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What does it mean to be the parent of a gifted child?

Is it easy?

Sadly, it is not easy being the parent of a gifted child. It should be an absolute joy, but western society at least, does not recognise the situation with the same understanding and empathy as for a retarded child. The child who scores only 60 on a standardised test is given special treatment. The parents receive counseling, sound advice and sympathy. Special classes or schools are suggested and implemented and sometimes financial benefits are forthcoming from the government. In contrast however, the gifted child is often not only ignored, but assumed to be capable of coping as well or better then average children. This is absurd. There is no government funding.

There are many misconceptions about raising a gifted child and there is certainly very little sympathy from friends, teachers and other authority figures. The reason that it is so difficult is partly because western society and many other societies group children by age and work on average performance of the age group.

By definition, gifted children are far from average. In fact the child who scores 140 on a standardised test is quite rare. This child is certainly a special case. What makes it worse is that the enhanced abilities of this child are not uniformly advanced. The child may, to most people appear to be of average ability or in some cases below average. The child may have a gift for mathematics but be average in English, or may be highly creative or dramatic but possess terrible fine motor skills.

The child who scores 40 points below average gets special treatment. The child who scores 40 points above average gets nothing. They are frustrated little people. Sometimes a six year old with the reasoning ability of a fourteen year old will behave quite obnoxiously.

The six year old who can reason with near adult ability may not enter into competition for fear of failure, may not put their head under water for fear of drowning. This child might be extremely annoyed by certain food textures, by labels on clothes, by seams on socks. He or she might have a very acute sense of smell and be bothered by minor odours. This child might not like to play with same age children, of could throw a tantrum if asked to do something mundane or boring. A child such as this is likely to be bored to tears at school. He or she may hide under the desk, refuse to go to school and complain of tummy trouble. He might spend the day staring out of the window or she may act an idiot for peer attention.

A highly gifted three year old may be morbidly worried about mortality and death, this child may see monsters and have almost psychic experiences with his toys (rampant imagination).

Depression and depressive behaviour is not uncommon in gifted children, young and old.  

Gifted children often start to compare their abilities with those in their class at a much earlier age than is typical. A gifted five year old may be at school already aware of the relative abilities of every child in class and sometimes those above. Children do not normally start norm-referencing until about the age of seven. The six year old might even be worried about a career, or already have one picked out.

Perfectionism is a huge and common problem to deal with. The parent of a gifted child needs to counsel and guide the child on a daily basis. The big problem is fear of failure. The child will have a clear picture about how something should look or how something should be, but lack the experience and motor skills to achieve at such a high level. This can cause unbelievable distress. This child is often in the situation that perfectly formed letters are desired, unattainable and therefore should not be attempted. The parent, on the other hand, knows that perfection is not required, will try to make the child accept less than perfection and the result being conflict. This is a spiral that can consume the family, make homework nearly impossible and feed depressive attitudes. The way to cope with perfectionism is to firstly acknowledge that nothing is perfect. The parent can challenge the child to find anything perfect. This of course cannot be done since everything has some imperfection. Even the balance between matter and anti-matter at the point of the big-bang was not perfect; if it was perfectly balanced, then all matter and antimatter would have annihilated and we would not be here to debate the matter. Once the child has got this idea – and gifted children catch on rapidly, then the parent needs to introduce stories about how so many mistakes can result in something new and good, like penicillin for example. Or an artist may deliberately make mistakes to see what comes out. This kind of thinking is often quite alien to a gifted child and will cause quite a lot of debate and deliberation. Even so, the parent can expect a couple of years of rampant perfectionism when treated in this way.

If perfectionism is not put into context, it may become so controlling that the child gives up. This would be sad indeed, and must surely have happened numerous times. Bear in mind too that parents of gifted children are very likely to be highly intelligent and likely also to be perfectionists – there are great advantages in having high goals. One should not squash the perfectionism completely. That would be wrong. It just needs to be put into context.

Gifted children know how to argue. From this point of view – it is certainly not easy to parent a high-IQ child. They have very advanced reasoning skills and will often come up with quite astounding lines of argument that will squash the demands of the parent in one blow. Modern society and particularly American parenting books preach that parents should manage their children with debate rather than by dictatorial methods. This may be all well and good for normal kids but not for adult-minds-in-kids’ bodies. Sometimes the parent will just have to say, "Look. I am the boss of this house and it’s my decision. There is no more to be said. Do it or face the consequences." Having said that, this assumes that there are known hard rules of the house. There has to be a reward-punishment scheme. Violence will not work. Granting and denial of privileges does work; but the rules must be firm, unambiguous and enforced.

Lying and deceit is another skill of gifted children. They learn to deceive successfully at a much earlier age than normal. The parent of a gifted child needs to teach values and the subtleties of the "white-lie" at a very early age.   The gifted child will also come home from school with long tales of woe about the other kids at school; their problems, their stupidity, their behaviour. The most common phrase during these debriefing sessions has got to be, "It’s not FAIR." Fairness seems to be a big topic with gifted children, and the parent will likely spend hours listening to what’s not fair about life, the universe and everything.

To sum up, the above problems are very common in gifted children. The management of these problems takes considerable skill and time on the behalf of the parent. It is NOT easy to be the parent of a gifted child.

… but it is fun. J