The G-Word: giftedness in kids and adults

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I have a confession to make. Despite being part of the gifted homeschooling forum blogging community, agreeing to teach an online class for them, and now participating in a Hoagie’s Gifted blog-hop,  I’ve been hesitant about using that word “gifted,” scared to claim it for fear of being found out as a fraud and/or criticized as elitist or egotistical. I envy those who use the term with more self-confidence than I have, who have not let disparaging comments about gifted programs being a special club for upper middle class students sink in.

I identify as gifted and I suspect my kids are too. And I think I need to talk about it a bit more, because really, giftedness isn’t just a good thing. It’s not just “a gift” and talking about it doesn’t correlate to bragging. Giftedness can put a person at odds with the world around them, leaving them feeling out of sync.

I remember the time when I was about 18 years old when someone finally suggested the term to me – someone said I was probably gifted, and suddenly my sense of difference from those around me made more sense. Gifted. I think differently. For a little while I read everything I could about giftedness, about moral sensitivity on the part of gifted people, and about gifted adults. I remember realizing that I felt ashamed of my university marks, because I had to hide them from my friends and they celebrated the marks they had worked so hard to get and I didn’t want to ruin that. I remember the language of “giftedness” helping me deal with the guilt and shame I felt at thinking of some people as smarter than others – there’s such a taboo to doing that, and yet one cannot help doing that at times, and so saying, hey, some people are gifted, it doesn’t make them better or worse just different felt like a relief. Why should intellectual differences be denied when we are willing to acknowledge people having different abilities to play sports or be musical? There’s a wonderful post expanding on the theme of we accept gifted athletes, why not accept intellectually gifted people?

A gifted man I know didn’t have the same hesitation or confusion growing up, just accepting himself as a nerd and know-it-all who constantly amazes people around him by his knowledge. I wonder the extent to which my own confusion about it comes from the social pressures upon women to fit in and more significantly to be ever kind and nonjudgemental. As a professional in his field he enjoys the chance to mentor others and his knowing things isn’t taken as a bad thing. I envy that type of acceptance.

I finished university. I dropped out of working on a second degree so that I could have kids. I’ve never worked a full time long-term job. I don’t have professional qualifications. Despite knowing that giftedness is about who a person is not about what a person accomplishes, I can’t help wondering, how does one remain a gifted adult when one spends all day listening to little children? What does intellectual abilities matter? It doesn’t, except for the strange lingering loneliness of knowing that my interests are not necessarily shared by many around. The loneliness shows up in blogging too, as I attempt to network with other blogs but lack the academic background to be an academic/professional blogger, while my blog doesn’t exactly fit into the crafts-recipes-pictures of many lifestyle mother-bloggers either. Lacking professional qualifications its easy to slip into questioning my own abilities, wondering whether “gifted” was a mistaken identity and perhaps I just exhibit the Dunning-Krueger effect believing myself more knowledgeable than I am. (Really people, I know I know very little – I always crave to know more, I want so much to keep learning.)

Life continues and after a brief time of really identifying as gifted in university I let thoughts of giftedness slide until I became a parent and started to suspect my children were gifted too. They haven’t been tested, so I don’t know for sure. I rely on little things like the comments of professions who suggested they should be tested for giftedness, and my own observations. I’ve seen things like the four year old who could build a Lego vehicle and claim its searching on mars for signs of DNA, but that the DNA might not just have the four base pairs but also a different mars-specific base-pair (an idea he came up with on his own). Or the nine year old who could pass a grade seven math test and read a university level philosophy book. My second child taught himself to read and write. Why won’t I claim gifted as a word to describe them?

I think back to the challenges. My oldest child spoke to me recently about how happily his younger sister climbs the rock hill behind our house, and he said, “Because I didn’t have other children to chatter with, I faced the hill with grim determination.” The statement seems so typical of him, so real to his experience, and it wasn’t that I didn’t try to find him other children to play with. I remember all the times at play-places where he would have marched up to a little child his own age, introduced himself and attempted to recruit the child to play, only to have the parent point out that the child didn’t speak (much). As a preschool aged child he became an expert of recruiting parents in the playgrounds to help him build forts and such but kids his own age seemed slow and useless to him. For a couple of wonderful years his best friend was a child four years older than him. They would ride their bikes in circles outside making up long complicated stories, and he still talks of how hard it was when she moved away. He has other kids he plays with some, and now his brother and sister, but its me he wants to play with, because I’m the one willing to try to make a game out taking certain stock characters from books or television shows and exploring how they might interact if put into a different circumstance or combined with different stories. Of children his own age he says to frequently that they want to play with toys and not with him.

Giftedness can mean asynchronous development. A child can seem so bright and intelligent until its time to say goodbye and then he melts into a puddle of rage more suited for one half his age. He feels strongly but doesn’t know what to do with his feelings. Perfectionism can be a huge problem when a child is able to see and understand their own imperfections without having the experience and maturity to accept mistakes whether they be poor choices in behavior or slips of the pencil in drawing. I see in one of my kids some challenges of perfectionism with his ability to write not keeping up with his thinking. Their keen minds take note of unfairness details but have difficulties with understanding that certain times unfairness is inevitable.

Sometimes with parents and homeschoolers people speak as though education is a race. Is your child further along or is mine? And other times we counter that with words about how childhood isn’t a race and we shouldn’t push our kids. And neither of those ideas is helpful for a parent of a gifted child. Friendly competition can to easily lead to needing to hide where a child truly is, like I hid my marks at university, for the sake of others. Yet making not learning into a virtue doesn’t work either.

I struggle homeschooling with the question of whether I should continue to insist on schoolwork the times when the kids don’t want to do schoolwork. I know some who would say I should just relax. My kids are bright, they know everything they need to know at their age, and yet I do insist that they do schoolwork four or five days a week anyway. Why? Partly I try to bring their other abilities up to where their quick ones are. Partly I want them to develop habits of working, and of persistence. With children for whom many things come incredibly easy, I want them to know that its okay to struggle with the things that don’t come easy. Just because something takes two or three tries doesn’t mean that something is too hard.

Why talk of giftedness? I can think of several reasons to. One is this post by Celi Trépanier at Crushing Tall Poppies, where she talks about a mother’s hesitancy to acknowledge the child’s giftedness leading to the mother being less prepared to help her child with the challenges it brings. I want to write more and be more open about acknowledging the reality of giftedness so that I can come to terms with what it means for my kids and how I can help them through it. I want to help them with accepting themselves and others, with knowing it is okay to be different.

I want to write about giftedness because the bloggers at the Gifted Homeschooling Forum have been so incredibly supportive of me, and I want to be a better advocate for gifted education. I’m doing my best to give my gifted children an education that meets their needs – their needs both to be challenged and exposed to great ideas and to be silly and playful like children. I should more clearly reject the notion that giftedness is something to be embarrassed about to be supportive of those who are struggling to find ways to get their kids the education they need – and so that I can more freely claim the help from others in understanding what it means to have gifted kids.

Another reason is for myself, so I can think again about what it means for me to be a gifted adult at home with my children. I love a post by Pamela Price about whether a woman can have a statisfying creative life while homeschooling her kids and how it talks about the gifts we share with our children, teaching them. Yet at the same time I can relate to a post by Rebecca Pickens about how tempting it is to let our own interests take over the lessons overshadowing the kids. There has to be some balance. I know its important for me to keep my own interests, my own outlets for my creativity besides just homeschooling.

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  • Nadine

    It is REALLY early in my day and I have just started my first coffee, so I’m going to give this post another read-through. But I just wanted to say two things very quickly:

    1 – GIftedness, I believe, needs to be nurtured and ‘practiced’. I was highly gifted as a child. My family wanted me to just have a “normal childhood” and so my giftedness was never really brought up. I was, and they found subtle ways for me to be challenged at school. But in real life it was never really ‘encouraged’ or brought into the light of our day to day life. And now, I haven’t managed to complete my post-sec, I can’t seem to find the determination to do it now that I’m homeschooling my own two kids. I am still ‘gifted’ I’m sure, but I don’t feel very much so. I truly think that I lost some of the drive and subsequently fell out of practice. Not sure that makes sense, but I do think that giftedness can change and morph over time.

    2 – In terms of your kids. If they are gifted, own it and encourage it and don’t “let go” of helping them drive through it and challenge themselves. I know that by people saying to ME as a child “oh dont worry” about my schoolwork (or saying it to my parents who then relayed that back to me) simply made me feel like I didn’t have to work at anything, ever. Which came back to bite me big time in the long run.

    Okay I have more, I’m sure. I will come back to this. I find it fascinating really, how we ‘treat’ giftedness in children. And in a few different areas I have lived in, I see distinct differences in how adults regard gifted children. I have issues with the word itself, gifted. But have a hard time putting those into words. I will come back to this though 🙂 Great post!

    • Christy K

      Thanks for the comment! I was still soundly asleep when you wrote it – I had the blog post scheduled to come out in the early hours of the morning but I’m really quite slow at getting up.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the word gifted.

    • Anita

      That happened to me as well. Over time. I read this article and thought I have “g” kids and I and then I have a “G” kid. In a Gifted Homeschoolers Group on FB to keep up with ideas to keep them going and they use fancy names for “G.” I’ve never dealt with it because my parents never wanted me to know my IQ and I MOST DEFINITELY do not want the “G” kid to know hers. Why? She’s bipolar and OCD and a bunch of other stuff and frankly the stress of watching her trying to over accomplish things is bad enough on me as it is her. My “G” kid skipped a grade. My “G” kid is double graduating this year at 17 with a HS diploma and an Associates in General Studies. My “G” kid did phenomenally well on testing and was smart enough to listen to me to “Show me the Money” for scholarships and did so. Now those are proud points as well as bragging points. But if you don’t encourage, push, cajole and offer up things to explore “G” kids will become simply “g” or even “normal” kids. We are trying to get her to slow her chosen fast track down for college. Nope, not gonna happen. She’ll probably graduate at 20 with a double major but she feels she’s behind. Time for more therapy for my “G” kid. There has to be a balance with these kids and young adults because if there isn’t they will crash and burn and HARD. I’ve seen it over and over again. The flip side is if you don’t get them going they will never ever really fly and explore their potential either. It’s a Catch 22 at times.

      • Christy K

        Finding the balance is sometimes tricky, isn’t it? I don’t want my kids to feel they have to accomplish lots, partly because accomplishment is such a subjective idea, and what is promoted as an accomplishment in society isn’t necessarily a good thing. But I want them to keep learning.

  • Amy

    I really relate to this post. I am struggling with challenging my 5th grade gifted son as well as my 2nd grade gifted son. I am unsure where my 2nd grade daughter falls in comparison but my sons are definitely different than their classmates. I have advocated for gifted programs in the district but they are insufficient for my sons’ needs. The curriculum coordinator seemed turned off by the G word. I often wonder if I should home school. I continue to supplement their education at home but wonder if I am doing enough. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Christy K

      Your mention of your sons being different than their classmates but not your daughter makes me curious… curious because one of my theories is that society in general pressures girls to fit in more, and not different. So without knowing anything really about your daughter, I am inclined to wonder if she would just be more skilled at pretending.

  • Minnie

    Thank you for writing this post. I found it very honest and identified with so many of your experiences, both as a gifted person and parent of a gifted child (I suspect my second child also is but hasn’t been officially identified as such). So you see, we all have our issues surrounding the term gifted. I won’t say my daughter is gifted only because she hasn’t taken the test yet, but I see so many signs that she is definitely a gifted child.

    I’ve known I was gifted since I was in fifth grade, however, I didn’t know until last year when my son was tested for the gifted program that giftedness entailed more than a higher capacity for learning. I’ve spent the past year educating myself on all the issues surrounding giftedness, at first so that I can be a better advocate for my kids’ education, but now to make sure that I maximize their ability to reach their full potential in life and also my own. It makes me sad now that I see, how at certain points in my life, I allowed my perfectionism to sabotage my efforts to do well in life. I have a successful career and did well enough in school to finish my degree, but I made many mistakes along the way. I’m hoping to use my experiences and newfound knowledge to lead a better path for my kids and to find better strategies to deal with the negative parts of being gifted myself.

    I am also finding the courage to speak up about the need for the U.S. educational system (starting with my own little corner of the world!) to better address the needs of gifted students. Your post helped further inspire me to continue on this mission. Best of luck to you and thanks again.

  • Christy

    One of my classmates referred to those of us in the gifted pull-out as “The kids who are too smart for their own good.” I think he was on to something, and I owe much to that pull-out teacher.

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