Parenting highly gifted children: The challenges, the joys, the unexpected surprises
by Kathi Kearney
Andrew, age eight, has just completed his older brother's algebra text. Lynn, age four, has been reading the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Anna, age ten, is a full-time college student.
What would you do if you were the parents of Andrew, Lynn, or Anna? What should you do? How does having such a child impact a parent's life?
The most extraordinarily gifted children-those with extremely high I.Q.'s (usually in the 150 to 170+ ranges, Stanford-Binet L-M scores); child prodigies in such areas as mathematics, music, and chess; and children with extremely highly developed special talents in unusual areas-have, surprisingly enough, been the least-studied children in the field of gifted education. Nationwide, many school programs exist for moderately gifted children, but very little work has been done to develop appropriate educational programs for the highly gifted, or to adequately research the psychology and needs of this special population.
For families of highly gifted children, the practical consequence of this situation is that the parents and children themselves often must use their own resources to seek out information about extreme giftedness and its impact on schooling and family life. We find that many times parents and children are unnecessarily isolated from other families in the same situation, and unaware of the resources and basic information that would help them. This results in part from the common, but mistaken belief that highly gifted children are so statistically rare as to warrant little attention from educational systems. Upon taking test scores to school officials, it is not uncommon for parents to be told that “Since this school will probably never see another child at this level for the next twenty years, there isn't much we can do." However, the actual incidence of highly gifted children in the population is probably much higher than statistics would indicate-perhaps six to ten times higher (Dunlap; Robinson).
Parents, then, can assist themselves and their children as they gain an understanding of the etiology of extreme giftedness, its impact on family systems, and how to help their children with the difficult issues of school placement, discrepancies in development, social adjustment, and advanced ethical development.
What are highly gifted children like?
As might well be imagined, the practical consequence of these characteristics in the home can be wonderfully positive at some moments, and less desirable at others. The seven-year-old child who is able to read, understand, and discuss Einstein's theory of relativity is a delight to watch in action (albeit a surprising delight). When that same child gets into an argument over who got the biggest piece of cake, the parent may be tempted to tell him to act his age-which he is doing! The 3-year-old child who cries bitterly while watching the evening news because she has seen a report about homeless children on the streets of New York is able to comprehend intellectually and ethically what she cannot deal with emotionally. Her reaction is all the more difficult for her parents, who, like the rest of us, have no good answers to a national tragedy.
When parents understand these unique characteristics and discrepancies to be a normal part of the development of exceptionally gifted children, and teach the child ways to cope with these discrepancies, they will go far toward assuring the child of a strong sense of self.
In addition to obtaining basic information about the characteristics of highly gifted children, parents often ask questions about assessment, school placement, and sibling and family development. The most commonly asked questions are answered below.
How do I obtain an accurate assessment of a highly gifted child's
How can I make sure that the school program is appropriate for my highly
There are occasions in the lives of highly gifted children when school problems cannot be resolved in the usual manner. These children, after all, present unique challenges to the school organization itself. They may be learning at one-and-one-half, one-and-three-quarters, or even twice the normal rate. There are times when it may be appropriate to consider private school placement, homeschooling, private tutoring, or early college attendance. These are individual family decisions, and should be considered carefully.
My child feels isolated, and so do I! How can I help him to make
friends-and how can I find other families who understand what it's like to raise
a highly gifted child?
Secondly, helping a highly gifted child find friends involves thinking about the concept of "peers" in a different way. Given their discrepancies in development, highly gifted children may need one set of peers, possibly older, for academic and intellectual pursuits, and another set of peers, closer in chronological age, with whom to play soccer! This often means helping the child to develop several sets of peers. If it is at all possible, at some point in early or middle childhood it is very beneficial for the highly gifted child to find a congenial friend of similar chronological and mental age. For some highly gifted children, having such a friend is a life-changing experience for them; it marks a time in their lives when they are able to integrate their intellectual, social, and emotional selves, discrepant as the development may be, and have another child understand, accept, and fully share that developmental experience.
It is essential for parents to find other families of highly gifted children with whom to share their experiences. It is worth seeking out other families and developing this sense of community; those who have done so invariably cite the sense of support, of help in finding resources, and of knowing they are not alone as central to their ability to be better advocates for their children. This kind of support may take place in a formal support group, or over coffee at a neighbor's house; in conversation by phone with a family on the opposite side of the continent, or a letter written to a close friend who is also the parent of such a child. Families who share this kind of community with each other, and who take the time to understand the unique needs of their children, find courage, support, and understanding for the profound changes in their own lives that parenting a highly gifted child brings. For despite the occasional feeling of isolation, the inconvenience of yet another meeting at the school and the difficult decisions that need to be made along the way, parenting such a child is, ultimately, an extraordinary journey of growth and joy.
Dunlap, J .M. "The education of children with high mental ability." In W. Cruickshank & G.O. Johnson (Eds.), Education of exceptional children and youth. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1967.
Robinson. H. B. "The uncommonly bright child." In M. Lewis & L.A. Rosenblum (Eds.), The uncommon child. New York: Plenum Press, 1981.
Sattler, J. M. Assessment of children. San Diego: Jerome M. Sattle, Publisher, 1988.
Silverman, L.K. "What happens to the gifted girl?" In C.J. Maker (Ed.), Critical Issues in Gifted Education. vol. I. Rockville, Maryland: Aspen, 1986.
Silverman, L.K. & K. Kearney. Parents of the extraordinarily gifted. In preparation.
First published in CAG Communicator, Vol. 19, No. 2, April, 1989.