Sunday, May 26, 2013

The gifted child’s lament: How to adjust to an unjust world

But it’s not fair! That’s a familiar cry to most parents. What parent has not weathered the complaints, whines, and pleas from children bemoaning the hardships of bedtime, putting the toy back on the store’s shelf, or having to sit through their sister’s recital? What makes this common complaint different for gifted children, though, is their intensity and deep interest in what is fair and just. 

Even when they are quite young, gifted children often demonstrate a preoccupation with “fairness” and show sensitivity toward the plight of others. These are the preschoolers who empathize with a sad playmate, the young child who soothes his distressed sibling, or the kindergartner who is outraged when a storybook character is unfairly treated.

According to Silverman (1994), advanced moral sensitivity is an essential component of giftedness.  She noted that the more asynchronous their expression of this sensitivity, (i.e., when their intellectual strengths are far ahead of their social or physical development), the more vulnerable they will feel. The child may become overwhelmed with compassion, but lack the maturity to cope effectively with these emotions. Children who are more advanced in their perceptions of fairness and justice may find themselves out of sync with peers who lack similar perceptions, or may stand up to peers over moral infractions, and become ostracized as a result. If a gifted child witnesses bullying, for example, he may stand up for the victim, and then become bullied as well. These children benefit from adults who can help them understand that their observations are perceptive, accurate and compassionate, but they need to channel their reactions in a manner that their peers can understand.

As they mature, gifted children become more aware of injustice as it unfolds around them.  The catalyst could be the seemingly unfair reprimand a classmate receives for an infraction he didn’t commit, a rebuff from an unrequited love because of an imperfect body type, or the developing awareness of poverty, racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. They are keenly aware of the flaws and imperfections in their parents, teachers and political leaders.  They try to grasp the enormity of injustice, war, politics, natural disaster and existential mysteries, and may respond with sadness, anxiety, anger, or even indifference when the burden seems too overwhelming.

Sensitivity to fairness and justice also may foster a need to question rules and norms that seem unjust. This can alienate peers, if it involves challenging social norms and beliefs. It also can create conflict with adults and authority figures who may not appreciate the confrontation. As non-conformists, adult authority may hold little credibility for many gifted adolescents.

How can parents and teachers help gifted children navigate their quest for justice?

1. Validate their perceptions, since they may feel that others do not understand. Show compassion for their feelings. Help them recognize that although others may not see the world as they do, they still need to find their way. Help them develop a strategy for navigating within a system that may seem imperfect.

2. Help young children put their feelings into perspective. Reassure them when appropriate, and comfort them just as you would when they experience distress for other reasons. Their reactions to events may seem extreme, and this calls for even more support and encouragement; however, this does not mean focusing excessively on their fears. Put their worries in an age-appropriate context they can understand.

3. Offer opportunities to channel their energies into community service or volunteer activities, so they can feel that they are helping others or confronting injustice. Even small efforts, such as encouraging letter-writing to challenge an unfair ruling, can help them feel a sense of accomplishment.

4. Accept that they will challenge authority if rules are mandated without explanation. Just as gifted individuals abhor rote learning, they rebel against rules that seem pointless. Whenever possible, provide a rationale for rules and procedures. When this is not possible, gifted adolescents may need support to accept the reality that sometimes they have to tolerate situations that seem unfair
5. Encourage them to "give back." Help them recognize that  their “gift” includes the ability to perceive injustice when it exists, to identify creative alternatives, and to use their intellectual skills toward finding solutions. Many gifted adults feel enriched when they use their talents to shape a better world for others.

Silverman, L.K. (1994). The moral sensitivity of gifted children and the evolution of society. Roeper Review, 17, 110-116.


  1. I really like your ideas. Gifted children really do seem to have a higher level of sensitivity to the world around them.

  2. I disagree. I feel like gifted children are really no different than "normal" people.

  3. The issue of "sensitivity" is a complicated one. The heightened sensitivity many gifted individuals experience is linked to the what have been labeled their "overexcitabilities," along with a preoccupation with fairness and justice. More on overexcitabilities in a future blog.

    Also, the concept of "normal" certainly can be open for debate! Many gifted people feel "normal" even if others don't always agree, and even if they are different from the norm.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. dr. post, your example of how letter writing can provide gifted kids with a sense of accomplishment isnt quite practical, because if they dont see a result of their efforts whether a response or a change in ruling they will only feel disillusioned about their power as an individual. also you never mentioned in this post about the tendency for gifted kids to be especially sensitive about a small part of a larger event and to focus on that small part while others cant understand their distress because the larger result isnt that bad. similarly you dont account for when gifted kids might send confusing messages about intentions when they dont accept a favorable result because of perceived unfairness in how it happened.

  5. It is true... From a very young age I always had a feeling empathy for others. I would play with the ignored child on the playground. It took the longest in life for me to understand my sensitive nature. I dislike being so emotional and it embarrassed me.
    I was identified as gifted in the first grade and did receive classes to help and some early college education while in high school. I was able to focus in my studies better with the specialized classes. Now my daughter is showing the same traits and I am glad that maybe I can help her through it.