By Rachel Puryear
If you were a highly intelligent, sensitive, and curious child; then chances are, you also had/and still have: An introverted and gentle temperament, a strong innate sense of justice (that many others won’t grasp), and you love (and need) down time to let your mind wander and think. You probably appreciate the outdoors, feel rejuvenated in nature, and are deeply moved by art and music. You are unlikely to embrace a strict organized religion, but likely have some informal spiritual inclinations.
If you were designated as gifted and talented when you were a child, someone recognized that you were curious, caught onto things quickly, and had a knack for solving problems – and likely, a whole lot more. It should also be noted that not all highly intelligent children get designated as gifted and talented – some adults may even mistake an intelligent child’s differences as indicating instead that they are delayed. A child may also be intelligent but also have learning difficulties. Meanwhile, other adults may (incorrectly) believe that giftedness is simply not real, or not relevant.
It is important to identify children with high intelligence, as they may have different social and educational needs than most other children. Furthermore, they very much need opportunities to socialize with other highly intelligent children, which may or may not be available for many of them. The widespread lack of recognition of highly intelligent children’s needs means that gifted children tend to be regularly underserved.
To help with writing about this subject, I interviewed a respected child psychologist in San Francisco, who specializes in treating gifted and talented children’s mental health needs. For professional reasons, she asked to remain anonymous, but generously lent her tremendous expertise.
As background for my own interest in this subject, I was also designated as gifted and talented during my childhood. I was placed in a Gifted and Talented Education Program (GATE) for a short time in school. However, this program was soon cancelled due to misguided (and maybe jealous) beliefs from parents whose children were not admitted to the GATE program. Parents whose children were denied admission to the program argued that GATE should be “available to ALL children, not just ones who met the criteria”. So the program had to be adjusted for students who would not have otherwise qualified, which undermined its entire point – leading to it being abandoned, as it was no longer effective. This was early in the “everyone gets a trophy” mindset that took off in the late 1980s and 1990s.
So, according to an expert in this field – and what she had to say also aligns well with my personal experience – here are some things we really need to stop telling gifted, talented, and highly intelligent children, even if it’s well-intended:
“Let’s Spread You Around”
Highly intelligent children, more than probably anything else, need each other. Whether or not any two gifted children become close friends, at least we understand a lot about each other. We can have trouble fully relating to even the kindest and most well-meaning of most other children, though. And that doesn’t mean just on an intellectual level – but on a social and emotional one, too. Highly intelligent people relate to others differently, and we can feel like aliens from another planet when we’re in a more general crowd.
Unfortunately, schools often have a “spread the wealth” mentality when it comes to placing gifted children in classrooms. The idea behind it is not malicious – the assumption is that by spreading gifted children across as many different classrooms as possible, rather than concentrating them closely together; they will somehow “influence” and “help” other children, just by being around them. Well, this doesn’t work by osmosis. Instead, this method just separates gifted children from what they need the most – one another.
This does nothing to help anyone. It just leads to highly intelligent children becoming terribly lonely and socially isolated. And that is cruel.
To be clear, this is not to argue that gifted children should instead be segregated from others at school – the opposite extreme is also problematic. Instead, gifted children should have opportunities to sometimes socialize and work with one another, while generally being integrated with other kids. The GATE program I was in at school actually worked like this – GATE students were pulled from a couple general classes per day, and did GATE classes together instead.
“You Have to Become a Doctor or Lawyer”
This needs to stop. High-stress professional occupations are not the only options for highly intelligent people. Besides, just because someone is intellectually capable of a particular career path does not mean that they are temperamentally suited for it, that they will enjoy it, or even that they will necessarily be good at it. Besides, intelligent people can make valuable contributions in all kinds of fields – maybe even better ones than they would make if they went into the most prestigious professions.
Gifted and talented children have just as much of a right to be themselves as anyone else does. Their choice of career paths should be respected, regardless of whether it’s something that requires high intelligence. They deserve to pursue their own passions.
“But So Many Can’t Do What You Can, So You Owe it to the World to…”
Stop right there. Yes, highly intelligent people are well aware that there are lots of people in the world who dream of becoming a high-level professional; people who try and work hard and give their all, but will never get there because they just don’t have the abilities that their more gifted peers do. Life is unfair that way.
However, this reality does not obligate gifted children or anyone else to choose life paths that are wrong for us, just because someone else wanted to do something but couldn’t.
Consider that this principle is not just limited to intellectual ability. For instance, maybe I would have liked to be a professional gymnast. But no matter hard I worked at it, I’d always be held back by having a large, 5’6 frame (female-bodied), and endomorphic body type – and having balance difficulties, as well, thanks to being born with spinal stenosis. That doesn’t mean, however; that someone else who is under five feet, petite, and very graceful should pursue gymnastics, if that’s not what they want to do. Likewise, a person who is over 6 feet tall and beefy doesn’t have to be a football linebacker if he doesn’t want to, just because his shorter, lankier peers wanted to but couldn’t get there. More analogies like this could go on, and on, and on.
Highly intelligent people are human beings, just like everyone else. They have the same right to choose their own lives, and live as they wish, as everyone else does. Their giftedness is awesome, but they are also worth so much more than what they can do.
“You Must Solve All the World’s Problems!”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone. Again, we aren’t miracle workers.
Besides, there’s an unfortunate implication in this that one must be gifted to do good in the world, and that’s absolutely not true. In fact, the responsibility for addressing the world’s problems lies on everyone – not just on the various “someone elses” of the world. Anyone, regardless of their capabilities, can contribute something.
However, highly intelligent people usually do have some great ideas. To get the benefit of them, though, it’s also on others to listen, and give us space to speak. We tend to be quiet, and can easily be talked over in a conversation.
Furthermore, people – again, regardless of capabilities – tend to be much more likely to positively impact the world by doing things they love, rather than things they are halfhearted about at best.
“You Need to Learn to Fit In More”
Gifted people have as much of a right to be themselves as anyone else does. The way they are is just fine.
Besides, the world’s greatest ideas and innovations have always been developed by people who didn’t fit in, and not fitting in enhanced their creativity and thinking, it didn’t hinder it.
“You Need to Be More Humble, So Others Don’t Feel Bad”
Again, this is an extension of the previous point. Each person is responsible for their own feelings, rather than expecting others to change in order to help regulate someone else’s feelings.
Gifted people don’t have to hide who they are because others feel uncomfortable with smart people. Highly intelligent people go through enough in life of being targeted, bullied, and ostracized because others are jealous and insecure about their capabilities. Others have to just learn how to deal with it, rather than placing the burden on highly intelligent people.
“Why Do You Need Help? You’re Gifted, That’s Enough”
Gifted or not, any child can struggle. People who are highly intelligent are prone to most of the same problems anyone else can have, and we can even be prone to some types of difficulties more than others. Many children are both simultaneously gifted, and also have learning or other disabilities. Accordingly, adults should be just as readily willing to help highly intelligent children who seem to be struggling or suffering, as they are to help any other similarly situated children.
“I Don’t Believe in You”
There are people who do not believe that being gifted or highly intelligent is a “thing”. They believe that gifted and highly intelligent children are nothing more than the product of parents’ wishful thinking, “spoiling” children, entitlement, privilege, egotism, a “false” sense of superiority, and more.
In fact, gifted and talented children come from all socioeconomic levels, colors, and walks of life. Those who come from poverty or other disadvantage, though, are especially underserved.
While there are people in the world who falsely believe themselves to be “special” and superior to others – perhaps because of narcissism, or ignorance – that does not change the fact that highly gifted and intelligent people are real, and deserve proper recognition.
Some people feel that it is anti-egalitarian to acknowledge that some people are gifted and highly intelligent. While this may come from a well-intended place, it does not justify invalidating highly intelligent people’s existence – we would be much better off if people simply accepted that some people are more intelligent than others, and some people are highly intelligent. Just like some people are more athletic than others, some people are kinder than others, some people are more creative than others, some people have a stronger character than others, and so forth.
To deny that people are different, and have widely varying capabilities; is actually a false sense of egalitarianism. True egalitarianism does not deny differences, or insist that everyone become the same – instead, it means making sure that everyone has the resources and opportunities to pursue a life that is sustainable and enjoyable to themselves.
Regardless of our abilities; we are all human, and deserve basic dignity and choices. Denying highly intelligent people’s existence does not offer dignity or choices to anyone else, but it can strip highly intelligent people of those.
And, in case it needs repeating – gifted and highly intelligent people are absolutely real, and need connection and autonomy just like everyone else does.
Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to the gifts we all have to offer, and chances to fully develop them. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please “like” this post and hit subscribe, if you have not done so already. xoxo