Telling Kids They're Gifted

Why We Should Do It

Mother and Daughter Talking
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One issue that comes up often when gifted children are being discussed is the issue of whether or not to tell kids they are gifted. I come down on the side that says we should tell our children about their giftedness. However, that means not simply telling them how smart they are, but having a discussion about what giftedness is and how it affects us.

Why Kids Need to Know

An article by Cat Robson, Surprised to be gifted: the inner world of unrecognized giftedness, illustrates the reason we should not just slap the label "gifted" on our children, but explain to them what it means.

Cat tells us that she had been labeled as gifted and had been in gifted programs in school. But she also tells us that she suffered from a mid-life crisis from the time she was 15. Here is one of the reasons she gives for her suffering:

"I’d never realized that my pure love of learning and being challenged, for its own sake, made me different. I assumed it was the norm and that the norm was that everyone set that aside and accepted specialization and the inevitable full-time job without much complaint. But then I was struck by the simultaneous recognition that I must be somehow outside the norm for my utter unwillingness to conform to that."

That one struck me because it mirrors exactly how I felt growing up. I wasn't identified as gifted, but I was told, more often than I care to remember, about my "potential." Later the discussion was more about how I wasn't living up to my potential, and eventually the teachers just gave up on me and left me alone, which was fine with me.

Gifted kids think that they way they are, how they think and how they feel, is the way everyone thinks and feels. It is often confusing and upsetting when they see that the other kids aren't quite the same. My son was like this, too. He absolutely loved everything about space and the universe and was genuinely puzzled that the other kindergartners in his class didn't want to talk endlessly about space and constellations.

It doesn't take long for gifted kids to figure out that they are different and it matters how they see that difference. When it became clear to me that my son was having a hard time understanding the other kids' reactions to his interests and believed that it was his fault, that there was something "wrong" with him, I decided he needed to understand why. That's when I talked to him about giftedness.

Praise Versus Explanations

Cat said something about praise, too:

"I never comprehended being praised (or considered gifted) for being my very regular self, for feeling downright average. This led to few options: a total distrust of praise; then a distrust of myself for not fulfilling the expectations put forth by the praise (am I supposed to be smart and successful? What the hell is wrong then, because I just feel normal.) Everything became wrapped up in second-guessing and self-doubt."

Much of the opposition to telling gifted kids they are gifted involves the idea of praising them for simply being who they are.

I agree that that's a bad idea. It's like praising someone for having blue eyes. Talking to gifted children, though, about their giftedness, is not the same as praising them for being smart. Notice that Cat says she didn't understand the praise. Young gifted children don't understand that people are different. To them, what they are is the norm. If they are fascinated by outer space, then everyone is fascinated by outer space. If reading is easy for them, then reading is easy for everyone.

That's where the confusion comes from. Gifted kids do eventually realize that everyone isn't the same, but that doesn't mean that they understand what makes them different. They still feel "normal." So why are they getting praised? Some kids react the other way and begin to think they are better than the other kids because they are smart and can grasp concepts faster than the other kids in the class. However, that is not the typical reaction kids have to baseless praise, just the most obvious and unpleasant one.

Like all kids, gifted children need praise for effort - not for good grades alone - but for the effort they put forth to attain the grades. This is sometimes a problem because many gifted kids don't have to put forth much effort to get those good grades. Praising good grades that are earned with little to no effort is the same as praising a child for being gifted.

Long Term Effects

Cat has a lot more to say about herself as a gifted person, including her continuing struggle with fitting in and with the notion of existential depression. Whether or not a child has been identified as gifted, the long-term effects of being gifted can be harmful. Not all gifted children experience these problems, but do we really want any of them to experience these problems if we can prevent them? One of the best lines in Cat's article reflects exactly what I felt when I began learning about giftedness as I tried to understand my obviously gifted child. I realized that I was one of those children who had felt misunderstood and isolated, who didn't fit in.

I had my epiphany while reading the book Parents' Guide to Raising a Gifted Child: Recognizing and Developing Your Child's Potential by James Alvino. I remember having a similar reaction to the one Cat had after she read "Can You Hear the Flowers Sing? Issues for Gifted Adults." She said, "Holy moly, mother of Toledo!  You mean there are ramifications for giftedness? You mean it wasn’t a mis-characterization all along? and that somebody else figured out that the road was bumpy? Somebody understands! And I’m not the only one?!"

No, we are not alone. And I believe that it is important for our children to understand that they are not alone, that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are who they are and that's okay.

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