Indecent Exposure Does the Media Exploit Highly Gifted
by Elizabeth Meckstroth and Kathi Kearney
• A 9-year-old homeschooler, who successfully completed two college
courses at the age of eight and is scheduled to take a full-time college
course load at age nine, must have her parents apply annually to the local
school board for “approval” of her homeschooling program in the state where
they live. The school board requested that this young college student, who
had passed the college’s entrance exams, take a 4th grade achievement test
to “prove” she was learning. The parents and child refused, and the local
school board denied approval of the homeschooling program. Local headlines
read “Genius Child is Denied Home Teaching,” and the AP wire and the New
York Times picked up the story.
• After she had cooperated with national television network producers
to develop a program on gifted children, the producer called back the
leading expert in gifted education to admit: “We’ve never tried to develop a
segment that has produced so many slips of papers on our desk! We thought
that producing a program on gifted children would be easy, but it is so
complex that we decided to focus on prodigies instead.”
We live in a media-saturated age. These are only two examples of how
extremely gifted children are subjected to publicity—publicity often filled with
stereotypes, sensationalism, and inaccurate, inappropriate, or unwanted
expectations. In fact, children who astonish us with exceptional feats, whether
intellectual, athletic, or in the arts, are often the most sensationalized in
our post-modern, 24/7 media world.
As a child’s intelligence increases beyond the norm, so does the potential
for misunderstanding that child’s emotions and personal principles. The
personalities, values, abilities, and interests of highly gifted children often
differ as much from each other as from the rest of the population. Anything you
can say about one of these children, the opposite will hold true for another.
However, considering some of the distinctive, generalizable traits of extremely
gifted individuals helps parents and educators become more cautiously protective
in creating supportive publicity— if media coverage is chosen at all.
CHARACTERISTICS OF EXTREME GIFTEDNESS AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS FOR MEDIA
ATTENTION Highly gifted children and youth have exceptional abilities and
often an intense, acute awareness. These characteristics, coupled with the fact
that they are still young, can also create extraordinary vulnerabilities.
Educators and researchers alike find that the highly gifted tend to be
emotionally sensitive, intuitive, and want peer-group acceptance. These
qualities are confirmed in studies published by Gross (2004), Piechowski (2006)
and Silverman (2000). Social and emotional issues for exceptionally
intellectually gifted students are summarized in the service publication of the
National Association for Gifted Children, The Social and Emotional Development
of Gifted Children: What Do We Know? “The most highly talented are the most
vulnerable, probably because they are exceedingly ‘out of synch’ with school,
friends, and even family” (Neihart, M. et al (2002). These characteristics have
implications when a school, parent, or even the child is considering media
Introversion. After assessing over 4,000 children, researchers at the
Gifted Development Center (GDC) found that more than 75% of children over 160 IQ
have a predominately introverted personality and gain comfort and energy from
being alone. Introverted people are likely to become embarrassed when they are
the center of attention. For introverted children, being singled out—whether by
a teacher in the classroom, a neighbor in the community, or by The New York
Times or CNN—can cause humiliation.
Desire for Privacy. Introverted people also tend to have an intense
need for privacy, often hiding what is most important to them. As far back as
the 1930s, Leta Hollingworth, who followed 12 profoundly gifted children above
180 IQ from early childhood into adulthood, noted:
Those who test above 180 IQ are characterized by a strong desire for personal
privacy. They seldom volunteer information about themselves. They do not like to
have attention called to their families and homes. They are reluctant to impart
information concerning their plans, hopes, convictions, and so forth.
(Hollingworth, 1942, p. xvi)
Yet the very nature of our post-modern twenty-first century media seems
tailor-made to promote the exact opposite.
Other personality characteristics. The GDC study also found that 90
percent of the exceptionally gifted children they evaluated are sensitive and
are concerned with justice and fairness. Between 84 and 88 percent are
perfectionistic, persistent in their areas of interest, and question authority
(Silverman, 2004). Sensitivity, justice, fairness, and perfectionism are not
usually the first words that come to mind when one thinks of contemporary media.
This dichotomy between who these children are and the actions of the media that
tries to present them to the world is often in sharp conflict.
Complexity and asynchrony. Many highly gifted children are enigmas to
us—they are so complex that we rarely can really know what is going on within
them. Their extreme asynchronous development creates extra adjustment challenges
for them (Morelock, M. J. 1992). Their intellectual and personality
characteristics amplify their life experiences, and their differences from the
norm tend to exacerbate their sense of dissonance with others.
The literature on the intellectually gifted suggests that, while the majority
of highly gifted children enjoy unusually positive and supportive family
relationships…, their social relationships with age-peers are fraught with
difficulty…. (Gross, 2004, p. 178)
These qualities can intensify the repercussions, real and perceived, from
publicity and media coverage about their personal lives, even if the publicity
The Problem of Unreasonable Media Expectations Prodigies—children who
demonstrate the abilities of a talented adult before about age 11—are
sensationalized in our media. A flare over “gamer” prodigies [video game
players] was featured in two issues of the New York Times within two consecutive
weeks—one of them on the front page (June 5, and 17, 2007). Music prodigies who
are also intellectually gifted have been a staple of the media for more than a
hundred years, as well as stories about young mental calculators who can square
18 digit numbers or nine-year-olds who multiply six digit numbers in their
heads. This focus on discrete, single-domain prodigy abilities can cast a
comparative shadow on other highly gifted children who are equally gifted but
have less flagrant, “showy” talents. Meckstroth recalled that sometimes, when
she interpreted exceptionally high IQ testing results to parents, emphasizing
how rare their child’s high score was, the response was something like, “Oh,
I’ve seen those gifted kids on TV, and my child’s nothing like that. He can’t be
TWO TYPES OF PRESS COVERAGE
Accidental press coverage. When highly gifted children are featured in
the media, usually one of two things has happened. It may be accidental press
coverage—the press was there at just the right (or wrong) time; the story of a
child’s giftedness becomes an unexpected part of another story that the media
was covering at the time. Or, like the young homeschooled girl mentioned at the
beginning of this article, the parents may have been trying to accomplish one
thing (a homeschool program approval required by state law) while the media took
the story in a wildly different direction (The “Genius Child is Denied Home
Conscious choice publicity. The second type of media coverage is what
we will term conscious choice publicity—media coverage that the child and family
may choose to participate in (or not). Types of “conscious choice publicity”
include press coverage arranged by the child’s school or initiated by the local
or national media regarding academic accomplishments and competitions; agreement
to assist and/or be interviewed by a local or national news organization, print
or broadcast, in the development of a news story or documentary about gifted
children; and, these days, individual choice to publicize one’s child or for the
child to publicize himself or herself via the Internet, including personal
websites, blogs, and social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook.
Telling the whole story. Regardless of whether the media coverage is
accidental or consciously planned, focus on the processes accomplished youth
apply along their way to achievement. Include aspects such as practice, having a
meaningful goal, and compassionate teachers. Highlighting the steps taken along
their way to achievement can encourage other parents and children to develop
their life skills and attain meaningful accomplishments
Felice Kaufmann studied the lives of the 1964-68 Presidential Scholars—the
top highest achieving male and female high school graduates in each state. By
midlife, after most had achieved professionally near the top of their fields,
many of these outstanding students realized that for most of their lives they
had been facilitating other people’s priorities and jumping through other
people’s hoops. Eventually, some of them followed their hearts and focused their
lives on their own dreams and aspirations. They became goat farmers in VT,
guitar players, changed careers entirely, and wrote poetry, among other things.
In many cases, they reported to Kaufmann that they had returned to talents and
activities they enjoyed as young children and preteens (Kaufmann, F. (May 13,
1995) Keynote Address Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children Annual
Conference, Portland, ME).
If the flash of media attention had shone on them at midlife as it had shone
on them so brightly during their adolescent moments as Presidential Scholars,
the values of the mainstream society might see them as no longer fulfilling
their early promise of achievement because of the choices they made. That,
indeed, would be an inaccurate interpretation of the real story. ■
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. NY: Bantam Books
Gross, M.U.M. (2004). Exceptionally gifted children (2nd ed.). NY:
Routledge-Falmer. Hollingworth, L. S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ.
Yonkers-on-Hudson: World Book Company. Lambert, B. (June 5, 2007). “He’s 9 Years
Old and a Video-Game Circuit Star.” The New York Times, p.1.
Latalla, M. S. (June 17, 2007). “Next in Child Prodigies: The Gamer.” The New
York Times, Week in Review.
Morelock, M. J. (1992)
The view from within. Understanding our
gifted. 4(3) 1, 11-15.
Neihart, M. et al. (2002). The social and emotional development of gifted
children: What do we know? Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Piechowski, M. M. (2006). “Mellow out,” they say. If I only could: Intensities
and sensitivities of the young and bright. Madison, WI: Yunasa Books.
Silverman, L. K. (Ed.) (2000). Counseling the gifted and talented. Denver, CO:
Love Publishing Co.
Silverman, L. K. (2004). What we have learned about gifted children 1979-2003.
ELIZABETH MECKSTROTH, M. Ed., M.S.W., coordinated development of SENG
and represented gifted children in the press since 1980. She focused on
assessment, counseling and support for families. She co-authored Guiding the
Gifted Child, Teaching Young Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom;
Acceleration for Gifted Learners, K-5, and has written numerous book chapters
and articles. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Educational
Advancement, facilitating Yunasa camp for highly gifted adolescents.
KATHI KEARNEY, M.A. Ed., currently teaches gifted students at the
Noble VI School in Berwick, ME and is also a Professional Associate with the
Gifted Development Center in Denver, CO. She is the Past Chair of the Conceptual
Foundations Division of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), and
has contributed scholarly journal articles on such topics as assessment, the
highly gifted child, rural and distance learning, minority groups in gifted
education, and Leta Hollingworth’s work on children with IQ scores above 180.
Tips for Parents and Teachers Regarding the Media and Gifted Children
Remember, you can always say “No.” In many cases this is the best choice.
Think carefully about whether or not it is in the child’s best interest—both
present and long-term—to have any media coverage at all. Likewise, if you or
your child becomes uncomfortable at any time with how an interview or filming is
progressing, you should feel free to terminate the interview.
What goes on the Web, stays on the Web. These days, even tiny local
newspapers have a worldwide Internet presence. Furthermore, instead of being
archived on microfilm in difficult- to-access libraries in small towns, local,
national, and international news stories are immediately archived on the
Internet and become accessible to anyone with an Internet connection for years
to come. If you decide to allow media coverage of your child, do it knowing that
any information you provide, however obscure, will be available worldwide for
the foreseeable future (including easy access to your child’s address). All news
is global now, and, like Pandora’s box, cannot be recalled once it is out there.
Treat everything you say as if it is on the record. Even if the reporter
insists that what you say is not going to be publicized, you should treat it as
if it is.
Consult with the child about any areas of his or her life that the child
considers private and not to be publicized, and honor the child’s requests. You
can also ask the reporter if the family can review the text draft before
publication and correct errors; some news organizations will permit this, and
some will not.
Prior to the interview, ask the interviewer for the interview time limit so
that you can manage the process. This is helpful for planning purposes for both
Request that questions be sent to you before the interview so you and your
child can adequately prepare. Again, some news reporters will accommodate you
with this request, while others will not. If you feel strongly that you want an
opportunity to consider the interview questions prior to the interview, then
make that a condition of the interview at the outset.
Keep your audience/reader in mind, rather than your interviewer. Even though
you are speaking to an interviewer, remember that the story the reporter will
write or film is a story for public consumption.
Get your main message out first! Limit your main messages to two or three at
the most. Center on these themes, return to them frequently, and keep your focus
points in mind as you concentrate on the interview or production process.
Maintain your direction. Keep your answers fairly brief.
Refer to published materials, experts, and institutions whenever possible.
Adding comments such as, “Articles in the Gifted Education Communicator supports
this concept….” or, “as cited in the book Growing Up Gifted…” or “Dr. ABC, a
specialist in the education of gifted children, suggested that. . .” rather
than, “I think…” not only adds credibility to your statements but will also give
the reporter additional sources to read or interview to support the story.
Think in “quotable quotes.” Post-modern media likes sound bites, and a
simple, succinct statement will stick with readers and viewers, many of whom
have little or no background about what a parent or teacher of the gifted lives
with every day. For instance, Stephanie Tolan’s “quotable quote,” “You don’t
have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better,”
says volumes about the ethics of acceleration. Practice a few “quotable quotes”
applicable to your child’s own situation before the interview.
Be cautious when interviewers interject their own information or biases and
attempt to pose it as a question to you or your child. One example might be,
“Gifted children are usually loners, aren’t they?” Often similar statements are
widely believed by the general public but are based on presumptions about gifted
children, not facts. Counter with facts, and don’t let a reporter put words in
your mouth (or your child’s).
Avoid the “Super Kid” portrayal. Many reporters want to create a great story.
Their spin could make a child seem like an “odd ball,” “geek,” or a “Super Kid.”
Make every effort to make sure that your child is portrayed as a whole child—and
not just in his talent area.
Stress the processes and components of astonishing success. Emphasize how
children persisted and invested time and effort into their achievements.
Precocity may mean that this child practices a lot. Elaborate on how this child
received support and encouragement from others.
Always confirm the deadline for the story with the interviewer. This will allow
you to follow up as necessary. Arrange for the interviewer to call or e-mail you
prior to publication or production to conduct a fact check on the final version
of the story. If a media agency employs separate fact checkers (other than the
original reporter) be sure to return their calls! They usually are working on a
tight deadline, and if you do not make yourself available to them for fact
checking, you may find errors—sometimes-irreversible errors with long-term
repercussions— in the final published version of the story.
If you were pleased with the results of the publicity, call the reporter or
producer and thank him or her. Usually, reporters get complaint calls. Elaborate
on the details about how the process was beneficial to you and to others. They
will likely be astonished to receive accolades and be more eager to help you
with publicity in the future!
—Prepared by Betty Meckstroth and Kathi Kearney
Note* This article is reprinted by permission from the Gifted Education
Communicator, Fall 2007, Vol. 38, No. 3. GEC is published by the California
Association for the Gifted
©2007 by Betty Meckstroth and Kathi Kearney
printed from Hoagies' Gifted Education Page,
Original URL is www.hoagiesgifted.org/indecent_exposure.htm