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What is gifted? And why?

I was talking to a friend recently about my work on Examiner.com concerning gifted children. What is gifted? she asked. A very reasonable question, and one that no one has completely defined yet – to my satisfaction, at least.

I’m planning an article on Examiner.com about all the various definitions of “gifted,” but here I can address my personal reasons for getting into all this in the first place! (If you want to know when I publish that article, or if you want to read my articles in general, click on “Subscribe” on either of my Examiner pages. You’ll get e-mail whenever I publish anything, and I get paid a higher rate with more subscribers!)

There’s the part of “gifted” that most people are familiar with: my son is a good example. Very smart boy, very sensitive, not into sports. Very good in school. Until he was nearly 9, I had no interest in knowing more or applying the label. Frankly, although it was obvious he was smart, I didn’t think anything more of it. I’m sure I have written before of the experience I had when he was in first grade and a dad said to me, “I wish my son could read as well as yours.” And I wanted to (but didn’t) answer, “I wish my son could hit a baseball!”

Because of course, we get the kid we get, and if we’re good parents we give up on the idea that our kids are going to be Tiger Woods and settle for who they actually are, the magical, amazing person they came out as. (Actually, I was probably more hoping that our son would be Buckaroo Banzai!)

But then along came our daughter. She was amazing as well, but incredibly frustrating. We just didn’t understand her. Nothing I read, no one I consulted with, could tell me anything that rang true for her. After pulling her from kindergarten in frustration, some little bug in the back of my brain spoke up. Gifted. What was it that I had read about difficult gifted children?

So I went on the path that you can read in past posts. I hired someone to work with her who was well-versed in the variety of gifted kids out there, and she gave me some little pushes in the right direction. We went from having a baffling, difficult, unsuccessful child to having  a baffling, difficult, amazing, happy, successful child.

Whether or not the present explanation is correct, there is an explanation that fits my daughter. She showed incredible academic intelligence abilities very early. She showed very weak emotional intelligence. Where other kids were going through those stages that didn’t fit her (and frankly hadn’t fit my son so well, either), she was doing her own thing. The explanation that works for me is that like many people labeled “gifted,” she skipped the normal phase of emotional/social development and went straight to figuring everything out. She couldn’t tell you why she’d thrown the math materials all around the room, but she could figure out real-world math problems with ease.

So yes, I hate the word “gifted.” (Read my post on that if you want the long explanation.) It’s a stupid word that implies value judgment and leaves so much space for ambiguity. Is that kid who could hit a baseball right outta the park in first grade gifted? Of course he is. “Gifted” in the general sense just means that someone was blessed by an ability that they have chosen to develop to the point that other people notice and admire it.

But as a technical educational term, “gifted” is much more specific. And the kids to whom it is most valuable are not necessarily those well-behaved kids sitting the front row with all the answers. It might be the 13-year-old girl getting C’s in middle school so the boys would like her. It might be that totally out-of-control boy who gets medicated for ADHD without an attempt to provide him the right sort of environment to stimulate his unusual brain. It might be that quiet kid in an out-of-control inner city school who gets no notice because her teachers are busy putting out fires.

Those are the gifted kids I’m particularly interested in. They’re the ones that the rest of us don’t recognize, who get stigmatized for their unusual behavior, who get drugged or shoved into remedial classes. They are the unsuccessful gifted kids, but we can help them. As I said in another post, my daughter needed educators who recognized that she needs specialized, not special, education. If I’d put her in public school, she’d have a diagnosis by now, and probably some drugs. I’d have a huge guilt burden that I knew that something was wrong with the diagnosis.

So when my friend asked me, “What is gifted?” and I felt that weird feeling again like using the word was making a value judgment — placing my kid over hers — I just didn’t know what to say. I don’t know what gifted is, really. Researchers are getting closer, but they really can’t tell you for sure, either. But I do know that the label allowed me to access the information I needed to help her get along in the world.

It’s definitely not a value judgment. I treasure my daughter, but all children truly do have gifts to share with us. I loved writing about Lizz Anderson who talks about how her son with Down Syndrome has changed so many lives. There is no way to predict what value any individual will give the world. But as parents, we can do our best to help our child be successful in whatever way that is meaningful.

Some of you out there may have baffling kids as well. If any of this is sounding familiar to you, get yourself over to Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted and start reading. Like me, you may not like the word or the label, but the collected wisdom of lots of parents, educators, and mental health professionals working with these kids might help you as it did me.

Posted in Education, Parenting, Psychology.


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