What Does “Gifted” Mean Anyway?

February 13, 2013

By Lisa Hartwig

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

In high school, I was identified as a gifted and talented student by the Research and Guidance Laboratory for Superior Students at the University of Wisconsin. I know this because my mother saved 2 reports from the laboratory. The reports contained testing results and interviews.

The first question on the report asked about my reaction to being identified as talented. My answer:

“I believe I am not exceptionally talented and that 8th grade reading scores couldn’t possibly tell. I have no feelings about it.”

I was 17 at the time I said this. I was one of 1800 students in my high school and deeply involved in the theater program. I was popular among my peers and I had a serious boyfriend. I also got a “C” in French that year. No wonder I was dismissive of my academic “talents”.

I knew my own children would not be as dismissive. I asked them the same question. This time, I used the word “gifted”, a word they know well. This is what they said:

1. “I don’t know, I’m not the biggest fan of that word. I think it’s used in a way it shouldn’t be. It is elitist. Why don’t they just say smart?”

2. “I don’t feel like I’m that much smarter than anyone else. I know some people did tests on me and I have a higher IQ, but it doesn’t make me feel any smarter.”

3. “I feel like it’s an attempt at a compliment, without really getting there. It means I do exceptionally well when I am in the right environment. Being ‘gifted’ means I was the right person in the right place at the right time. If I was the same person in the wrong place at the wrong time, I would be a ‘slacker’.”

See if you can match the child to the response:

A. 18 year old highly creative son. I called him “lazy” before I discovered he was gifted. In 6th grade, he moved from public school to a private school for gifted students. Subject of “Hunting for Gifts” post.

B. 15 year old son. Highly sensitive and highly gifted, he spent his early years academically out of sync with the rest of his class and taught by teachers who either disregarded his abilities or were hostile to his parents’ interference. In 5th grade, we moved him to a private school for gifted students. Subject of “The Perfect Test” post.

C. 12 year old daughter, currently in 6th grade, who has attended a private school for gifted students since kindergarten. Subject of “High Anxiety” post.

Answers: 1B, 2C, 3A

Each child saw the word “gifted” based on his or her own experiences. In one of these answers, I see rejection of a word that began a battle over curriculum between frustrated parents and hostile teachers. In another, I see an expression of insecurity that comes from interacting with classmates who win national awards and perform at Carnegie Hall. In the third, I see the articulation of anxiety that results when a child is pushed by his parents to perform in an inhospitable environment. What I don’t see is any acknowledgment that this word might describe who they are. In 33 years, nothing has changed. What does it mean when the very children who are identified by the word “gifted” reject it?

I wanted to tell my children what “gifted” meant, but I couldn’t. The experts have not agreed on a single definition. (Some of the definitions, along with the one IEA uses, are here.) As far as I can tell, it is a term created by educational professionals to describe individuals with abilities different from (not better than) typically developing peers who require curriculum modifications in order to meet their academic and social-emotional needs. If I have correctly captured the definition of “gifted”, then doesn’t the term focus less on the students’ “gifts” and more on their needs? Couldn’t you also use this definition for children with other types of learning differences or special needs?

I think we need to ditch the word and come up with another. No one embraces the term. “Gifted” has an image problem. Most people see it as a genetic and inherent quality that remains static throughout a person’s life and confers unmitigated advantages to the individual. My experience, and that of my children, tells me that the characteristics associated with being “gifted” can be assets in some environments and liabilities in others.

So, what word should we use? Can’t we appropriate some other term that identifies these students but doesn’t elicit the same negative response? How about “special needs” or “learning difference”?

In the meantime, let’s address some of issues that lead to these misconceptions about giftedness. Until we figure out how to adequately identify gifted children in all racial and socio-economic groups, the term will be considered elitist by some. Until we accept the social and emotional characteristics associated with giftedness, many of which bring challenges along with the “gifts”, these children will just be “smart”. And, until we stop demanding that children perform in order to prove their gifts, we will always have the misunderstood “slacker”.

Like every other parent, I want my children to understand and appreciate the qualities that make them unique. They have rejected the term the educational community has proposed for them. That’s okay; they can define themselves any way they’d like. Until we find a new term, I will continue seek out others who speak the “gifted” language. It’s nice to have sympathetic company when you feel misunderstood.

What has your experience been with the term “gifted”? Please share in the comment section below.

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