Having a gifted child shouldn’t be aspirational – Anna Spargo-Ryan

Having a gifted child shouldn’t be aspirational

Having a gifted child shouldn’t be aspirational

This bright spark has decided he’s not going to call his child “gifted”. The fact that his child is apparently not gifted doesn’t seem to have factored into this decision, but you know, just in case anyone was wondering, in the event that his child had a brain transplant down the track and became a different child.

I have a gifted child. I also have a not-gifted child. So here’s your first lesson, Christopher: they are both really smart. Off the charts smart. One is gifted. The other one is just regular smart.

Gifted is not “smartest”. It’s a way to label behavioural traits, to assist with learning development and needs analysis.

Identifying a kid as gifted means being able to tackle the issues Scanlon has outlined. Choosing not to label it doesn’t make it disappear. Georgia’s psychologists have told us the opposite: that giving a gifted kid (apparently this also applies to kids on the spectrum) a label can help them to better understand themselves.

Here’s what a gifted child might demonstrate:

  • Advanced language skills, extensive vocabulary
  • Rapid learning rate/need for stimulation
  • Excellent memory/attention to detail
  • Good problem solving, abstract reasoning, intellectual curiosity/insightfulness
  • Deep sense of fairness and moral justice
  • Heightened sensitivities/empathy
  • Vivid imagination/keen humour
  • Perfectionist/perseverance
  • Fear of failure
  • May appear inattentive
  • May be reluctant writers
  • Resist drill and repetition
  • May impact friendship development
  • May conform to be accepted

See how it’s a mixture of positive and negative behavioural traits? Here’s what a gifted child isn’t:

  • Better than the other kids

The word itself seems to cause no end of difficulty for people. A “gift” is something desirable, something free and wonderful, maybe even something undeserved. Therefore, a gifted child is one that has something that other kids don’t, and for no good reason other than a random sprinkling of DNA and probably tiger mothers who pushed said child to learn violin in the womb. Right? A child labelled as gifted is instantly in competition with other, non-gifted kids.

I know parents who are afraid to “admit” that their child is gifted. It seems comparable with telling people your child is the most beautiful, the best athlete, the richest. You are implying that your child is better. Your child deserves greater opportunity. Your child doesn’t even have to try!

Let me tell you a secret: having a gifted child (this seems to cause far more angst than actually being a gifted child) is not aspirational. Parents of gifted children experience strange and wonderful behavioural challenges. Gifted children are more likely to have anxiety, depression and anger issues. If this sounds like a gift to you, I have a host of other ways you can complicate your life for your own enjoyment.

I was a gifted kid. I struggled with disappointment, managing failure and all the other things Christopher Scanlon mentions in his article. Not because I was gifted (because no one called it that until I was about 12, and yet mysteriously I was still the same person), but because no one spoke about it. About the challenges, the necessary foresight, the coaching, the teaching. I went on a “gifted” camp and painfully extracted a modicum of social engagement out of other gifted kids, but we were a freak show. Rather than understanding the difficulties that came with experiencing the world in a different way, we were forced to play bocce and learn Esperanto and do things geniuses might do. Not gifted kids. Geniuses.

They’re not the same.

My smart-but-not-gifted kid goes around in her world, thinking about ways she can create and learn and dance and love. She writes stories, draws horses, bakes brownies and we never argue because that doesn’t form part of her personality. My gifted kid goes around in her world, thinking about dying in space and how oxygen works and why no one loves her and why her body feels like it’s full of poisoned lava. She has no impulse control, no anger management skills. Confusion and anger rattle around in her brain until they explode. Sometimes it manifests as a meltdown at the supermarket; sometimes it is crying herself to sleep.

I go into a parent-teacher interview and we gawk over her amazing NAPLAN results. Then we talk about how she kicked a kid because she didn’t know how to manage her aggression after he made an off-handed comment on the bus. A gifted child is a tapestry, like any other child, but the highs and lows are extreme and not always easy to counter. Some nights I just lie in bed with my daughter and listen to her brain whirring. She hardly sleeps. She is lonely and afraid. She worries about letting herself down, about letting us down. This is what “gifted” looks like. Awesome, right? You must be so jealous.

But here’s the thing. You can teach a child to fail well without denying them their identity. Teach them to fail within context. Teach them about the specific failures they are likely to experience (less academic, more social). Teach them mechanisms for processing their particular emotions afterwards.

teaching kids to fail well is arguably a more useful life skill than being labelled a prodigy

Being gifted is not the same as being a prodigy. The problem is with the fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have a brain that functions on the skinny ends of the bell curve. But you will be able to teach them these things because you understand the ways in which they’re predisposed. That you have a child who might lash out, be angry, be highly emotional, resist criticism and so on.

Because you call them gifted. Because that’s what they are.

  • Cat

    November 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm Reply

    I’ve two boys Anna. My older boy, 6, is gifted and I have been SO careful about who I tell because people make it a competition. He’s not a better kid than the next one for being gifted. I’m his Mama so I ‘m biased and think he IS better than the next kid let’s face it but not cos he’s gifted – cos he’s full of empathy and kindness and so full of love. He’s also EXTREMELY sensitive, anxious, worries about everything on earth – I had to give an explanation about terrorism to him today and why the government wants to have people call them to explain suspicious behaviour. He joins dots that I didn’t know could be joined. But the kid can’t remember his water bottle and bangs in to light poles cos he’s too busy in his own head. My second boy, 3, is really very clever, strong willed and the craftiest, funniest person I’ve ever met. I’ve no doubt that academically he will excel too but he doesn’t have the same troubles as his brother. So yeah, I agree with you.

  • Deb @ Bright and Precious

    November 19, 2014 at 8:12 pm Reply

    Great post, Anna. I reluctantly clicked over to Christopher’s post and I could barely read it. Not just an idiot, but cocky too.

  • Jennie

    November 19, 2014 at 8:43 pm Reply

    Perfect! You have encapsulated parenting a gifted child wonderfully. I read his article a few days ago and I felt so angry. We have three boys, the elder two are gifted and the youngest hasn’t been assessed but shows many of the traits. Two of my kids are on medication for anxiety and see a psychiatrist every fortnight. They don’t sleep. They are hyper sensitive and meltdowns are a constant in our house. Parenting gifted kids is exhausting. I think the pysch calls it co-morbidity (but that doesn’t sound quite right) – it’s where giftedness goes hand in hand with sensory processing disorder, dyspraxia, anxiety, depression and a whole host of other labels. They are incredibly complex little beings. Thank you for such a thoughtful and honest article.

  • John James

    November 20, 2014 at 7:58 am Reply

    I was a “gifted” kid and ended up in an “Opportunity Class” with other gifted kids for my two last years of Primary School – I could have gone to a “selective” High School as well, but didn’t for many reasons – cost, distance, friends…

    I still have mixed feelings about being separated from my friends and being placed into a “gifted” class – I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the class, but didn’t like being around the other “gifted” kids – there definitely was a sense of “entitlement” and “superiority” to many of them, which I didn’t enjoy. Let’s not beat around the bush – some of those kids were fucking wankers! And others (probably me included) definitely had emotional issues to deal with (that were largely ignored in 1970s Australia)

    I’m still not sure where I stand on all this…

  • nikki

    November 20, 2014 at 6:33 pm Reply

    very interesting (your article, not the other) in the sense that i see the often proclaimed “gift of Asperger’s” my son apparently should celebrate in this same light (shame he has no friends to celebrate with at this point..).. he shows most of the possible sign of a gifted child indeed, including the negative ones. don’t get me wrong, i am certainly not at war with his autism, but although the parallels are really there, we certainly do not have the open envy of your average mum like those of ‘gifted’ children. I too have to approach philosophical, scientific or historical questions with my 9yo because the subjects of his anxiety will not go away if I don’t. I agree full-heartedly that denying your child – and yourself – a so called “label” (diagnosis, really) is the worst thing you can do for them.
    How else will you, and later they, learn about who they are, that there are others like them, that things get better, how they can advocate for themselves, educate others, and generally feel good about themselves?

  • RFM

    December 2, 2014 at 10:38 pm Reply

    I have a gifted child. He’s been assessed. I have the piece of paper.

    I can say without a doubt it is far more stressful and challenging to parent him than my other two just – plain – smart kids. Mostly because people don’t fully understand what it means and even one of his teachers tried to challenge the diagnosis with ‘but there was a thing he didn’t know today at school’. Fark.

    We just support him as best we can – he’s a quick to temper, argumentative and stubborn child. He’s also incredibly sensitive and thoughtful at times. My greatest concern is him inheriting his parents anxieties but I fear it’s inevitable.

  • MaryJane

    May 15, 2015 at 3:37 pm Reply

    Thank you Anna. You have beautifully summed up my life with my two girls, one is gifted, anxious, unhappy more often than not, doesn’t fit in well in school but excels in all her schooling and all her sport and after school activities. My other is regular-smart, happy and easy going. I feel like ‘gifted’ is certainly no gift and I fear for a lifetime of discontentment for her. Certainly there has been a lot in the first 8 years. She is now seeing a psychologist and will grade skip or move to another school for an extension program. We hope some of these things will make her happier.
    It’s a wonderful thing to hear of someone else with similar experiences.

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