Karen Holloman was raising three boys, and her youngest, Rob, was proving to be different.
“He spent a lot of time in the headmaster’s office,” she recalls. “In nursery school, his teachers stopped me one day and said, ‘We have a new rule. When Rob comes into the classroom, he has to be Rob. He can’t be anyone else.’”
He was called disruptive and difficult and lots of other words for “doesn’t fit in” until, finally, in second grade, his teacher suggested having his IQ tested. He scored 164. (A score of 131 to 145 is generally considered highly gifted.)
“His teacher said, ‘Do you know what you have?’” says Holloman, who lives in New York. “‘This child is extraordinary.’”
Parents of such “extraordinary” children know the gifted label can mean a number of things, but it rarely means life will be easy for their child. Even school, which would seem like a natural place for a gifted child to excel, can be fraught with challenges.
“Often these kids are struggling in school because they’re not interested in learning about things they already know or the repetition and rote memorization required of so many other kids in their class,” says Liz Perelstein, founder and president of School Choice International, a consulting service that helps families find the right school for their gifted children.
Parents can ease the way, experts say, but it requires some unconventional thinking.
Teachers often respond to a child’s boredom or speedy completion of assignments with more work sheets, more chapters, more of what didn’t hold the child’s interest the first time around, Perelstein says. Parents should resist falling into the same trap.
“What these kids don’t need is more work,” she says. “What they do need is parents who recognize and respect what they’re interested in and encourage those interests.”
For Holloman’s son, now 17, it has always been chess. She hired a chess tutor when he was still in elementary school and scoured the landscape for places where Rob could play.
“When he was in fifth or sixth grade, he asked to volunteer at this really nice retirement center, and they put him with this 90-year-old man who would play chess with him,” she recalls. “He just loved that time. I was always having to explain to people, ‘No, he doesn’t want it for community service. He just wants to do it.’”
Perelstein counseled one family whose son was fascinated by train routes.
“There are all kinds of things the parents could do to foster that kind of interest,” she says. “Taking him on rail trips to different parts of the country so he can learn geography, helping him learn the physics of trains, reading the history of trains, encouraging him to write about trains, learning about bullet trains in other countries and the politics and culture surrounding trains and how in Europe they can go across borders.
“Suddenly you’re learning reading, writing, history, geography, science, politics and culture, all through his area of interest,” she says. “You push their knowledge to its limits because you’re encouraging them to do what’s interesting to them.”
You’re also taking responsibility for your child’s learning, rather than expecting the school to accommodate his unique needs.
“The worst thing parents can do is to go into the school and say, ‘My child is gifted, and she needs to be challenged,’” Perelstein says. “School administrators hear that all the time – mostly among kids who aren’t actually gifted – and it just sets you up for an adversarial relationship.”
Which isn’t to say you should count the school out.
“Talk to your child’s teachers, and ask specific questions,” Perelstein suggests. “‘What if my kid has a strong passion about something you’re not studying? Are you open to moving a child up in just math or just science if they excel in those areas? Do you ever take into account the specific needs of a child when you structure the schedule of the day?’”
In some cases, a school that treats its gifted students as similar as possible to all students is, itself, a gift, says child and family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent” (Palgrave Macmillan).
The social stigma is lessened, of course. “Sometimes schools teach these kids to be super, super geniuses, but beyond being well-endowed cognitively and academically, they’re socially awkward and limited,” Walfish says. “You want your child to learn how to interact in the mainstream.”
And you also want them to learn mainstream life lessons.
“Sometimes kids get the message when they’re labeled gifted and sent to special classes that things will come easily to them and they’ll certainly make it into whatever college they want,” Walfish says. “Gifted kids need to be prepared to deal with disappointment too.”
Finding non-school teachers (piano, karate) and other adults or older kids for your child to bond with can also be very beneficial.
“It’s sometimes hard to find peers in their age group who are interested in the kinds of conversations they want to have,” Perelstein says. “Mixed-age activities where they have the opportunity to meet older kids and adults that motivate them can be really important.”
Motivation, after all, can be a struggle for even the brightest of kids.
“Rob believes he’s going to be the next Stephen King, and my husband and I tell him, ‘What makes Stephen King Stephen King isn’t just that he’s creative and smart. It’s because he works,’” Karen Holloman says. “Some of it is luck and being intelligent, but we want to make sure he knows he has to work hard.
“We tell him, ‘You were given a gift, but it’s only a true gift if you use it,’” she says. “He tells us, ‘My friends can’t believe you’re upset I got a 90 on that test,’ and we try to explain, ‘If we thought you worked your tail off and got a 70, we’d be thrilled. The person who works their tail off, to us, is going to be more successful because they learned how to work hard and to be their very best. And your very best is not 90.’”
SIBLING RIVALRY AND THAT PESKY ‘GIFTED’ LABEL
When a child is labeled – whether it’s “special needs,” “gifted” or otherwise – parents should take care to ensure sibling relationships don’t take a hit.
“It’s very, very common to hear kids say they feel jealous or rivalrous about the time and attention their parents give the sibling with special circumstances,” says child and family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, “even if it’s just … schlepping the child to extra therapy appointments.”
It’s important to view your allotted time and energy through all your kids’ eyes, she says, and to try to distribute as evenly as possible. When that’s not possible, explain the reality to your child.
Also, note how your kids view the labels.
“Watch to see how your children are interacting with each other,” Walfish says. “If you see the non-gifted child looking over and comparing himself to his sister or using her as a measuring stick for his self-esteem, you have to talk about it. If the gifted child is rubbing it in your other child’s face that he’s gifted, you’ve got to talk about it.
“Sit down and have a family meeting about how every person on Earth has their own unique style of learning. Some of us have minds that work quickly and get bored in a regular classroom and need extra stimulation. Some people are great at sports. Some people are brilliant at art. You’re looking to point out the strengths in everyone and treat the gifted label as just sort of a natural progression of how things are happening, instead of a big hoopla celebration.”
By HEIDI STEVENS