Why Do They Insist on Calling it Gifted?

“Gifted” has always meant one thing to me: over-privileged child of parents who are convinced the galaxy revolves around their precious, precious offspring.

All kids are “gifted,” right?  All kids have some unique, amazing offering to the universe that no one ever made before in quite the same way.  As much as it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, I have always also (perhaps paradoxically) felt in my bones that God never made the same thing twice.  Every child is a gift.

So, how to explain that thing about Nat that makes her so different from other kids her age, and so like the various kids described in the articles I’ve finally broken down and started reading about “gifted” children?  I don’t have another word for it, but Nat’s brain doesn’t work in a typical way.  Our recent parent-teacher conferences brought this home to me more profoundly than ever, and most of all, it brought home the fact that I need to attend to Nat’s difference.  I need language for it so that I can advocate for her when she proves herself to be a bit of a cog in the classroom machinery, however charming and beloved a cog (which she is—the teachers and other kids adore her.)

On a side note, I’ve read a few articles and found my head bobbing as kids from about 10-17 are being described in typical school situations as “underachievers.”  Ever since I started looking at the home school literature (especially the classics like Teach Your Own by John Holt, thanks to Dawn’s recommendation), I have found myself remembering my own school experiences as being full of busywork—maybe 80-90% busywork, in fact.  Perhaps the only work I didn’t find to be so easy I could spit it out in half-time with my hands tied behind my back was Math, and lo and behold, if that didn’t turn out to be due to my refusal to put any effort into it (thanks to Ms. Hernon of Algebra II for this revelation).  Most of the real learning I did—the ah-ha moments I still remember from childhood here in middle age—happened in the corner of my bedroom floor, with my “nose stuck in a book” as my folks used to say.  It was remembering these things that initially drew me to homeschooling with a hearty helping of UNschooling as the main course for my own kids’ educations.

Now that we’ve settled on a school situation (for now), I am seeing that even the school we’ve found, with its kid-led curriculum and low student/teacher ratio has routines that can be defied by the weirdest of the weird kids that grace its halls.  And Nat is one of those.  Apparently, her seeming lack of self-motivation persists to her mid-kindergarten year, as strong as it was when she was 9 months old and absolutely refused to crawl.  We’d put a desired object just out of reach to encourage her to rock forward even a tiny bit, but as soon as she realized she would have to move for it, she’d drop all interest and play with carpet fuzz instead.  Apparently, with a dazzling array of challenges in her classroom, Nat still mostly prefers to work at tried-and-true projects she has known well for the past year and only works on one new or difficult thing a day at the teacher’s gentle urging.  (You know what she’s also doing, though?  She’s teaching the younger children those familiar tasks.)

So much for offering challenging options as an antidote to underachieving.

And yet, and yet… Even when she was a baby, her lack of interest in doing ordinary baby things (you know, like crawling) always made me feel that she was doing something else instead.  We even took her to a developmental specialist at 17 months, when she wasn’t pulling herself up (except on my body—clue to the problem) and he found that she had no developmental delays, was rather ahead in many areas (namely, language and other intellectual, rather than motor areas) and didn’t pull up unless she was particularly motivated to do so (to get nearer to me, for example).  He ruled her reluctance to engage a mere idiosyncrasy of personality, which had been my private theory all along.

Another private theory of mine was (and is) that when she is not doing what the other kids are doing, she is doing something else all her own.  For example, at 17 months, when she wasn’t pulling up, we accidentally discovered that she could identify all the alphabet letters and could spell, fingerspell and recognize her written name.  Okay “N-A-T” is pretty easy.  But within six months, she was memorizing sight words after one exposure, spelling and finger spelling them too—about 30 words in all.  In another six months, she was sounding out short words without ever being taught to do it and in another six months, she was starting to read sentences on public signs and direct me according to their instructions—again, without prompting, because seriously, who wants a three-year old telling her where to park, or not park or how fast to drive the car?

I posit that as is the case with typical development in children so young, Nat was too busy doing X to master (or spend time practicing) Y.  And that’s what I think she’s still doing now.  What will her brain pop out with next week that lets us all know what she’s been working on when she hasn’t been doing whatever the teacher has suggested she do?  I want her to learn to “get along” as needed in a classroom with its boundaries (especially in a classroom with as respectful, child-centered boundaries as Nat’s), and I trust the teacher’s near-thirty years of experience to know something different than I know about what is good for Nat.  But I also have this little unschooling voice in the back of my head that whispers “leave her alone, she knows what she’s doing and what she needs.”

Meanwhile, I’m looking for the language to explain this, to defend it, to promote it for Nat’s sake.  Don’t get me wrong, the teachers are absolutely on our side.  But they say Nat is an anomaly, and what to do with her is a matter about which reasonable people who share the same side might disagree or at least question each other.  Besides, I’m just curious.  If Nat’s brain is atypical, what is it up to?  I want to know because she’s my child and that makes her the most fascinating subject in the world to me—if not the precious, precious offspring around which the galaxy revolves.

And just to keep things interesting, Selina is proving to be a whole other ball of wax, but a cog in her own special way, too.  Stay tuned.

6 responses to “Why Do They Insist on Calling it Gifted?

  1. The idea that when a kid isn’t doing X it’s because she’s doing Y is a great thing to hold in mind–we are thinking through whether CG has some challenges related to mathematical thinking, and brainstorming ways to help support her, and paying attention to what she IS thinking/doing, and leaving time for her to do that, is key to avoiding frustration. The framework you’re developing here might be helping you reframe your notions of gifted, but as you hint in the last sentence about Selina, it’s a darn good parenting principle, period.

  2. That is absolutely true, which is why I chafe at “gifted.” All kids need individual attention to their learning patterns to excel at being themselves–whoever that is.

  3. Yes, totally agree with you about the societal implications of “gifted.” I get referrals for kids for therapy and/or testing who have really similar profiles, but they differ as to whether they’re labeled “gifted” or “behavioral problems” pretty much only because of differences in socioeconomic status/race/etc. Once I evaluate a lot of these kids, I find kids who don’t actually meet the diagnostic criteria for giftedness OR any sort of learning or behavioral disability, but who are just slightly awkward and slightly maladjusted bright kiddos.

    The “gifted” thing seems almost like a defense to me, because I don’t usually see this label on kids who are truly excelling at all areas of life. It’s more a label that gets stuck on kids who are good at certain things and a bit ADDish and awkward otherwise. People insist their kid is “gifted” when they’re trying to convey that s/he warrants special understanding and accommodation. I’ve actually had parents tell me that their child has a hard time getting along with others because s/he is more mature than his/her peers. Uh, no. (o:

  4. Anxiously Awaiting

    Having a “gifted” daughter, I hate the word and I hate the stereotype. I’ve always just thought of it as her brain works a little differently than others. She’s intense. She’s passionate. She’s oh so stubborn. She’s not better or worse than a child who’s not gifted, she just may do things a bit differently. I watch so many parents throw the term around as a badge or pride, or make their child’s entire existence be about being gifted. I don’t get it and have never felt the need to shout from roof tops about my kid being gifted. But at the same time, sometimes the “g” word does explain things, it answers questions and it helps when advocating to help have her educational needs met. Double edge sword. Funny, I found your blog reading adoption blogs and yet am ranting about “gifted”. :) Small world.

  5. Yeah, I’m in a similar boat with the ‘gifted’ thing too. I started reading stuff by Louise Porter and I’m feeling a bit better about it now. Check out some of the ‘gifted’ articles on http://www.louiseporter.com.au/your_questions.html

  6. Thank you so much for putting this issue out there, so to speak. I have a child who is labeled “gifted”. He is 11 years old, and I have struggled with teachers his entire academic life regarding his “differentness”. J can do ALL of his work in half the time of other kids, then gets bored, starts talking to them and gets in trouble. He doesn’t do things the other kids do, he doesn’t like things most boys his age like. He likes what he likes, and no amount of pleading or cajoling can make him change his mind. Like your child, he didn’t do typical baby things. He never ate baby food, and as a matter of fact he didn’t even like it. My blogging partner is a Homeschooler because her daughters wanted to be different too. Thank you for your fresh perspective.

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