Hunting for Gifts

July 31, 2012

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

Some gifted children are easier to identify than others. My middle child is a mathematically talented student. It’s hard to overlook a kindergartner who is multiplying and dividing double digit numbers without having ever been taught to do so. In contrast, my oldest son possesses gifted characteristics that were less obvious to me. He has emotional depth, a vivid imagination and an interest in doing things differently. He is highly creative. My son is smart, yes, but he is not an outlier in any particular academic area.

My gifted antenna failed to properly identify my oldest child because I didn’t know what I was looking for. To further complicate matters, he didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate these characteristics in the classroom. In retrospect, I realize that I saw evidence of these gifted characteristics but failed to recognize them because I viewed his behavior through the prism of my own upbringing. In short, I was on a hunt for buried treasure with an incomplete map and poor vision.

Like most parents, my husband and I initially approached parenting with the assumption that we would raise our children largely the way we were raised. We both attended public school in the Midwest. While my education was not ideal, I attributed my success to my work ethic and internal drive. My husband felt that his success resulted from his desire to please his demanding parents. So, when my oldest son started daydreaming in class, we assumed that he lacked the drive and work ethic to succeed. We relied on his desire to please us and applied parental pressure. We said that we were going to “put the spurs on.” It was an unpleasant metaphor, but it wasn’t the worse thing I said. At a particularly frustrating moment, I called my son lazy.

It was at this point that we began to question our judgment and reevaluate our strategy for motivating our son. Bullying could not be the answer. Maybe something else was going on in the classroom. We decided to ask him.

My son told us that he retreated into his imagination when the teacher repeated information he already knew. He created a fantasy world with characters and a story line. Other times, he revisited characters from books he read. At one point, he told us that he didn’t read books, he lived in them. He even extended his creativity into mathematics. Once, he experimented with a new way of solving the problems on a math test. Unfortunately, his experiment failed miserably.

My son wasn’t lazy at all. He was building worlds, reliving old worlds and finding new ways to do things. He quietly disengaged as the class moved slowly through the curriculum—although, the teacher thought he was doing fine. Fortunately for him, he only needed to pay partial attention to do well in school. He was learning that that he could succeed while devoting minimal attention to his studies. This was not the work ethic we were hoping for in the classroom.

I learned later that my son’s disengagement was an early indication of underachievement. Every book that I consulted in later years made the same suggestions: address underachievement early with accommodations tailored to the student’s abilities. That is so much easier said than done. Our multiple attempts at advocacy would lead us from the classroom, to the principal’s office, to the Superintendent and then to the School Board. Ultimately, we succeeded, but that’s another story entirely.

When I think back on all of the preconceived notions we had about gifted children and success in the classroom, it’s a miracle that we discovered our son’s gifts. Somehow we found the humility to question our parental judgment, the courage to challenge his teacher’s expectations and the imagination to see what was invisible to us. But what we really needed was our 9-year-old son’s wisdom. Eventually, we discovered his gifts; we just needed gifts of our own to see them.

Have preconceptions of giftedness or success caused you or an educator to miss seeing something important in your child? Please share your experience in the comment section below.

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