The Gift

When I was a child, at five years old, I was labelled “gifted.” In kindergarten, I was pulled out of my classroom and transported to another school, a few miles away, to attend a MG (mentally gifted) program once or twice a week. I was the youngest child in the program, too young, in fact, to be able to get on the yellow schoolbus with the other kids from my school. I remember that my pastor from church would come and pick me up and take me.

At my elementary school, I was an academic star. After kindergarten, I skipped the first grade; I remember the day when during an art project the principal came to my first grade classroom during the first week of school, told me to gather my things, and took me to another room. It was a second/third grade split room, but there were only about five second graders and the rest were third graders. During the rest of my years there, through the fifth grade, I did things that the other children weren’t allowed, or didn’t get an opportunity, to do. I participated in science fairs, but I remember doing the project in the vice-principal’s office, making my three panel board on the table in her office. I wrote a poem, that my mother still has, and performed it at a city-wide Blue Ribbon assembly, when I was in the fourth grade, talking about the different things I wanted to be when I grew up, which colleges I would attend. And the kicker was that when I graduated from the fifth grade, the mayor sent a representative to the graduation and I received a citation from the city. My mother still has that too.

For middle school and high school, I went to Masterman, a public magnet school for “gifted” kids. At that time, I believe that admission was based on city-wide test scores, a test that all students in the city took. I consistently scored in the 99th percentile. At Masterman, I wasn’t an academic star anymore, in that I wasn’t the best. For some kids, that leads to this great identity crisis, but honestly that was okay with me; I just kept doing me. Maybe because my parents never made a big deal out of me being “gifted.” I was just encouraged to be me, and gifted was just a part of what that was. I was still really good at what I was really good at. I was a balanced kid – I sang and had lots of friends, I worked and had other demons to face. When it was time for college, the giftedness came out again; my SAT scores were in the 90+ percentiles and they were exactly the same, both math and english. I went to Penn on a full scholarship but again wasn’t an academic star; I didn’t have straight A’s and academics were not on the forefront of my mind. It wasn’t until my last year when I wanted to graduate with honors that I decided that grades were really important, so I buckled down and got straight A’s that last year. But what I was really proud of were all the university wide awards I won that had little to do with grades – I was a leader who everyone knew.

But now I’ve been rethinking this whole gifted thing, now with my own children. Determining who is gifted and who isn’t is like a whole industry now, with three and four year olds taking intelligence tests. I’ve never taken an IQ test, except for those on the internet, so I have no idea how I’d score. But to get into a “gifted” program nowadays, I’d have to subject my children to IQ tests, personality tests, and a whole bunch of other tests. What if their IQ right now (since we know intelligence can grow) is not above a certain cut off? Would I feel differently about them? Would IQ scores even capture giftedness anyway, and not just parent’s education and preparation?

I don’t remember what the impetus was for my mother to push for me to be put in a gifted program. I doubt that I was disruptive in class, indicating that I was bored with what was going on. I think I knew how to read by 4, and Ahmir is starting to read now. If most kids don’t know how to do that, is that a reason to suspect giftedness? Children of color are seriously under identified when it comes to giftedness – is that a reason to have my children evaluated? And is giftedness something more than heightened intelligence, something that cannot be taught or grown, something that really is innate and can be identified? Is giftedness more than just being “smart”?

19 thoughts on “The Gift

  1. My own experience with that particular label is that it hurt much more than it helped. It’s a heavy burden for a small child to bear. And often brings with it a ton of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. For that reason, my husband and I emphasize hard work constantly but try not to say anything about “smarts” or “giftedness.” My daughter hears it enough from other people but knows that in order to impress mommy and daddy, she only needs to work hard and do her best.

    The other thing is that, like you mentioned, it seems like these days being “gifted” is much more a function of a family’s socioeconomic background than a child’s innate abilities. Or perhaps it always was.

    I loved hearing your story growing up. I can picture you: a bad-ass in pigtails–then and now.

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  2. In the 5th grade, we moved to a majority-white school district (up until then, I had attended a majority-minority private school), and for the first time there was a “gifted” program; they called it G&T, for “gifted and talented.” Despite excellent grades and a reading level approaching high school, I was never placed in G&T. At the end of the 5th grade, two students were recommended by my teacher: one white girl, and one white boy; the girl was a geek, like me, but the boy was really more of a social misfit; he was recommended so as to escape the bullying he endured.

    At the end of the 7th grade, despite being recommended for the honors track in all of my other classes, my math teacher declined to recommend me for the honors track in math. Literally, every single one of my friends, with the exception of one Asian girl, was recommended for the track; every single one of my friends who was recommended was white. Concerned more with being left out than being left behind, I made a big stink about it. My math teacher told me my “scores” didn’t warrant my placement, but I threatened to bring in my parents. And just like that, I was placed on the honors track. I went on to earn a 99% on every single math regents (the state-wide testing system) until I graduated from high school. I’d like to say it was because I was a genius, but really, it was because I had the best math teachers; the honors students were always assigned the best teachers. Taking the more rigorous course load would ultimately be a requirement for admission to my undergraduate institution; it still bothers me to think that my 7th grade math teacher could have derailed me.

    My experience just illustrates what we know about gifted programs and accelerated tracks. They often reflect class privilege and/or are programs for students whose parents agitate. Moreover, children of color are under-tested, white children are over-tested, and the test scores are given different meanings. High scores for children of color are interpreted down, while average scores of white children are interpreted up. Although I’m sure you were gifted, Toya, (LOL!) the truly gifted student is extremely rare. The tests are not dependable; they’re as socially constructed as anything else, and we know that IQ and ability can change over time. More often, a student’s inclination toward one subject or another is noticed and reinforced by teachers and parents. If that student is placed in a gifted class, with better teachers and better resources, they continue to develop at an accelerated pace. And yeah–by the 5th grade, now you really are far enough ahead to be considered gifted. Just the opposite is true for children who are labeled as needing special education (for which black children, of course, are over-tested and over-referred). Between less talented teachers, inferior resources, and educational isolation, what starts off as a workable gap grows into a chasm so wide that at a certain point, you are permanently behind; go ahead and call it a disability.

    For the reasons Nazie mentions, I also intend to reward hard work above natural “smartness.” Children who are praised for the latter and not the former often expect to do well on everything; when they are met with a challenge, they withdraw–to do poorly must mean they are no longer smart. I prefer a child who realizes that they may not be the best at everything, but that talent is overrated, and that hard-work will get them farther. That attitude has worked to my benefit, because, like I said, I’m no genius.

    All that being said, what is a parent to do in these times? I cannot blame a parent who agitates for placement of their child in a “gifted” program; I fully intend to agitate for my daughter’s placement in such a program when the time comes, regardless of what her “scores” indicate. So, if we know it’s all a farce, are we wrong for playing along, knowing that very real benefits accompany placement in these programs? I hate to be complicit in what is generally one big lie, but at the same time, I want what is best for my child academically.

    And, if I can just be snarky for one moment: most of the G&T kids aren’t doing much of anything with their lives these days. Okay–snarky time over.

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  3. I took the opposite route as a child, going through the normal school system. While I can only speculate what would have happened in a class for gifted, I can say for sure that the normal school did not agree with me: I was a complete social misfit. I was bored to tears. Most of the time spent in school was a waste of time, actually causing me to learn less. Thus, I would tend to favour separate education for the gifted.

    However, at the same time, it is important to look not at potential, but at actuality: Testing each and every child before they start school is likely a flawed approach. It would be better to start children together, see who fits in or does fits in, who is over- or under-challenged, whatnot, and make a decision based on that—and with the emotional well-being of the child as the main criterion.

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  4. I 100% agree with you ORJ; looking back, it was horribly unfair that students in my elementary school – which was 100% black – didn’t get to do the things I did. And the gifted program a handful of us went to wasn’t even at our school – we were bussed out to another school a few days a week, making our advantage even more pronounced. And I agree – these days everyone is gifted – when 20% of students at a school are gifted, it loses it’s meaning.

    But when I was a child, it wasn’t like that, at least not in elementary school. I guess I was wondering about the very beginning of my labeling though, the labeling that happened when I was five, when I was the only one. My mother definitely agitated, but remember, I have a brother, and while I’m sure she agitated for him, he didn’t get the stuff I got, and he was “smart” too. My kindergarten teacher actually didn’t like me very much, she thought I should repeat kindergarten because I was such a cry-baby! I’m wondering about when I was the only one to skip a grade; the only one to do a science fair project; the only one to be chosen to write this poem in the city; the only one in the school to get a mayoral citation. I’m wondering what that all means. It wasn’t class privilege, unless it’s just relative because my mom had some college. But again, I have a brother who didn’t do those things. So there was something about me.

    And will you agitate for my child to get into the gifted programs if it means subjecting her to an IQ test? Or multiple “assessments?” One of the gifted schools around here puts the children into a special play group and observes them and then assesses them. This school sounds awesome – one of my dear friends here has her child in it – but I’m terrified of finding out that maybe my child isn’t “good enough” or not gifted, according to them. I don’t know if I believe in that. I don’t know if I want to.

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    1. I hear you on the precise question: what does it all mean to admit that some students are smarter than others? What does it do to their sense of self to realize that they do, or don’t, have “it”? What does it mean for siblings who are not labeled gifted when the other one is (have you ever have conversations with your brother about this?)? And the assessments; it sounds so crazy to be testing and assessing our children so young. Finally, I’ve often wondered how I would deal with it if my child was a below-average student. Academic performance has been an integral part of who I think I am; try as I may not to, I will probably project much of that onto my child.

      I really don’t know. In an age when everybody gets a sticker for doing a “good job,” regardless of how good the job really is, or when everybody gets a trophy in the sports league, even though only one of the teams really came in first, it’s almost taboo to acknowledge that we all have different abilities. I’d like to raise a child who is able to sit through the sting of watching another team receive the first place trophy, without having to be appeased with a trophy of her own; we cannot all win, all the time. And in that respect, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that some children have above-average intelligence.

      At the same time, I worry about the desire to segregate gifted children, just as I worry about the desire to segregated special ed students. The classroom can be a place of collaboration, and students can learn quite a bit by working together. If you’re smarter than me, teach me! don’t leave me! I wonder if there are really ways to acknowledge difference without assigning such important value to it; and ways to use the above-average differences of some students in a way that benefits all our kids.

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      1. High IQ bears very little correlation to high achievement and success in life–and this was true in my own family: my brother, who was never labeled gifted, is hugely successful. In fact, I believe the research may point to an inverse correlation. There’s an entertaining discussion of this in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, which also appears to make the case for practice and perseverance.

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  5. First, I reject “IQ” measurements and do not believe they do much to accurately assess and measure one’s capacity for intelligence. They do more to measure one’s ability to thinkin logically and rapidly than anything. Does little to declare someone smart.

    Second, I, too, was labeled gifted. My mother was offered the chance to skip me each year of elementary school. She never did for two reasons: 1. She felt the socialization would be affected by me hanging out with kids 1-2 years older than I was and 2. She felt that if I was so much smarter than my peers, I’d just stand out even more when it counted. And it did. I always did better than everyone else. Awards, top of the class, etc. Things were a breeze to me and eventually I got extremely bored and began misbehaving. That was when she knew she had to be more proactive about getting me a better education.

    I ended up at a very small, exclusive private middle school. From there, I went to an elite boarding school. And then, as you know, the Ivy League. 4.0 my first year… again, a breeze. I stopped caring about grades way before college, though. In fact, I didnt go straight to college from high school; I wasn’t sure I even wanted to bother. I’m glad I did, as it turned out to be an amazing experience, but I didnt stress the academics too tough. That stuff always came easy.

    With my son, I see similar traits. He is 3 and is beginning to read, write, and spell. He has this musical talent that just stuns me and I nurture it by giving him access to as many instruments and influencial music as possible. He is naturally athletic and does well in gymnastics. Is he “gifted”? Doubt it. He just has smart, active parents. I think most kids can begin reading and writing at 3 if their parents nurture that ability. I don’t think he is doing anything exceptional no moreso than I did.

    “Gifted” to me is like a musical prodigy or a rocket scientist who is 8 year old. I think that too often, we listen to the “Experts” about where our children should be at whatever age and we compare our kids to that. Why we do this? Because we want to make sure our kids are at least “normal”. Instead of simply acknowledging that environment, socialization, parental input, and external influences can affect a child’s develop for the good or bad, we try to measure our kids by markers and indicators that have no real relevance to our lives.
    So if a 1 year old uses the potty, she must be special and if a 4 year old doesnt, something must be wrong with her. If an 18 month old can spell his own name he must be special and if a 5 years old cant, something must be wrong with him.

    The only thing factoring into those situations are parents (with the exception of diagnosed developmental issues).

    I wouldnt have my kid assessed or tested and being “gifted” or anything. I want to him to just continue to be the bright, precocious, often pain-in-the-ass kid that I know and love and over time, if I see that he needs more challenges, I’ll seek them as my mother did for me.

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    1. But what about when the only way to get more challenge for your child is to have them labelled gifted? Then what? What if the only way to get more for them is to get them into a special school that requires IQ testing and special assessments? That’s what I’m talking about. And what about when that starts at a very young age, when you see it at a very young age.

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  6. I’m not convinced that is the only way to get the challenge though, but maybe that depends on where you live. Here, we’re getting G into a special pre-K based on where his dad lives. Then there are places that have lotteries and such that dont require testing. Then it’s about who you know. Places like Harlem Children’s Zone dont require kids being labeled as gifted. Their idea is that ALL kids can rise to the challenges given to them from birth. Lotteries suck. Being low-income helps some more than others. There are a lot of things that go into it. If the programs you seek require your child be labeled as gifted, and you feel thats the best educational track for your children, then go for it. But aside from entrance exams, interviews, and/or lotteries, I’m not sure I’d be doing more than that to get them into a good school. That’s how I got into mine.

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    1. See, in Philly, Masterman, where I went to high school, a public high school, it required an entrance exam in which you are judged against other folks. Not an IQ test, but damn near one. Here in Palo Alto, to get into the gifted programs it’s the same thing – tests and more tests. To get into the gifted school, there’s an IQ test and IQ assessments. No lottery.

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  7. Ok – how about this list from a couple of websites that separates “gifted” kids from “bright” kids:

    • A bright child will know the answers, but a gifted child asks the questions.
    • Bright children are interested. Gifted children are extremely curious.
    • A bright child will pay attention, while a gifted one will get involved physically and mentally – often not seeming to pay attention, but taking in information anyway.
    • Bright kids work hard and gifted kids play around but still get good grades and test scores.
    • Bright children answer all the questions while gifted children question all the answers.
    • Bright kids have same-age peers. Gifted kids prefer adults and older kids.
    • A bright child memorizes easily. A gifted child is good at guessing the right answer.
    • A bright child learns with ease, but a gifted child gets bored because he already knew the answers.
    • Bright children listen well. Gifted children express strong feelings and opinions.
    • Bright kids are self-satisfied, but gifted kids are highly self-critical and perfectionist.

    What do you guys think about this? I’ve never considered myself the smartest person in a room; in many subjects (like sciences) I have had to work hard to do well. But all this stuff about being a perfectionist, questioning everything, preferring older peers and adults (ALL of my close friends are older than me, several by ten or more years), not having a good memory and therefore unable to memorize, not having to work hard at most subjects (except damn science!), getting in trouble for always talking in class…these are things that have been my life. And I’ve always been good at a lot of things – singing, art, dance. A list like this makes me believe that there is something more to giftedness than being a rocket scientist or a musical prodigy. And I’m not saying it to be conceited, I hope it doesn’t sound that way, but just that I’ve always felt different.

    But ORJ, you bring up a great point – what if these are not my kids? How will I deal with that? Both show a proclivity toward music, which is great – my father is a musician, and I’m a singer, so I can understand that. But I’ve honestly never really worked really hard at anything, so I don’t even know how to do it. I’ve coasted a lot of my life, so how am I to teach my kids if working hard is something they have to do? I’ve started Mindset, by Carol Dweck, which talks about how we need to praise effort instead of results, so I’ve been trying to do that, but to a certain extent, I can understand…

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    1. I think its fine for different people to have different ideas of what gifted is. IMO, its very subjective, which is one reason why I don’t buy into it all that much. When you describe yourself, you’re describing me as well, yet you consider yourself gifted and I don’t consider myself gifted, despite how I was labeled. Was I smarter? Sure. More talented? Yup. But I can’t wrap my brain about what “gifted” is unless it means that I was given the gift of dedicated parents. I was everything on that list of both bright and gifted. So I guess I can toss that out and render it subjective, and pretty much useless lol There is a disconnect there I guess.

      Your questions about what if your kids arent like that are exactly why I dont stress it too much. Why set myself up to be disappointed or feel like I failed them somehow if they dont turn out to be like I was? Why not just go with the flow, encourage them, challenge them, and see how they turn out and love and appreciate them for that? I think that’s probably easier, at least in my opinion.

      My kid can read not because of some special school or early academic intervention. Not because of some “gift”. He can read because I’m teaching him to read. He is almost 4 and hasnt been to “school” yet. No pre-K, nothing. He can write because I’m teaching him to write. He can spell because I’m teaching him to spell. He is well-spoken because I speak well to him. So rather than stress about getting him into whatever programs, I feel capable in my own ability to teach him, challenge him, and nurture his intellectual development. If he exceeds expectations for his age, great. If he doesn’t ok. If he falls behind, I’ll work to bring him up to speed.

      All I want is a happy, healthy, relative stable child with a zest for life and a love of learning and discovery. I want him to carve his own path and I’ll be there to guide him.

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      1. See, I guess I don’t have any confidence in my ability to do any of those things. I’m not a teacher, at least not of small children. I don’t even particularly LIKE small children, except for my own. I don’t know how Ahmir learned the sounds of the letters, because I certainly didn’t teach them to him. The preschool he attends is all play-based, and he plays outside all day, according to the teachers. I don’t do well with the shortened attention span; when we sit to do something “academic, I get frustrated. Good thing he loves to read, because we do that a lot. But I have to admit to even being lazy sometimes – I’ll tell him to get shorter books!

        I guess this is turning into my own confession of fear of being an inadequate parent….

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    2. First, I have to say I love your post and all the things you shared. I’m catching up, having just now added this blog to my blogroll.

      I can TOTALLY relate to this comment. In Brazil there isn’t really much, if anything for “gifted” kids. My mom, who is an educator and who actually studied with the founder of cognitive psychology Jean Piaget in Switzerland, knew early on that I was pretty bright. I’ve never considered myself really gifted, but I fit the description for “gifted” in most of the things in your list of bright vs. gifted above. I learned to read on my own before going to school (kids used to go to school at 7 in Brazil). Everything was always easy for me in school and I never had to really make much effort (except in harder math, physics and chemistry in high school). I’m terrible to memorize anything (such as poems and music for the piano), but I have a photographic memory and remember details and figure out answers. I’m painfully perfectionist and very opinionated. So, maybe I am “gifted” after all. 😉

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  8. A particular complication with the label “gifted” is that is highly misleading. Most notably: a) There are many “levels” of giftedness, with a lower (conventional and arbitrary) limit at an IQ of 130 and a practical upper limit three or four standard deviations higher—with each standard deviation bringing a greater difference in mind than the preceding. b) The probability of very large differences between two randomly picked gifted (even at the same “level” of giftedness) appears to be greater than between two non-gifted. This even without counting “non-intellectual” giftedness, which introduces far greater ambiguities.

    (Nevermind to criticize the use of IQ above—it is mostly a convenient proxy, which makes the discussion easier.)

    As an aside, I have a history of primarly questioning the questions (rather than the answers). This starting in very early school years were I refused to answer questions asked in an “exercise” section or do exercises in a “questions” section, and ending on university level where my answers often started with a discussion of why the question was too ambiguous, how the problem required unstated assumptions/was under-determined, how the question missed the point, or similar. (This, obviously, showed a highly naive lack of understanding of how the minds of teachers work and how they are likely to react to such statements.)

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    1. “As an aside, I have a history of primarly questioning the questions (rather than the answers)….I refused to answer questions asked in an “exercise” section or do exercises in a “questions” section, and ending on university level where my answers often started with a discussion of why the question was too ambiguous, how the problem required unstated assumptions/was under-determined, how the question missed the point, or similar.”

      Are you sure you’re not my husband in disguise?

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  9. I was suspended for telling a teacher she was wrong in the fourth grade. She WAS wrong, but I was suspended moreso, I believe, because I called her out and undermined her authority in the classroom. So being “gifted” got my behind in trouble and thats when my mother knew she had to do something.

    We have to still shape the behavioral traits of “gifted” children because they seem to be the ones most likely to get into trouble from being understimulated.

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  10. LaToya, I’m no teacher either. Far from it lol

    I’m just a mom who pays attention to the needs of her child and provides what I can, which is all he can ever ask of me. All the world can ever ask of me. I dont always want to read to him, so I tell him to read to me. THAT is how he has developed his reading skill. He matches story lines to pictures and eventually words to his story lines, and I help and correct him along the way. When I ask him something and he says “I dunno” I say “Yes you do, now what is it?” and I dont let him off the hook. I dont even have to be 100% sure if he knows it or not, but I tell him he does, so he has to sit and think and figure it out. He learned to write by copying what he saw on paper. When he began drawing at 2, I was shocked, but then, I guess I expect no less. He is, after all, MY child lol So maybe its that I have so high expectations that I’m not exactly all that impressed with anything short of his reciting the first 14 numbers of pi? LOL

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