Sunday, January 11, 2009

The challenges of raising a gifted child

Last week, a group of IAA mums finally decided to meet up. (If you don't know what IAA is, read about it here.) It was very interesting - the three of us who eventually met up were loosely linked via the President of IAA, Lilian who couldn't make it. So there we were, three mums who'd never met, going on what felt like a three-way blind date.

But you know, having blogged about our kids and commiserated with each other on the challenges of parenting, it was like an instant kinship. For almost three hours over sushi, we talked about our incessant worries and laughed about our parenting bloopers. It once again reinforced my conviction that starting my kids blog is a worthwhile endeavour. Parenthood is possibly the toughest job in the world because it can determine whether you had a hand in creating Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler. If more parents were open about sharing their experiences and tips instead of jealously guarding them, I do believe that fewer parents, especially new ones, would stumble less or at least avoid making the same mistakes.

The three of us shared many thoughts over lunch but one of them which I'm highlighting in this post was the issue of giftedness. The topic came up because one of the mothers has a 6-year-old son who has been suspected by a psychologist to be "exceptionally or profoundly gifted" (defined as IQ of above 160 and 180 respectively). In a society like Singapore which places such a premium on smarts, this would appear to be every parent's dream. But as they say, be careful what you wish for because it just might come true (I should know this, when I was preggers with Andre, I wished for a son like Calvin in Calvin & Hobbes and I pretty much got my wish.)

This mum was sharing with me her concern about the "exceptionally gifted" label as so many expectations come along with it. She was recounting a report which mentioned two individuals who were considered profoundly gifted (which is fewer than 1 in a million), one a 14-year-old boy in the US, took their own lives. The idea that life could be so unbearable for such a bright child that he would even consider ending it is just sobering.

While Lesley-Anne is not exceptionally or profoundly gifted, I can identify with this mum because I worry about the same issues that many parents of gifted children face. Contrary to popular belief, gifted children have to grapple with many problems, just like other kids. But because they're gifted, the world tends to give them a much shorter leash in terms of making mistakes and dealing with problems. Afterall, they're gifted! What problems could they possibly have, right?

While there is no substantial evidence to show that suicide or depression is higher among gifted individuals, there are certain tendencies among gifted kids, coupled with societal norms, that make them prone towards developing emotional and social problems. Here are a few:

1) Gifted kids tend to be perfectionists, more so than regular kids. I found quite a good, succinct presentation by Dr Pamela Clark on gifted kids which states while perfectionism can be positive if it spurs high achievement, it becomes unhealthy if it reaches the point where it the kids are unable to take pleasure in a task because they feel it is not perfect. This sort of perfectionism becomes disabling and has been linked to depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive personality disorders and ironically, underachievement.

2) The life of gifted kids can be a lonely one because they can find it difficult to mingle with regular kids. I don't like to use the word "normal" because I think that's an artificial definition based on the majority. Many kids and parents alike criticise gifted kids for being anti-social and "weird" but I suspect it's just prejudice at play. If you say, place a Tibetan monk in an African village, he would definitely be considered strange, even "abnormal", just because he's different. But put that monk back in his own community and he'll fit right in.

Same thing with gifted kids - I find that the gifted kids who are criticised for being socially inept usually have fewer problems socialising with their gifted peers, not because they're arrogant or aloof, but because they're more likely to share similar interests and think on the same wavelength. But because there are way more regular than gifted kids, gifted kids can be ostracised in school, until they learn how to "speak the lingo" of regular kids, or so to speak. It has been found that some gifted kids deny their giftedness just so they can "be like everybody else". In general, the higher the IQ, the more likely difficulties in socialisation occur.

3) The bar tends to be raised for gifted kids once they've been identified, sometimes to unrealistic levels. I know this first-hand - when Andre comes home with good results, I heap him with praise. But when Lesley-Anne produces good results, I sometimes take it for granted, in fact I question when she performs less than stellar. The efforts of gifted kids tend to be appreciated less because we assume that it's easy for them. As this mum told me, sometimes when her son doesn't understand a new concept instantly, she thinks, "Huh? You should know this - you're gifted what!" (But she checks herself so she doesn't say it out loud.)

Once a child is labeled gifted, he or she is instantly expected to wow, all the time, by parents, the school and society at large, even through to adulthood. Don't underestimate the pressure faced by these kids. I have heard real stories of Singapore teenagers who were identified as gifted but later cracked under the pressure and developed eating disorders or completely failed every subject in school.

So what can we as parents do? According to Clark, here are a few tips:
  • Praise them for the effort and determination vs being "smart" or "talented"
  • Help them see setbacks as learning opportunities
  • Encourage them to channel their efforts into areas they are passionate about instead of trying to be good in everything
  • Help them set priorities and value relaxation
  • Support their talent but don't add to the pressure
Clark also sees the benefit of having gifted kids spend time with like-minded peers. This is one reason I'm very grateful for the GEP, because it has enabled Lesley-Anne to meet and make friends with other kids like herself. I'm not being atas (snobbish) - I'm aware it's important for her to learn how to mix with regular kids since this world operates on "regular" 90% of the time, but in the process, I'm just happy she doesn't feel alone.

If your child is gifted, I highly recommend this book "A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children" by Webb, Gore, Amend and DeVries. I've recommended it before in an earlier post but it's worthwhile highlighting again. It answered most of my question on gifted kids and clarified many of my doubts.


Lilian said...

My 3rd attempt at leaving a comment, dunno what's wrong with blogger.

Anyway, sorry to have missed the inaugural IAA meeting. I actually thought the other 2 ladies had met before. Glad you guys had fun. I knew you 3 would get along like a house on fire.

I read somewhere that girls are more likely to hide their giftedness in order to gain acceptance. Wonder if that's why ratio of girls to boys in GEP is 1:2.

And yes, couldn't agree more about praising effort, which kids have control over, vs talent/intelligence, which they are born with. If Brian had a cent for every time I drummed into him that Being smart means squat; it's hard work that matters, he'd be rich.

I haven't read any book on parenting gifted kids, so don't really know what I'm missing. I have a feeling my parenting approach wouldn't differ much whether my kid is gifted or not. If the kid needs a smack on the head, he's getting it, gifted or not.

monlim said...

Lilian: If more parents were as down to earth as you, the education scene would be much healthier, I think! At the end of the day, it's all about bringing up well-adjusted kids and your kids seem pretty well-adjusted to me :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Monlim, would like to know more about GEP. Please let me know in what ways i can contact you. Thanks & regards,Mrs.Vasu

monlim said...

Mrs Vasu: My daughter has complete primary school many years now so what I know may not be relevant today. If you want to contact me, you may PM me via the Of Kids and Education facebook page.

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