It Doesn't Matter If Our Children Are 'Gifted'

by Farrah Alexander
gifted child
Halfpoint / iStock

Daniel, my firstborn, has always been an inquisitive little guy. He was more interested in babbling and listening to books being read than walking or climbing as a baby. As a toddler, his favorite thing to do was recite letters and numbers on flash cards. Now he’s 3, about to enter preschool, and he’ll tell you the difference between the Jurassic and Triassic periods, knows what great white sharks eat, and has very strong opinions about his favorite varieties of squid. He also refuses to wear pants 75% of the time — roughly. Because, again, he’s 3.

I think he’s brilliant because he’s my child, and every parent thinks their child is special in some way, right? Other people have commented on how intelligent he is or how he may be “advanced,” and I can’t help but feel a little…uncomfortable. Honestly, just typing that makes me cringe a little bit. Here’s the truth: Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, it doesn’t really matter either way.

That’s right. Unclutch your pearls from your white-knuckled grasp. I just said it doesn’t matter if my child is “gifted” or especially “smart.” It doesn’t matter if yours are either.

Many of you probably have memories of being a child in school and the day came to separate the “gifted and talented” students. These special snowflakes were deemed so intelligent that they’d surely be bored with the standard curriculum and would likely be hindered by their peers of average intelligence. There were the special kids and the regular kids. The kids destined for success and the kids destined for mediocrity. Us and them.

Well, spoiler alert: It didn’t matter. Now that you’re an adult, if you actually remember which of your peers were in the gifted and talented program and which were not, you may stalk them on Facebook and see that they now live similar lives. Maybe the “gifted” person is now working to cure malaria, maybe he’s living in his mom’s basement playing Xbox 12 hours a day. The distinction made in elementary school isn’t truly an indication of lifetime success despite the attention and anxiety we gave it.

In fact, the whole theory that “gifted” students perform better when they’re surrounded by other high-achieving students has been debunked. Students who qualified for gifted and talented programs scored very similarly to their peers who did not qualify for the program. Despite all the resources, funds, and the whole process of distinguishing the gifted, there are no big results.

Say I do consider my kid to be “gifted,” then what? When he’s in high school, does he still have to study for tests in order to get an “A”? Will he still have to read Beowulf? If he doesn’t get into MIT, should I write a scathing letter to the dean about how gifted he is and how he knew the difference between a pterodactyl and a pteranodon before preschool?

I have another kid. She just turned 1. She can’t recite the alphabet. Her favorite hobbies currently include eating dog food and trying to climb in the toilet. Maybe she is gifted. Maybe she’s not. She’s 1.

Frankly it would seem unfair to me to treat one kid differently than the other based on any perceived notion of intelligence and “giftedness.” It’s important to us that they’re both given the same opportunities and encouragement. One kid wants to get into an Ivy League school? Okay, we’re going to do everything we can to make that dream a reality. One kid wants to twirl signs outside an Ashley Furniture? Well, I guess we’re going to encourage them to be the best damn sign-spinner out there.

The National Association for Gifted Children advocates learning opportunities appropriate for the child’s individual abilities and learning style. But isn’t that appropriate for every child? Whether the child has developmental delays or is getting bored in class, both the teachers and parents at home can identify this and make sure they’re thriving in their educational environment. There are many opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to be successful in higher education and beyond. Given the chance, any child can be successful.

I truly believe hard work is a more important factor than intelligence, and that’s what we’re going to focus on with our kids. Instead of praising them by saying, “You’re so smart,” I’m going to try saying, “You worked really hard on that” for example. Intelligence is really a matter of luck anyway, isn’t it? So why should that be more worthy of praise than something they actually worked for and accomplished?

I constantly hear parents humblebragging about their toddler’s achievements while other anxious parents are concerned that their kids are falling behind. With the utmost compassion, I say to both groups of parents: It doesn’t matter. You’re noticing these things because you care, and you’re a kick-ass parent. Due to your awesome parenting, I have no doubt you’ll give your kids every opportunity to succeed in life and they will be awesome.

After all, everyone has gifts and talents, and that’s part of why every parent believes their children are so unique and special. They really are! Every child is gifted and talented. So let’s stop distinguishing which children are gifted and start celebrating our children’s unique gifts.