Some thoughts on ‘the curse of the ‘gifted’ child’.

[Taken from a conversation I initiated in a discussion amongst Mensans, responding to a not uncommon – though far from universal – theme]

What I am hearing some people say – and I do stress the ‘some’ – is, with precious little exaggeration, ‘Because I am gifted, I have difficulty interacting with normal people because they do not understand or appreciate my giftedness. Indeed, they resent it.’ The most recent example I saw of this was someone who then added that she finds she can’t get on with most Mensans given they have this fault or that she declared herself not to suffer from, which tends to suggest wherein the problem actually lies; finger-pointing instead of critical self-analysis.

From the get-go I have difficulty with the word ‘gifted’. I find it almost invariably used by – though not exclusive to given it has crept insidiously into common parlance among Mensans – such ‘uncomprehending world of normality’ theorists.

The very implication of its usage in this way – elevating oneself above the vast majority who are simply incapable of getting it – suggests a less-than ideal social comportment on the part of the speaker. For sure if we have a particular obsession with pure mathematics, say, we’re not going to find a general audience for that and will have particular friends with whom we can discuss such abstruse matters, but how does that differ from a teenage girl who dreams day and night of Justin Bieber, or some person obsessed with the achievements and history of Manchester United, or a person so fond of his or her cats he or she can’t stop talking about them? Heavens, these may even be highly intelligent people who happen to prefer those as targets for their attention. In any case, are all ‘gifted’ people interested in maths? I’m not, and I’m – supposedly – ‘gifted’ by the definition of the word as it’s being used, (though I reject its usage).

Abstruse topics discussed with the few who are equally interested is perfectly normal, then, and not a manifestation of intellect. It does not explain maladaptive children who, for this reason and others, are often portrayed as functioning poorly in social situations thanks to the lack of the majority when compared with the self-proclaimed ‘giftedness’ of the purported victim. From this, a number of negatives are extrapolated, the key to which is often the idea that the majority resent those of high intelligence. My suspicion is the majority resent something else entirely, the fault lying with the ‘victim’, (an unfashionable notion since we’ve invented the term ‘victim-blaming’ to cover all such instances, any profession of victimhood seemingly always to be taken at face value when some measure of self-criticism may clearly be in order).

So far, so troubling. However, what if these people themselves have intelligent children and foster in them this same sense of a hostile environment, thus causing isolationism to be inculcated? Or what if they become self-professed – perhaps even widely acclaimed, it doesn’t seem to take much for that to happen – ‘experts’ in the realm of social and emotional problems confronted by the intelligent child and serves as a mentor to others with gifted children?

I don’t profess myself an ‘expert’, but I was thankfully raised by intelligent parents who were not given to make dramatic distinctions between those of high intellect and the majority of people such that they felt I needed special treatment. I did not merely survive normality, I thrived within it – both socially and intellectually – and am thankful for it. So, this is my advice to parents of intelligent children arising out of my contentions as a self-professed know-nothing, for whatever it is worth.

First, if your child is speaking ancient Greek by age ten, make sure they can also ride a bike by age eight. Better still, a skateboard. Buy your children those for Christmas, not Latin primers.

Second, expose your child to Mozart by all means, but expose them equally to punk rock, heavy metal, rap, house, and Justin Bloody Bieber. Permit them to find their own preference.

Third, don’t let them read ahead in their school work. If they complain they are bored with classes, have a word with the head teacher. Have such children prove they have the curriculum covered, and request permission – to be relayed to the child’s teachers – for the child to be permitted extra-curricula books in the classroom he or she can read quietly.

Fourth, develop the child in areas other than the academic. Try to foster an interest in sports, for example – which is, after all, healthy – and keep a check on their friends by inviting them round for dinner. Don’t be paranoid about it, just make sure everything’s running smoothly in that department. If it isn’t, don’t come to the ‘You’re gifted, so you’re doomed’ conclusion. Whip them off to a specialist. There is, to my mind, something at play here other than their intelligence.

Fifth, never admonish the child in a way that emphasises some difference. “Sure your friends do that, but you’re much more clever than they are” is not helpful and anyway, in its implications it is inaccurate. Intelligence is not wisdom and is far-from a guarantor against folly.

In other words, the default should be normalisation, not making a distinction. It’s my belief that, all other things being equal, the child will normalise of his or her own accord, so it’s far more about letting the child be and not taking proactive measures. Yes, as with the ‘extra reading in class’ idea some adjustments may need to be made, but these may only need to be minor.

If the child fails to adapt to the environment, take that child to a specialist. I don’t mean ‘a specialist in why the gifted child fails to adjust’. I find myself cynical about many such experts for reasons already stated. Rather an everyday specialist who deals with common instances of maladaptive children. If intelligence is at the root of the problem it won’t be difficult for a general specialist to ascertain that and for more specialised help to be – discerningly – sought if need be. If not, you want the actual cause identified and dealt with for what it is.

If all else fails, then, make special provision, but make it on the basis of what that child needs, not by some template of ‘the curse of the gifted child’. Definitely not on the basis of ‘the curse of the gifted child in an uncomprehending world of often spiteful normality’. In my experience, in the experience of most people I know with high IQs, that world does not exist.

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