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The “Gift”

I used a word I don’t particularly like when I was talking to some parents the other day. The problem is, it’s the word that is used, and substitutions for it sound awkward. I was referring to my daughter and how I’d been reading a “gifted homeschoolers” e-mail group (mostly to reassure myself that I’m not alone in the parenting world).
One of the moms replied in the way that one of the moms always does when you use that word. “I think all kids are gifted,” she said.
In the sense that she was using the word, the sense that it has for everyone but those who get caught in the Escher-like upstairs-downstairs of educating gifted kids, she was right. Every single person is unique, and for each unique child, you can find a gift that they can offer the world. Some of them have big fancy gifts like Shirley Temple. Some of them have quieter gifts that they discover over a lifetime.
But I’m stuck with this word that doesn’t exactly express what it means. “Gifted and Talented Education” is the official title for the program in California’s public schools, and “the gifted” is what they call the kids. That immediately makes other parents, whose children are therefore “not gifted,” think that you’re bragging. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
Having been one of these kids, I have no illusions that it’s easier to be who they are than to be someone who is “not gifted.” Each one of our unique humans has a unique set of things to overcome. It might surprise a lot of people that gifted kids are actually less likely to graduate from high school. And even more surprising to many people is that your IQ actually has no strong correlation with success in life. In fact, people who study the gifted say that you’re better off being pretty darn smart (somewhat smarter than average) than really, really smart. Those who are really, really smart have bigger handicaps to go along with their “gift.”
As I understand it, kids who are gifted learners often develop backwards. You notice pretty much right away that they’re different. The other kids go through the stages that they describe in parenting manuals. Gifted kids do…something different. Some of them develop their social skills normally, but most don’t. The schedule flips around. When other kids are learning to get past parallel play and make friends, gifted kids are often more interested in reading dictionaries.
My son was not one of those kids you read about who do amazing intellectual feats early on, but he was clearly different. He went from not speaking to speaking in paragraphs. He didn’t have his terrible twos, but when he was five he started throwing scary fits like he was a two-year-old. At times we feared he was autistic. He made his first friend at the age of four-and-a-half. Our goals for him have never been academic. When a teacher asks what our goals are, we say we’d like him to be happy.
Our daughter is in many ways the opposite. She has always acted outward. Her terrible twos started at 18 months and we’re not sure when they’re going to end. She is unable to handle being in a classroom for more than a few hours at a time if she’s not being constantly intellectually stimulated. If I can keep up with her, we can have great homeschooling days. But it’s extremely hard to keep up with her. Teachers never asked us what our goals were. It was clear that our goal was to keep her able to be in class, till we chose another path. Homeschooling is becoming the educational model of choice for lots of parents of gifted kids.
Both of our kids are typical as gifted kids, but very unusual in the wider world. Parents react to them in a variety of ways. Sometimes parents compare their kids and find them lacking. “I wish my son could read like yours,” said the father of a second-grade classmate. “I wish my son could hit a baseball,” I wanted to reply. But I didn’t, because it’s really important with all kids, not just “gifted” kids, to accept what comes in the package. If my son decides one day to play baseball, I’ll encourage him to do his best.
Other people just don’t know what to do with them. They might assume the children actually don’t understand what they’re saying. One time when my daughter was three, she cursed at my son by saying, “I will stop your circulatory system.” Someone overhearing it said, “She doesn’t know what that means.” But she did. She is endlessly creative with her knowledge of how the human body works, and with her insults. Like Shakespeare.
The thing parents always say about gifted kids is that they’re exhausting. You want to enjoy their “gifts,” but sometimes gifts can get in the way of enjoyment. Everyone is telling you that you’re lucky, and you’re happy that you survived a day with Shakespeare and Galileo breathing down your neck.
Like all parenting, it’s a topsy turvy roller coaster ride. Enjoy!

Posted in Education, Psychology.

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