Wednesday, 12 January 2011

What Do Bright Kids Owe the World?

One of my teachers once told our class that we were responsible for developing our talents to their utmost potential. Since it was a Catholic school, this was part of a religion class, and the idea was that God gave us those gifts with certain expectations.

Now, whether you subscribe to any particular religious teachings or not, if you are gifted, bright or have a child or children who are bright or gifted, you will likely have encountered this same attitude/belief.

For some kids, this is carried to extreme and causes them untold stress as they try to meet the expectations of those around them. Some will decide not to play that game, and purposefully underachieve to avoid such problems. And some others seem to be able to cope with what comes their way.

I wonder though, if this isn't a dangerously flawed idea. We don't make such demands on other populations. We don't make other kids "perform" like circus monkeys simply because they are exceptional in some way. We don't make unreasonable demands on them, to the tune of "you're so bright, you fix it" with the "it" being "little" issues such as world hunger, peace, environmental degradation, national debt, curing cancer, etc. So why is it OK to do this with bright and gifted kids?

The answer is simple: it isn't.

Bright and gifted kids deserve to live the lives they choose. Their contributions to society are their choice. Only through nurturing and supporting them as children will they be able to learn to make choices and develop and grow. And only then will they be able to contribute in a meaningful way. They need time to play, to grow, and to just "be" kids like any other kids. Denying them these opportunities is irresponsible and will not enrich their lives in any way--including educationally. Study after study had shown that kids denied play opportunities have much lower overall academic achievement than those who play. Gifted kids need a childhood too. They need the freedom to try new things and make mistakes. And, being gifted, some of their mistakes might be a little bigger than most. It's from learning to take risks that true learning happens.

On the flip side, how many of us have been told "well, if you're so smart, then..." by someone? Now, how many were told this by an adult in front of a group of our peers? Not only does this ridicule the student, but it also sends out a strong message that intelligence and reflection--thinking skills--are not valued or even welcomed in that group. When this is a school group, it is especially problematic.

It is no wonder that many gifted kids experience depression.

We need to change this. We need to take the effort to better understand gifted children's needs, first as children and secondly as children with unique needs. We need to challenge gifted kids without overloading them. We need to encourage them to pursue their interests in depth, and provide opportunites, resources and contacts to enable them to do so. We need to allow them "down time". We need to support their social and emotional needs as much as we do their educational needs. We need to recognize that being gifted will mean something different for each individual, and that their needs will vary greatly from child to child and also over time.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to allow them to choose their own future. If a gifted child chooses a less challenging career choice in favour of freedom, less work hours, more family time, and/or the ability to pursue an interesting hobby, we need to accept their choice as we would any other person's choice. If they decide to pursue higher education and push the limits of human knowledge in some way, we also need to accept and support their choice.
Being born with a greater intellectual potential isn't something people choose. Sure, we would all prefer it over other options, no doubt. But it should not become a lifelong debt to repay to society. In the end, the only thing a gifted child owes to themselves and society is the freedom to live the life they choose.

We have come a long way in our understanding of the needs of the gifted, but we still have a long way to go.

If your child is bright and/or gifted, you can obtain additional support from your local chapter of ABC:

ABC Ontario Chapter:
ABC Alberta
ABC New Brunswick

International Agencies:

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