization, whereas socialization is merely the desire to conform, which may inhibit self-actualization. If the aim for gifted young people is social development rather than socialization, they need to be provided with true peers who are their intellectual equals, a program of humanitarian studies to enhance their awareness of global interdependence, and counseling for greater understanding, acceptance and appreciation of themselves as well as of others.
The Foundation of Social Development
A parent who had just learned that her son was exceptionally gifted remarked fearfully, “But I want my child to be a good neighbor!” She was worried that if her son was placed in a school or self-contained program for the gifted, he would not be able to get along with anyone except other gifted children. His IQ score was beyond the norms in the manual, estimated in excess of 170. His parents were not prepared for their son to be this bright; his mother wanted more than anything for him to lead a “normal life.”
For this child’s parents, as for so many other children’s, “being normal” means having the ability to get along with people from all walks of life. This is an important value for most people, particularly parents of the gifted. How does a gifted child learn to do this? There appear to be four key factors involved in gifted children’s social development:
a responsive home environment in which the child is respected;
parental respect for individuals of all backgrounds and socio-economic status;
opportunities to relate to other gifted children—particularly during the early years, when self-concept is being formed;
opportunities to relate to the mainstream during adolescence.
Children are sponges, absorbing all that their environments have to offer—language patterns, attitudes, values, impressions of themselves. They usually begin life trusting, affectionate, exhilarated with each new discovery. If children are cherished by their parents, they come to cherish themselves and feel secure. A child whose ideas and needs are respected at home is likely to respect the needs of other children. Children also imitate the way their parents talk about and act toward others. When parents genuinely appreciate people of all backgrounds and abilities, their children usually do the same.
Due to their expert ability to pick up social cues, girls are better than boys at imitation. Therefore, it is important for them to be in an environment where imitation is conducive to growth. If they live in a home filled with kindness, they learn to be kind. If they live next door to children who call each other names, they learn how to swear. And if a girl who is mentally eight years old is placed in a kindergarten with only five year olds, she will imitate the behavior of five year olds.
Many gifted children receive a good foundation for self-esteem within their families. Then something happens: they meet other children. By the age of five or six, openness and confidence are frequently replaced with self-doubt and layers of protective defenses. Being different is a problem in childhood. Young children—even gifted ones—do not have the capacity to comprehend differences. They have difficulty understanding why other children do not talk like them or respond to their friendship in a predictable manner. They equate differentness with being “strange” or unacceptable, and this becomes the basis of their self-concept. It’s difficult for a child who has been wounded continuously by peers to feel generosity toward others. It takes positive experiences with children like themselves to build the self-confidence needed for healthy peer relations. Later, when their self-concepts are fully formed, they are better equipped to understand differences, to put negative feedback of age peers in perspective, and to gain appreciation of the diversity of their classmates. But acceptance precedes positive social values.
Children only learn to love others when they have achieved self-love. The process usually involves the following stages:
(2) finding kindred spirits;
(3) feeling understood and accepted by others;
(5) recognition of the differences in others; and, eventually,
(6) the development of understanding, acceptance and appreciation of others.
Self-awareness includes being aware of how one is like others and how one is different from others. Gifted children are, in fact, different from their age-mates in many ways. They tend to be ashamed of these differences and try to hide them unless they find kindred spirits early in life. These kindred spirits help normalize their experiences and provide the safety for them to be who they really are. They provide the acceptance, understanding, and give and take on an equal basis that is required for true, lasting friendships to develop. When children find friends who accept them they become able to accept themselves. From this strong foundation, they can see how others are different from themselves without needing to imitate the norm.
When a solid base of self-esteem is developed in early childhood, gifted students are better equipped to branch out and make friends with others who are unlike themselves. Adolescence is developmentally the most appropriate stage for these widening horizons of social interaction. Gifted adolescents select their closest friends from among their mental peers, but they can also participate in team sports, band, extra-curricular clubs, church and community activities, and social events in which they have opportunities to interact with students who have a wide range of abilities. With a support system of gifted friends and classmates, they can join in other groups without fear of rejection, and they are more likely to gain respect and assume leadership positions.
Stages of Friendship
Early childhood educators generally hold the belief that children are only capable of socializing with others close to their age. They receive no training about the advanced development of gifted children or the fact that they play best with older children. As the concept of mental age has been abandoned in psychology, there is little awareness that gifted children’s friendship patterns and social conceptions are more related to their mental age than their chronological age (Gross, 2009).
Miraca Gross (2009) proposed a model of age-related stages in the development of expectations about friendship; at each stage, the degree of conceptual complexity increases:
Stage 1. “Play Partner”: A friend is a playmate who shares toys.
Stage 2. “People to chat to”: Shared interests take the place of shared activities.
Stage 3. “Help and encouragement”: A friend is someone who offers assistance and support, but the child does not see the need to reciprocate.
Stage 4. “Intimacy/empathy”: True reciprocity develops, along with affection, bonding, emotional sharing and intimacy.
Stage 5. “The sure shelter”: Faithful friends develop deep and lasting relationships involving trust and unconditional acceptance. (pp. 343-344)
Gross conducted studies of the conceptions of friendship held by average, moderately gifted, exceptionally gifted and profoundly gifted children. She found strong correlations between intellectual development (mental age) and conceptions of friendship. Differences between gifted and average samples were much greater in the preschool and primary years than in the later years of elementary school. Significant differences were even observed between exceptionally and profoundly gifted children.
Some profoundly gifted children in the early years of school had expectations of friendship that normally do not appear until the years of early adolescence. These children face almost insurmountable difficulties in their search for friendship, at an age when most children view a friend as a companion for casual play. …
This study suggests that it is in the lower, rather than the upper, grades that placement with chronological peers, without regard to intellectual ability or emotional maturity, is more likely to result in the gifted child experiencing loneliness or social isolation. (Gross, 2009, p. 344).
Opportunities to relate to gifted peers in the early, formative years lay the foundation for positive social development.
Though no longer popular, mental age puts in perspective the advanced development of gifted children and helps parents and teachers understand their needs. Mental age predicts:
the sophistication of the child’s play,
the age of true peers,
maturity of the child’s sense of humor,
awareness of the world.
A five-year-old boy who thinks like an eight year old will be more interested in chess, Monopoly, and more sophisticated games than activities that are of interest to children his age. Young gifted boys appear to have greater difficulty than girls relating to children who are not at their own developmental level. They think the games of average children are “silly,” “babyish.”
Average five year olds are not yet ready to grasp the concept of rules. They exclaim, “I win!” after each game. That’s the whole point of playing for them. A gifted five year old with a mental age of eight comprehends rules, and is probably rule bound, which is typical for eight year olds. The average child and the gifted child are at two different stages of intellectual development. When the average child squeals, “I win!” the gifted child retorts, “He cheats! I’m not playing with him anymore.” Gifted preschool and primary children relate much more easily to children who are similarly advanced or to older children who are close to their mental age.
Gender Differences in Socialization
Young gifted children may shut down emotionally if they cannot connect with the others in their class. By the age of five or six, once-confident gifted children may be filled with self-doubt and have acquired cumulative layers of protective defenses. They may try to imitate others their age, hiding their true selves, or they may withdraw. They notice how different they are from others their age and they begin to feel “strange” and unacceptable. Parents report that their buoyant, confident, exuberant toddler gradually becomes subdued and uncertain during the preschool and primary years. One parent wrote:
Alice is doing all she can to blend in and not stand out as different. She does not ask all the questions she used to. Alice is not the same person she was before she started going to school. Before she started kindergarten she had an insatiable quest for more knowledge. We are concerned because we think she is a bright child who is turning off.
Profoundly gifted preschoolers are bewildered by the mismatch between their interests and those of their classmates. Antoine’s teacher discouraged him from bringing his favorite video, the ballet of “The Nutcracker Suite,” to share with the other three year olds. When he was four, he made a model of Mars for Show and Tell, and the following week he discussed black holes, implosion and explosion. He couldn’t understand why his classmates weren’t interested.
Alice and Antoine exemplify the gender differences observed in social responses of young gifted girls and boys. Alice sought to blend in with other children her age. Her need for affiliation triumphed over her intellectual curiosity. She readily stopped asking questions and slowed down her natural learning trajectory in order to have friends. Antoine pursued his desire for knowledge at the expense of social connection. Undaunted by his classmates’ indifference to the two moons of Mars, Antoine followed up with a dissertation on black holes. Staying true to himself, Antoine chose his need to learn over his need for friends, and eventually insisted that his mother homeschool him.
Because they refuse to sacrifice who they are for the good of the group, gifted boys are considered poorly socialized. By way of contrast, gifted girls are socially adapted at the expense of their giftedness (Kerr, 1994). Gifted girls are chameleons. They have enhanced ability to perceive social cues, making it easier for them to modify their behavior to fit into a group. They frequently don the mental attire of the other girls in their class, and soon become imperceptible from them. They receive daily practice in sliding by without stretching themselves, hiding who they are to make everyone else comfortable, and being less than they are capable of being. Eventually, they trade their dreams for simpler, less demanding goals.
The antidote is early contact with others like themselves. Girls who have a gifted peer group in a context that supports diversity do not hide their abilities (Eddles-Hirsch, Vialle, McCormick & K. Rogers, 2012). Gifted peers normalize boys’ and girls’ experience and they do not come to see themselves as “weird.” They make friends easily with others with similar interests, values, vocabularies, and levels of development. Interaction with true peers who are mental equals facilitates social development and prevents social isolation.
It is particularly critical for gifted girls to associate with mental peers early in life. Without the encouragement of the social group to develop their talents, much of their ability may be permanently lost. The amount of waste of talent from atrophy and lack of development is incalculable. Since life goals and attitudes toward achievement are often formed before school-age, the earlier positive intervention occurs, the more likely that girls will be able to value and develop their intellectual capabilities without loss of social status.
Children who have early contact with others like themselves do not come to see themselves as different or “weird.” They are able to make friends easily with others who think and feel like they do, who communicate on their level and share their interests. Association with true peers prevents alienation. “The word peer refers to individuals who can interact on an equal plane around issues of common interest” (Roedell, 1989, p. 25). Wendy Roedell, a developmental psychologist who studied the social development of young gifted children, found that getting along with those who are different depends on opportunities to interact with true peers. She suggested that a major function of programs for gifted children is to help them discover their true peers at an early age. “While adaptation is important, gifted young children also need the give-and-take of interactions with others of equal ability, where they can find acceptance and understanding, the keys to the development of successful social skills and positive self-concept” (Roedell, 1989, p. 26).
Similarly, Miraca Gross and her colleagues in Australia note that gifted children who do not have access to others like themselves face a “forced choice” between their intellectual needs and their desire for acceptance by less-advanced classmates (J. Jung, McCormick, & Gross, 2012, p. 15). Gifted preschoolers and kindergarten-aged children define themselves through their first social interactions, and if the gap between their development and that of their playmates is too great, they have difficulty adjusting.
Roedell (1988) reminds us of the essential link between cognitive, social and emotional development:
When parents and teachers understand the implications of the differentness inherent in being gifted, they can create conditions that will support the child’s positive social and emotional growth. The first step is to realize the inextricable link between social and cognitive development... If the child also makes the discovery that communication with classmates is difficult, and that others do not share his/her vocabulary, skills, or interests, peer interactions may prove limited and unsatisfactory. We cannot ignore the gifted child’s need for intellectual stimulation and expect social development to flourish. (pp. 10-11)
There is a pervasive myth that if gifted children are told they are gifted, they will gain “swelled heads” and hold everyone else in disdain. In fact, the opposite is true. Children who are never told about their giftedness often think that they are average, and if they understand something, everyone else should understand it just as well. When gifted children are given the opportunity to discuss as a group what it means to be gifted, they understand themselves better and have greater compassion for others. Gifted children from various parts of the world have shared in such groups that they believe everyone has equal worth, regardless of ability. Giftedness does not mean “better than”; instead, it means “different from.” When these specific differences are talked about, instead of hidden, children develop healthy attitudes about themselves and about others. Many gifted children want to help, want to be of service, and are eager to support others. They do not adopt elitist attitudes unless these are modeled by adults. Being placed in classes with other gifted children curbs arrogance, rather than fostering it. Perhaps for the first time, the child realizes that someone else is more advanced in mathematics, is reading harder books, and knows more about dinosaurs or space. It can be a very humbling experience to a child who thrives on being the “best” in the class.
Gifted children need acceptance and respect from their families. They need parents who truly believe that everyone on the planet is of equal value and worthy of respect. Parents with humanitarian values, who work for the common good, who are involved in community service, will teach through example how to use one’s gifts for the good of all. Gifted children need to find other children like themselves as early as possible so that they feel accepted and understood. This will form the basis of lasting friendships and true social development. They need teachers to look for and develop their strengths, rather than to focus on their weaknesses or equalize their abilities. And they need experience with the mainstream when they have formed a strong enough self-concept so that they are not dependent on acceptance from agemates who might not understand them. Only then will they grow to be healthy, compassionate global citizens.
*This article was adapted from Silverman, L. K. (2000, Winter). Social development in the gifted. MENSA Journal, pp. 31-38, and Silverman, L. K. (2013). Giftedness 101. New York: Springer.