Tuesday, July 27, 2021

What's so bad about being gifted?

What's so bad about being gifted?

And how is that even a question?

Most people assume a label of giftedness connotes privilege, a wealth of opportunities, and automatic school and career success. Sounds good. Right?  Yet exceptionally bright people often are mocked in the media and portrayed as nerds or misfits. Or they languish in classrooms where they are chronically bored. Or they struggle to assimilate into mainstream society, desperate to find like-minded peers. But isn't that a small price to pay? After all, with so much privilege, what do gifted children, adults, or parents of a gifted child (often gifted themselves) have to complain about?

Well... sometimes a lot. 

Granted, many people don't understand what it feels like to be gifted. They cannot relate to someone with fine-tuned sensitivities, or who grasps information with lightning speed, or feels crushing pressure to succeed and live up to others' expectations. They cannot imagine that gifted people often suffer due to disparaging comments or bullying or dismissive assumptions that they "will do just fine" and need little academic support. 

In fact, gifted students who request support are often viewed with disdain. It doesn't matter if they struggle with a "hidden" learning disability, or need help with college applications, or feel despair over boredom in school. They are expected to take whatever the school, family, friends, or society offers without complaint. How dare these privileged kids ask for help - especially when they already lucked out by being so smart? How dare they receive services or support - stealing attention away from more "deserving students" who presumably need it more? 

What is sometimes viewed as the "burden" of giftedness has contributed to occasional and misguided appeals to eliminate not only the gifted "label," but the entire concept of giftedness as well. Maybe if you pretend it doesn't exist, it will go away! A few fallacies to consider:

  • Some suggest that being gifted is a choice, ignoring the fact that you can no more choose giftedness than you can control your eye color or a predisposition to seasonal allergies. 
  • Some imply that it harms children when they learn they are gifted. This assumes that gifted kids, who already realize they are different from their same-age peers, would somehow benefit from this lack of context, this dismissal of what they already know to be true. It leaves them to their own devices as they grapple to understand their differences - sometimes creating an assumption that there is something wrong with them.
  • Some claim that every child is gifted, or that giftedness is purely an elitist construct, designed to suppress ethnic and racial minorities from impoverished backgrounds. In reality, efforts to eliminate gifted education inadvertently fuel an excellence gap that ignores those students who might benefit the most from enriched educational services.

In a misguided effort to protect these kids, or remedy educational disadvantages within impoverished communities, proposed solutions rely on denial of what gifted kids, their parents, and many teachers already suspect. These folks are different. But since it is assumed that "they will do just fine," their immediate needs are viewed as expendable.

The persistence of negative and misguided views of the gifted, a dearth of challenging academic options, and pervasive shaming regarding requests for support leave gifted children confused and apathetic. And parents of gifted kids are left to fume, despair, and retreat, often muzzled by fears of an appearance of elitism or bragging about their child.

This conversation would be unacceptable when describing other children in need. While biases, scapegoating, and prejudices unfortunately persist, it is doubtful one would find actual school policy designed to marginalize a specific population with unique learning needs, such as those with a learning disability. In fact, many parents of twice exceptional children often find that the relative ease of requesting special education services is quite different from the uphill battle they face when advocating for gifted education. 

Despite these downsides to giftedness, there are many advantages. Once children emerge from the muck of their early school years, find a meaningful career path, and finally admit that they may need to be discriminating when seeking out peers who truly "get them," they will flourish. They learn to manage and embrace their highly active minds, live with their choices and the many paths not taken, and delve into interests that fuel their intellectual and creative interests. Their lives are enriched and broadened, as they adjust and recalibrate, aware of their drive for meaning and how to channel their energy.

So, is giftedness a good or a bad thing?

Unsurprising answer: neither. It just is. Giftedness is a flawed term that identifies unique intellectual, creative, and social/emotional needs. Like any other strength or weakness, our job as humans is to learn to live with who we are and make the best of it. The sooner we recognize this reality - rather than falling victim to the naysayers who deny our lived experience - the greater our clarity. Recognizing one's own giftedness is not a burden as long as we learn to work with it. Just like anything else.

Let's stop debating whether giftedness is good or bad, or an elitist construct, or a taboo label, muttered in hushed tones. Children already know who the smart kids are, just like they can easily identify the top athletes in their school. Perhaps if we demystified the gifted label - recognizing it as just another learning style rather than a badge of accomplishment - people would be less afraid to acknowledge it. Let's stop pretending  giftedness doesn't exist, or doesn't deserve the resources deemed essential for every other child - a fair and appropriate education tailored to their academic needs. 


  1. “As if their curiosity and thirst for knowledge and intellectual stimulation will disappear.”

    Sadly, it might! But that should not be a goal of the school.

    1. Elizabeth, Yes. I know... You would think that schools would want to embrace that level of curiosity and a drive to learn. Thank you for your comments!