My Parents’ Experiences Raising Gifted Kids

Image from: https://www.needpix.com/photo/download/258757/family-together-parenting-lifestyle-parents-beach-vacation-shadows-free-pictures

Life has been busier than ever in recent weeks, as my three kids have become more immersed in their online schoolwork, and my own work of overseeing their learning while also engaging with my own (paid) job and daily household tasks has ramped up.

With that said, I took a “break” of sorts this past week to binge-listen my way through a fabulous podcast I stumbled upon called Mind Matters, described as follows:

The Mind Matters Podcast features discussions with leaders in the fields of psychology, education, and beyond, with an emphasis on gifted/talented and twice-exceptional children and adults. Mind Matters explores parenting, counseling techniques, and best practices for enriching the lives of high-ability people.

Score! Everything about this podcast series sounded right up my alley – and I wasn’t disappointed. In my typical “gifted-kid-all-grown-up” immersion fashion, I listened to nearly all 68 half-hour episodes  in rapid succession and took semi-voracious notes. I am grateful to Emily and Dave (the married host and producer) for all the labor and love they’ve clearly poured into this endeavor, and have a ton of ideas for topics to follow up on myself in HalfoftheTruth.org.

With that said, I want to start this particular blog post by reflecting on my own upbringing as a gifted kid. We went to hang out with my elderly Norwegian-American parents (ages 83 and 81) on their back porch this weekend – and while my three kids were out zipping around on scooters and other wheeled devices in their driveway, I told my parents l wanted to interview them on a “new topic”.

(I’ve actually interviewed my parents quite a bit in recent years. I set up a well-lit “studio” in their living room back in 2015 and spent many hours interviewing each of them about their childhood back in war-occupied Norway, their experiences immigrating to America and becoming parents, their lifelong participation in a unique spiritual group, and other thoughts about life. It was important to me to archive their memories while they were still lucid.)

This time, however, I wanted to ask them specifically about raising gifted kids in America.  I’m the third of four kids, and all of us except my younger sister were identified as gifted and went through gifted programming in school. (I’m convinced my younger sister has an undiagnosed learning disability that prevented her from testing in; she has extreme anxiety around test-taking.)

Here’s a brief run-down of what my parents shared during the interview, followed by my own thoughts:

Me: What was it like raising kids who were identified as gifted kids?

Mom: I didn’t have any other kinds, so I couldn’t compare it to anybody – I just assumed that that’s how kids were! They learned to read at age 5, do all the homework without help; it was easy that way.

Pop: Well, I mean, the fact is that you guys were all different – so I think we had to deal with each one.  The fact that you were all fairly smart is something I guess we assumed…

Me: Why did you assume that?

Pop: Because we  considered ourselves to be pretty smart, I guess! [laughs] Anyway…

Me: What did you think about the term “gifted” that was used in America? I’m assuming that wasn’t used in Norway. My dad looks confused. I repeat: Gifted? He is still confused. So, kids that get a label of being gifted – if they score high on an IQ test?

Pop: Yeah, I always had questions about that.

Me: What were your questions?

Pop: It seemed – you in particular were being identified as gifted, and it was like… A lot of parents were saying, “I have a gifted child!” as though not everyone was gifted. It seemed a little weird to label people like that, because then you have labeled other people as not being gifted, even though they might just be a little later or have different kinds of gifts. So, that always seemed a little strange to me… [Plus], all the “gifted children” [in your program] were white, the ones who had been identified – and they had pushy parents for the most part.

Me: You guys are NOT pushy! You’re anti-pushy…

Mom: They [the teachers] really made us understand that they appreciated that.

Me: OK. But your perception of the other parents in that program is that they were pushy?

Pop: Yeah. My impression was that there were some parents who were going to make sure that their kids were identified as “gifted”. They were going to fight for it. Therefore, the whole thing didn’t make so much sense, I thought. On the other hand, of course, it makes sense to put some people on a faster path if they really are showing exceptional gifts. In my case, of course, I skipped first grade because I had been away and not been able to go to school but my grandmother took me to the principal at [my local] school and he gave me a newspaper and asked me to read it, and it was about some political developments in Europe and the Soviets moving in and all that, and I really didn’t know anything about that, but I read it fluently, so then he put me in second grade.

Me: Okay!

Pop: So – which I was very thankful for, because I would just have been very bored if I had been with the kids who were just learning to read when I already knew it. So, that made sense to me. But the notion of identifying all these kids as gifted, the way it was done in [your school] at that time, it seemed a little questionable to me.

My mom and dad talk about how things were really egalitarian in schools when they were growing up in Norway, other than kids with similar interests and abilities naturally clustering together – and how the only exceptions were kids who had to repeat a grade.

I ask them if they remember anything about the gifted program I attended as a child, and they truly don’t have any recollections. My dad says, “My impression was it was just a class of kids.” I decide to pivot away from the topic of schooling and back towards parenting more specifically.

Me: Did you ever have challenges with parenting kids who were super smart and curious and, kind of, fast brains?

Pop: [confused] You were kind of… what brains?

Me: Fast brains.

My husband [trying to clarify]: Did you think it was harder to raise your children because you noticed they were more smart or more easily bored or… ?

My dad laughs uncomfortably and looks at my mom, who also laughs.

Pop: Did we have kids like that?

Me: So, kids who are designated gifted – there tends to be a really strong correlation with emotional intensity. Did you find that we were highly emotionally intense kids?

Pop: Emotional intensity? [He’s confused.] 

My husband: Did you think you had to calm your kids down?

Me: Were our emotions stronger than other kids, or…?

Pop: No, I don’t remember much of that.

My mom starts talking about challenges she had with my younger sister getting failing grades in high school, but I redirect her back to the elementary school ages.

Me: As kids, you didn’t experience us as being especially intense?

Mom: No – it was more the opposite. You could entertain yourself. I don’t remember – maybe you can remember – that there was much arguing between you children, or fighting, or anything very emotional… I don’t remember.

Me: Okay! Anything else?

Pop: About what? (He laughs.)

I end the conversation at this point, because it’s clear they really don’t have much to say on the topic of giftedness. Their kids – us – simply were who we were. We were smart, yes (just like them) – but in their perception, we knew how to take care of our own needs and weren’t particularly intense or challenging.

My parents’ egalitarian nature made them shy away from calling out their kids’ giftedness per se, and they saw gifted programs as being primarily a way for “pushy [white] American parents” to assert their dominance. Their only conception of gifted kids needing something more or different related to the notion of acceleration in certain subjects – or, in my dad’s case as a child, not having to suffer through first grade when he already knew how to read.

None of what I heard from my parents was particularly surprising, but I’m glad I asked directly. It’s clear they really had no idea how distressing it was for me being a gifted kid, or the role it played in my extremely challenging teenage years – including my eating disorder and dropping out of school repeatedly – and thus couldn’t validate this or address it. Their own experiences growing up in a small Scandinavian nation hadn’t prepared them for the nuances of public schooling in 1980s America. Like many first generation American parents, they simply accepted the school system and assumed we were doing fine – until we weren’t, at which point they assumed our journey was a highly individualized and spiritual one that we would work our own way through with support from God.

This may help to explain why I was so hesitant as a parent myself to explore giftedness in my own kids – and also why I don’t spend any time at all explaining to my parents why we’ve chosen to put our kids into accelerated programs.

There’s no point. They wouldn’t disapprove, but they also wouldn’t have much to say.

My parents’ awkward silences and nervous laughter during my interview with them on giftedness make it clear that they don’t have a frame of reference or an entry point for these discussions – so the journey needs to continue to be mine, with support from the like-minded parent-peers and friends I’ve made along the way.

Meanwhile, my own parents will simply love their kids and grandkids in the ways that make sense to them, regardless of giftedness.

Leave a Reply