On Being, and Raising, a Gifted Child

[apologies to my LJ readers for the lack of cut]

Lately I’ve been reading books on gifted children: how to identify them; how to deal with them; what to expect as a parent. Is mini-Elbeno gifted? Without wanting to sound like a competitive parent, and properly considering that it’s still early days, I think he’s showing signs.

He’ll be two next month. His language development is quite impressive, I think. He speaks whole sentences and volunteers complete thoughts about what we’re doing. “Mummy and Henry are going to the tot lot” was a recent example. He is absorbing language (including foreign languages) as fast as we can expose him to it. Today we caught him singing a Spanish song that Mrs Elbeno doesn’t even know all the words to. He shows remarkable feats of memory and can concentrate on tasks very intensely. He can read. We’ve stopped counting how many words; he often reads his books on his own now and attempts to read words that he’s never seen before, e.g. when out and about on signs, trucks, etc. I have nearly no experience of nearly-two-year-olds to compare him to, but this seems out of the ordinary.

Giftedness is partially hereditary, and he’s well set for it. Mrs Elbeno was put into “gifted & talented” programs at school. She has an IQ, based on very informal testing, in the gifted range. Not that IQ need have much bearing on giftedness. Reading the books on gifted children, it is also clear to me that I was a gifted child.

I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. What I can remember is taking a reading test at 5 years old. I remember being bored by the test, and while the teacher was pointing in turn to the simple words at the top, I had already “buffered” that line of words in my head and was looking at the words down at the bottom of the page. I distinctly remember two words that I saw there: metamorphosis and idiosyncrasy. I knew what metamorphosis meant because I’d read about butterflies and frogs. I didn’t know what idiosyncrasy meant, but I’d heard it in speech and when I saw it written, I realised what it was. The reading test results showed that I could read at an eighth grade level.

I was also gifted in mathematics. At preschool (starting age 3) I was doing addition and subtraction of 2-digit numbers. “Sums” consisted of this. e.g. 53 + 24 or 38 – 15. I remember one day our class spent a couple of hours in the next classroom for a lesson. I don’t remember the lesson content – I wasn’t paying attention. What I found much more interesting was the chart of times tables on the wall, which went up to 12. So I memorised it. I learned my times tables from that chart in about 10-20 minutes. I remember optimising the process and not bothering to memorise the 10s and 11s because they were so easy.

I’ve always excelled at tasks that involve taking in information, whether visually or auditorily. At primary school, I never scored less than 100% on a spelling test. Once when I was 9, I was called up to the teacher’s desk about my maths homework. We’d been studying addition and subtraction of fractions. I hadn’t shown any working for the exercises, just putting down the answers. So I guess the teacher wondered whether I was really doing the exercises or just copying the answers (which were in the back of the book). The problem she asked me about was 3/4 + 2/3, and my written answer was 1 5/12. My explanation was something like this:

“Well, I start by seeing that three and four (pointing to denominators) both divide into twelve, so I have to convert to twelfths. I look at three quarters and twelve divided by four is three, so I multiply by three. Three times three is nine, so three quarters is nine twelfths. I remember that. Then I look at two thirds. Twelve divided by three is four, so I multiply two by four to get eight. Eight twelfths. Nine twelfths plus eight twelfths is seventeen twelfths, which is one-and-five-twelfths.”

The teacher looked at me and said rather weakly, “… Well, er, can you put down your working from now on, at least so I can follow it?”

Giftedness isn’t all easy, though. My intellectual development far outstripped my emotional development. At 6 I could play chess, but when I lost, I threw tantrums like nobody’s business. Also, a strange thing happened at school when I was 10. I had for years been a model student and I was top of the class without putting in any effort. I was scheduled to take an entrance exam for a public school (US: private school); my teachers, and I dare say my parents, thought that although at primary school I had been a big fish in a small pond, I would be a small fish in a big pond at the new school, which would properly stretch my abilities. Well, I got bored and I got… I’ll have to say experimental. I went through a period of about a month when I just stopped doing schoolwork. My teacher was livid, saying I’d better buck up if I expected to pass the entrance exam to the new school. So I returned to doing schoolwork, and took the entrance exam in due course. It was no trouble.

My new school was much better, and did stretch my abilities in some areas. But I was still top of the class without really trying. One of the only classes that properly, regularly, challenged me was French. I remember feeling slighted a bit at some other subjects: after studying Latin for a year, myself and two other pupils were taken aside one day with a view to putting together a (very) small class for studying Greek. The teacher asked me “So, why are you so good at Latin?” I answered truthfully that I didn’t really know why since I’d only been studying it for a year. At this I was dismissed out of hand for studying Greek: it turned out that the other two pupils had had previous lessons at other schools.

One of my friends once remarked airily within earshot, “Oh I prefer [other student] to Ben. Ben swots so much to be top of the class, whereas [other student] is more intelligent.” A friend who knew me better nearly fell about laughing, and confided to me, “He’s got it exactly backwards: you’re one of the laziest people I know!”

I don’t really set much store by IQ tests, but every IQ test I’ve ever taken (including a properly administered test I took as a teenager) has put mine over three standard deviations higher than the norm. It seems reasonable from this, and from the evidence stated, to prepare for mini-Elbeno being gifted. The question is, how gifted, and in what ways? There is as much difference between a 170ish IQ and a 130ish IQ as there is between a 130ish IQ and average. Whatever lies in store for us with the young Elbeno, I’m planning to enjoy the ride.

Readers that are/were/have/teach gifted kids: what’s your experience?

2 Responses to “On Being, and Raising, a Gifted Child”

  1. skye says:

    As you say – all variable. A lot of ‘gifted’, when young, is the amount of things the children are exposed to – they get used to picking lots up, and so keep that trait.

    But sometimes gifted is gifted, and certainly mini Elbeno is!

  2. MJD says:

    Apply the processing power to considering how to unlock the potential – because what you describe is what’s been NOTICED. What about the unnoticed and as yet unlocked potential? A much more rewarding issue than trying to make sense of where we all fit against conventional mores and artificial yardsticks. Mini-E has incredible genetic gifts that will probably never all be surfaced – like most of us – even if the environmental stuff is as good at enabling it to surface as it can be. His journey will be as much enriched by the people he meets as the books he reads.

Leave a Reply