A lot of “gifted” kids end up pretty messed up. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of them sorta came into focus for me recently. A friend refers to it as “the entity theory of intelligence”.
Here’s the thing. Say there’s a kid, and the kid is really smart. Knows lots of words, does math, stuff like that. A lot of parents and teachers then draw the following conclusions:
- The kid is emotionally mature and not still growing up normally for a kid of about that chronological age, give or take.
- The kid fully understands the likely outcomes of their actions; if they do something, they intended the results they got, and if they say otherwise, they’re lying.
- The kid does not need help, and it is inappropriate for the kid to ask for help when other people obviously “need it more”.
You know what this produces? Kids who have never developed basic functionality, because everyone simply declared that they obviously already had it and didn’t need any help. Kids who feel that their emotions and sense of identity are meaningless and wrong because they’ve been told over and over that they are not competent to know themselves.
The reality is this: Intelligence as “just one thing” is at best a misleading term. Yes, cognitive abilities are positively correlated. That theory that people who are good at math will suck at other tasks? Not actually true. People who are good at one thing are typically better at other things, too. But. Keep in mind that “typically”. And keep in mind that things like autism-spectrum disorders or ADHD can produce kids who have weird cognitive shortcomings that are not predicted by the observation that they’re reading three grade levels ahead of where they’re expected to be.
One of the things that I am really grateful to my parents for is this: When I asked for help, they didn’t laugh at me, insult me, or tell me I was lying. They helped.
When I was a little kid, I did not understand doors. The failure mode was this: If I knew a door would push, I would run up to it and push it as hard as I could, then try to turn the knob. The thing is… All that force could, for many doors, be enough to make the latch stick because it was being pushed against the frame. I was totally unable to solve this problem. My mom figured out what was wrong, and taught me a protocol: “Pull, turn, push.” I did this and suddenly doors were (quite literally) opened.
Now. You know what I was reading at the time? Professor E. McSquared’s Calculus Primer.
Some people might have concluded that a child who was skipping the exercises in a calculus text because “they’re obvious” might be reasonably expected to master the challenging art of opening unlocked doors. But instead of reaching that conclusion and then ignoring me in favor of some imagined child who was easily capable of opening doors and choosing not to in order to get attention, my mom assumed that I was a child who had not learned some things and had learned others, and helped me get one of the things I hadn’t learned.
Just a reminder: Kids are still kids. Even smart kids. You can be pretty smart and not be born with complete knowledge of what kinds of things may anger other people. You can be really smart and still lose your temper when baited a lot. And no, it’s not reasonable to expect the gifted kid to magically be able to resist baiting or whatever; that kind of thing is beyond the capabilities of most adults, and expecting it from a kid is just plain stupid.
From: Ben Forshaw
Date: 2011-08-10 04:16:14 -0500
I can relate to this: people find it hard to believe that even though I won gold medals in national physics and math competitions (British Mathematical Olympiad, British Physics Olympiad) when I was at school, I’ve never been able to balance the household accounts: my wife has to take care of it for me. It’s not that I have any trouble with the arithmetic – I do that part because my wife has mild dyscalculia – it’s keeping track of all the debits and credits that throws me.
Date: 2011-08-10 18:14:02 -0500
This needs to be drilled into every parent (or heck adults in general).
I am honestly terrified of even asking a simple question now because of how I was expected to react as a child. Surely if I excelled in a few things, it meant I excelled at the world. Failure meant I was being irrational. It’s also given me a terrible habit of pretending to be a lot less smart than I actually am around people I am unfamiliar with.
From: Dave Leppik
Date: 2011-08-11 11:06:13 -0500
It’s more general than that. Labeling neurotypical kids as “gifted and talented” can rob their motivation to succeed. When they feel they have to live up to something they can’t control (e.g. being pretty or smart), they avoid taking risks that could disprove it. Praise for effort is more healthy, as they can control it.
Date: 2012-01-10 00:22:04 -0600
OH MY GOD THIS
Every parent should have to take some sort of parenting or child development class, preferably during the pregnancy, with reminder sessions every few years.
I read at college level in elementary school, but I was seriously socially inept AND had major control issues (which I still have, but have learned to manage better). High linguistic intelligence, but lower emotional intelligence. People still confuse me pretty often; my boyfriend thinks I have Aspergers like him, and I wouldn’t be that surprised if it were the case, especially since my brother and cousin are both autistic.
People need to assume less, just generally. Why should people be punished just for not knowing something, especially children?
Date: 2012-09-18 14:56:38 -0500
I was in my 70s before I knew I was what it is now called a “Gifted Child”. My degrees are in physics and math, but at the university I discovered equal or greater interest in psychology and social sciences. I retired from my job as Chief Software Engineer for the state in which I live – and got that job without being able to claim I was a software engineer because this state had a law against it, for reasons to complex to note here.
As a child I was essentially parentless, and sought knowledge by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. But I could not trust my memory to retain details I was not interested in. I thought I’d “flunk life” in the second grade because, on the first day we had to write our full names, and I didn’t know how many “s“s were in “Maurissens”. I had an awful time learning to spell, and later thought I must be the worlds champion when it came to using up erasers. I didn’t know how to tie my shoe laces, and later I thought learning to drive a car was forever beyond my abilities, nor could I use a typewriter until after I graduated from the university and had a computer.
These activities, except for erasering, are easily taken over (learned) by parts of the brain that do not rely on conscious thought.
Please treat kid’s kindly.
Date: 2015-06-11 16:19:46 -0500
I was an overachiever for a long time – I was gifted too. When other kids were getting average marks, maybe even above average (average being 5’s, maybe 6’s when I was 13), I was getting high 7’s. I was intelligent – when I didn’t get something, I would do extra research which lengthened into hours. Even when I had never done something, I was naturally excelling at the subject. Even if I didn’t revise for a test, I still got higher than average. I would always come home and tell my parents about my exceptional grades – and yet, even after reading this article, I still don’t fully understand why “gifted child syndrome” happens. Is it the environment? How the child thinks?
Date: 2015-10-29 23:00:21 -0500
I enjoyed reading your article. I noticed that you have omitted mention of those who are gifted spiritually, verbally, musically and artistically as has been my case. My own gift set also set me back as this seemed to eclipse for others my own needs to develop and mature like a normal child. Thanks for this article. It is very helpful.