Why Parenting a Gifted Child is Lonely

Gifted. The word itself is loaded, and confusing. For this post, I’ll go with what I feel to be the most accurate definition of “gifted.” From the National Association for Gifted Children,

“Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensory motor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).”

(Some have suggested we drop the word gifted, and adopt other terms like, “asynchronous learner, outstanding talent, or accelerated.” The very debate about using the word is polarizing and isolating to those of us raising children like this. )

Parenting a gifted child is lonely.

Why is it lonely to raise a gifted child? Well, for starters, we are in the minority. If you look at that definition from NAGC above, it talks about the top 10%. (For the sake of this post, I’d like to focus on academically gifted children, because I feel that children gifted in other ways, be it musically or athletically, are a whole other ball of wax so to speak, and perhaps a little less isolated, depending on the circumstances.) For intellectually gifted children, this is measured either by IQ, or achievement testing. That already excludes 90% of children. What happens when your child is in the top 5%? Or top 1%? Or, like parents of profoundly gifted children, the top .1%? The higher the IQ, or achievement of the child, the less likely it is for a parent to meet another parent with a similarly developing child. Hoagies has a great chart that looks at levels of giftedness. If you have a child who is “moderately gifted,” there is a good chance that you will come across a few people with similarly developing children, and therefor common experiences and challenges. Once you start moving into the “highly gifted” category, the chances of meeting other parents going through the same things you are starts to greatly decline. You don’t meet many people who can relate to you as a parent, and since parenting is a tough job anyways, this can be discouraging. It’s easy to talk about potty training, or sleep problems, but it’s hard to talk about grade skipping, differentiation, and “after schooling” with parents of children who are developing typically for their age.

Another reason it’s lonely being a gifted parent is that we are not generally supported in the public school system. A lot of us spend our children’s school years being “the squeaky wheel,” advocating for the appropriate placement in the classroom. Grade acceleration, while usually not the only thing a gifted child needs, is a way to help bridge the gap between what they are able to do, and what they are doing. However, it’s still widely contested and generally frowned upon in public schools even though there is mounting evidence that it does make a positive difference. The answer in these days of No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, is “differentiation.” With state’s education budgets being slashed, funding for gifted programs is either dwindling or non existent, and usually the first thing cut when the budget is tight. Many states have laws that schools must identify gifted children, but ironically, many are not required to provide them any services. There was a time, where gifted kids were in separate classrooms, clustered together and accelerated as needed. Now they are mostly placed with their typically developing classmates, and either given extra work, or asked to work their fellow students that may need a little help. For a gifted parent, it can be agonizing to watch the spark go out, and their gifted child lose interest in learning altogether. Sometimes when a gifted child is bored, they begin to act out and become a behavior problem in school, making it even harder to get the services, or adjustments to their education they need. Many parents of gifted children face a long road once their child enters the public school system, and in the process may have to buck the system, sometimes leaving it altogether. We personally have chosen to bypass the advocating and home school for now. A decision that was heart-wrenching, and debated for over a year. I know the school decision has become stressful for many parents. Gone are the days you can just sign their child up for the public kindergarten down the street at age 5 or 6, no questions asked. For parents of gifted, and especially highly gifted children, it adds another stressful layer.

The biggest reason I find that being a gifted parent is lonely, is because we aren’t supposed to talk about it. No one likes a braggart! One parent of a “normal” (her word) child even wrote an article on babycenter.com about how she is hates hearing about my gifted child. It’s widely accepted that everyone thinks their child is a genius. We all also think are children are the cutest, and funniest, and everything else-ist. This is normal, but there is definitely an expectation that you don’t say any of these things to other people. I’m not condoning bragging, but what if your child is actually a genius? For starters, it’s not all appearances on Oprah, and spelling bee wins. It’s hard. It’s rocky, and it’s full of doubts and fears. It’s also amazing, but it isn’t without it’s challenges. Gifted children are sensitive, and intense, and the further out you get from “normal,” the more magnified their sensitivities and intensities can be. Highly gifted children share characteristics with Autism, Aspergers, ADHD, and Sensory Processing Disorder to name a few. Any given day I flip flop between being convinced that my son has all of those and more, and believing that his behaviors are just traits of his giftedness. It’s hard to explain why he covers his ears for loud noises, or gets really really embarrassed when someone sings out of the blue, so much so that he screams and covers his ears. He doesn’t like sarcasm, because he lives in a literal world. He comes across as quite unusual sometimes, but I don’t feel comfortable explaining to most people why.

As I stated above, education alone can drive you mad, let alone all of the other things that come in the “gifted” package, like over excitabilities & perfectionism. Yet, we don’t really have anyone to talk about these things to. Either we don’t want to come across as bragging about giftedness, or we just don’t feel like we will be understood. It’s hard to listen to other parents talk about their children’s achievements, while not wanting to mention ours. We are all proud of our children’s accomplishments, as we should be, but for me it’s awkward to say what my child is doing, when it’s pretty far out of the normal range of development. We are lucky that our friends and family “get” what we go through with our child. They understand that when we talk about what he’s doing, or a challenge we are facing because of his giftedness, it’s not because we want to brag, it’s because we need to talk about it. They know we aren’t pushing him ahead, or “hothousing” him, this is just who he is. I do hear from other parents that this is not always the case, and that is very disheartening.

I belong to a couple of online forums for home schooling and parenting gifted children, and we talk a lot about the habit we have to downplay our child’s giftedness. We don’t want to sound like we are bragging, or that we think our child is better than other children, so we make excuses, “oh, he just likes letters,” (That’s why my 2 year old could read.) or, “yeah, he’s crazy,” seemed like a good way to explain why he has the abilities he does. Or, we mention a weak area of our child’s development to offset the strength. One time my kid was at a store when he was about 3, and read the title of an article of a magazine. The cashier made a comment that it was impressive, and I actually said, “that’s okay, he can’t use a fork.” I cringe as I type that now, I actually said that in front of my child! I’ve heard this from other gifted parents as well, it’s that we are so concerned with not wanting our child to seem “superior,” that we pretty much insult them in the process. It’s an internal struggle that most of us solve by just not talking about it. I’m an over-sharer by nature, but now when a stranger comments on something my son has done or said, I just smile and nod. I don’t want to feed into the whole, “I think my child is a genius and I can’t stop talking about it” stereotype, and I also don’t want to make him feel bad about who he is. So you see, when someone asks me why we home school him, I can’t just say “because he’s gifted.” For starters, it sounds like I’m bragging, and secondly, it means different things to different people, and it’s not always clear to someone why being gifted would prevent a child from doing well in school. I used to blame it on his multiple food allergies, but I didn’t want to send my son the message that his food allergies are holding him back. I’ve learned other creative ways to answer that question, like “we like the flexibility of homeschooling,” or “we were unable to find a good academic fit at school for him.” But do you see the problem there? I have to have these answers ready, so as not to offend or come across as smug or elitist.

I think what I would like to convey here, is that most parents of gifted children don’t feel like their children are better than anyone else. I personally feel that it doesn’t matter much how smart you are, it matters what you do with the opportunities life presents you. A person’s drive and motivation are going to be the difference between success in life, and failure, however you choose to define those words. Most, if not all, parents of gifted children are just trying to give their children opportunities be adequately challenged, and intellectually engaged. I think every child deserves that, and so much more. With education reform the way it is today, all parents are starting to have these concerns. Hopefully we can get education to place where every child’s needs are being met, no matter their level of intelligence, and the gifted rhetoric is no longer so important.

(This is reposted from one of my many defunct blogs.)

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