What "Gifted" Is Not

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"If your child is gifted, why hasn't he memorized his times tables yet?"

"If your child is gifted, why doesn't she have straight As?"

"If your child is gifted, why doesn't he even try in history class?"

"If your child is so gifted, why doesn't she know how to sit still, listen, and behave like a child even half her age?"

"If your child is soooooo gifted, why can't he ______?"

THIS. This question. This question in every form. We need to stop asking this question! Gifted (high IQ) children need adults to give them the benefit of the doubt and to understand what being gifted really means! Spoiler alert, IQ ≠ knowledge, achievement, motivation, or maturity."Gifted" is not another word for "better;" it's not a status symbol or a badge of honor. It's different neurology and wiring. Nothing more and nothing less.

Just like all children, gifted children can have gaps in their knowledge base for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they changed schools, were sick often, or got absorbed in their own imagination and didn't pay attention in class. They are very smart; they don't know everything! Knowledge is not the same as intelligence. IQ represents your ability to learn, analyze, comprehend and synthesize new information. . .not how much you have been exposed to and remember from the past.

IQ is also not the same as achievement. Many gifted children are high achievers; a disproportionate amount are not. Like all kids, gifted kids can struggle to bring home good grades for a variety of reasons. . . lack of motivation, boredom, depression, paralyzing perfectionism, fear of failure, depression, having other priorities, not being interested in certain topics, wanting to fit in with peers, etc. Some gifted people end up class valedictorian, but a disproportionate amount drop out and never finish high school.

IQ is also not the same as maturity. The majority of children have fairly even development, where various aspects of development (language, social skills, impulse control, fine and gross motor skills, etc.) mature at about the same rate. However, it is normal for gifted children to experience asynchronous development, meaning that their capability in various areas of development is highly dispersed. For instance, a child may be extremely advanced in mathematics, performing at a college level, but their emotional regulation skills may be at a preschool level. A child who has skipped several grades may struggle with basic social skills. "Asynchronous" has become a synonym for "gifted" in many circles because this phenomenon is so common.

Since the majority of children have even development, many have made the wrongful assumption that kids with advanced skills in one area should be advanced across the board, including their social, emotional, and behavioral maturity. Folks extrapolate from this to conclude that the gifted child is choosing to be willful or uncooperative out of spite. In reality, a gifted child often looks like a child excelling in some areas and floundering in several others, despite much effort. Gifted ≠ perfect. IQ ≠ maturity.

All of this boils down to a shift in perspective, from "won't" to "can't." It's our choice. We can look at a struggling child and believe that they are deliberately choosing not to improve, or we can look at a child who is struggling and believe there is a logical reason. We can choose to get curious about why. There is always a reason. All children are a beautiful mystery. 

Gifted children represent only about 2-3% of the general population, but in this way they are like every child on the planet. There is always a reason why children struggle, even if they really are acting in defiant or unmotivated ways. Why are they defiant? When did their motivation falter? What function does their behavior serve? What is the meaning behind the behavior? What story does their behavior tell?

Keep asking "why" for your child. Keep advocating with the other adults on your child's team to keep all the "whys" in mind. Struggling children-including gifted children- need all of their adults to get really curious, not judgmental.


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Danielle Maxon is a child therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of North Carolina. She has been strengthening families in North Carolina since 2011. In August of 2015 she created her private practice, Under Wing Therapeutic Services, PLLC, which offers parent-child play therapy, parenting support and individual counseling for children under 12. Danielle specializes in the treatment of complex trauma, including profound neglect, orphanage experiences and adoption; gifted and twice exceptional issues; and special sensory needs. She particularly loves helping exasperated, hopeless families and "therapy drop-outs."