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Parenting Gifted Children

Notes from a 2 day seminar.

Dec 1997.

Jeremy Lee.


What follows is an interpretation of my notes resulting from a two day seminar on "Parenting Gifted Children" headed by Mirica Gross, Associate Professor of Gifted Education, The University of New South Wales, Australia. Other key speakers were Katherine Hoekman of the University of New South Wales, Jill Leemen, and Cathie Harrison of the University of Western Sydney. The course started Saturday 29 November on the campus of NSW university. I have supplemented these notes with information gleaned from parent/teacher discussions on a mailing list over the last three months, and a significant amount of private reading, observation and deep thought.

The attendees were mainly parents who either have been told that they had a gifted child or suspected as such and wanted to find out more. Other attendees were teachers. Mirica quickly established that a significantly high proportion of those on the course were there with the knowledge of their own parents, but very few were there with the knowledge of more distant relatives, and a reasonable number had told close friends about the course. Casual acquaintances were not told. I fit the category perfectly having told close friends a reasonable amount, a relative just enough to get an "oh yea" sort of reaction, and parents just that it was a parenting course. This was all highly significant since it has been shown that most parents would be unsure about the reaction of friends and family were they to mention that they thought their child was gifted. There seems to be a sort of self-governed restriction on publicly stating that your child is gifted. Many gave reasons were given. They did not want to be viewed as "pushy parents", others seemed aware of several misconceptions in the wider community (more later) and did not want to have to argue a case. The reason that close friends were generally told more is that people tend to seek out acquaintances of like while relatives cannot be chosen and there is a feeling of not wanting to overshadow them. In the vast majority of cases, parents of gifted children are themselves in the same category, and likewise, their friends also tend to be similar in intellectual prowess. This is not surprising, the trait is largely genetic. 

It was also pointed out that the single most qualified people in the world with regard to positive identification of gifted children are the parents of those children. NOT teachers, NOT psychologists, NOT medical practitioners. The parents are the only people with the opportunity to observe these children in all circumstances, under pressure, playing, working, thinking, moving, musing, being naughty, devious and all the rest over the entire developmental stages from womb to adulthood and beyond. Children tend to modify their behavior especially for school, and also of course for strangers. It was also stated that the IQ test, with all its limitations remains the best tool with an objective slant for establishing a predictor of success in school. There are of course many traits ("gifts") that are not measured adequately by an IQ test. Over 80% of all parents who suspect that their children are gifted are subsequently proven correct by external means. Another poignant observation is that a large proportion of the gifted population tend to be introverts.; they don't usually make a big noise, brag , be pushy or have illusions of grandeur.

What does Gifted mean ?

I think this is one of the hardest, and probably one of the more common questions. At first I hated the term, then I came to realise that there is a need for a name or category simply for enabling coherent conversation about the topic. Then I tried to find a better word, and failed. I've come to the conclusion that the biggest problem with calling someone "Gifted" is that it tends to conjure up some kind of deity-induced status of superiority, a characteristic heaped upon the individual rather than earned through hard graft. What if we were to call it "high potential" ? Useless. What would it mean to say, "I have a highly potentialed child "? perhaps: "A child who has high potentials". This is ungainly and has no media impact. Surely any child has high potential, but the term does not indicate or hint their chances of realising any worthwhile talents. Okay, what about the opposite of "disability"? That must be "ability". What does it mean, "I have an abled child." Nothing. So we seem stuck with the term gifted.... and now if you re-visit my objections about the term, the objections do indeed seem relevant to some extent. A deity-induced status of superiority, should perhaps be rewritten as a genetic predisposition towards higher than average ability, this being a condition that is truly heaped upon the child rather than something gained through hard work. The child did not ask for this, the child does not automatically become elitist. The crux of the problem is interpreting what it actually should mean to be gifted. It's not a "gift" in the sense of receipt of global talent, superiority or membership of an elitist club. The club does not exist anyway - we have seen that by the results of questioning parents' attitudes towards their child's giftedness. Superiority is not to be seen as an all-encompassing blanket condition, rather a condition in which some intellectual, emotional, creative or kinesthetic abilities are well advanced above the norm in some children. A talent has to be developed. The talent cannot emerge without the support of many external factors. World society (desperately) needs these developed gifts a.k.a. talents and therefore we require first and foremost a means of identification of the potential of young children to develop sought after skills; and for that purpose, we require a name, a category, a label. Gifted is the label that has been chosen. Learn to understand what it really means, and try to spread a decent definition among the wider community.



So next time you hear/read about someone "with an IQ of XYZ", remember these objections about the English test, and translate them into the context of an IQ test.

One thing though is fairly certain... notwithstanding cheating, if someone scores an overall figure of 160 on an internationally respected test, administered by a competent professional, then that person is pretty damn smart, and it is unlikely that the score is an over-estimate. The trouble is, this single figure still tells you very little about the person. Much more useful would be to have a test score that differentiated somehow between a range of abilities, and in a truly scientific spirit, state a range of certainty for each sub test. In this way, you can at least see that Joey is this good at comprehension, and that poor at spelling with a specified degree of certainty.

[ You might find it useful to read up on the "normal distribution" to fully understand the percentages quoted in the following paragraph. ]

The first three of these misconceptions were presented in the course as "Cop Outs", excuses if you wish, something to fall back on by way of explanation as to why there is no need to make any extra effort for gifted children. Lets face it, teachers have a tough enough job as it is, making even more special demands, even for able, capable and often when they get going, enthusiastic children, is just a bit too hard. It costs more money and if, with the current level of effort and expenditure 68.3% are well served, and the 15.85% with mental disabilities are given special treatment, then the remaining 15.85% - the gifted population, can cope on their own, or work within the rules. Maybe most of these gifted children make passable grades, then the schools' success-rate is quite adequate thank you very much. 

The encouraging point is this: with the extra effort, reasonably minor modifications to the syllabus, class attendance modifications, acceleration and enrichment programs, the trained teacher could address those children lying up to about two standard deviations from the norm and significantly enhance the whole schools' performance as well as the lives of many gifted students who would otherwise not pass through school with enough enthusiasm to really make a mark on the world. It is from this pool of intellect that society often gets the doctors, the scientists, engineers, craftsman and so on. It's nothing short of a crime that more effort is not put into the education and development of these children. This is something that has to be addressed top down. From the government to the people. It won't happen though if parents don't make a big noise. With significantly more effort, we could address the 2.3% of the population that lie beyond two standard deviations. Individualised attention is probably required here, since the range of abilities in this top 2.3% is truly vast. Some would (and have) stated the top 5% of the population requires individualised programs. It is likely that the cure for cancer, AIDs, environmental pollution and other major world problems are going to require some pretty smart bodies, and these bodies are those largely neglected in our schooling system for various reasons, some of which are given above.

Six Gifted Personality Types

  1. Type 1 

    The middle class ideal. 90% of untrained identification of the gifted population fall into this category. Type 1 is NOT a teacher pleaser.

  2. Type 2 

    Can become a bully. Often NOT identified as gifted.

  3. Type 3 

    Underground. Strives for peer acceptance. Does not stand out in ability due to the desire for normality. Deliberately underachievers for peer acceptance. Girls do this more than boys.

  4. Type 4 

    The dropout. Often boys, thrives outside the classroom.

  5. Type 5 

    Double labeled. Also known as twice-exceptional. This is the child who is very bright but has a specific learning disability, this could be short term memory problems, dyslexia, ADD etc. Guess which of the two exceptionalities gets most attention.

  6. Type 6 

    The Autonomous learner. This child sees the teacher and the child as a partner. This type of attitude is desirable and hopefully, other types can be brought into the same category; not that this sort of transition happens all on its own though, it takes external effort from parents and teachers firstly to identify the gifted child, whatever personality type and secondly to implement a programme.


Some things that you must do for your gifted child.

First, let it be recognised that of all families with one gifted child, 88% will have at least one other child in the same category. This is because as mentioned before, the trait is genetic. It should follow therefore that the parents of a gifted child are usually gifted themselves. This may of may not be reflected in the social and monetary status of the family. Why ? because being smart does not automatically bring success. Talents, high income and social success has to be developed. It is almost obvious but often overlooked, and sometimes I suppose forgotten.

Never ever try to compare siblings. It not only cannot be done with any degree of success, there is the potential for great psychological damage. Remember that all children are different, all parents are different, and there are different parenting styles. It is likely that a different parenting style is required for each child, but of course you have to be seen to be fair.

Since many parents of gifted children are also gifted, it is likely that these parents have a perfectionistic attitude. You might think that this attitude has been mastered, even devised a perfect method ! ( laugh now ). Perfectionist parents are going to be unwittingly teaching their children the same ways by example. More on this later. Try to expose your own mistakes, give the opportunity to fail, partake in activities that you do not do well.

Talk to your highly able children about giftedness, what it means, that all children are different, some have special talents. Do not praise everything that a child produces or eventually the child will see through this and never try hard. In the end anything will do knowing that the wildest scribble elicits a response like, "Lovely darling, may I hang it on the fridge ?" If you know that your child can do much better and could be in the mood, try something like asking if it really is the best that s/he can do, then if something better is produced, then reward the effort as well as the results. Constructive criticism is often required by the gifted child, they may have no peer based benchmarks with which to compare. By way of a real life example, there was once this 14 yr. old with a new camera that took a lot of snaps and everyone liked them so much. So more snaps were taken and everyone liked them so much. So more snaps were taken, and everyone liked them so much... except some old guy who complained that this one had a pole sticking out of the head of the person in front, and this one would be great but for that tree there, and this one is lovely but overexposed and so on. So the child instead of being upset asked, "Will you tell me what's wrong with the rest of my photographs if I bring them for you to see ?" In the end, the child saw that none of the photographs were really special, they were just snaps but there was potential, and the child understood finally the difference between a photograph and a snapshot and this old guy will never be forgotten as a friend. The next roll of film included a photograph that won first prize at a flower show.

On the other hand, never tell your gifted child that you do not believe that the work produced could possibly be done without help. In that same flower show the judges refused to judge some craft work of one particular child, insisting by way of an explanatory note that they could not and would not judge anything that was made from a kit. In fact the work was original, the design was original, and the finish indicated that the work was professionally produced. Devastating.

Give your gifted child tasks around the house. Not too easy, not too hard. Challenge is the crux of the matter. Take your foot off the break and do not refuse to try to answer and discuss complex and difficult concepts with a child who is openly inquisitive about some of life's really hard problems. Even if you don't know, then this is still an opportunity for learning. Try to find out from whatever means you can. Hopefully, you have developed a good enough relationship with the school (see later) that you can ask the teacher to help to provide an answer.

Recognise that when a sibling gets an award or achieves a particular position, the self esteem of the on-looker will take a dip; but don't worry. this is temporary and normal. Look for something that the second child can do well that the first finds difficult. 


School relations

There is much anecdotal evidence that I have seen regarding difficulties between parents, teachers and schools. Sometimes it seems that this is justified on the part of the parents, many times perhaps the situation could be different. In order to get the best out of the system and thus serve their children better, parents need to develop a good working relationship with the school. Perhaps the most constructive thing that a parent can do to cement a good working relationship with the teachers is simple. Write a thank you note! Most teachers will probably confirm that such notes are very rare indeed. Some might have only received five letters of thanks in thirty years of teaching. You can use this statistic to your advantage because when a nice letter is written to a teacher at the school, you can be sure that everyone there gets to see it! It may even be pinned onto the staff notice board. With some of this behind you, it would be fairly hard for the staff to refuse to at least listen to what you have to say. Another sure-fire way to get on side is to donate some time or services to the school. This could range from covering books to finding scrap paper for the children to use. A useful way of finding out just how the learning environment works is to get into some position where you are helping out within the classroom environment, reading recovery, maths tutoring and the like. If you do this and can see that the learning environment is hopelessly out of control for your child, then at least you know first hand what it's like and can make an informed decision about changing schools if it goes that far. On the other hand, you may find that there are opportunities that you recognise that may be implemented for your child. With a good relationship with the teachers, you will find that it is much easier to suggest an extension program, acceleration or whatever. Many good teachers may be working in an environment that is less than ideal. Perhaps they feel powerless to make the changes that they know are required because it goes against school policy. For this reason, it is important to find out the attitudes and policies of the school which is undoubtedly going to be under the control of the headmaster. So if you can find out that the headmaster has specific policies, attitudes and goals, start with the headmaster because that is from where action will be driven. Maybe if the school is a primary school, they have an unwritten goal to get x number of students into selective schools. Identification of such a goal may be used as a vehicle for getting them to take notice of certain professional articles on gifted education and even perhaps to accept an invitation to accompany you to a seminar or similar. If you can afford to supply cassette tapes or a substantial book on gifted education, this would be an ideal gift to accompany a letter of thanks. Try and find other schools from well out of the area that have a gifted program in place and approach the coordinator to find out if they are willing and able to visit some parents and teachers in your area, perhaps addressing two or three schools at the same sitting one evening. It would be hard to ignore an advocate of a working program, and hopefully difficult to refuse the opportunity to hear what other schools are doing. 

Don't be too surprised however to find out that it typically takes five years to implement a solid working gifted program in a school that previously had none. You might be wondering now, "Why bother ? - My child will be in secondary school by then." Well, that's understandable, but apathy will prevent any changes ever being made for the good, and remember also, that even if the full program takes five years to implement, benefits must surely come within a reasonable time. If you can find or create just one advocate for gifted specialised education, then your child will benefit over having no one to understand the child's situation.

Some Golden Rules for good school relations


An interesting tally

Mirica was discussing a few common characteristics of gifted children, perfectionism, sensitivity, and the like. After talking about how it has been observed that highly intelligent children often have very good hearing and/or sense of smell, she indicated that touch is another heightened sense that can be correlated with the gifted population. Some children are acutely interested and sensitive to the feel of things. Some might have to touch everthing, fabrics, walls and so on. On this topic, she asked of the audience for each parent to raise their hand if they had to cut the lables from the clothes of their children. More than 60% put their hands up ( some put up two hands ). Then she asked who had to turn their socks inside out because the seams annoyed them. About 40% raised their hands. She said that this never ceases to amaze her because when she does this with a random group of parents only a small number raise their hands. This is representative of the tactile sensitivity of gifted children.