More Than A Brain

by Terry Bradley

“Nick is the kind of child who could skip middle school.” With those words still ringing in our ears, my husband and I numbly collected all the testing information as well as the suggested parent reading material and, somehow, found our way to the door. Although wanting what was best for five year old Nick, we had a hard time accepting that his schooling might have to be so greatly altered. We’d heard about kids skipping one grade, but never skipping three grades at once! If we disregarded the comment about his capabilities, couldn’t he just have a normal education experience like other kids? On the other hand, knowing that he was capable of skipping an entire chapter of his education, how would he be accepted by the other kids?

We had known for some time that Nick was “different” from other kids. Gifted kids truly do identify themselves. Among other things, Nick’s memory and retention were remarkable. He taught himself to read at age three. He memorized the states and their capitals by age five. He could name all the presidents in order, first and last name, by age five….in under 30 seconds. On a child’s table place mat of the United States, where the fifty states were shaded in one of five different colors, Nick could tell us the color of any state by memory. His kindergarten teacher sent him to a fourth grade class for reading, and encouraged him to teach his own classmates about constellations, knowing that he would be aware of needing to “speak at their level.” His first grade science project was on “How To Sustain Life on Mars.” His academic gifts were visible in all areas. And, just as important to us, he was a polite, sweet, and modest little boy.

Nick is now 13 (as of 2001) and a freshman in high school. He skipped third grade, but did go to middle school. With our guidance and direction, modifications were made, including mentors and accelerated classes. He is enrolled in his second astronomy class at the University of Colorado, having received an A in the first class. Academically, he has found his niche, enjoying a creative mixture of regular and advanced high school courses and college courses. With the advent of high school, we finally feel that his academic needs are balanced.

But a gifted child is more than just a brain. Regardless of finally finding the appropriate academic balance, Nick, and other gifted kids like him, can still be out of sync emotionally with their environment and with society. Over the eight years following his initial testing consultation, we have observed time and time again that not only do gifted kids think differently, they also feel differently (Silverman, 1995). Here are some examples:

At a time when most kindergartners were ordering Happy Meals at McDonalds, Nick became a vegetarian because he “didn’t think it was right to kill animals just so they could be used for food.” He is still a vegetarian.

When Nick was 10, his grandmother was gravely ill. Whenever our family would visit her in the hospital, she would painfully hold our hands and ask us why her prayers of dying had not yet been answered. When she did pass away, everyone in our family cried over her death. Everyone except Nick. A week later, as Nick and I waited to cross a busy street, he was focused on watching a crippled fly in the street, that was trying to hobble it’s way to the side of the road. Seconds later the fly was run over by a car. He cried for twenty minutes over the fly. Nick was inconsolable. In disbelief, I finally said, “Nick, how can you cry so over this fly, and yet you didn’t shed a tear over Grandma dying?” Through sobs, he simply said, “Mom, don’t you understand? Grandma wanted to die, but that fly was struggling to live.” Explained to me that way, I realized that he wasn’t being insensitive…from his point of view.

Gifted children can experience extreme sensitivities. When Nick was younger, he frequently had difficulty controlling his tears when he was sad or upset. When he would cry, the episodes could last up to 45 minutes, at which point he would be physically and emotionally exhausted (and so would we!). In talking to him about it now, years later, he tells me that at the time he didn’t understand why we didn’t understand what was upsetting him so. The realization of not being understood perpetuated the feeling of “nobody thinks or feels like I do.” This created an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and isolation.

Gifted children do think and feel differently, and they do see things “through a different lens.” As a parent “who’s been there”, I would make these recommendations to other parents of gifted children:

Carl Rogers (1969) stresses the importance of practicing unconditional positive regard with children. Parents need to encourage learning and growth in areas of passion for their child, even if these interests are different or beyond what most children that age are interested in. Denying these differences and disregarding their interests can damage their self esteem. (Nick was interested in learning “as much as possible” about space when he was in kindergarten. We found a graduate student who would spend a couple of hours a week working with him doing projects. Now in high school, Nick’s love for astronomy has intensified to the point that he one day hopes to become an astrophysicist.)

Explain to your child that the way he feels is “normal” for him. Gifted children’s social and emotional needs may be as vulnerable and unique as their academic needs. Their concerns may differ in intensity from the general population’s. What they feel as overwhelming may appear to others as much less significant. Understanding this may help them to comprehend why others do not react as intensely to certain things as they do. For example, some children were so disturbed about the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that they donated their allowance or collected money to donate to the cause. Other children the same age didn’t feel motivated into action. Encourage your child to think of personal or global issues that could benefit from the sensitivities he feels. Help him to channel these sensitivities into positive outcomes which will help to make a difference.

Make available to your child resources written for children that explain what giftedness is all about. Two kid-friendly books are The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guides for Ages 10 and Under (Galbraith, 1999), and The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide for Teens, (Galbraith and Delisle, 1996). These books allow your child to read about issues related to being gifted.

As parents, we need to regularly read books and articles to educate ourselves about giftedness, and about any specific issues related to giftedness that your particular child is experiencing (perfectionism, underachievement, sensitivity, twice exceptionality, etc.) Attend conferences to gain an understanding and awareness of current issues and to connect with other parents who understand and have “been there.” The more informed and educated you become, the more you’ll be able to inform and guide educators who work with your child. You will also become a parent who is more adept at encouraging and nurturing your gifted child.

Years have passed since Nick last saw that place mat of the U.S. But, out of curiosity, I just asked him today what color Vermont was, and without hesitating he replied, “pink.”

About the author:
Terry Bradley lives in Boulder, Colorado and is the mother of Nick and Lindsey, both gifted children. She is an educational consultant with a master’s degree in gifted education specializing in the social and emotional issues of the gifted. She is the Gifted & Talented Advisor at Boulder’s Fairview High School; facilitates discussion groups with middle and high school students; leads SENG groups to support parents of gifted children; and advocates on a local, state, and national level.

Galbraith, J. (1999). The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide For Ages 10 & Under. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Galbraith, J. & Delisle J. (1996). The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide; A Teen Handbook. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.