Gifted is a messed-up moniker

We have an ongoing discussion in our family that goes something like this:

“Mom, remember when I was the smartest in the class?”

“Well, we don’t know you were the smartest. We just know that you tested three grades ahead.”

“I was ahead of everyone.”

“Well, only in stuff they test for.”

“Remember you had to throw a fit in school because the teacher didn’t have books for kids as smart as I was?”

I want to say: Remember your grandpa who went to Harvard and has a police record? Remember your grandma who got on Jeopardy but left you alone on a street corner in New York City?

Instead I say, “Being really smart at school does not mean anything about your life. It doesn’t mean you’re nice or kind or self-aware. It doesn’t mean you learn all things fast, it only means you learn school things fast. Your brother cares about animals much more than you do, so he learns about animals faster than you do.”

My son doesn’t care. The smart kid label really sticks.

Another mother wrote about this issue from the opposite perspective: Her daughter came home and told her that she is not in the gifted group. Letters went home to gifted kids and she wasn’t one of them.

Of course, the right answer is to tell kids—both types of kids—that all kids are smart and all kids are gifted. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.

The problem is that school does not acknowledge this. School expects all kids to do well in both math and reading. School expects kids to try their hardest in art and gym. Yet in the real world, few people care enough about both to try their hardest.

All kids look gifted if you let them choose to do what interests them. And all kids get a skewed view of themselves if you put them in school. The kids are either skewed in thinking they are not gifted or skewed in thinking they are smarter than the kids who don’t do as well as they do in school.


27 replies
  1. Sara
    Sara says:

    I have diaries from high school with multiple entries writing about how I’m supposed to be “smart” so I should be able to handle this or that, I should be able to figure it out, and wishing I were “normal” so people wouldn’t hate me when I skewed the test curve. Yet with all that I never remember considering just purposefully failing or not putting in the effort (although I never really considered school effort, but you’ve written about that before – being good at school means doing just enough to get by because your ‘enough’ is better than everyone else’s), because if I wasn’t the “smart kid” then I was no one, invisible, and at least if they hated me someone was paying attention to me. I might have been good at school, always labeled “gifted,” but I had no idea how to make friends and get along with people easily and would have traded all the As I got to feel secure and confident in the few friendships I did manage to scrape into existence.

  2. christy
    christy says:

    Penelope, next time you write another “Am I a terrible parent?” post, I’m going to send you a link to this post.

    It is beautiful.

    And you are a good parent.


  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I have stories that would scare Z straight about our own “gifted” high IQ family members… Enough to make him probably wish he wasn’t. I’m glad he has cello as an outlet because it will save him. Another thing is you recognize it and can accommodate him. Unschooling is perfect for him. Or even online private school.

  4. MBL
    MBL says:

    I know this post isn’t a total anti-gifted rant, but it does seem to lack the acknowledgement that there is a need to give a child tools to cope. All children have gifts but not all children are gifted. “Gifted” is a messed up moniker because of what our society has loaded onto the term. “Intellectually gifted” is something that still needs a name. Profound intellectual giftedness has some benefits and a load of troubles that tend to be a package deal. Unfortunately, our society only acknowledges the “lucky” side of it. The “happy” mildly gifted level is heavily weighted on the benefits side. But the “problematically” or “tragically” gifted levels of very highly or profoundly gifted tend to fall on the other side.

    The HG+ and PG people (not just kids) need tools for managing the whole package. Currently, there is the “They’re smart. They’ll figure it out.” But that just isn’t usually the case. “Outliers” is the nice way of saying “abnormal,” yet that is what they are. And abnormal never plays well in this country.

    What people need are ways to understand and cope with the differences. Around here, when something exceptional comes up (whether it is seen as a benefit or a deficit) I ask “Is that good or bad?” and get the reply “Neither.” Sometimes we discuss the positives and negatives of “abnormal” traits.

    Having one’s identity wrapped up in one’s intelligence is definitely effed up. That is why it up to the parents to be the ones to put the spin on it. When a child sees that they are years ahead of other children their age, left to their own devices, there tend to be two ways to interpret the situation. “I am really smart.” Or “They are really dumb.” Actually, the third is “Both.”

    Belonging is so central to being healthy. Everyone needs opportunities that facilitate that. Schools that cater to gifted or ones for HG+ are vital for kids who need to see that they are not alone. It is much harder to feel superior to classmates if your reading level is 6 years ahead versus theirs being “only” 5 years ahead. It is much harder to not feel superior when the next highest level is 1 year ahead. Additionally, a child who is 5 years ahead in reading and 3 years ahead in math needs to be acquainted with the kid who is 5 years ahead in math and 3 years ahead in reading. They need to feel normal. All kids need what is appropriate. That does not mean they all need the thing.

    Even if you shield your child from hearing “you are so smart” as best you can they will still stand out in public and people will comment, unless you teach them to “go underground” and keep their mouths and their brains shut. Not advised. Of course they need to be instructed as to what is showing off and what is appropriate and when. But destroying the joys of learning and sharing is all too easy to do. And all to common and sad.

    Additionally, intellectually gifted does not ensure academically gifted. Far from it and for so many reasons. Hard work plus moderate intelligence can frequently trounce mismanaged genius.

    I am just so saddened by the anti-intellectual bias this country has adopted. We revere intelligence as if were important, but deride the display of it. There has to be a middle ground as there is an emotional cost and a profound economic cost that we are all paying. If a child is proud of their exceptional athletic ability do we feel the need to add, “True, but isn’t Suzy a much better reader?” I don’t know how things should be changed for us to be more accepting of all strengths. I just know that they need to be. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of acknowledging intellectual giftedness.

    The running joke is “If it’s a gift, can I return it?”

    Organizations such as SENG and Davidsongifted have great resources.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      Those sound like school problems: get a bunch of kids the same age together and compare them against each other. Why such an unnatural arrangement would be good for anyone’s self-esteem and coping skills is beyond me.

      Also if a gifted person is struggling underneath the weight of their crushing intellect, it’s probably because they are underdeveloped in other ways. Which is basically how all of us go through life.

      I mean, we’re a mix of strengths and weaknesses. That’s what Penelope is getting at when she says all kids are gifted.

      But people who are gifted at asking for help, those are the real geniuses.

      • Lucy Chen
        Lucy Chen says:

        “gifted at asking for help”

        – this is really important and a gift I wish I have. Well, it’s not too late to work on it for myself, and to nurture that in my kids :) Thanks, Melissa. And thanks, always, Penelope.

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I don’t know why my post ended up under Jayson’s…

        Melissa, I agree that school is artificial and exacerbates the problems with comparisons. However, the issues crop up long before that. When a child really stands out, people comment within earshot of the child so…

        “Also if a gifted person is struggling underneath the weight of their crushing intellect, it’s probably because they are underdeveloped in other ways. Which is basically how all of us go through life.”

        While I’m sure this could be the primary case in some situations, there are numerous books that speak directly to the greater issues that I was referencing. The term “asynchronous development” addresses the issue of, well, development that isn’t synchronized with chronological peers. Perhaps I didn’t do a very good job of articulating my point, but I promise you there is much more to it than just being well rounded. There are very real psychological implications to being extremely intellectually gifted.

        I was not arguing against the point that all children have gifts that need to be nurtured and allowed to flourish. Simply that we need to have a term that differentiates that from the formerly standard meaning of intellectually gifted.

        Penelope’s revelations about his grandparents may well be a testament to the need for support for those who are presumed to not need it.

    • dcline
      dcline says:

      “And abnormal never plays well in this country.”

      What country do you think abnormal plays well in?

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        Ha! :D

        I do think that there are places that value quirkiness and non status quo more than here.
        And there are also places where it is much worse. However, I think some of those tend to value intellectualism more highly.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Mom, remember when I was the smartest in the class?” …

    “I was ahead of everyone.” …

    “My son doesn’t care. The smart kid label really sticks.” …

    After reading this post and especially the above, I think he’s just like his Mom. An achiever who wants to be the best he can be. I think he’s trying to make some determination of where he ranks academically in relation to other kids his age. School does that for kids. However, it does it in a way and environment that’s established by the school. The testing, ranking, special programs, etc. are going to be interpreted differently by individual and by the group they’re in (student, teacher, administrator, or parent). I can understand why you deem gifted as messed-up. However, I can also understand why a school may say it’s an attempt to educate kids at different levels even though they’re the same age. An attempt to classify and organize within an education system. What complicates it even further is when a kid in fourth grade, for example, is doing third grade math and sixth grade reading. How is age and grade level really correlating? I agree it is messed-up but not sure I agree with you for all the same reasons.

  6. Nur Costa
    Nur Costa says:

    Even teachers say that in school! At least in my Highschool in Barcelona, a specific teacher would keep telling us exactly these words: “It’s important for you guys to get good grades in school. But also you have to speak up in class, because attitude is everything in life. And you can have as many good grades as you want, but if you’re shy or you don’t like to work in teams… you won’t get very far”
    Then, wtf?
    Why don’t you teach me how to manage a group of people or how to understand myself better rather than some shit from a book that I will forget anyway? What’s the point?
    The saddest thing is that most people know it and we just get along with it.

  7. C.A. Lewis-McCarren
    C.A. Lewis-McCarren says:

    I sent you an e-mail yesterday that speaks to this exact issue….. Your response to your son (imho) was perfect. We ALL have our strengths and our challenges and being able to come along side someone who needs some support/encouragement in those challenges is where true brilliance lies. Compassion. Understanding. Acceptance of where they are at NOW….and perhaps that is where they might ALWAYS be.

    Sometimes I think we are afraid of realizing that we aren’t and never can be….everything.

  8. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    He might have been the smartest, but he has no way of knowing and he’s mistaken if he thinks that means he has greater value. American culture does seem to over-value intelligence when it isn’t even the best indicator of “value” to society, culture or family.

  9. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Reading all the comments here about giftedness, I realize that the problems that stem from “being gifted” are school problems. The idea that gifted kids need some sort of special attention makes no sense in the framework of homeschool. Because outside of school each kid deserves special attention to learn the best way to learn for their particular skills and interests.

    The activists that want special programs for gifted kids seem to me to be barking up the wrong tree. If parents are being honest about what their gifted kid needs, it’s to get that kid out of school. And if the parents took all their time obsessing about how gifted their kid is and instead spent that time tailoring an education to that kid, then there would be no issues around giftedness.


    • MBL
      MBL says:

      I agree that many “problems” disappear in the context of homeschooling. This is why you find a shockingly high number of top .1% IQ children in the homeschooling community. I wholeheartedly agree that parenting always needs to be tailored to the individual child. That is why I frequently suggest Barbara Barron-Tieger’s MBTI based Nurture by Nature.

      During SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) parent meetings, I held my tongue as best I could to keep from replying “homeschool” TOO much to parents asking for advice about school induced issues. The book used ,A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, is excellent, but woefully lacking in information about homeschooling. I suspect that that will change with the next edition. Right now many psychologists who specialize in the needs of the gifted recommend homeschooling to parents for certain kids.

      But even with homeschooling there are still issues to be navigated. I understand why this is a controversial stance because some people view it as elitist, but I do not believe that it is. It is trying to find support for a potentially fragile population and support for parents who know their child is very different, but can’t talk to anyone who understands. The parenting books with traditional advice can reduce parents to tears with tips and strategies that are completely contrary to the probable nature of these kids. (I know this can be the case for any book for any parent/child relationship.) But books that are tailored towards raising “spirited” children are so reassuring to parents when they see that their children are “normal” in certain contexts.

      So very many children and parents visibly relax when in a setting, event, or activity in which giftedness is assumed and thus a non-issue. Children don’t have to censor their vocabularies or in depth knowledge that they have (or haven’t) learned is off-putting in other situations.

      Even prior to school, it is so isolating for parents who cannot share what milestones their child has met without looking like they are bragging. It is perfectly okay for a parent to voice that they are proud of the milestones that their child has met–provided it is within the realm of “normal.” If the milestone is regarding letters, numbers, reading, etc. you know to just shut up and smile and nod when others are sharing.

      Also, the issues for the children realizing (or the socially damaging not realizing) that other three year olds may not yet know what pink means and they shouldn’t use words like fuchsia and magenta. How do you explain why it is wrong to be precise to a young child?

      Extreme giftedness is a way of being that is usually at odds with the way society is set up and, in the absence of any understanding about this by the either party is likely to be very, very damaging and isolating. I know that I am being construed as obnoxious and for doing so I apologize. I know that I should just give in to the futility of trying to make my views more palatable or understood, but I just know that your blog is likely to have a higher than normal percentage of people who could benefit from resources that I have listed and I feel obligated to try.

      Again, I agree that homeschooling really helps, but it is not the end all be all for the issues for which there is ample documentation. And, given that, at this point, homeschooling is simply not an option many parents are willing to undertake, I stand by the belief in the need for specialized school programs. Though I do apologize for voicing such an unpopular viewpoint.

      Is it too early for me to have a drink?

  10. redrock
    redrock says:

    An intellectually gifted kid needs enough “food for thought” like a music-gifted kid needs a good music teacher and environment. But the assumption is wrong that intellectually gifted kids are always weird, and have problems to integrate in a group. Strange behavior cannot be equalled to giftedness.

  11. Laura
    Laura says:

    My child is not academically gifted, but the kid can connect people in social situations like I’ve never seen! Being around him in a crowded room is like visiting the People Zoo — I just stand by and watch him bob, weave, zip two groups together and make each person smile. I’m incredibly introverted, so it is remarkable to watch him in action. However, a TAG (talented and gifted) letter will never grace our mailbox. There are many gifts in life that just can’t be measured with a test.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Laura, that sounds so lovely. I believe that social giftedness is truly one of, if not the, most important gift one can have. (As long as it is used for good and not evil! :D)

      I love your imagery of him zipping the groups together. I, too, am introverted and stand (near the wall) in awe of social geniuses.

  12. Mark
    Mark says:

    “Of course, the right answer is to tell kids—both types of kids—that all kids are smart and all kids are gifted.”

    Why should we tell kids such a demonstrably false thing? They’ve been around other kids; they know it’s a lie.

  13. MBL
    MBL says:

    Penelope, perhaps you have already done this, but in addition to telling him why being the smartest in the class doesn’t matter, have you asked him why it is important to him? Have you noticed a pattern as to what is happening when he brings it up?

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I am ambivalent on this. You don’t constantly want to tell a kid how great and super exceptional they are – that might make their head explode. But, if you tell them that being smart intellectually and doing a good job in something is not worth anything – isn’t that the wrong signal too? It is telling the kid (or even an adult) that you are highly selective and only acknowledge achievements if they are in a area you deem worthy. Why not pat the kid on the back for doing well in traditional school subjects such as math, and essay writing, and science? Why are achievements in cello or pottery or car repair more worthy? Yeah, I know the comments will now be that school does not teach ANYTHING you might need later in life, to which I counter that it depends on what you choose to do in life and that I don’t expect kids to learn only in school.

  14. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    It’s not just a school thing – the real world can give you a skewed view of yourself too. One of the places I worked really glorified technical ability over everything else – and they ended up with a company full of cranky people each trying to prove they were smarter than the other and not working together. In that environment it was easy for me to feel inadequate as my strengths of teamwork and communication skills were not rewarded.

    The world is not good at rewarding the right things.

    I think it is important to teach kids what are the right things to value and equip them to work off their own internal value system regardless of the environment they are in. Sounds like you’re doing a great job with that. A homeschooling environment may make it easier to do it, but I don’t believe it is essential.

  15. Julie
    Julie says:

    My daughter told me that the gifted program was her reward for being smart. It was an hour twice a week.

  16. K
    K says:

    I’m laughing at the gifted stuff – 2 of my kids got put in the gifted program but one of them is barely surviving. he’s a math whiz but cannot read a novel for comprehension, and he hates writing.
    So he failed his latest “gifted test” because it was a writing prompt. He had to write 3 paragraphs and he could only come up with a sentence. The prompt was “Do you think the school should keep the snacks in the cafeteria and why?” – he wailed to me – “MOM! I wrote ‘yes we should keep the snacks because it gives the students more options’ – I didn’t know what else to write!! I FAILED!!”

    and I laughed about that for ages. I told him i don’t care about those stupid writing prompts — in the adult world, writing 3 paragraphs when a sentence will do is called “BULLSHITTING”

    And I remember in the 80’s I washed out of the gifted class because they had to pull me out of art class and I didn’t want to miss art.

    The whole thing is so stupid.

Comments are closed.