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Indecent Exposure Does the Media Exploit Highly Gifted Children?

by Elizabeth Meckstroth and Kathi Kearney

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• 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 attention.

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 is positive.

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 that smart.”

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 Teaching” headline).

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. Full text of Children Above 180 IQ is now available from Project Gutenberg in HTML, EPUB and Kindle formats.
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) Giftedness: 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. (Now available as What we have learned about gifted children 1979-2009 http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/articles/what-we-have-learned-about-gifted-children)

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 parties.

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

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