Giftedness in Children
This is a difficult post to write — because there are still uncertainties in defining giftedness, but also because it has become such a loaded term. When I was scouring the web and forums on discussions on gifted children, I was quite surprised by the amount of hostility that was sometimes shown to parents who believe they have gifted children.
Like many (if not all) parents, I confess to harbouring a secret hope that my children will turn out to be intellectually gifted. Of course, I would be perfectly content just as long as they are healthy and happy — but what a bonus if they also had prodigious talent to boot! And then, with us, the hope almost borders on expectation at times because of our own intellectual abilities.
[Incidentally, this is also difficult to write about. Factually, Ning and I tested at the top 1 and 3 percent of the cohort respectively when we were younger. But in one of our social circles, almost every other person is gifted and our abilities seem meagre compared to theirs so there is really not much for us to say. In other social circles, there is the completely opposite fear that we might come across as bragging.]
But we don’t want these hopes and expectations to place an undue burden on Isaac in any way, so I have always resisted thinking too much about the possibility of giftedness in my children. Moreover, while Isaac seem to possess some characteristics of giftedness, many of his peers are able to do many other amazing things which he can’t, so it is not clear that he is truly gifted in any way. And in any case, what would this label of giftedness achieve anyway?
Even when we began to see how his memory and linguistic abilities may be quite extraordinary for his age, there didn’t seem to much point in determining giftedness because it wouldn’t change much. We would still engage and interact with him as we always did. We might feel chuffed about having a gifted child but that is pointless vanity.
What changed our minds though, ironically, was the strange behaviours and difficulties he presented us with. There is the business with the simultaneous and overlapping claims that there are two Isaacs, that he is not Isaac and that he wants to destroy Isaac. There is also the persisting lag he shows in personal and social development.
So I came to the conclusion that my own hopes and expectations and fears and meandering thoughts were quite beside the point. The possibility of giftedness could lead us to a plausible explanation of his behaviour, and hence one that I should explore objectively together with other explanations. Insofar as it is useful in providing us with follow up actions, we should not avoid that possibility; but if not, it’s a meaningless label.
Where he demonstrates advanced abilities, there is actual little use to defining whether his abilities are merely advanced or gifted. He has an exceptional memory and linguistic abilities at least a year, if not two, ahead of his age. He has a burning curiosity and asks probing and profound questions. But while he checks some of the list on gifted pre-schoolers, there are also other areas where he has not demonstrated any particular ability. He is not interested in puzzles, he certainly has not taught himself to read and he doesn’t seem particularly mathematical or musical. And we are certainly not about to force an accelerated pace of development beyond his own interests and passions just to achieve a hot-housed form of “giftedness”.
But, it is the areas that ate highlighted to be of particular challenge and difficulty for gifted children that we find illuminating, and hence useful.
While many gifted children are globally gifted, it is also common to find asynchronous development in gifted children. That is, where they demonstrate giftedness in certain areas, but lag in others. While we can’t say for certain that Isaac is gifted, the lag for him in some domains is real.
For one, Isaac has always been reluctant to undertake activities that require fine motor skills like drawing, colouring, self feeding and self care. We have always assumed it was just the lack of interest but recently we have noticed that he shows unusual resistance to even trying, and when he does, it is almost always secretly and out of our sight and attended by strong outbursts of frustration when he fails.
A recent example is his vehement resistance to taking off his shoes by himself and self-feeding. It is not that he resists when he’s in a bad mood — but he would consistently and steadfastly refuse to do them, to the extent of falling into a tantrum and breaking into tears. It didn’t matter if we coaxed, or encouraged, or threatened him. He simply refused — while at the same time being perfectly helpful if asked to do something else. We couldn’t figure out if this was normal, and more importantly, what we ought to do about it.
And then, in my research on gifted children, I found this explanation: that gifted children with asynchronous development often have fine motor skills that lags behind their cognitive development. In their minds, they can visualise how exactly an activity ought to be carried out but they have not developed enough to be able to actualise it. Together with a tendency towards perfectionism, this causes them to sometimes refuse trying these activities altogether, or to be unusually frustrated when they are not able to accomplish the activity as they have envisioned themselves to.
Whether or not Isaac is actually gifted, something clicked for us. This explains so much of Isaac’s behaviour — not just his present behaviour but some odd things we have noticed before. For example, he hardly tried to crawl when he was younger and never did things like creeping — then one morning he woke up and crawled across the room. He also spoke late, and never babbled with incoherent syllables (though he did make seal like sounds at one point) but when he did speak, his progress was astonishing. Isaac always seemed as if he was secretly practicing various skills before surprising us only when he’s close to perfecting them.
For another, Isaac has always shown great indifference to his peers. This was not too unusual when he was younger but more and more, we came to observe that his peers were interested in him! When I pick him up from school, I would sometimes observe how he plays in the waiting area and he is always so self-possessed and happy while other children would be looking at him or sometimes following him. Once, when he was asking me about mirrors and reflections his classmate came up with obvious interest in engaging with him but Isaac simply told me “Better run away from your (my) friend!”
So because his peers are interested in him, we started to think that it is unusual for him to be so uninterested in them in return. In fact, it is not that he is not aware of them. He actually knows their names and who they are and can talk about them. (Last year, he told us how a boy (by name) in his previous school was not a good boy because he threw a ball out into the rain and it got wet.) He is also perfectly capable and interested in interacting with adults if they can understand and answer his questions to his satisfaction.
And again, we found that this preference for adults is quite common in gifted children. When we thought about it, it makes perfect sense. Isaac talks about his favourite air-con compressors, about soil, and brakes in cars, and friction and parts of the eye. I can’t imagine many of his peers taking an interest in or understanding what he says — and if so, it’s no wonder that he is completely uninterested in interacting with them.
Finally, even his recent (and still persisting) comments on two Isaacs and destroying Isaac made a lot of sense in the light of another common trait of gifted children — that they sometimes have advanced moral and emotional perceptivity, but yet are still limited in their self control (as pre-schoolers do). Hence such inconsistencies in their sense of self may manifest in unusual proclamations such as wanting to destroy themselves. Isaac has always shown a strong perceptivity to our emotions and desire for us to be happy — and there seem to be a pattern where after he has made us unhappy and he can’t seem to make overcome his own desires to meet ours, he would talk about hurting or destroying Isaac. This is even though we always reassure him that we love him anyway and never label him as bad or naughty.
[Incidentally, after I wrote about the destroying himself issue, I was also surprised by how there seemed to be a bifurcation in the responses. From one social circle, I received quite a few messages expressing how they too had similar experiences of a “worse” self when they were younger. The other commented how strange and unusual it was. Please don’t take offence at this though!]
So at the end of this long long post, my conclusion is this. I still don’t know if Isaac is a gifted child (in all likelihood he isn’t), and it doesn’t matter. What helps us is that some of the difficulties common to gifted children (but maybe also other children!) are very illuminating explanations of Isaac’s behaviour — and these are immensely useful to us in understanding him, and in knowing how to help him overcome these challenges.
For instance, in encouraging him to do things like self-feed, I think perhaps I will also model instances of failures and spillage on my part to show him it is all right to try and fail. On the other hand, I also feel more assured that should he still refuse to attempt it at this point despite encouragement on our part, he is likely to just do it one day when he is ready and surprises us with near perfect execution. We are also better able to discuss his sense of self with him and assure him of our love.
So whatever Isaac turns out to be, it’s been a useful foray into the literature on giftedness!