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Friday, May 25, 2012

Are 'gifted' children really so different?

My post on gifted toddlers has made a little splash out there in internet land. I've had some very interesting conversations as a result. For example, Janet Lansbury (whose post 'No Bad Kids- toddler discipline without shame' was referenced in that post) brought up one issue which recurs often enough for me to deal with it in more detail. She commented:

"I truly believe that every child deserves this level of respect and sensitivity. Yes, the brighter the child, the more sensitive he or she usually is...but ALL children need this...don't you think?"

What an excellent point to raise. And of course the answer is a wholehearted 'yes'. All children deserve respect. All children deserve an authentic response. The advice I gave that mother could be applied to any child, really- respect and authenticity would work to improve the behaviour of just about any child.

My gifted boy at 4, captivating the crowd
with his rendition of '5 Cheeky Monkeys'.
Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. But he
WOULD NOT go to bed.
So what exactly is it about gifted children that needs extra care? Are they really so different from other children? And why do the parents of gifted children seem to need extra assistance with their parenting, if it's really just a matter of keeping to the same path as with other kids?

I'd like to welcome you now into my Year 10 music theory classroom. It's my first year teaching at this extremely selective private school, and my third year in the classroom. Before me is a class of 14- to 15-year-old girls, all competent musicians, and I'm confidently showing them how to add four-part vocal harmony to a melody I've written on the board.

The average IQ in this room, I would guess, is around the 130 mark. (It's a VERY selective school.)

I've completed the exercise when a smirking blonde up the back raises her hand. (If I had to guess, based on what I know now, I'd say that her IQ is around the 180 mark; she will be dux of the school one day.)

"There are consecutive fifths in the third bar," she says.

Now, for the non-musicians out there, 'consecutive fifths' in 4-part harmony constitutes a pretty basic error. It's Harmony 101, actually. Yes, the teacher has made a mistake, and our keen observer- let's call her Harriet- has picked it in one glance. (She's probably been hanging on my every word all the way to bar 8, to see if the blooper in bar 3 was a trap I'd set on purpose.)

This is a crucial moment, where I have to make a vital choice. What I choose to do with Harriet's comment will determine more than the outcome of this lesson- the level of respect and authenticity I show in my answer will determine whether I have Harriet's respect, not just for the rest of the lesson but for the rest of the year.

And that is the difference.

Let's have a close look at what just happened, and the significance of each aspect of it.

The first thing to note here is that the intellectually gifted child has challenged me on what I think of as my own safe territory. Naturally, I will have an emotional reaction to that! I might become angry that a student has dared to challenge me. I might feel upset with myself, or guilty that I haven't prepared well enough. Whatever emotion surfaces at this point, I won't be ready for it. I am at a disadvantage. I will be so busy dealing with my own feelings that Harriet's humanity may not even get a look in.

The second thing to note is that Harriet has an intellect commensurate with or superior to my own, and the emotional maturity of a 14-year-old girl. Harriet is smart enough to pick up a mistake which I missed, but she's not mature enough to realise that the kindest course of action would be to call me over and whisper in my ear- instead she's exposed me to possible ridicule by the whole group, because that's what teenage girls tend to do with new teachers.

The third thing to note is that my reaction will be assessed both intellectually and emotionally by this gifted child. If I respond irrationally or try to bluff, Harriet will pick it at once with her razor-sharp intellect, then respond with 14-year-old, hormonally-fuelled intensity.

Yep, that's me, and I'm
so obviously thinking
'I'm not happy'!
Are you starting to see yet? The difference is not all in the child. The difference is partly in the startling imbalance between the gifted child's intellectual and emotional maturity, and partly in the interaction of some very complex emotional factors between adult and child.

So parenting a gifted child, especially if you've not experienced giftedness before and are relying on a standard manual of child-rearing techniques (aka 'this is the way I was brought up' and 'my friends say I should do this' and 'this worked with my other children'), can be rather unnerving (to say the least). It's a job that can be very, very unforgiving. Dropping one's guard and cutting corners when interacting with a gifted child can have pretty devastating results for the parent. 'Because I said so' just isn't an option.

This is why so many parents (and teachers!) of gifted children get into trouble; they follow old patterns which have worked okay for children whose intellectual and chronological ages are in sync. And when they put one foot wrong, the child strikes back with a radioactive cloud of logic, and resentment, and even disdain.

Cooperating at parties was NOT
my strong point. Working out
which button to press in order
to be taken home.
In a very young gifted child, that may translate as wilfully ignoring a parent's attempts to discipline them, arguing the point with precocious logic, throwing tantrums and pressing the parent's buttons with incredible accuracy, refusing to cooperate at the worst possible moment... and so on. Don't just double the problems of raising any young child, because your gifted child will give you compound interest on every misstep.

My success as a teacher of the gifted hinged on many, many delicate moments every day, such as the one I've described with Harriet. For the parents of a gifted child, life is one long string of tests. Gifted children do not accept the status quo. They challenge us, and wait for our response, and bring down their verdict. The sentence, when we get things wrong, will likely be based on some hideous cocktail of their emotional and intellectual ages.

So I guess you're still wondering what I said to Harriet. This is pretty much how the conversation went from there.

Harriet: There are consecutive fifths in the third bar.

Me: (looks at board) (stunned silence while I feel like a complete fool and look for the error)

Harriet: (in the tone of voice one might use to an idiot child) Between the D and E in the alto and the G and A in the bass.

Me: So there are. Well picked. Did anyone else see them? (rest of class shake heads)

Me: See, even teachers make mistakes. That ought to make you feel better. (laughter from class) Can everyone see the problem now? (nods) Okay, so how are we going to fix them now Harriet's found them? Harriet, how about you come up and show us how to get around it, because I bet you've worked it out already.

(Harriet comes forward grinning, and immediately changes some notes to eliminate the 5ths)

Problem solved, and I'm not talking about the vocal harmony. Harriet and I maintained a mutually respectful relationship until she left school (and yes, she did learn some tact!).

I did have an advantage here, remember- despite my youth and lack of experience, I had been a gifted child myself. I just did what I would have liked a teacher to do, if I was Harriet:

Admit the mistake.

Show respect for the child's advanced intellectual accomplishment, but be the adult with regard to the emotional blooper; don't get into a battle, ignore the undesirable, model good behaviour.

Involve the child in the solution; give a challenge commensurate with the child's intellectual age.

Of course it's not that easy if you're in the thick of things as a parent, and if you're just learning about giftedness. You may well have to deal with the strong feeling that a mere child shouldn't be challenging you. It seems to go against the natural order of things.

But this is the natural order with a gifted child- you will have to explain, constantly. You will have to be truthful, constantly. You will have to show respect, constantly.

And then you will have to remember that this child is 3, or 10, or 14, and try to remember that emotionally you are still the leader. You still need to show this child where the boundaries are. You still need to do this with quiet confidence. And you can not show quiet confidence if you have let that child upset you with their intellectual button-pressing.

So the answer to my question? Intellectually, yes, gifted children are that different. They may put you way off balance with their precocious talk, and logic, and argumentativeness, and correction of your mistakes. They may punish you more savagely for forgetting to use respect and authenticity.

But the bottom line is, Janet's right- just like other kids, they need you to be the grown-up. You might not be smarter than them, but you are still their rock. You are still their guide. You are still their best emotional resource and their role model.

Don't let yourself be distracted by the brains.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Cherry. Hello Toowoomba! My cousins live there!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hello Aunt Annie,

    My Daughter has turned two last month and she shows all the following signs of giftedness as mentioned on website.
    Typical Traits of Giftedness
    Rapid learning rate
    Excellent Memory
    Early attainment of developmental milestones
    Early and extensive vocabulary
    Long attention span when interested or challenged
    Highly developed curiosity
    Divergent thinking
    Highly creative
    Vivid imagination
    Unusual sense of humour
    Emotional intensity and sensitivity
    High activity level
    Decreased need for sleep
    Strong sense of justice
    Preference for older aged companions
    I was wondering if I should get her assessed for high IQ and wished to know proper way of approaching Child Psychologist.
    I also have some concerns about her social behaviour and sleep pattern. She tends to be shy and reserve when meeting new people and takes a lot of time to come out of her shell. Also when she realises she is bit different than her peers , she goes back in to her shell and performs only50% of her skills. So I can never convince anyone about her full potential that she shows at home. Will this be a problem in getting her IQ tested?
    Also with her sleep pattern, she only take 11 hours sleep in the whole day. She barely sleeps throughout the night and wakes up after 4-5 hours to play or read books for 2 hours before falling asleep again.

    So I am wondering if you could assist me with these parenting issues.

    Thank you in advance. Look forward to your response.


    Akshaya Borkar

    1. Akshaya, I don't think there's a lot of point in testing children this young. In fact, unless you have a need for testing in order to flap a piece of paper in the face of someone who just doesn't 'get it' (such as a teacher who is failing to make provision for your child's abilities later on, or a childcare provider who refuses to allow her to socialise with older children instead of babies), I wouldn't recommend testing at all.

      IQ tests only harvest results on a very narrow band of abilities and they are not guaranteed to give accurate results, particularly in children like yours who have adopted the strategy of hiding their light under a bushell in order to 'fit in'. Also the tests are generally devised for older children who have more experience in completing these sorts of questions.

      What were you trying to achieve through the test? If you are trying to reassure yourself that she's gifted, I have to say that firstly, if your child meets those criteria she most certainly IS gifted, and secondly, what your child needs right now is not a test but an aware, responsive parent to allow her to play and achieve at her own level. You say you "can never convince anyone about her full potential that she shows at home." Why do you need to convince anyone? If you push her to 'perform' she will continue to draw back, and that is plain disastrous. Let her be a kid. When she finds something she is really interested in learning about, there will be no stopping her and she will use 100%, I assure you! The absolute last thing you want is to set up a confrontational situation where you are pushing her to show off her ability and she is determined to do the opposite.

      I certainly see no need for a child psychologist at this age and stage. Try to take all pressure to perform off her- and remember, she is only 2. The more you push, the more you will entrench this behaviour. The greatest geniuses have had their creativity nurtured, not their amazing ability to parrot facts (they will do this anyway- don't push it).

      Re her social behaviour- that is very age-typical! The message of this blog post is that gifted children have an imbalance in intellectual and social maturity, and your daughter is no exception. She is going through a shy stage where she probably may experience some separation anxiety; she is starting to recognise that other people may not give her the same responses that you do, and this will make her feel insecure. Reassure her of your love and try not to push her to integrate- this will pass in time.

      Re the sleep- oh, how I feel for you! I was sleep-deprived for 6 years with my boy! This is totally normal for gifted kids. If she's happy to entertain herself when she wakes during the night, then let her be; try not to make an issue of it. Encourage her to self-regulate- she is smart enough for you to teach her the signs of tiredness, such as feeling grumpy, red glassy eyes, yawning. If you really feel she needs a nap, suggest that she checks her eyes in the mirror and ask her if she feels cross or if she's been yawning- give her some agency in the decision to sleep (and when to sleep).

      However, if she's anything like my son she is likely to simply need less sleep than some adults, and you will have to look at safety and supervision issues so that you yourself can get the rest you need. Co-sleeping (ie in the same room) with a snib on the door, so she can't get out to danger areas like kitchens and stairs if she wakes when you're sleeping, can be helpful at this young age.

      I do urge you to read my other posts about gifted children, particularly the one about gifted preschoolers. That will help your perspective. Giftedness is not a ticket to success- much depends on how the parents and teachers handle the many side-problems that come along with extremely advanced academic potential. I wish you luck and wise decisions with your daughter.

    2. Thanks Aunt Annie for detailed response. I wanted to do the test to assure myself that her behaviour has some grounds n she's not doing odd things. Her grandparents and aunts don't accept her behaviours ( love for books, vast vocab, her numerical skills or her curiosity) all is considered a result of being a pushy mum(which I am certainly not) also I am struggling to find any other parents within my social group who could understand my situation or be a good listener when I want to crib bat my kiddo (I can't do so now, coz other parents never have this experience for their child n they think I am trying to show off) anyway we have decided not to go for IQ test until required. I did mentioned my worried to her childcare and they have acknowledge that she's more advanced academically , but has social behaviour of two yr old. So they are happy to encourage her skills as much as they can and are providing me a lot more support now. Now I am looking for schools in Melbourne where there r enough gd programmes for high IQ kids. Please let me know what points I should check while looking for school. I have also come to terms with the fact that I will have to put in more efforts for my child and b more proactive in regards to her dev needs. Thanks for helping me. Your blog is very helpful and supportive.

    3. Oh Akshaya, how difficult for you that family members are doubting your knowledge of your own child! That is really tough. I am sure you will defend her to the hilt and her right to be stimulated in a way that is appropriate for her ability.

      It IS hard to find parents who understand, because your child may well be in, say, a group which constitutes only about 4% of the population. This is where internet support groups can be so useful. Try to bite your tongue with other parents- they are anxious already about their own child's development, and the best thing you can do is remind them kindly that children achieve milestones at their own pace and there is nothing you can do to rush them. Love and time spent interacting with the child are the answers to their anxiety.

      Sounds like your daycare has a good handle on your daughter- hurrah!

      As for schools, you really need to go and have a chat with the people involved with the gifted/talented programs at each school. If they don't have a gifted/talented program you need to ask what provisions are made for exceptionally bright students- are they accelerated or extended within the class? Also get onto Google and find some gifted forums where you can discuss these issues with other parents- you really don't know how a school handles things until you send a child there, and so you will benefit from others' experiences.

      Another thing to look for: plenty of extra curricular activities which are available across broad age groups. For example at the selective school where I worked, we had choirs and orchestras where younger children could interact with older students. You want to avoid class and activity grouping according to age alone, and look for acceleration possibilities or academic-based streaming.

      Good luck!

    4. Thanks Aunt Annie. I shall keep you posted.

  4. I loved this article, thanks Aunt Annie. I have three children under 5, two whom in my heart I know are gifted and a baby who is already showing signs. Even with the knowledge of two education degrees behind me I STILL find raising my children the hardest thing I have ever done. There is so much online that you can read about gifted traits but it never really sums up the challenge of day to day life with these little people. Yes, they are amazing but boy do they challenge me each and every day! Much of it comes down to that discrepancy between their intellectual and chronological age which you have summed up beautifully. It is easy to feel alone as a parent when these challenges are not shared by those around you and then to question why you can't seem to be like them and get it 'right'.

    1. Thank you, Anon. I'm so glad you found it helpful. As you say, it's one thing to know your child's gifted, but it's another thing completely to have to live with it!

      You are very welcome to share this article by printing it or sharing the link if it will help others to understand your situation and your child's needs. And you are NOT alone. Anyone who tells you that raising a gifted child is easier than raising any other child is clearly talking through a veil of ignorance and inexperience- every gifted child is essentially a 'special needs' child- they are that far out of the ball park, and they really do punish you for missteps in your parenting.

      Do feel free to head over to Aunt Annie's Childcare on Facebook, where you can send me private messages if you feel the need to vent or want some specific advice. Cheers!

  5. Brittany SevereidJune 3, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this!!! SOOOO very true!

    1. Rang a bell, did it Brittany? :D Thanks!

  6. Love it.

    I did a similar thing in Maths B one time. The head of department was our teacher and didn't exactly love me - even though I was the top maths student. Strangely enough I got the impression that it irked him that maths came so easily for me.

    I tried to tell him about a mistake he was making 2 lines into a long math problem. He cut me short and told me to stop interrupting him. So I sat in silence while he wrote out two boards of incorrect calculations, got to the end and didn't get the answer he was expecting.

    I let him standing looking at the board for a good couple of minutes before directing him to the mistake. The whole class laughed at him, he wasn't impressed. Perhaps if he had chosen to respond in a similar manner to that which you did we may have had a different outcome.

    1. Having a little giggle at this, Anna- sounds awfully familiar! A girlfriend of mine had a similar experience with our German teacher- kept trying to explain that his grammar was wrong. She ended up walking to the board, taking the chalk out of his hand and redoing the exercise. He was incandescent. But so was she!

      Oops, showing my age- yes, he really did use chalk. ;D

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