Talking about Giftedness:The Elephant in the Room
By Nancy M. Robinson, Ph.D.
One of the special advantages of SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) conferences is the fact that parents and kids can talk about giftedness without fear of being misunderstood, or worse, teased or belittled. Being with others who are equally relieved at not having to wend their way among the contradictory social rules and unspoken accusations is a pleasure. Let’s face it: Most of us are uncomfortable talking about our gifted children. We’re even more uncomfortable discussing with our children how to talk about themselves. In some ways, it’s more fearsome than the birds-and-bees talk, but just as important.
Generally, as gifted youngsters mature, they do come to appreciate the diverse abilities of others. For the most part, though, their environments are not well designed to give them such appreciation. If they are always the quickest to catch onto a new idea; if the whole day seems, as one of my students described it, “like a six-hour slow-motion movie;” if their friends don’t “get” their language or their jokes, then how are they to learn this valuable lesson? Or, indeed, not secretly suspect that they are some kind of alien child who mistakenly landed on this planet?
You may be surprised to discover how your child sees the world. My husband and I were “in the business of giftedness,” with our children attending a perfectly fine neighborhood school that practiced some differentiation even in pre-gifted-education days. When finally we took our youngest, a fifth-grader, to visit an independent school for gifted students, she came out after only an hour and said, so sadly, “Why didn’t you ever tell me there were other kids like me?” Thinking of it, 37 years later, still hurts.
Handling Matters with Other Adults
Before we broach matters with our children, it helps to think through our own responses to remarks such as, “Where’d you get that little Picasso?” or “What a genius she is!” You’ve probably also been accused of “overestimating” or “pushing” your children or “robbing them of their childhood,” when you sign them up for advanced learning opportunities. No “normal parent” would do that! We all know that being the parents of bright children – even more, being parents of super-bright children – is a mixed bag. Of course there are great joys, and of course we are proud of them, but we are also probably wearier, poorer, and more sleep-deprived than we would be were our children more typical. Try some of the following:
“Thank you.” (It’s surprising how often this is all you need.)
“She’s a lot of fun to be around. I am lucky.”
“Sometimes he does seem older, but at other times he seems like half his age.”
“It’s a pleasure to watch how he lights up in that science class.”
“She certainly has to work harder in that (music, art, writing, math…) class, and sometimes she gets really frustrated because she wants to get everything just right.”
“We do put in a lot of time going to swim meets…at the library…looking for plants for his collection…trekking to youth symphony rehearsals and concerts… and finding special times for her sisters and brothers as well.”
“It may look like pushing, but we are really running to keep up with him.”
Talking to Your Children
Once you have yourself in hand, it’s easier to discuss the issues with your kids. They need a chance to come to terms with who they are, how they are different and how very like their classmates they are, and what to do when they encounter the inevitable labels, misconceptions, and even insults. You may be dismayed to hear some of the stories they tell you when you ask.
First, they need a realistic appraisal of how bright they really are and in what areas (seldom are people equally advanced across the board). Moderately advanced? It may not be too difficult to find others who share their interests and talents, increasingly easy as they grow older and go to larger schools. Off-scale? This one is harder, since differentness permeates so many aspects of their lives, and others like themselves are rarer. It helps to understand the range of abilities that exist in the world (a little diagram of the normal curve may help) and to be reassured that, as time goes by, their choices will broaden.
Anticipating uncomfortable scenarios can be very useful, maybe accompanied by a bit of role-playing.
What are some ways to handle the following?
“How’d you get so smart?”
“I don’t like all your big words.”
“How can you like math so much? I think it’s boring.”
Here are some ideas for formulating alternative responses:
Simply acknowledge the fact that you are a good learner: “Some things do seem to come a little more easily.” (“A little bit” is handy, as in, “Sometimes I wish things would move a little bit faster.”)
Being smart is only one way of being different.
Emphasize interest over ability: “Extra credit projects let me pick something I’m really interested in.”
Be specific about what you find harder and easier: “Sometimes it’s harder to get a paper started than to write it.”
Acknowledge your hard work, even if it doesn’t show: “I read a lot for that project because I got more and more into it.” “All that time I put into learning to type really helps when I write things.”
Acknowledge that every choice has positives and negatives: “I do miss having more neighborhood friends but this program really fits me better.” “Being younger than my classmates has some drawbacks, but I really love the class.”
In time, they will develop a healthy sense of self and be comfortable in their own skin and be able to communicate that!
Nancy M. Robinson is professor emerita of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington and former director of what is now known as the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars, established in 1975 by her late husband. The Center is best known for its two pioneering programs of early entrance to college but offers summer and other opportunities as well. Her research interests in giftedness have focused on marked academic acceleration to college, adjustment issues of gifted children, intellectual assessment, and verbal and mathematical precocity in very young children. She has consulted for more than 25 years with the U.S. State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools. She received the 1998 National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Distinguished Scholar Award and the 2007 NAGC Ann Isaacs Founders Memorial Award.