Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A gift... Not quite!


A few weeks ago I was reading this article about the little British girl who at age 2 has joined MENSA. It got me thinking about giftedness and parenting.

When I was at primary school there was a girl called Despina who had no friends at all. She was arrogant and pushy in the playground and very annoying in class. One day I got chatting to her, I must have been about 9. She told me she was a genius and in a few months her parents were sending her overseas to a special school for extremely gifted children. She knew her IQ and went on to tell me all about the yearly testing she had been having since she was 3. I remember feeling rather perplexed and quite sorry for her when told me that she had no friends because "other children will always be intimidated by my intellect, that's why my mum and dad are my friends instead."

I have never had my IQ tested, unless you count those wacky quizzes on Facebook that end up costing you money and sending you weird text messages. I don't think my score would be very high. In fact I think I'm pretty ordinary when it comes to most things. Except folding towels. I'm quite talented with that. Oh and I'm definitely a whizz when it comes to saying the wrong thing. I've got that down to a fine art. In fact if you looked up "foot in mouth disease" you'd see my pretty picture staring back at you.

My daughter, however, is very bright. She is 18 months old and knows most colours, counts to 10, knows most shapes, shares nicely, shows empathy and learns very quickly. She is very funny, she has a cute sense of humour. She is very articulate and asks the funniest and surprising questions. People sometimes tell me she is gifted. I'm not sure I agree with that. According to my family, I was the same at Tinker's age and I'm no bloody genius. I don't think doing things months before other kids makes you a genius. In fact I don't think being extraordinarily bright is a gift at all.

From what I've read, most true genii become academics, many are lonely, most find school very difficult socially and many suffer from depression. Doesn't sound like much fun to me. I wonder what became of Despina, she was so bright and so very lonely. She was awkward and dark beyond her years. I wonder if her parents are happy with the approach they took to raising her. Ruth Lawrence the hot-housed British girl who went to Oxford at age 12 had a tough time and is now completely estranged from her parents.

Kate Hilpern wrote an interesting piece for the Guardian last year. You can read it here. One of the key points I took away from her piece was simply asking the question why? What is the point of accelerating our children so fast that they enter university in their early teens? How does that help them as individuals? In the end when the 19 year olds have their doctorates aren't they then on par with the 40 year olds? What kind of advantage does it give these kids entering the race early when we all end up at the same finish line eventually?

Parenting magazines are full of adverts for companies offering to test your child for giftedness, early entry to school, they offer various approaches to IQ testing. I don't know, I think I'd be very wary of going down that path with my precious girl. What do you think? Of course I'm not saying we should go all Pol Pot like and cripple the clever, but I wonder if things are going a bit too far?

Now I'm the first person to admit that I want Tinker to have the best education we can afford, I want her to be exposed to as many fun new things as she likes. Knowledge is definitely power. I don't want Tinker to be bored at preschool and I set about to find a really special toddler class for her to attend. She starts Mandarin next month and, and yes I do enjoy teaching her new things all day. I think the sky is the limit as far as play based learning is concerned. This is why I am not a lawyer anymore. This is why I choose to be at home with my little bunny. I love teaching her things and watching her grow and learn. It is fun. Hot-housing isn't fun, making your children do things they don't love isn't fun. I guess that's the issue.

Tell me your thoughts on this issue!


  1. For uni [the semester just gone] one of my units is entitled Developmental Difference and Disability.

    There was a significant research task undertaken in pairs to which you had to outline the topic given. We were looking at gifted and talented children and the fact that within prior to school settings there is no real determination for giftedness though there are some 'signs' as many people would point out. Whilst in primary school; you can choose to have your child tested.

    Keeping in mind that gifted and talented children are not only gifted within the academic domain; there are several other domains in which they can be gifted.

    But the most important piece of information that we got from the research was that a Developmentally Appropriate Practice [Not the practice where you look at the child in developmental milestones] but whereby you provide the child the activities/experiences which are tailored to their needs and are extending upon their learning [which is what every early childhood educator should be doing]. Though in schools when there is a curriculum to adhere to this can be difficult. What do you do with the children that can work at faster rate or just get things? You need to be extending their learning.

    But before I ramble on way to long I just need to point out that within Australia; we have NO Education degrees that teach 'us' how to teach gifted and talented children. NSW is the only state to have 6 postgraduate courses that specialise in gifted and talented teaching.

    I would be more than happy to send you our powerpoint and information if you would like it.

    Just send me an email to carly-grace87@hotmail.com and I will attach it to the email.


  2. I wonder if extremely gifted children don't suffer either way. By that I mean: If they are kept with their age-group/grade, then they are bound to get bored, maybe be socially inept (due to "nerdiness?"), and eventually act out. You have pointed out what happens when they are pushed to their intellectual limits - I imagine that causes quite a bit of acting out as well.

    I think there must be a happy medium: socially healthy AND intellectually healthy and properly stimulated. What a hard path that would be! Not unlike having a developmentally disabled child, I imagine.

  3. for those of us readers that aren't familiar with all (I assume) british slang (I'm guessing I'm not the only one out there)......what it "hot-housing"? Thanks! I do so enjoy reading your blog! I also totally agree! Lets let our children learn and love each stage of life. No need to push them onto the next!

  4. Thanks for that insight Carly, it is interesting how each state is so different isn't it? I'm a big fan of getting rid of the states and territories for a few reasons, here's another. Thanks for that info.

    Riceinmay, not a british term, just an educational method that basically involves intense indoctrination, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hothousing

  5. I think that children progress at their own rates and because one child can do something before another does not make them any more smart than the other. I also think that IQ testing should go the way of the dodo because it really doesn't measure much but that's just my humble opinion.

  6. Sound so very familiar. I started talking and reading and whatever a lot earlier than the other kids I knew and I was also considered extremely smart and talented. My fist 7 schoolyears were pure hell (pardon me) and there was nothing else that I was more afraid of than socialising with kids of my own age. I could only communicate with grown-ups, because they did not consider me awkward and uppish. And what my mom did was no good either - she told me to ignore the bullies, because they were just envious. Little did I know that my so-called talent had made me a weirdo.

    I guess I was like 13 or something when I got a few not-so-talented friends of my own age who convinced me that there was nothing wrong with being average. That it was completely OK to have no idea, even if you do (because nobody likes a smartass). So, that was what I did.

    Now, at 21, I am still one of the most intelligent and bright girls in the company, but I am admired for that. I don't push it and won't let anybody do so. I remember all the lessons I've learned as this weird kid and know all the advantages. And limits, of course. :) I feel sorry for Georgia and hope that she'll come to an understanding way sooner than I did.

  7. I really feel for children who fall outside of the social 'norm' at either end of the scale. Genius or Learning Disability and it is difficult for the parents of these kids to know how to approach it and make the most of it.

    Most schools in Australia just don't cater for those who are not within a normal range (as it sounds your tinker is). My sister has a form of autism and she fell between the cracks at school - too bright for special school but fell too behind in mainstream. No friends in either school for a LONG time.

    This is the case for many many kids.

  8. "gifted": it's really awkward to have such a label following you around all the time, and it makes you feel like the slightest ineptitude is a total handicap (ie. if you don't get something twenty minutes before everyone else does, you morph into a total loser). i wish no one had ever shared my IQ score with me!

  9. Such a hard thing, really... to be the parent that has to balance meeting the unique quirks & talents of their kids with (hopefully) what will lend the most "normal." I have a feeling that your Tinker will be just fine with a Mom as aware and conscious as you seem to be.

    Good topic - and great writing, by the way. I enjoy your blog.

  10. As a mother, elementary teacher, and a once labeled "Gifted Student;" this is something I will shy away from with my daughter. She is about to enter kindergarten, she just finished Pre-K at my school and knows many of the teachers. Most of them, including our gifted teacher (she organizes and teaches extended curriculum to our gifted students) have asked me to have my daughter tested for the program. I said no. My Buggy is just 5 years old and entering kindergarten. This will be the first time she is in a classroom of more than 12 students and being pulled out of her main classroom to attend gifted classes once a week sounds very intimidating and ostracizing for a little girl. If my Buggy is having trouble focusing in class (due to boredom) or any problems, that is something I will meet with her teacher and come up with a plan for. When Buggy is older and can decide for herself if she wants testing and to be apart of the gifted program, then I will allow it. I don't want to force this upon her.

  11. Your description of T's abilities at 18 months is identical to what my little one was capable of at that age - she seemed way ahead of other children we know the same age, and some quite a bit older. I've had to resist the urge a few times to pursue further confirmation that she's "gifted", by reminding myself that I am more than likely just a biased Mum. And I think alot of parents are guilty of this. We confuse our children being "bright" with being "gifted" - there is a big difference.

    I watched a documentary recently on truly gifted children and I'll be honest, I don't want one. Like any child with special needs, gifted children are hard work. I personally don't think I'd have the resources, time or energy available to me to truly nourish a gifted child. I am more than capable of catering to the needs of my bright little cherub though, so I know she'll be fine. And that's all I care about.

  12. I am with you!! I am a first grade teacher and feel sometimes that we don't let kids just be kids anymore! Parents over schedule their kids in all of these enrichment programs to the point that they don't even know how to just play anymore. My own school age child knows that the effort he puts forth means more to us than how amazingly smart he is. We just want him to be a normal, happy kid--that's what he deserves!

  13. I got an email today from a reader who doesn't have an account to leave comment so I'm publishing Dee's comment here under my name. I think she writes such a thought provoking email, have a read:

    Well, I don't agree that it's wrong to not advance gifted children. It does have its drawbacks.But there's a very important point here: gifted children (and adults!) need challenge. I'm 19, and I think the first thing I consciously knew about myself is that I am "gifted". Not a genius, mind you. That's my brother. I know, but don't really care, what my IQ is according to Stanford and Binet. I have been homeschooled and publicly schooled, and I can say that in public schools, there is too much to be done to bother challenging one or two or even a dozen gifted kids. They have a couple hundred other kids to worry about, and some of those are going to demand attention for learning disabilities to bring them up to status quo. This leaves the gifted standing around, wondering what to do. Or, if they are like me or my brother, they find something to do, like flooding all the toilets or refusing to do any more work until it challenges them. (To any children who happen to read this, I don't reccomend either strategy. It didn't work when we tried it, and we got the books thrown at us besides.) Homeschooling was really the best thing for us, because our parents would take us to our limits, challenge-wise.
    But you argue that the gifted will be lonely. And yes, I guess maybe we are, if you go simply by how a gifted third-grader gets on with other third-graders. I believe that this hypothetical gifted third-grader (let's call him Fred) is hugely unlikely to find his classmates to be engaging companions. Unless he's also a good actor*, his classmates will find him to be "weird", and ostracize him because of it. Older children aren't much better. They will be intimidated by this little kid that is smarter than they are. Even if they know the exact same amount, Fred will make the ordinary fifth-grader feel dumb. So making friends with older kids is also unlikely.
    Younger children are better companions, surprisingly. Fred does not intimidate the ordinary second-grader, because the second-grader already knows that Fred is smarter and will know more. He may become frustrated by having to explain things all the time, but at least he's not being pushed away.
    Teenagers, and some adults, also make better companions for the gifted child. They have no reason to feel intimidated, and they have enough "life experience" that they can get away with not doing arithmetic in their heads as quickly as Fred because they are not competing. Fred is learning, even if the older friend doesn't intend to teach. But this is also tiresome, eventually. Fred is not emotionally mature enough to make the relationship equal.
    Yes, I would say that you are right that the gifted tend to be lonely. But there really isn't any point in holding them back. Then they will be lonely and bored. Lonely + Bored = Depressed. And that is a sure thing, my friend.
    The good news is that for most gifted children, it gets better. As they mature, they learn how to not rub their gifts in the faces of others. They learn how to pretend to be normal**. They may or may not play dumb, but they almost certainly learn to play nice.
    I think it's a bad idea to pretend that a gifted child is not. You can get away with it when they're at a mangeable level of intelligence. But not when you look at them and cannot fail to see that they are different. Catch them being smart early, and you can save yourself and them a world of pain later. Encourage growth, don't hinder it.
    You may think, "this person clearly is a small minority, to think that it's okay for a kid to be lonely." You would be right, because it goes against what we have had beaten into our thick skulls. I would be right, too.

  14. Continued......

    Because let's face it, Fred and most gifted people are introverts. They tend to be happier with a lot of alone time. One friend is enough for them, enough that they don't feel alone. Your Mensa friend may complain that she was lonely, but would she be happier to be stupid? Would she give up her ability to learn in favor of having playmates every day? If others are intimidated by the sheer fact that she's smarter than the rest, whose fault is that? Not hers, certainly. Not her parents', even though they may have unwittingly cultivated vanity. (I know my parents did with me!) And not the childrens' fault, though I have always felt that it's a shame that the stupid have more power than the smart. I think it's the fault of the adults who run schools. Not just in America, but everywhere where public schools are the norm. The adults are far more worried about numbers than children. They are worried about their jobs, their income, their reputation because it influences their jobs and income, and a minimum is easier to maintain than a maximum. Therefore they do nothing to encourage the gifted, to make sure that they're treated with respect and kindness. It really is tragic that those with learning disabilities get all sorts of attention, while those of us who learn quickly and well have to wait for the stragglers.
    Won't someone invent a system that works? One where us gifted people can openly rejoice that God has given us a gift, instead of getting shut down by the normal folks?

    *Go ahead, count the third-graders that can also act convincingly.
    **Some of them do, anyway. I never got the hang of it, so I just find people weirder than me and don't worry about it.