Why do so many people think that giftedness is a ‘seriously wrong’ idea? Dr Ruth Cigman argues that the way forward lies in ensuring that we recognise genuine giftedness.

Shortly after the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth was set up in 2002, a primary school teacher went on to the Times Educational Supplement website and wrote:

‘Giftedness is yet another seriously wrong idea. The mummies and daddies think the little sprot is a genius, the other kids at school think she’s a boff, she gets bullied, no friends, and it’s 9-1 on the poor unfortunate will be going to Narcotics Anonymous before she’s 29. Bah!’

I came across this as I was trawling the web, and I was shocked. It was not a simple case of ignorance. It was a teacher writing with undisguised contempt about children who could be in her care.

If a teacher talked this way about immigrant children (the little sprots clutter up our schools, the other kids think they’re idiots, they get bullied, no friends, bah!), there would be an outcry and calls for dismissal.

As it was the comment sat quietly among a series of other comments, positive and negative, about the education of gifted children. I suspect that many readers hardly batted an eyelid.

Why does ‘giftedness’ provoke such reactions?
How could this happen? Giftedness is a complex idea, and for people who care about gifted children, it is worth trying to understand why it provokes such violent reactions. This is important, I think, for the sake of gifted children, and it is also important for their parents. 

As the parent of a gifted child, I have experienced both ends of the prejudice. The parent of a dyslexic child may casually tell another parent ‘My child is dyslexic’, but no way can (or should) the parent of a gifted child do this. ‘My child is gifted’ is heard as ‘My child is better’, meaning cleverer than your child, and cleverer than other children of the same age. I have seen this rapid translation going on behind the eyebrows of parents and teachers. Along with this translation (and I swear that this is not paranoia) goes the thought: ‘Watch out for this parent’.

Distrust of the parent becomes distrust of the child. She is a ‘sprot’ or a ‘boff’, the legitimate target of a host of unpleasant insults. She reads books all the time, not because she likes them, but because she can’t get along with other kids her age. She is spoilt in the sense that she is over-indulged, and she is spoilt in the sense of being damaged. This is why she reads books. She is incapable of behaving ‘normally’. She doesn’t really like books at all.

We need to ask why the remark ‘My child is gifted’ is so problematic. I have suggested that, for many people, it carries an implied insult. It implies ‘Your child is more stupid than my child’, making the use of insulting words like ‘sprot’ and ‘boff’ seem no more than a fair retort. 

I believe that this issue of meaning – in particular, the problematic implications of parental claims of giftedness – underlies the prejudice against, and stereotyping of, gifted children that is so prevalent in our society. If we are to loosen the hold of this prejudice – and we owe it to gifted children to try to do this – we need to uproot it, that is, analyse its sources. This is a large subject, but I shall make a start here.

What does giftedness mean? 
Like its forebear ‘intelligence’, ‘giftedness’ suggests some kind of natural endowment. Educationist Paul Rogne says that giftedness implies ‘receiving something for nothing, and it is difficult to garner sympathy for someone so apparently blessed’. This, clearly, is part of the problem. Saying that one’s child is gifted may sound like saying that she is beautiful or even (moving from natural to additional endowments) that she is wealthy. ‘My child has inherited a vast fortune from her grandparents’ would be a strange sort of remark to hear at the school gate.

The giftedness claim may sound like boasting, but it has another aspect that many people miss. Being gifted can mean having serious needs that other children do not have. It can mean feeling lonely because the things one enjoys are not the things that most children enjoy. It can mean feeling driven to explore and discover, or develop one’s knowledge or skills in certain ways. It can mean feeling bored and restless in school because one has already mastered what the teacher is trying to teach.

In many cases, the gifted child is rather like an addict. She pursues her interests with an emotional intensity that can be hard for her and those around her to endure. She must have those violin lessons, and she must practice for so many hours a day. If she doesn’t, she will be miserable, and if she does she will be isolated from much of the concourse of everyday life.

The parental giftedness claim is often, therefore, anything but boasting. It may rather be a plea for compassion and understanding. One’s child is miserable. She needs more stimulation. And she needs to be accepted for the person than she is, rather than condemned for her inability to be ‘normal’.

The requirement to conform
Conformist expectations are often directed against gifted children. As a society, we are sensitive, and rightly so, to the phenomenon of disadvantage. It is unacceptable to criticise immigrant or disabled children for their failure to be ‘normal’. However it is often acceptable to criticise gifted children this way, and this betrays a failure to grasp ways in which (without wanting to exaggerate) giftedness may be a problem or disadvantage. Any parent of a gifted child knows that the blessing of giftedness is mixed. Social acceptance and an appropriate environment are essential, and they may be wretchedly hard to find.

Failure to appreciate the difficulties associated with giftedness means that intellectual or artistic gifts become objects of envy that many parents dishonestly assume. This is part of what our primary school teacher was objecting to, and there is no doubt that she had a point.

There is a huge social phenomenon of parents making exaggerated claims on behalf of their children. Such claims often mask a terrifying determination to make a child into the person that their parent wants her to be. A child with no particular gifts or talents may appear exceptional because she has been coaxed and bullied into performing like a star. We worry about such children and may well see them ending up at Narcotics Anonymous, or somewhere equally depressing.

There is an important key to addressing this phenomenon, and it lies in understanding the meaning of the word ‘discrimination’. This is generally seen as a dirty word in our society. We talk about discriminating against women, disabled people, people of non-white races, and social justice demands that we do not do this. This demand is important and right.

What people fail to do, however, is spot the more subtle discrimination that operates in our society against gifted individuals, particularly children. There are several reasons for this. One, as I said, is that giftedness is simplistically understood as an endowment or advantage. Another is the belief that two phenomena are indistinguishable: parentally-contrived and genuine giftedness.  

It is not wrong to be concerned about parentally-contrived giftedness. It is not wrong to think ‘Watch out for this parent’ if she is narcissistically invested in the educational success of her child. Indeed it is right to think this, although there is never in my view an excuse for turning distrust of the parent into distrust of the child. No child should be insulted in the way that our primary school teacher insulted children.

This points to a more complicated understanding of discrimination than is contained in the phrase ‘discrimination is a dirty word’. Of course much discrimination is wrong, and it is equally so whether it operates against women, black people or gifted children. But there is another sense in which discrimination is vitally important. We need to discriminate (in a good sense) between parentally-contrived and genuine giftedness if we are to avoid discriminating (in a bad sense) against gifted children. It is a huge injustice to place a child who is bright and addicted to learning in the same category as a child who is tragically pushed. Our primary school teacher did this, and her remarks were discriminatory in the very worst sense.

We need to discriminate in order to avoid being discriminatory. Indeed we need to discriminate if we are to be sensitive and thoughtful human beings, and we try to do this all the time. We try to discriminate between people who are genuinely kind and people who act kindly for show. We try to discriminate between people who genuinely love us and people whose interest is passing. One might say that a basic aim of education and upbringing are, or should be, to help people to discriminate well.

Genuine giftedness
Some people are sceptical about the possibility of discriminating between parentally-contrived and genuine giftedness. This scepticism is often found in academic educational circles, where giftedness detraction often prevails. I find this interesting because it is hardly surprising if academics fail to discriminate between these two phenomena; the difference between parentally-contrived and genuine giftedness is an abstract one until one enters an environment in which the difference is important. One may need to go to a parents’ meeting to realise (unmistakably!) that a parent has neurotic ambitions for her child. Or one may need to go into a classroom or a child’s home to experience the child’s anxiety about pleasing a selfish parent.

The distinction between parentally-contrived and genuine giftedness is not always easy to make, but this doesn’t mean that it cannot be looked out for, still less that it does not exist. 

Part of the reason that people skim over the distinction between parentally-contrived and genuine giftedness is that they fear or dislike the latter. They would prefer to ignore it, and I think I have identified some reasons for this. If a child is gifted, this implies (for some people) that she is better or cleverer than other children.

This may sound insulting, but I think the specific feared implication is that people who are not gifted have inferior, determinate potentials. They are capable of lesser achievements than gifted people, and there is nothing anyone can do to change this. 

This idea is obnoxious, and it is also wrong. Gifted children have no monopoly on future high achievement, and we all know of extraordinarily successful individuals who were unexceptional as children. The idea of variable, determinate potentials has its origin in the idea of intelligence (IQ) as a quantifiable endowment. We need to understand the damage this has done and continues to do.

Francis Galton and Cyril Burt believed that intellectual capacity is rather like the capacity of a milk bottle. Bottles have variable capacities, but one thing is clear: you cannot get a litre of water into a half-litre bottle. Human intelligence, similarly, has ‘upper limits’. These can be measured through tests, and it is pointless to try to extend them. Although we don’t usually talk nowadays about children’s ‘upper limits’, this way of thinking is very much alive. We still administer IQ tests, and we use tests to filter access to scarce goods, like the NAGTY summer schools.

In so doing, we are neglecting that all-important concept: disadvantage. We know that some children do better than others in tests because they come from more privileged economic or social backgrounds. We know that learning begins at birth and some children have had fewer opportunities to learn. We know, therefore, that exclusive reliance on tests is unjust.

Indicators of giftedness
The implication is that educators should rely less on tests and look more carefully at indicators of giftedness. We should pay attention to the kid at the back of the class who doodles aimlessly much of the time but occasionally says something that reveals an incisive or original mind. We should look out for the child who does moderately well at school but is passionate about beetles and remarkably well-informed on this topic. 

Extraordinary insight and passion for learning are important indicators of giftedness, and, in some cases, provide better evidence of who will thrive at a summer school than a test result. A stronger reliance on indicators is not only more just (and more likely to pick out under-achievers); it also helps to deflect the idea that weaker performers have inferior, determinate potentials. The selection procedure becomes geared to things like interest and passion, instead of the abstract notions of superior and inferior capacity. 

Of course capacity and passion are often coincident. The child who is capable of playing the violin extremely well often has a strong desire to do so. The emphasis on indicators leaves us with a question, which in my view, should be left open. The question is whether giftedness may have more to do with passion or interest than measurable capacity or ability.

  • If you desperately want to do something, you are more likely to succeed in doing it.
  • If you love something, you are more likely to do something remarkable with it.

These truths go to the heart of the idea of giftedness, and I suspect that many children could benefit from their being more widely acknowledged.

Ruth Cigman teaches philosophy at Birkbeck College’s Faculty of Continuing Education, University of London, and ethics at Royal Free and University College Medical School. Her interest in giftedness began in the 1990s, when her young son started researching history and dragging her to Shakespeare plays. She has published on this and other educational topics, and has edited a collection of essays (foreword by Baroness Warnock) called Included or Excluded? The Challenge of the Mainstream for some SEN Children, to be published by Routledge in December 2006.

Further information
Cigman, Ruth (2006) ‘The Gifted Child: A Conceptual Enquiry’ Oxford Review of Education, 32, 2, 197-212(16)