About That Gifted Word

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Do you use the "g" word? Deciding whether or not to use it is like entering a mine field. You never know if you're going to step on a mine or not. But you do have to get through the field. Some people use the word cautiously, wary that they'll step a mine and it will blow up. Others use it defiantly, daring a mine to blow up. And yet others refuse to use the "g" word, knowing the negative effect it might have on the listener and even believing that the word is just the wrong word to use.

However, it is the word, rightly or wrongly, that has been used to describe children with a specific set of traits.

First Uses of the Word "Gifted"

The word "gifted" has been used for centuries to refer to a person who has a special talent. According to the English Oxford Dictionary, its first use in this sense occurred in 1644 in the minutes of the "Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines While Engaged in Preparing Their Directory for Church Government, Confession of Faith, and Catechism."

It wasn't until 1869 that the word "gifted" was used in reference to children. It was an extension of the reference to gifted adults as those with a special talent. Francis Galton is the one who first said that children could inherit the potential to become gifted adults and those children are the ones he called "gifted children." In the early 1900s, Lewis Terman added high IQ to the mix, specifying that gifted children were those with IQs of 140 and up and in 1926, Leta Hollingsworth published Gifted Children, Their Nature and Nurture, in which she claimed that while the potential to be gifted was inherited, children needed to be nurtured both at home and at school for that potential to be realized.

The term has been used for children with specific traits ever since, although the gifted community has yet to develop a single unifying definition of the term "gifted" that everyone is happy with.

The Problem With the Term "Gifted"

The word "gifted" today carries with it some negative connotations when it's used to describe children.

It no longer simply means one with a special ability or talent or the potential for a special ability or talent. Now it means a child who has received a "gift," a gift that provides him with advantages other children don't have, unfair advantages because the child hasn't worked for them.

When many people hear the word "gifted," they think about that "unfair" advantage. They don't think about the child or his needs. In fact, they don't always think the gifted child has any needs. That's why we'll hear that "gifted kids will do just fine on their own." Or some people might think that "all children are gifted," which leads to the same place - no special accommodations for gifted kids. After all, if all kids are gifted, there is no need to provide special services for anyone.

This misunderstanding of giftedness is bad enough, but the word "gifted" elicits additional negative attitudes when parents refer to their child as gifted. These parents are often greeted with the look that suggests these parents are one of "those" parents, the ones who think their child is better than anyone else. They are just pushing their child, forcing him to give up his childhood in order to gain "bragging points" to use with other parents.

Yes, there are problems with the term "gifted." But is the solution to use a different term?

The Problem With Using Other Words

The term "gifted" itself is not the problem. It's the baggage it carries with it. That baggage, however, is not going to disappear if we substitute another term for "gifted." What will happen is that the new term will simply pick up that baggage and continue carrying it around. In other words, it's not the term that is the issue; it's the concept to which the word refers. We could coin a completely new word, and before long, it will elicit the same emotions. Until we change the way people view gifted children until we eliminate the stereotypes people hold and the myths they cling to, whatever word we use will eventually have the same connotations.

Another problem with other terms is that they don't always cover all the aspects of giftedness. For example, we can use the term "high ability," but that term leaves out consideration of other traits of gifted kids, traits like intense sensitivities. It turns gifted children into kids with abilities. They are more than what they can do, or even what they are capable of doing. In addition, if gifted children are those with high ability, how do we measure that ability? By what they achieve?  When we divorce ability from the rest of the traits of gifted children, that's too easy a temptation. But achievement alone should never be used to identify gifted kids.

Where Does That Leave Us? How Do We Talk About Our Kids?

When we want - or more likely need - to talk about our gifted children, we may feel the need to use the "g" word. Some of us use the word proudly and even defiantly, essentially daring someone to have a problem with it. Others use it cautiously, fearful of yet another negative reaction. And a few of us are almost embarrassed to use it, seemingly buying into the notion that giftedness is some kind of unfair gift. How dare we ask for "special" services for our child when other kids are struggling?

The truth is that it really doesn't matter whether you use it or how you use it. If the person you are talking to understands gifted kids, the word itself isn't a problem. If, however, the person you're talking to doesn't understand gifted kids, you're going to have a hard time convincing them that your child has special needs, too, and that those needs deserve to be met.