Sitting in the private school’s admissions office, my mom faced a choice about her gifted daughter’s education. The admissions officer told her how much smaller the classes were than public school, how girls felt less pressure when they didn’t compete for boys’ attention, and how much more they could meet her needs.
But the tuition was as expensive as you would expect for a private school. We were a solidly upper-middle-class family, but a salesman’s and teacher’s salaries added together meant we weren’t exactly rolling in the dough. Private school meant no new house. No vacations for years. Hardly any luxuries at all.
But wasn’t her daughter’s education worth it? Wasn’t public school going to hold her back? Would she be able to fulfill her potential?
As the daughter in question, I now know my mom made the right decision. With more hoopla these days than ever about the beauty and struggles of raising “gifted” kids, it feels odd to me. Wasn’t this stuff we should have figured out 20 years ago?
As a “gifted” kid who had lots of gifted friends growing up and is now an adult, I’ve thought a lot about what society does and doesn’t do well in terms of how we treat “smart” kids. From my experience and reading, here’s what parents must teach gifted children:
You can love learning even if you hate school.
I almost always liked school, but I had plenty of brilliant friends who didn’t. They were bored, bullied, or disliked their teachers. In fact, they faced many of the same struggles as kids who aren’t gifted. No matter how smart they are, children who dislike school face a huge risk – that they will lose their love of learning. As a lifelong love of learning is one of the best ways that children can both be happy and make a difference as adults, it’s something that schools should cultivate. But they don’t always. And because we put so much emphasis on school, it’s easy for kids to equate it with learning. Finding ways to cultivate kids’ love of learning outside of school is essential to keeping up that enthusiasm even if they don’t have a good outlet for it in school.
Take advantage of ways to learn outside of school.
In the end, my parents chose not to put me in private school. As my memories of that tour were mostly “meh,” I’ve never regretted it.
Instead, they put much of the money they would have spent on tuition into travel. Over the years, we swam with dolphins in Florida, road-tripped around California, rafted the Grand Canyon, kayaked in Alaska, and rock-climbed in Maine. While I had always loved nature, the beauty of these places stoked my passion for environmental conservation. That led to a career in science writing and a lifelong commitment to green causes.
From these trips, I learned to evaluate risk, embrace adventure, and push my limits, things that have made my life more satisfying and me a better person. I also met people from a variety of walks of life, an important thing for a kid from white-bread suburbia. While maybe I would have gained those skills in private school, I can’t imagine my life without those trips. As a mom, I’m trying to pass so many of those values and skills on to my kids.
There are a lot of different kinds of knowledge that can’t be measured on a test.
It’s easy for school to fool us into believing that test scores measure how much students have learned. But the ability to do well on tests is mainly a measure of how well you take tests. There are plenty of types of learning that tests – especially standardized tests – can’t measure. As someone naturally good at book learning, this took me a long time to realize. Understanding and acknowledging the other ways people are gifted was a huge part of gaining emotional maturity for me. It also helped me realize all of the opportunities for learning, from improving my listening skills to spatial reasoning, that I could improve.
Just because someone isn’t labeled as gifted doesn’t mean they aren’t smart.
Gifted and talented programs systematically under-identify minority kids. In most cases, it seems like systemic racism is likely to blame. It’s good for kids both with and without the gifted label to know that just because someone isn’t in the gifted and talented class doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. Instead, it may mean that they were discriminated against or they’re smart in ways that the tests don’t measure for.
Being smart doesn’t make you better – or worse – than anyone else.
There’s an odd paradox among gifted kids where they seem to have both very low and very high self-esteem. Very low because often kids make fun of them for being the “teacher’s pet” or socially awkward. Very high because that leads them to decide that they’re better than everyone else. That’s the attitude that landed me in “self-esteem class” in sixth grade. (Oh, the 90s. They meant well.)
But the reality is solidly in the middle. Being smarter than other people doesn’t make you more or less deserving of respect than anyone else, just as being good at sports or being born into a middle-class family shouldn’t. For the most part, intelligence – especially as measured on IQ tests – is an artifact of your upbringing, which as a kid you can’t control anyway. Figuring this out a lot earlier would have helped me be a much kinder and more respectful young adult.
In addition, putting gifted kids on a pedestal hurts both them and kids who struggle in school. Emphasizing how smart kids are leads to more of a fixed mindset and less of a growth mindset. When kids see intelligence as fixed, they’re more likely to give up sooner when they face a problem they can’t figure out.
You can struggle with things in school and still be gifted. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
My husband has the dubious honor of being “twice exceptional,” as they say these days. That is, both brilliant and having a learning disability. While he can poke holes in any argument, beat me at chess, and is hilariously creative, it takes him ages to compose an email. His combination of ADD and a writing disability makes it difficult to get thoughts from his brain onto the paper.
These combinations can lead to serious challenges in school, especially when a teacher seriously undervalues one or the other. In sixth grade, Chris was initially able to participate in both the gifted program and receive resource help. But partway through the year, they pulled him from the gifted program because he had recess at a different time and according to the teacher, “that was disruptive.” Bullshit. Thankfully, besides that nonsense, he did got both the opportunities and resources he needed for the most part. A lot of “twice exceptional” kids aren’t that lucky.
Even if you don’t have a specific disability, that doesn’t mean you’ll be great at every subject. Having a hard time in one area doesn’t mean you’re no longer smart! Personally, I found chemistry far more challenging than my other science subjects in college. When a scholarship committee asked why I had gotten a B in organic chemistry, I honestly answered (although in less colorful language) that I had worked damn hard for it.
When you’re an adult, no one will know or care that you got a B in 11th grade math.
Grades matter, but not nearly as much as school portrays them. You know who remembers I got a C on a quiz in 9th grade Earth Science? Me – that’s it. Getting one bad grade won’t make or break you. (Despite what Lisa Simpson thinks.)
Because whether you get great grades that get you into an amazing college or don’t, life won’t go the way you expect it to. Even though I went to a very prestigious college, my co-worker who went to a state school and has very similar experience to me is at a higher pay grade. (Not jealous, just pointing out that school doesn’t equal career.) My husband started going to Boston College for chemistry, dropped out of Boston College, eventually got his bachelors’ from a different school, went to culinary school, became a restaurant cook and is now a stay-at-home dad. You never know where you are going to end up; one bad grade won’t determine your whole future, even if it feels like it at the time.
It’s good to get things wrong.
I’m a science writer. One of my favorite interviews was with a scientist who chastised me when I described a theory being disproved as a bad thing. In response, he said, “I live for being wrong. That’s where we learn.” And he’s right. The only way forward in both scientific discovery and personal growth is by getting things wrong. Or as the picture book Rosie Revere, Engineer says, “Life may have its failures, but this is not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.”
Don’t just settle for the good grade.
For some gifted kids, it’s easy to get the good grade and slide through school. But I found it immensely valuable to learn that even if something isn’t officially “wrong,” there’s always room to improve. While I had dreamed of becoming a writer for years, I first considered myself one all the way back in sixth grade. My teacher had assigned us to write our own Greek myths, so I created an origin story for how the dolphin came to be. With a cute pixelated dolphin border around the paper via 1995 Print Shop, I was quite pleased with what I handed in. So I was shocked when she passed the papers back and mine was covered in red ink. Even more oddly, it had an A at the top. When I went up to her desk, she explained that yes, it was very good – A-worthy, in fact. But it could be so much better and she wanted to show me how. Now, I keep that story in mind when I ferociously edit my own work or review reams of editorial comments.
You are more than your grades, or even more than just being smart.
At the ninth grade graduation, my classmates gave me the dubious honor of “most studious.” Although the adults probably saw it as a good thing, I and all of the other kids knew what it meant. In the back of the auditorium, I wanted to curl up in my seat. Was that really all they thought of me? Fortunately, I held onto the belief that I was fundamentally more than my intellect or even my hard work. Thinking about and knowing who I am outside of that box has enabled me to take incredible risks and opportunities that I wouldn’t if I stayed in it.
Unfortunately, too many kids, including gifted kids, base their worth on external factors like good grades. Many middle and high schoolers believe their parents value achievement, including grades, more than caring. In one study, 80% of all college students said they based their self-worth on academic outcomes. The same study showed that students who based their self-worth on academic performance were more stressed, angry, and prone to drug and alcohol abuse than students who based it on internal factors.
In the end, gifted is just a label. It’s a label that can be helpful for getting kids the school structure or curriculum that will meet their needs, but it’s still a label. Teaching your kids to value who they are and who others are, labels or no, is the most important thing of all.
If there’s one thing that teaches even the “smart girl” that you don’t know everything, it’s becoming a parent. From my kids, I’ve learned to listen better and be more flexible. For updates and more science-based parenting advice, be sure to follow our Facebook page!