Sunday, February 16, 2014

Have You Ever Considered the Story of the Ugly Duckling for Your Gifted Child?

Photo Courtesy of Mauro Barsi
     Your young child gets in the car after school and is more quiet than usual. As you drive, you watch him from the rear view mirror, and see that he appears to be lost in thought, looking out the window. You can feel  his sadness.
     "Is something bothering you, sweetheart?" you ask.
     But you know that's not true. Do you ask the same question another way? Do you say, "Tell me about your day," with a false nonchalance?
     Or do you let him sit there, alone with his thoughts, clearly in pain, as you struggle with your own thoughts about how you might soothe him?
     Sometimes, and particularly in the case of very young children, experiences that cause distress are beyond the child's ability to articulate. They're not old enough yet to understand the behavior of other children, nor are they able to identify and name their own feelings.
     When a bright child is shunned for always having the right answers, or for always being willing to volunteer for a project, or raising a hand first when the teacher asks a question, the child is confused: the experience is that by being him/herself, s/he is displaying undesirable behavior. But there's no clear evidence of what an alternative or preferred behavior might be. Gradually, early eagerness in classroom discussions can fade into reticence, which can appear to a teacher to be an unwillingness to participate. This backfires even further, as the child is then corrected for lack of participation. Where is the balance point?
     The child is caught between being accepted/rejected by peers, or being chastised by a teacher for performing below ability. And then there is that third thing, which I mentioned earlier: where in this is the place for the child to express him/herself authentically? to pursue sincere interests? to display his native academic enthusiasm and curiosity?
     You can help, as you already know, by offering the kind of enrichment at home that the child seeks but does not find in the classroom. Supporting interests or hobbies, speaking to the child with respect when these interests arise in conversation, and treating them as the normal expression of your child's abilities and proclivities can go a long way toward creating balance for him as he tries to sort out his sense of who he is.
     The more respect you demonstrate in these conversations, the more normal they will seem to the child, because your respect equals acceptance. If he can feel secure in this, then he might be able to open up to you about the way he feels at school when he is ridiculed, marginalized, or just teased for demonstrating the same skills and interests in the classroom.
     If he permits this conversation to arise, you can take the lead by discussing how everyone has difference gifts, interests, and talents, and that sometimes other children feel uncomfortable around children whose ways are different from the ways of most children.
    It might even be a time to bring in the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Ugly Duckling. This story does not just apply to physical beauty: it has deep ramifications for growth and development of any gift a child may have that may not be perceived or appreciated as a gift when the child is very young.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Prejudice against Giftedness in American Society: The Cost

Photo courtesy of Mauro Barsi     
     It's easy to feel alone. For one thing, your intelligence sets you apart. For another, it is very possible that in the course of any ordinary day, the very intelligence that gives you such great joy is also called out in an "I was just kidding" sort of way:  "Let's ask the genius," or, "What do you mean, you 'don't get it?' I thought you knew everything."
     This prejudice is deeply rooted in American culture. We are living in a time when intelligence is undervalued. Worse, though, than being underrated, in my opinion, is the fact that it is also considered elitist to claim high intelligence. It is not sufficiently supported in our school systems, because it seems that many educators have determined that intelligent children can get along well enough on their own, while their less intelligent classmates seem to deserve the oftentimes limited extra resources for supplementing children's progress in schools across the USA.
     Unfortunately, this is wrongheadedness of the highest order.
     Children of deep or profound intelligence require as much support and encouragement as children whose native intelligence places them on the other side the slope of the bell curve. It is daunting, for example, for a young child to have a question in class that the teacher can't answer, for which a dissembling response is offered in place of honest discourse or encouragement for the child to work with him/her to investigate further to find an answer, or at least offering an indication that honors the process the child demonstrates in the inquiry, rather than sending him/her home to "look it up" or, worse, ignoring the question completely.
     When we ignore our brightest children, we don't just give them the message that their intelligence is weird or wrong. Children incorporate this and interpret it to mean that there is something weird or wrong with them.
     Possible responses include withdrawing into themselves, disregarding their school work in an attempt to fit in with their peers, indulging in self-destructive behavior such as cutting, abusing alcohol, or using drugs. They can become oppositional to the parents whom they subliminally blame for the fact that they are intelligent in the first place, and whom they also may blame for not helping them with the suffering they are not even able to articulate.
     How can  you best support your intelligent child when the loud voice of the world around him or her seems to favor Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus instead of anyone who actually demonstrates skills or talent? It will take your time and your energy to locate them, but in every community there are programs and organizations designed to help you offer encouragement to your gifted child. Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) is a place to start: Mensa offers groups and programs for children. Universities across the country have special programs for gifted children, such as the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington here in Seattle, or the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth,
     The most important thing is to help your child understand that the very nature of intellectual giftedness is such that those endowed with it are in a very small pool of peers. You can help best by finding those peers, identifying these gifts as normal for your child, and helping him or her identify and cope with such responses as jealousy, envy, prejudice, or ridicule in peers and, unfortunately, in teachers and adults who might, for their own reasons, fell threatened by high intelligence in children.
     We are stunting the source of the great future of our country and our culture if we continue the downward pressure on our most gifted to conform to the norms set by society at large, which seems to marginalize original thinkers unless they are also billionaire original thinkers in our consumerist culture that values financial gain over everything else. Our culture has become one that, to paraphrase my mother, knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I can easily imagine the Dowager Countess Grantham on Downton Abbey uttering such a phrase; the fact that she is the person who comes to mind as I write these words suggests to me, and also perhaps to you, that this is a sentiment of an earlier time. This is not the currency of American thought today.
      Garden variety geniuses - and I apply this term with all the richness of irony that it deserves - are  individuals who need love, support, challenges, and understanding.
     You and I know these children are our future. Or is just that we hope they are? I believe that it is in our hands to make it so.