Friday, July 31, 2009


I really hate the term "gifted" as a descriptor of individuals who reside on the right reaches of the bell curve. I think it is an inappropriate label that fails to describe the experience or issues faced by such people and also creates difficulties, particularly in our egalitarian/anti-elitist society, and complications to an already difficult and complicated issue.

We all have a natural tendency to assume that other people think, feel, and experience things in the same way we do. A part of mental/emotional maturity comes with learning and understanding that this is not the case. But, this label makes it feel shameful to investigate the different ways of seeing-- to attempt to understand relies first on the acceptance that one IS different. For most people the understanding is natural and acceptable-- "I am more emotional than most people I see," "I am better at basketball than most of my friends," "I am more interested in people than things," and so on. All of these personal observations, that are a necessary part of individual development, are objective observations with obviously positive and negative attendant qualities. Most personal understandings, acceptances of the quirks and individualities that make us unique, are socially encouraged and acceptable.

The understanding of self, and of what makes "me," me instead of "you," is a fundamental developmental journey for humans. This journey of self begins in infancy; The child progressively grows to understand that s/he is seperate from caregivers, family, society... we slowly come to understand that we are autonomous beings with various dependencies, defining characteristics, needs, desires, understandings, and experiences. The toddler, in one example of a heightened stage of personal understanding, urgently discovers and processes his/her truth of being a seperate person; we understand and (hopefully) patiently support the child as they test what it means to be A person-- as they test the boundaries of their self-hood, assert their own opinions, needs, and desires, and in various ways feel out the scary place that it is to be alone-- an individual. Then, more smoothly for a time, the individual continues to come to an understanding of the self as the self. From, maybe, 4 until adolescence, the child continues to refine and develop their sense of individuality-- their particular tastes, preferences, joys, talents, and shortcomings. This period is smoothed by a modulation of physical and intelectual growth; the person has adequate time to perceive and process the changes and understandings they come to.

Adolescence, then, is the next time of "urgent" self-discovery and examination. Like the cognitive leap that propels the infant into a "sudden" discovery of "self," and the attendent difficulty of understanding that "difference," the adolescent experiences a period of rapid cognitive and physical change. Suddenly they percieve that they are "different," they do not realize that these feelings are as a result of physiologic changes in their internal workings-- to them, things are just suddenly different-- their thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. We all recognize adolescence as a difficut period for children and parents-- akin to the difficulties of the "terrible twos," though obviously quite different in scope and length. The urgent demand for the adolescent is to come to understand how they "fit in" with their society, and also how they do not fit in. They are faced with the internal demand of processing how they are the same and different. Emotional maturity, then, begins to develop as the individual comes to see that their view of the world is different from anyone else's. They proceed through various and conflicting desires to "fit in" and also to "be myself."

We all experience these stages of inner development, and often have additional periods of "urgent" self-exploration in our mid-20's and then in the "mid-life crisis." These are normal and necessary experiences of individual development which allow us to form and utilize important information and skills for coping and thriving throughout our lives.

While certain aspects of our personal development are expected to be dealt with internally, for the most part we are able to come to understand and process our experiences within the context of our familial and peer groups. In fact, the feedback and shared experiences of family and friends are integral to our ability to process and effectively understand ourselves.

For the "gifted" child, though, this process of normal identity formation and integration is often disrupted and problematic. EVERY child, in the latency period (most often thought of as age 6 or so through adolescence) has the need to be a part of a peer-group (however that is composed) or groups and also familial group in which they are accepted and "fit in." This sense of self and of being a part of, instead of apart from, allows the child a secure and safe foundation for exploring their uniquenesses and idiosyncrasies while still maintaining inner cohesion and security. Children in this developmental stage need to feel "normal" and tend to naturally feel "normal," even though they are not the same in all ways. They tend to be ego-centric in nature, percieving their thoughts and feelings to universal, but capable of projecting themselves into the experiences of their friends and families to come to, at least, an understanding of how they might feel if they went through the same thing. Children in this age-range most often form groups of peers who they share interests and cultural experiences with; this is one example of how they cope with their internal need for "sameness" and social acceptance.

For many "gifted" children (increasing in profundity and difficulty the further to the right on the curve they reside) this is where the breakdown of normal emotional/identity development begins. At a time when their emotional/social needs are for normalcy, "sameness," and acceptance, they begin to discover that they are not "normal," the "same," or accepted.

They often find themselves unable to form "peer" groups because their experiences are limited to children their own chronological age, and in dealing with older children or adults, the physiological differences are too apparent to alow "sameness" to develop (as further compounded by this being the age when physical differences are being noticed and seen as important). These children usually have vastly different thoughts, concerns, and interests than their age-mates and are seen, and see them, as incomprehensile and "different."

This is a HUGE problem for the "gifted" child, for they still have the same developmental needs as their "normal" counterparts. The proper development of their social self and inner-self still rely upon having their needs for acceptance and being "a part of" a larger group being met; they still rely on the important groups in their life to provide feedback and alternate experiences so that they can process and understand their own thoughts and perceptions of life. These things are absolutely fundamental to optimum personal development of the individual.

For a large part of coming to understand ourselves relies upon our ability to compare and contrast our own experiences, thoughts, perceptions, and understandings with those of the people in our society. We talk a great deal about "socialization" of children without talking about what that means or why it is an important developmental tool. I believe that a large part of socialization is just this; having a social mirror to help us understand ourselves, as we relate to the larger world, and others as they relate to us and the larger world. This social mirror is extremely important for us to develop understanding and empathy for all people.

For many gifted children, though, this social mirror is fundamentally distorted. In order to understand the self in terms of the larger world, the child must both understand how s/he is a part of, and apart from, that world. For the "gifted" child, that social mirror seldom, if ever, shows the person how they are a part of society. The mirror only shows them that they are apart from their "peers."

But the internal drive for social/identity integration moves on. The child is still driven to understand themselves and others, with or without the social mirror-- it is, after all, a developmental imperative. And so s/he attempts to make do with the tools and information available to him/her.

And here is the begining of the problem of the label "gifted." Children this age, you see, do not want or need to be "better," or "worse," or even "different" from their peers. It's great if they are "better" at something; they can run the fastest, read the fastest, or dance the best. They enjoy their excellence AT something, or things, but they REALLY do not want to be "different" in any fundamental way. They realize that everyone is better and worse AT things, and that is acceptable and even celebrated. It doesn't seperate them, deep down, because these are not defining characteristics of that person. They are still Nathan, or Karen-- they are still normal, multi-faceted, and accepted people. To be labeled, though, AS "gifted" is a much different thing. It becomes a defining characteristic, it IS a defning characteristic, that says who they are, and even worse, implies (explicitly) that they are "supposed" to be (overall) better and different from other kids.

We, adults, find it hard to remember, but we didn't always want to be "better" than anyone else. We wanted to be better AT things, but we wanted to be normal-- we felt like we were normal. For we were, and ARE, normal to us. We each live, from year-to-year and moment-to-moment, in our own minds. To us, our experience is normal, our rate of thought, our curiousities and interests, our talents and problems... they are all normal, to us. If left alone, to our own minds, without that social mirror, it would never occur to any of us that we might NOT be "normal." And none of us would have internal struggles between our natural inclinations and perceptions of how the outside world sees us and expects us to be. It is our understanding of ourselves in relation to others that allows us to develop the desire to be better or the same as other people.

But children, and adults, have a natural dislike of labels that imply inherent value-- unearned value-- on some people and not others. For the "non-gifted" the label tells you that you are somehow less, that, through no fault of your own, you are unfairly disadvantaged and judged. For the "gifted," the label tells you that you are somehow "more," that through no work or achievement of your own, you are unfairly advantaged and judged.

Many adults assume that the "gited" child will be happy to learn that they are "better' than other kids, and often they fear that the child will become arrogant and develop negative personal traits due to that arrogance, like elitism, feelings of superiority, lack of compassion and empathy for others and more. Their fears, though, are based on the erroneous assumption that these children will gladly accept and internalize this label. It is completely disregarding the normal human needs of the individual-- we all, at every age, need to feel accepted and a part of something. It is also disregarding the normal need and desire of individuals to "earn" their accomplishments.

We all know and accept that the way that we value things is directly correlated to how hard we had to work to get them. We might appreciate that our parents provided for our material needs when we were children, but we naturally took those things for granted. The car we were "given" did not mean as much to us as the car we "bought" and earned. The allowance we got every week for being our parent's chldren had nothing of the emotional significance or pride that the first payccheck we worked for possessed. It is through our efforts and achievements that we truly value things-- by having to exersize the patience to save up for that toy, we come to value it as a symbol of our own mastery, by having to practice the piano we embue our mastery of a new piece with deeper meaning than notes on paper or sounds in the air.

"Gifted" children, and adults, have these same needs and systems of value. Just as we can't "give" a chld self-esteem by telling them they have worth-- they must develop proof of that worth for themselves-- we can't simply label a child, or adult, as "gifted" and expect them to accept that as an accurate description of who they are.

They are not "gifted" to themselves, but as they come to recognize and see that they are, indeed, different, that label COULD and sometimes does lead to negative internal development. They COULD, and sometmes do, become arrogant, have feelings of superiority, and lack empathy or compassion for others. This is not because they are inherently bad people, or predisposed to negative qualities, but rather because they are developmentally neglected and stunted (though not intentionally) by a society that has little understanding of their needs or feelings.

Because, unlike other children, they are not "allowed" to deeply consider their differences and idiosyncracies. They are not "allowed" to search for broader understanding of this label and what it means to them, as individuals. They are not "allowed" to examine the areas of themselves that set them apart, and make them unique... they are expected to "just be happy" with their good fortune-- without ever having a chance to understand why they're supposedly "lucky" or "gifted."

This label makes people bristle. Both the "gifted person," who doesn't feel or understand it, and others who resent, don't understand, and don't want to think about, it because it makes them or their children "less" than the best. The "gifted" person comes to feel guilt and shame, akin to survivor's guilt, because they don't see what makes them "so special" and they did nothing to EARN their "elevated" position. They may feel like they were improperly labeled, that they are not "gifted," or that there is something wrong with them-- that they are "bad" because they are "enjoying" the fruits of something they don't deserve.

Even more, they are still DIFFERENT, but they don't really understand how or why. They experience ostracism from their peers, ridicule, shaming, singling-out, by peers and adults. They don't "fit in" and they don't know why. They may try to hide their difference, they may pretend to be at the same skill levels as their age-mates, they may stop volunteering their true thoughts and begin to just parrot the observations of other children, they may fail to pursue their real interests, and they may do this to the depth and extent that they come to be unaware of their internal selves, or cut off any part of themselves that do not "fit in" with the person thhey "should" be.

That is, if they are capable of learning to "fit in."

Often enough, though, they cannot fit themselves "into the box." They cannot escape their inner drive to be who they naturally are, and they exist on the outskirts of their "peer" society, hurting and alone.

What they really need is the ability to understand, the factual truth of, who they are and why they are different. They need to have the information of how and why they are different (that their brains work differently--- and that it is a NEUTRAL and objective difference, not a qualitative or value-ridden experience). They need to be given the tools and materials to process this information, as well as the patience and acceptance to work from, so that they can objectively and rationally accept themselves and others. They need to be armed with the information that their perceptions and thoughts are not right or wrong, better or worse, JUST different. And this need for objective, non-judgemental, data and feedback needs to be vailable throughout the developmental process through childhood and adulthood.

That is not possible, though, as long as we continue to use the term "gifted" to describe these individuals. The word itself is too loaded with meaning and connotation. It is not a neutral or objective adjective like brown, blue, blond, or freckled. It inherently implies value and desirability, no matter societal trends, for a gift is always a welcome thing, and to be gifted is to be the fortunate recipient of something of value..

So, it is clear that we need to agree upon a diferent "label" to understand the needs and experience of the "gifted" child and adult. What, though, do we use? I have pondered this question for many years, balking against my own label of "giftedness", and have yet to come up with a good answer. We need something that either accurately, and neutrally, describes the phenomenon, or something that is separate from the experience, and neutral because of it's lack of connection to the concept.

Differently-abled would be good, except it is already used to describe those who are in some way disabled-- and thus has connotations of negatively impacted developmental/physical manifestations. Atypical has some merit and accuracy as a descriptor, but has underlying negative connotation as abnormal. In the end I think that probably the best route would be to use a term that is currently neutral or without meaning.

Perhaps we could agree upon some person's name (perhaps who has been important historically as an example or advocate) as an adequate categorical title. Maybe we could be "Dabrowskian," "Terminian," "Franklinian," or "Hogian." We, even as young children, know we think faster, know deeper, feel more intensely, and have different interests. If it was because we're "Hypatian" it would not be embarrasing or isolating any more than Jill's ability to outrun all of us, or Cameron's knack of making the funniest jokes.

If parents recieved a letter informing them that their children had, or had not, been determined to be suited for the "Terminian" program, it would not make them feel either insecure or proud of their child.

And, finally, upon knowing that you are "Dabrowskian," it would not be good or bad to look deeper into what that means. It would not be admitting, or believing, that you are "better," or "exceptional," when your experience (as yourself) tells you that you are still "just you." You could talk to your friends, family, teachers, and others about how you feel about being extra-sensitive to clothing tags, bright lights, and injustice without them feeling like you're bragging or being arrogant. You could pursue your interest in physics, as a "Franklinian," without fear of threatening other people. You're not special, and you're not saying you are, you're just different--- like everyone else is different, and special--- you're simply you.

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