Last week @ValeeGrrl tossed out a meme that stated, “We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted and more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.” I first saw this meme on my Facebook feed, shared by people who likely have no connection to @ValeeGrrl, it had spread so far. These friends of mine had forwarded the message in support of it.

I shared it in turn because it stung like a slap in the face, another example of the frustrating misunderstanding of gifted kids and their parents.

This message felt unfair to me for a variety of reasons, filled with paradoxes it seems only parents of gifted kids and experts who focus on the gifted know. Parents of gifted kids in my social network agreed. From our perspective, many gifted kids are the lonely kids at lunch. Not all kids who get good grades are gifted, and not all gifted kids get good grades.

Circumstance connected me with @ValeeGrrl, and I found out — as I had assumed — that none of this was on her radar when she wrote that meme. But it wasn’t long before reaction put it there. She said she was surprised how a message about kindness drew such ire from total strangers.

Her message is one that the vast majority of us will agree with, but the delivery was like a grenade to parents of gifted kids. In our house, we don’t even use the “G-word,” because it is so bloated with expectation and misconception, it defines almost nothing anymore.

When I was growing up, no one ever used the term gifted. If kids were divided by ability, it was based on teacher perception and/or scores from the occasional standardized test. Kids in the highest-level class were called “the smart kids,” but among that collection of kids were teacher-pleasers, good-listeners and the highly motivated. The whip-smart kid who sat behind me in the fifth grade was insightful as heck, but his behavior kept him out of that group of academic elites.

Sometime between then and now, educators became more sophisticated at identifying gifted kids. Depending on how developed any given school system’s program is, you will have the teacher-pleasers and the highly motivated, but the evaluation tools help educators also include kids with high ability who haven’t demonstrated conventional academic success.

This is good news for many, because God giveth, but not everything. Ask anyone who assesses giftedness, and they will tell you that high-IQ is generally not the full story, and asynchronous development is a significant factor in being gifted. For example, my son could not recognize all of his numerals accurately in kindergarten, but he had been doing mathematical computation since he was two. Guess what he was measured on in his non-gifted classroom? Whether or not he knew that 5 was five.

What has also happened during this time is an evolution of how people use the word gifted. People say things like, “All kids are gifted,” meaning that all kids have something to offer. Others counter that gifted means someone whose IQ is measured in the top three to five percent range by a recognized standardized test of intelligence. Most gifted programs select based on this level of performance, sometimes reaching further into the pool by including the top 10 percent. So this word is used in reference to any and all “gifts,” as well as a very small group of people. You can’t win if you use it.

If we could turn back time, would those who first began using this word for the highly able and talented choose it again? Gifted evokes images of privilege, special treatment and unearned advantage. The gods of intelligence do not sound the trumpets when a high-IQ child is born. Brain fairies do not descend upon the delivery room with magical IQ dust.

Gifted kids are prone to high (sometimes excessive) levels of sensitivity and asynchronous maturity which makes for an intense home life and tricky navigation of the academic landscape, let alone social situations. Anyone who thinks having a gifted kid means never having to help with homework, receiving glowing reviews at teacher conferences and checking Power School for an ego boost is uninitiated to the ways of these kids.

As I suspected, this was the case with @ValeeGrrl. While she knew that not all gifted kids have it easy, she was caught off guard by how loud parents of gifted kids cried “Foul!” Taking her kids to playgroups during their early years meant sitting among parents who seemed to focus on the timing of every milestone to a degree that felt disheartening to her. She wrote the meme in a way that represented her personal experience, not as a comment on gifted kids or their parents.

I had the same experience when my kids were young. I watched parents hang on every recitation of the ABCs, glowing with pride at their kid having beat the milestone average by six months. But I also know that as social currency, giftedness devalues as kids age faster than oil stock after an off-shore rig explosion. A parent will get plenty of Facebook likes for a first-place finish in a race, but it’s a fairly gutsy (and likely unfollowed) parent who’ll post about a 99th percentile test score.

For a word that is supposed to apply to a small slice of humanity, its misuse seems frivolous in this case. @ValeeGrrl had the right message, even if she used the wrong word. When it comes to kindness — that ability to reach out to others in a positive way — that’s a gift all of our kids can develop and one that benefits everyone.

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As a parent of two high-ability children, Traci Failla has written on issues with giftedness and sensory processing disorder for parent-targeted outlets. Other publication credits include numerous pieces for corporate clients and two short stories in the anthologies The View From Here and The Pleasure Your Suffer: A Saudade Anthology.

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  1. Very well spoken and spot on. I hope this helps move the needle in raising awareness to the traits/quirks of gifted children and the many challenges they and their families face.

  2. As someone who was both labeled gifted and had a lot of social challenges growing up, I actually agree with the way the meme author used the word originally. Criticizing parents for being obsessed with the word “gifted” (not the gifted children themselves) is justified. Being far too preoccupied with how “advanced” your kids are sets up overly high expectations, makes it seem like “giftedness” is fixed, and makes it difficult for smart kids to get the resources that they may need in other areas. I wish parents would just accept the stage their kids are in at that moment while teaching them all sorts of skills, from academic to social.

    • As a gifted student, parent of a gifted child, and a gifted coordinator for the high school where I teach – I fully agree Shannon. Thanks for making the words for me ????

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