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Should we tell them they're gifted? Should we tell them how gifted?

by Draper Kauffman, Doctor of Education and Parent of Gifted Child

Question: There seems to be a consensus that gifted kids know they are gifted - either because they observe it or because we put them in situations where it's obvious. The next question seems to be ... do we let them know their IQ score? This is easier to avoid. The situation where an identified gifted kid is put through additional levels of testing (SB-LM for example) to determine a more accurate score; this might involve considerable traveling, interviews, more testing, etc. Presumably, these kids will realize they are going through all of this in order for parents to learn not if but how gifted they are. Do we share that information with them?

Draper replies: First, I really question that consensus. Gifted kids almost always know they are different, but they don't necessarily know they are "gifted" or smarter. Many gifted kids who aren't told why they are different are convinced that they are weird or even stupid because they can't make themselves understood. Since many gifted kids are also (mis)identified as Behaviorally Disabled, Learning Disabled, ADD, etc., they have a focus for that feeling of differentness, and never realize the main reason.

What are you going to tell your daughter when she comes to you in tears, saying that the other kids are all mean to her because they won't talk to her? It's not that unusual for a gifted 3 to 6 year old to have a good working vocabulary that is 5, 10, or 20 times larger than the vocabulary of a "normal" child the same age. They won't talk to her because they can't, they literally don't know 80-95% of the words. Without discussing her exceptional abilities, how are you going to explain that to her?

It isn't a question of feeling different - gifted kids know that they're different - it's a question of how they feel about being different. If adults treat that difference as something to be hidden, the intellectually gifted child will learn that intellectual gifts are shameful and intellectual ability is to be hidden from others like a dirty secret. Since it is a central part of the way they experience the world, they will learn to think of themselves as defective and shameful, and grow up profoundly ambivalent about themselves and about being successful.

So some degree of "labeling" is essential if gifted children are to grow up understanding how and why they experience the world differently from others. In addition, since these children have quite different educational needs from "normal" children, schools and parents must acknowledge and understand that difference before they can implement an appropriate education. And since many gifted children have an unusually large need to manage their own education, they must acknowledge and understand the nature of their own abilities in order to participate effectively in planning and directing their own learning and career planning.

If we don't identify intellectual giftedness and discuss it with our kids, they don't have any basis for discussing their shared problems and solutions and we don't have a basis for sharing our experiences as their parents. Most of us have learned that we can't discuss our children's problems and successes with other parents without losing friends. One of the functions of a Gifted and Talented mailing list is to create a community where our children's intellectual gifts can be acknowledged and enjoyed, even celebrated, and where we can openly discuss their problems and share our ideas and experiences, and our successes and failures in raising them.

There have also been numerous discussions (on the lists) in the past about the experience of many GT list members, mostly women, who were never told that they themselves were gifted, and never realized it until they had gifted children of their own. However, watching their kids struggle with many of the same problems of giftedness - isolation, rejection, boredom, perfectionism, teacher hostility, conflicts between social and academic success, and so on - opened their eyes about their own giftedness because it was all so familiar from their own childhoods.

All of the same arguments apply to talking with somewhat older Highly Gifted (HG) children about their degree of giftedness. HG+ kids know they don't fit well even in normal gifted programs, but again they may not know why. The reality is that they're a tiny minority of a tiny minority. Even schools that have sincerely tried to do something for gifted kids in general, haven't the remotest glimpse of a clue about serving HG, and especially Exceptionally Gifted (EG) and Profoundly Gifted (PG) kids.

These young people need to know all this if they are going to understand that they are not at fault for their extreme isolation from their age-peers, or for the lack of caring and understanding on the part of teachers and other adults. And it's these kids more than any others who generally have the greatest need, desire, and ability to manage their own learning.

No, gifted kids don't always know they're gifted, and yes, they need to know, and - in my humble opinion - they also need to know if they are HG or up, and what that means in practical terms about potential problems and opportunities.