Struggle, Challenge and Meaning:
The Education of a Gifted Child
Parents of young children are familiar with the grin of triumph which
accompanies mastery of a new skill after a concentrated effort... from pulling
up to a stand, to taking those first steps and tying their own shoes, life for
all young children is full of opportunities to strive for meaningful goals and
For most older children, school provides further opportunities for to test
their mettle and emerge triumphant. For gifted children, though, this experience
is often lacking, as they are asked to wait patiently for the next new thing to
learn while their classmates wrestle with concepts and skills the gifted child
may have mastered years before.
Although the effects of giving gifted children educational materials and
experiences identical to those offered their non-gifted agemates are often
interpreted as boredom, attention deficit, hyperactivity, or insubordination,
the need for instruction at an appropriate pace and level is a no less than the
direct outgrowth of the fundamental need for all children, [all humans, for that
matter!] to experience regularly the rewards of meaningful work.
I started thinking a lot about struggle challenge and meaning while doing the
40 millionth load of laundry one day, which is why I jumped at the chance to
share my thoughts when the subject of challenge came up on GT-Families a while
I agree that it's much easier to learn that which for which one feels an
attraction. The more powerful the attraction, the easier it is to muster a great
deal of effort to understand. It's why the great teachers, in my opinion, are
the ones who transmit the love and fascination for their subject. The attitude
I occasionally do computer configuration work in classrooms. When I'm lucky,
the teacher caves to the fact that the kids are all staring at the guts of the
computer I have exposed by removing the case, and invites me to talk about what
A little girl once commented, "you have a hard job." I replied
"I have a fun job. I get to do puzzles all day long, and when I get
it right, kids get to play on a computer which works again!"
Yeah, it's a hard job. It takes a lot of time and energy and stubbornness to
do it well. But I find meaning and pleasure in the work.
It was really interesting to see the look on her face. It may not have
occurred to her before that some people really love what they do.
I think a lot of us worry that if our gifted kids do not experience having to
work hard at unlocking the secrets of the universe while they are young, they
may come to regard anything which does not come immediately to them as
inherently boring and/or meaningless. There do exist, for most of us, areas
which offer a great deal to us in terms of understanding the world which we
cannot grasp without the application of considerable effort.
In our family, the kids spend lots of time and effort mastering Nintendo
games, just for the fun of solving the puzzles. I spend time and effort with
them at karate, attempting to develop mastery of the various moves.
Sometimes, the rewards of the effort are concurrent with the struggle.
Sometimes the rewards don't happen until later. I'd like for my children to have
experience with working towards things for which the rewards are not immediate,
because deep into the agonies of university finals week, late in a sleepless
night with a teething child, and during crunch times in whatever work they
choose, that understanding will be crucial to helping them find meaning in what
is objectively, a painful situation.
I suspect that one of the ways we can help our children is by helping them to
seek the meaning of the tasks they are assigned, and by being frank about those
tasks which have no apparent meaning. And I'd have to say that it is
disrespectful to any human to ask them to spend the majority of their time on
the planet doing things which do not have meaning.
Meaning is what lets one perceive rewards which are concurrent with struggle.
Meaning is what sees one through struggles which offer no immediate rewards. I
want for my kids to be able to discriminate between hard and meaningless, and to
find vocations in which their work is meaningful to them. And I wonder if they
can be expected to make that distinction if they spend their days neither
working hard, nor facing meaningful work.
Meaning is my new rallying point at school. To those who say that children
must tolerate a certain level of boredom, I reply that boredom is one thing,
meaninglessness is another. Doing laundry is boring, but there is meaning to
providing my family with clean and comfortable clothing. Doing pages of
exercises which teach concepts mastered long ago has no meaning, and as such is
an offense to the human spirit.
Similarly, doing a teacher-structured project to illustrate mastery of an
understanding of slavery can be problematic, because the assigned mode of
expression may not be one which permits an individual to transmit his/her sense
of the meaning of the topic.
It might be helpful to face squarely the problem such a mismatch can cause,
and to explore other goals the project may be structured to meet... the
development of language skills, or presentation skills, or time management
skills. There is meaning to be found in mastering the mechanical stuff, too.
There is little to be lost in considering whether there are other ways one might
meet those goals and transmit meaning. The worst thing that could happen
is that the teacher would refuse to consider the alternative project one might
propose. The best thing that could happen is that an assignment might be
transformed from a meaningless exercise in doing as little as possible to meet
requirements into a real experience with meaningful work.
Copyright ©1999 Valerie Bock