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.

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