Parenting a gifted child (and, very likely, two)

Having a gifted child is a bewildering experience for a parent. Children differ, their stories differ. But you probably knew when he/she is young that you have an interesting and bright (if often difficult) child. The real problems usually start when the child hits the school system. Even then you can manage reasonably well until middle school, was our experience and that of others we know. It’s often in middle school or ninth grade when things start to fall apart. Neither you nor your son/daughter can understand why someone so bright cannot stay organized or finish projects and ends up with as many F’s as A’s while having mastered the class with the F just as well as that with the A. Both you and your child feel like and are labeled as failures, and you both feel helpless about how to make things better.

Here’s what helped us after many struggles and low moments. We have two gifted children, a son and a daughter, now in college and beyond.

  • Realize that the gifted child’s focus, brainpower, and unusual maturity can be coupled with deficiencies that are just as real, perfectionism for starters.
  • Get over your own resistance to the term “gifted.” Learn about giftedness. There are plenty of books at the bookstore plus online resources galore, plus several parent groups in Vermont. Besides, browsing for books on Giftedness shelved between “Autism” or “Brain Damaged Children” and “Multiple Personality Disorder” gives you a certain perspective.
  • Realize that this package of talent and difficulties comes from somewhere – you the parent(s).  Think back to your own difficulties and people who accepted and encouraged you.  Realize that your world of family and friends and coworkers may be such that you take talent for granted, while most of the world does not.
  • Accept your child for who he/she is. Your child is even more frustrated than you. Much of the frustration on both sides evaporates when you express what really matters – that you accept and love the person for who he/she is, and are on their side. You may need to accept yourself first, casting off being labeled as a failure by your own parents and history. Get some counseling help if need be from a professional familiar with the issue, you’ll be amazed how quickly it helps.
  • Consider having your child assessed, not by the school or a psychologist/psychiatrist or your pediatrician who is looking for problems, but by someone who understands giftedness. These days the health system wants to give medication for everything. We went through multiple wildly offbase assessments or sets of opinions from teachers, counselors, and health professionals. Listen to your gut — this is your child, not theirs. Then, get the facts.
  • You’re probably going through this with child #1. Child #2 is almost certainly has a similar level of intelligence or talent, perhaps in different flavors. Girls are often overlooked. Extend your learning and peripheral vision to your other children.
  • Strongly consider alternatives to public schools as early as possible, even if you find this idea difficult to swallow. Public schools cannot cope with either the idea or reality of giftedness, do not believe in the special needs gifted kids present, and fiercely balk at tracking or making accommodations for talent, to the point of sabotage. They point to the bright kids who are doing well and say your child is lazy, depressed, a rebel, needs medication, etc. Don’t think you can change the system much, especially at the high school level. The schools will just wear you down and your child even more as he/she experiences failure over and over. In our case, we finally realized we should have abandoned our high school long since when our son who scored 800 on his English SAT was placed in remedial English his senior year (he walked out of the class).

Many of our friends partially bailed their kids out of the system early: you can weave together homeschooling and/or local college courses and/or online courses and nonschool enrichment activities. Take advantage of the Johns Hopkins testing/identification of gifted students in 7th grade and beyond (Vermont is a state that participates). A high schooler can put together an independent approved education plan through state channels that the school must accept. There are lots of good summer programs. Find out about the senior year program at Vermont Technical College.

There is always private school.

Our daughter ended up in boarding school and she took full advantage of it despite the culture shock and ended up with wonderful success and ready for big challenges.

Boarding schools have drawbacks and cost a great deal but your money (or scholarship) buys what public schools don’t offer.  Good schools have small classrooms (6-20 in general, 1 for honors work) and their basic premise is individualized tracking as a matter of course. Often they offer 3 levels for any given class, and moving students among various levels up or down for any given class is standard practice. Teachers are mostly dedicated and disciplined, intrigued, and sympathetic to, not threatened by, giftedness. Start thinking about it by 7th grade at the latest, you want to apply in 8th grade at the latest; 9th grade is too late because of the competition.

  • Let go and believe. Your child will find his/her own way, just not necessarily through the usual paths for success. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed. No one questions his success now (though he’s had his share of ups and downs). So, maybe your child will change the world and make a few million along the way. He or she is bound to be an unusual and interesting person.

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