This article Jim Delisle addresses common fears among parents of profoundly gifted children. He relates the comments he has heard from parents of profoundly gifted children, such as “I’m not smart enough to help my child” and “I’m sure if I do the wrong thing I’ll just ruin this child.” For each, he provides a brief discussion and advice.
Author: Delisle, J.
Publications: The Communicator
Publisher: California Association for the Gifted
Volume: Vol. 32, No. 1
Year: Spring 2001
I’ve been involved with the care and nurturing of gifted children for almost 25 years–longer than I’ve been a dad, longer than I’ve been a husband, and almost as long as I’ve been literate! So, of course, I thought I’d seen and heard it all in this field of study that has become my life’s passion. I wouldn’t call myself jaded, but I was perhaps, a bit too smug about the completeness of my knowledge of gifted children.
During the past year, however, I have had the privilege of getting to know a large number of profoundly gifted children and adolescents. These powerfully bright and intense young people presented realities that I had not experienced previously: a seven-year-old girl taking college courses; a 14-year-old boy whose need to help others caused him to raise thousands of dollars for cancer research; two 10-year-olds whose knowledge of physics far surpassed any college student I know; and an 11-year-old whose high school graduation prank (with several other seniors) involved releasing three pigs into his suburban high school, each of the three pigs adorned with a number: 1, 2, and 4. “I think they’re still searching for Pig #3!” Ken giggled.
Perhaps the most touching story came from the mother of a five-year-old who spoke to me at one of my seminars in Texas. She wasn’t sure whether Jeffrey was “truly gifted” in the test-taking, IQ sense, but she was definite about one thing: his emotional sensitivity to everyone and everything around him. To illustrate, Mom spoke of Jeffrey’s reaction to getting a pet kitten. About three days after receiving this living plaything, Jeffrey was holding the kitten as it slept, rocking it back and forth, tears streaming down his face. When Jeffrey’s concerned mother asked what was wrong, her young son calmed himself enough to tell her this: “This is the most beautiful creature that has ever existed.” Jeffrey’s mother’s question to me? “Will he ever not be this sensitive?” The answer was obvious.
This Texas mom, and other parents of profoundly gifted children I have had the good fortune to meet, share the concerns of all parents: “Will my child be happy and successful?” and “How can I help my child to become a good person?” But there are also some unique concerns to being the parent of a child who may, indeed, be the family’s smartest member. I have noticed what I have come to call PGG or “Profoundly Gifted Guilt,” which is the feeling that, in some important ways, parents of extremely gifted children feel unable to adequately raise the child they have been given. These genuine feelings of inadequacy are simultaneously well meaning and ill-placed, for when we downplay our competencies as parents, we do a disservice to both our children and ourselves, as we underestimate the effects of our own importance on the lives of our children.
What are some of the statements that I’ve heard from parents of profoundly gifted children? Here are some samples.
“I’m not smart enough to help my child.”
From a very young age, profoundly gifted children have both knowledge and insights that can realistically be described as uncanny. With very little direct instruction, and often limited exposure to the wider world around them, profoundly gifted children just seem to know a fact, a theory, a concept, a truth. To many of their parents, this is scary, for they are unable to point to the genesis of this wisdom in their children. How, then, can these parents take credit for what their children know or how they learned it? When this situation repeats itself often enough-as it will with profoundly gifted children-some of their parents begin to feel a loss of ownership in their parenting. This is only one small step away from feeling inadequate as a parent.
At some point, almost all parents realize that their children know more than they do about particular topics. Generally, though, this occurs when the children become teenagers, when it is safe for parents to admit that they don’t remember enough algebra to help with their 10th grader’s math assignment. But when this situation presents itself time and again when the child is six or eight years old, a different parental attitude prevails, generating the onset of inadequacy that is woven into the statement, “I am not smart enough to help my child.”
The truth is, parents are not necessarily seen by even the most brilliant of children as the font of all knowledge, the annotated bibliographer of all that is true and wise. Instead, kids, even profoundly gifted ones, see mom and dad as the people who give them baths, prepare their meals, pick them up at soccer, and embarrass them in front of company. Sure, it is a bonus to be seen as an adult who knows a little something about this and that, but the Academic Decathlon is seldom run in the family room or the kitchen. Wise parents know that it is OK to say “I don’t know” in answer to even a young child’s question. Whether parents then choose to learn the answer together with their child is up to them, but the reality is that effective parenting has less to do with book smarts and more to do with hugs. And these hugs are things that every parent can dole out to their children with wild abandon!
“I’m sure if I do the wrong thing I’ll just ruin this child!”
Maybe the suggestion has been made that a profoundly gifted child be accelerated several grades in school. Or maybe the hint has been given that the child’s high intellect complicates social issues enough that counseling should begin. Or perhaps grandma has warned that if you don’t get him out of that computer class and into a sandbox that boy will have troubles for the rest of his life. Whom do you believe? How do you decide? Where do you turn?
Parents of profoundly gifted children often feel isolated in seeking solutions to these and other life dilemmas. Even parents of moderately gifted children may not be able to give much advice, as the problems they are seeing or the situations they are encountering bear little resemblance to the enormity of the issues as perceived by parents of the profoundly gifted. Each dilemma seems dire and life-changing (how else could you describe the decision to allow a 10-year-old to begin taking college courses?) and parents of profoundly gifted children often feel as if the wrong decision will result in the most awful of consequences.
What is often forgotten is that in almost every case, a decision is reversible. So, if the grade skipping doesn’t work out as well as it was assumed it might, or if the counselor chosen is someone who doesn’t respect the child appropriately enough to help her, gears can be switched or a new direction can be taken. Just like the child who frets so much about the huge assignment coming due that he never begins to do it, parents of profoundly gifted children must realize that the worst decision is no decision. They need to consider the possible side effects, good and bad, of various options, and go with the one that makes the most sense to them at the moment. No one can predict what lies ahead in two weeks, two months, or two years, but keeping an open mind to switching in mid-stream is one way to alleviate the guilt that any but the optimal choice will bring ruin on a brilliant young life. As my son would say, “Ain’t gonna happen.”
“I want to talk about my gifted child but I seldom do.”
Parents earn bragging rights the minute their child is born. When she first walked, when he first spoke a sentence, or which college accepted the twins are all legitimate milestones that parents are expected to share with their friends and relatives. Usually, there is a quid pro quo attitude about this among adults: “You talk about your child for a while, then I’ll tell you about mine.”
This social discourse generally runs smoothly, as the stories are believable and the range of embellishments are within bounds that parents can understand and appreciate—until you are the parent of a profoundly gifted child. For when parents begin to say that their child began reading at 18 months, or that she asks questions about the origins of human life at the age of three, or that he is going to start taking a high school geometry class instead of third grade math, they begin to get funny looks. Some people listening to such parents think they are lying or making up stories just to make other children look bad. Others think these are evil parents who push, push, push their child for their own selfish satisfaction. Still others (and they are often relatives) ignore the comments altogether, refusing to see the profoundly gifted child as being anything other than a typical child who is just “a little bit smart.”
The effect of these reactions often leads parents of the profoundly gifted to say very little about their child’s progress to anyone, for fear they will be stereotyped as “that type” of parent. Perhaps there will be a neighbor or close friend who both believes and relishes the stories that are shared, but these understanding souls are rare. So, the parents choose to go underground, talking only with each other yet feeling frustrated that the birthright of every parent-telling stories about your kid-is being denied because the child they have is more unique than common.
A good solution is to actively seek out parents of other profoundly gifted children (the World Wide Web has made this easier). When a parent of a profoundly gifted child finally hears someone say those beautiful words, “Yeah, I know what you mean. That happened to us last year with our daughter,” a curtain is lifted and the play begins. Another answer is to write down the child’s landmark events, witticisms, and insights. These can be shared, either moments or years later, with the spouse who wasn’t there to hear or see them or with the child who asks, at age 30, “Dad, was I always like this?” And finally, the strongest of parents might just choose to forge ahead and brag anyway, developing all the while a resilient shell that protects against the looks and the words that can hurt if they are taken too inwardly.
“I’d rather have a child who is ‘normal’ than one who is gifted.”
Some parents of profoundly gifted children are so alarmed by the animosity that others demonstrate toward their child’s intelligence that they come to believe that giftedness is more of a burden than a blessing. Indeed, some even see extreme giftedness as a handicap, as personally disabling as a profound mental or physical challenge. How sad when the gift becomes a liability, as it denigrates the joy and wonder of early and deep insight.
What parents of profoundly gifted children need to realize is that if their child is precocious far in advance of his years, this is normal behavior–normal for the child, as the individual that he is. This is not to say that the child’s performance or depth of understanding is typical, but there is a vast difference between being “normal” and “typical,” just as there is a major distinction between their opposites, “abnormal” and “atypical.” No one wants to be abnormal, but does anyone really care if they are atypical? It’s a linguistic nuance that carries over into one’s feelings of adequacy.
To be sure, there are major challenges to raising any child, but the added element of profound giftedness gives a whole new meaning to the word “complex.” Still, if parents can refrain from using the “n” word-normal-in front of their children, their play-mates, their relatives, and their teachers, perhaps a whole new era of understanding can begin. It’s worth a try.
“Drissle, drassle, drussle, drome
Time for this one to come home”
These classic words from an antiquated Saturday-morning cartoon, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” remind me of just how old I really am! In case you were not, like me, around when the Earth was still cooling, the words come from a gifted scientist, the Professor, who sends his gifted lab assistant, Sherman, to different historical events via his Way-Back Machine, a time machine that helped teach little kids like me about both ancient Greece and the Founding Fathers. Sherman ‘s adventures almost always made an impact on history, but his curiosity often got him into trouble, causing the Professor to bring back his young charge with the “drissle, drassle, drussle, drome” spell cited above.
It’s weird to remember that spell after all these years, but I write the words here because they seem to fit this article’s conclusion. Parents of profoundly gifted kids, like Sherman, sometimes want to go back and rearrange history. They want to make the world a place where all gifted children are understood and accepted. They want to retrace mistaken steps, changing solutions that did not work and forging new directions that lead to better places. They want to learn as much as they can about who gifted kids are, so that when they get one they will know what to do with her. And they want to go to Dr. Spock’s office and ask him how to raise kids who don’t fit the typical patterns he discusses in his books.
But no parent of a profoundly gifted child wants to give back the child. Yes, profoundly gifted children may be challenging kids to raise, but most of the challenges come from clouding our own adult minds with fears that are unfounded or guilt that is not deserved. Like Sherman, it’s time to come on home and recapture the magic that exists in the minds and hearts of our profoundly gifted children-and their parents.