One common and longstanding argument made in defense of gifted education (including by some of my valued colleagues) is that we as a nation must cultivate the talents of these bright students in order to remain economically competitive and because they will be our future leaders.
It’s a shame that we feel the need to make this economic argument. It should be enough to say that all children deserve to have their learning needs met in school, whether they have learning delays, special needs, or are ready for more advanced content than their peers.
It’s also important to understand that gifted and high-achieving students are not one and the same. High-achieving students are not always gifted, and sadly, many gifted students are not high-achieving. While many people understandably conflate the two, gifted children have high intellectual potential, advanced comprehension, uncanny memories, and high levels of curiosity. But they also face unique challenges and problems, such as difficulty relating to same-age peers because their development and abilities are so out of step with their age, and they’re prone to intensity, impatience, sensitivity, and perfectionism.
As a result, as I wrote in a recent essay, being the parent of a gifted child is simultaneously a massive responsibility, a constant challenge, and a never-ending, heart-swelling source of pride. One recent qualitative study on the experience of parenting gifted children found it to be physically and emotionally exhausting, as well as isolating due to lack of understanding of these unique kids. As one parent summarized life with their son, “it’s really hard not to drop everything and have the whole house revolve around him all the time.” My husband and I could have written that sentence ourselves!
Being the parent of a gifted child is feeling the need to explain to your four-year-old’s swim instructor why he wants to know exactly how many more times he’s going to have to keep practicing the same stroke, or why he’s the only child all summer to ask who this person called a “life guard” is, what his name is, how old he is, and what purpose he serves at the pool. It’s feeling obligated to explain to your child’s (understandably) frustrated kindergarten teacher why your child struggles so much with transitions (gifted, and especially profoundly gifted, children tend to be really intense and single-minded when they’re intent on completing a task, which, combined with their ability for complex thinking, can make even rote transitions exceptionally challenging). It’s your heart aching when your preschooler looks up at you and says things like, “it’s hard being a kid.”
On the flip side, being the parent of a gifted child is being astounded when he begins to spell with blocks at just two. “Look mommy, T-R-U-C-K!,” (then adds an “S”) “Now I spelled TRUCKS!” It’s locating Jupiter and some of its beautiful moons on your home telescope, and your four-year-old musing, “I think one of those moons must be Ganymede...”
As with their parents, gifted students both amaze and take a lot out of their teachers. They’re best served by gifted-trained educators who are comfortable with students who work independently, who ask a seemingly endless stream of questions, and who have sky-high levels of curiosity.
In fairness to all exhausted parents and educators out there, no, meeting gifted children’s needs is not an easy task. But it is something we owe each of these special and unique little people, just as we want to help all other students learn and thrive in school.
At the end of the day, gifted children are children first, and gifted second. We should serve our gifted children not because they are gifted and talented, but because they are children. Please let’s stop the rationalizing there.