The Myth of the Gifted Kid


Juliette Fang, Staff Writer

We’ve all heard of gifted children, those who started writing concertos as toddlers or learned how to read before they could walk. We might have even been or are ones ourselves, participating in gifted programs in school or privately. It’s every parent’s dream to have one of these children, but calling students “gifted” oftentimes leads to burnout, and being a part of these programs doesn’t guarantee success later in life. 

That’s not to say giftedness does not have its benefits. There are certainly kids out there who show a higher proficiency for learning than their peers, or are able to master certain tasks more quickly and thoroughly than most. Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs are a great way to provide them with opportunities to flourish and reach their full potential, and the higher education from these programs can help children later in life. Although California no longer designates GATE as a categorical program, there are still many gifted resources available such as Los Angeles Unified School District’s Schools for Advanced Studies and the California Association for the Gifted. Here in Arcadia, we do not have specifically designated gifted programs such as GATE, but there are definitely opportunities for students who are gifted in certain fields, such as accelerated math or academic teams. However, there is definitely a harmful misconception that giftedness is innate, or that it is always expressed as being the perfect student. 

The truth is that giftedness, as well as intelligence as a whole, is a dynamic construct. It is always in flux and is unique to each individual who possesses it, meaning that one of the biggest flaws with the gifted label is how it is determined. Many students who are “officially” considered gifted are part of programs such as GATE, and gifted education programs usually accept students who pass a standardized test with a certain score. 

But giftedness doesn’t always appear in ways that are measurable by traditional test scores, such as a child being able to create a functioning machine out of spare parts or identify every species of insect in their garden. Giftedness can also develop over time, so a third grader who passes the test might not be able to keep up by the time middle school rolls around, or a child who missed the cutoff by a few points might become eligible the next year. In the worst case scenarios, children may be misidentified as gifted, and are given the impossible task of living up to those standards. For example, parents who see their child getting good grades might enroll them in a gifted program, but the child might not be able to keep up with the rigorous pacing and work there. 

Another issue with the selection of gifted children is how factors such as socioeconomic status can unjustly influence who can be identified as gifted or not. Oftentimes, children who come from families with higher socioeconomic status can afford resources such as extracurriculars or tutoring that make it more likely that they will be considered for gifted programs. In fact, the gap is so significant that students from the bottom 20% of socioeconomic status are more than six times less likely to get into gifted programs than those who are from the top 20%, according to a study by Vanderbilt University

In spite of this, many gifted children do end up within their designated programs, where one of the most common fallacies about them can develop and inadvertently result in a tremendous pressure to succeed. To view the reasoning behind this, let’s take a step back for a moment and look at what gifted children are expected to become when they grow up. When we think of gifted adults, we think of STEM geniuses like physicist Albert Einstein or masters of the humanities such as playwright William Shakespeare. These people, who grew up to be so great, must have been gifted as children, right?

In fact, Einstein didn’t even start talking until he was three and did poorly in school, and Shakespeare dropped out of school as a teen. Of course, this doesn’t prove that all groundbreaking intellectuals weren’t promising children, but it does show that people who weren’t gifted children are not locked out of being successful later in life. This means that the opposite, that not all gifted children turn out to be wildly successful geniuses, must also be true. 

Despite this reasoning, the unfortunate expectation for many gifted children is that they become the next generation’s Einsteins or Shakespeares, which is simply not true. In an extensive study conducted by psychologist Professor Joan Freeman, tracked the progress of 210 children from 1974 to today. Some of these children were labeled as gifted, and what Freeman found was that only about three percent grew up to be conventionally successful, showing that giftedness does not necessarily lead to later success. Unfortunately, the gifted label does cause burnout, perfectionistic tendencies, and damages to self worth and mental health. 

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, about 20% of gifted children suffer from perfectionism so severe that it causes problems. While perfectionism is healthy when it pushes students to produce high quality work, it can become excessive, and thus, dangerous. Oftentimes, perfectionism happens when students are pressured by expectations to live up to their label and begin to pressure themselves. Perfectionism causes children to set unrealistically high standards for themselves, and leads them to think of themselves as failures when they don’t meet these almost impossible standards. If left unchecked, these thoughts and tendencies transform into mental health issues and burnout, leading to a point where gifted kids can no longer succeed. 

Like many labels, giftedness can eventually feel like the measure of a child’s self-worth and identity. This means that when they fail or their peers catch up to them, they’ve suddenly become lost. If it isn’t for their intelligence, then who are they?

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this outcome. Acknowledging that gifted children can still fail like anybody else and recognizing that giftedness waxes and wanes is important for both those who interact with these children and the children themselves. Recognizing the different socioeconomic factors in giftedness selection would also help remove bias. Hopefully, more children and their educators, peers, and guardians can realize that their worth is not defined whether they are gifted or not.


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