The Myths of Gifts


Experts Warn of Downsides to Being Above-Average

“Jake was our first born,” said Kathy Zappa, Jake’s mom. “He was bright, articulate, great at puzzles, talked in complete sentences before the age of 2, had a photographic memory, loved to read, and needed and got very little sleep. When he was young, Jake … spent months being anxious about dying because he knew heaven went on for an eternity and he was afraid he would be bored.

“We enrolled him in a distinguished and supposedly rigorous private school,” Kathy continued. But first grade quickly became a “disaster.”

“They would send a picture book home in a bag and when I asked his teacher if they could please send home harder books for him she refused…. When I talked to the principal of the school, her reply to my request for more challenging work was, ‘All of our children are gifted here.’

“By mid-year in second grade, Jake was seen by a psychologist and was diagnosed as being clinically depressed. We were told to not send him back,” Kathy recalled. “The happy, inquisitive, passionate son I once had was now a confused boy wondering why he was ‘different.’”

Jake, the story of a profoundly gifted child, who recently enrolled in college at the age of 15, shows what can happen if such a child’s needs aren’t met by a school, according to Judy Galbraith of Minneapolis, Minn. Galbraith was a teacher and a gifted and talented coordinator before she started Free Spirit Publishing, which specializes in books for gifted children. “The biggest public misunderstanding is that these children don’t need help” or accommodation, Galbraith said.

James Webb, a clinical psychologist who founded the national nonprofit Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), agrees. “Regrettably, the myths about gifted children continue to pervade society,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “Too many educators and others believe that gifted children do not need special help because ‘they will make it on their own.’ Some, of course, will make it — but many others will not.

“In addition, my own observation is that our society is becoming less tolerant of quirkiness and exceptionality, and that the professionals are too quick to label such behaviors as disorders,” he noted. “Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults” — Webb’s 2005 book on that mistaken labeling, co-authored with five expert colleagues — details how gifted children and their uncommon traits can be confused with attention deficit disorders, bipolar disease and myriad other mental health problems.

How could this confusion happen? For one thing, gifted children are profoundly different — and many people are unaware of this. They may have unusual passions and interests, for example. As Jake’s mother wrote: “Between the ages of 2 and 4, he loved cars and looked at the car ads in the paper every day. He learned all the models and their makes, he knew the differences between the years, he had a subscription to Motor Trend magazine.”

Webb’s book points to other characteristics of gifted children that are easily misunderstood, such as persistence, which can look like stubbornness. High intensity, extreme sensitivity and multiple interests can also get them labeled as “hyper” or manic. Other qualities include appearing unfocused or overly emotional, asking endless questions, and having an unusual sense of humor or imaginary playmates.

“Giftedness involves greater awareness, a greater ability to perceive and reason, to experience the world in a richer and deeper way,” explained James Delisle, a recently retired education professor at Ohio’s Kent State University who directed undergraduate and graduate programs in gifted education for 25 years. “You can have an existential philosopher at age 4 who can’t tie her own shoes. It’s not a matter of specific abilities, but an underlying wiring,” he said.

Experts characterize this wiring as “over-excitabilities” — that is, intense imagination or emotions (extreme empathy, temper tantrums); physical intensity (the inability to sit still or rapid speech); and sensual excitability (highly reactive to sounds or itchy clothes). “If no one talks to them about giftedness, they more often than not think something’s wrong with them,” Galbraith said. She noted that these children often “feel out of sync with the rest of the world,” and that many children, even those with supportive families and good social skills, suffer from having no true peers or friends.

Another common misunderstanding is equating giftedness with high achievement. Grand achievements can be part of the gifted and talented package, but that’s not always the case, according to Delisle, the author of 14 books who now devotes himself to “the least served” among this population, the highly gifted, typically identified as those with an IQ of more than 140.

High achievement is not even the defining feature of giftedness, Delisle argues, and some gifted children even underachieve or get failing grades, although if they’re put into appropriate programs that meet their needs, they can rebound.

But the key is getting them into those programs, and antipathy in the system abounds, charges Stephen Schroeder-Davis, who wrote a widely noted 1993 essay on “anti-intellectualism in secondary schools” in the United States. For 20 years, Schroeder-Davis coordinated gifted services for the Elk River School District in Minnesota. “We should educate everyone appropriately,” said Schroeder-Davis, a nationally recognized gifted advocate.

But to do that, he argues our culture must prize intelligence more and not just its practical applications. That lack of distinction between the two can cause “tremendous suffering” in gifted children like Jake whose cognitive, social and emotional needs are not being met, said Schroeder-Davis, who added that concern about these children is too often termed “elitist.”

Schroeder-Davis recommends that school systems offer more teacher training in gifted needs, that they group students according to ability, allow acceleration (grade-skipping), and support early-college entrance programs.

Schroeder-Davis and his wife, Sondra Schroeder-Davis, are parents to three highly gifted and highly different adult children. Their youngest, Dana, was “very social as a baby, very interested in what was going on, an unusually happy baby,” said Sondra, an adjunct professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, According to her father, Dana was precocious, curious, with an acute sense of humor, an advanced vocabulary, and a refined sense of justice.

In the wake of 9/11, Dana rewrote the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance so that it was a global pledge, her parents said. She also rebelled at doing busy work in school or “dumbing down” her vocabulary and conversation. By the third grade, her mother said, she was feeling like the “odd man out.”

Dana agrees. “I remember trying to play with kids and everyone thought I was weird. I felt a wall between me and everybody else,” she recalled. “I didn’t like it when kids disrespected the teacher and I thought it was wrong. It hurt the teachers’ feelings and interfered with their teaching. That made me mad.”

Academically, there was too much busy work, according to Dana, who said the classes were frequently boring. Things got better when she skipped a grade and then went to college through an early entrance program. Dana is now 17 and attends Drake University in Iowa, where she is triple-majoring in psychology, writing, and primary education. She also works in a daycare center and plans to move to Chicago when she graduates to pursue a career in writing.

Dana’s half-brother Chris was more rebellious, Sondra recalled. He was highly tactile and “there’s nothing he can’t look at and figure out.” But that was only half the story.

“I’d get in trouble for falling asleep in class,” Chris said. “If it’s not hands-on, I could fall asleep in minutes. I don’t try to fall asleep,” he emphasized. “I try to stay awake. My body put me to sleep. But I always got good grades.”

Chris added that “in elementary school I realized I was weird. I wrote books, five or six when I was in first and second grade. I’d write at the end of each one, as a joke, ‘Chris is crazy.’ I knew I was different.”

At one point Chris was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), but he disagrees with that. “I’ve met kids with ADD and they can’t focus on anything. If I’m interested I’m focused.”

Chris, a graphic design student, also went to college when he was in high school. He didn’t graduate but after trying several jobs, eventually found his present position with a Web-based start-up company where he sets his own hours. He also taught himself accounting and now manages revenues for the company, of which he owns 5 percent.

Chris’s sister Amanda, 27, was valedictorian of her high school class and graduated college with a double major in English and history. “I always liked school. I enjoyed being there. I work well, I test well,” she said. “I know I’m a reasonably intelligent person but there are plenty of people smarter than me.”

After graduating, Amanda worked in New Orleans helping victims of Hurricane Katrina to navigate the assistance system. “It was rewarding,” she said. Then when her grandmother died two years ago and she witnessed the value of hospice nurses through the experience, Amanda decided to pursue a special master’s degree in an accelerated nursing program to become a clinical nurse leader. “I want to be useful,” she said.

Chris, Amanda and Dana all credit their parents for helping them through their rough times. Chris explained that he wanted to drop out of high school from sheer boredom, but stayed because of his parents. Dana added: “Whenever my life was going to hell, they were always willing to listen. My dad has a sense of humor and my mom is a psychologist who really gets people.”

And they weren’t easy kids to raise, she admitted. “People don’t understand that being anything other than average means things can be difficult. And they don’t realize how hard being gifted can be. It’s really, really lonely.”

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.