Why the way we speak to gifted kids about giftedness matters- The vital difference between the ‘Gifted’ label and Gifted Identity

Last November I set out to explore what parents of gifted kids wanted them to know about being gifted. It started out simply enough with questions about current challenges, aspirations and hopes, and about what they envisioned a successful future could look like for their quirky kiddos. Pretty quickly into these conversations, however, things began to take a fascinating turn. Some parents talked about systems of grades, bell curves, and percentiles that distorted their kid’s sense of positive development and achievement. They talked about wanting their kids to understand why people are sometimes mean and why they get misjudged. But mostly, they talked about courage- the courage to be imperfect, to ask for help, to be themselves even if others won’t get it, to try new things, to explore and embrace their excitabilities, and most of all, the courage to overcome shame.

With each new conversation, I saw a bright, important thread appear. I followed each one and soon found myself in front of a brilliant tapestry of exciting possibility. What each hope, aspiration, and challenge was telling me was a story about needing identity…. Gifted Identity.

But before I get into what Gifted Identity is, I want to tell you about our current cultural state of affairs in the world of giftedness.

Giftedness #IRL

If there’s one thing I saw over and over again in my conversations, it’s that as parents of gifted kids, we’re really good at spotting the invisible  obstacles that trip up our quirky kids in their daily life. These obstacles stifle intense creative and expressive impulses. They distort self-image in terms and names that have no love or imagination. And they fail to tell our kids the stories they can use to make sense of being different.

These barriers weren’t placed in our kid’s lives by individual people; there are no villains in this story. Instead, they continually pop-up in random, unexpected places because our social and cultural systems aren’t all that great at teaching us about being and understanding ‘different’.

So it falls on us to do the teaching. And to our credit, many of us already do. We talk to our kids about managing overstimulation, schedule playdates with gifted peers, attend conferences, see specialists and therapists, and we tell them constantly that they are loved and assure them that there’s nothing wrong with them.

But I believe we can do better, and the very first and biggest change we can make to be better supporters of our gifted kids is to change how we talk to them about giftedness.

Gifted label vs Gifted Identity

Giftedness has two faces in the real world- label and identity.

As a label, giftedness is the thing we talk about in carefully composed research papers, fact sheets, evaluation results, and in those therapeutic lists of gifted traits and behaviors that we parents cling to when we need a reminder that everything is (mostly, probably) ok.

The gifted label allows us to study and address critical areas where gifted kids need professional and parental support. Because of the gifted label, we have funding and research that give us an ever-growing and ever-deepening understanding of this profoundly complex phenomenon. Because of the gifted label, we can fight for and get support in many of our public schools so our kids can have equal access to education. And, because of the gifted label, we can begin talking to doctors, family members, therapists and psychologists about our kids’ unique, very real, and very valid needs.

I love the gifted label. It’s misunderstood, and constantly disparaged and invalidated, but it’s ours and it’s not going away anytime soon.

But the same therapeutic lists of gifted traits that turn so many tears of frustration into tears of relief and empathy, aren’t going to help us explain giftedness to our kids. It might help them understand the term better, and even put a name to some of their most intense experiences, but it won’t tell them anything about why people misjudge them, what to do if and when they do, how to make sense of all the charts and evaluation results where they often stray so far from the majority, and it won’t point the way to courage in tough moments where the greatest opportunities for growth and happiness lie.

That’s what Gifted Identity is for.

Identity is this fantastic act of cultural rebellion that challenges our ideas of ‘normal’ or ‘typical’. Identity asks that we think bigger and more creatively about how people look, think, feel, and behave. It creates a completely new, normalizing narrative about a condition, deficit, or difference. And it forces us to alter our one-dimensional way of looking at ‘different’.

In Far From the Tree, writer Andrew Solomon speaks beautifully about the dimensional shift that happens when we treat a label of difference (or ‘illness’, as he examines in his book) as an identity:

We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Nobel Prize- winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle like question, and a wave if we ask a wavelike question. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other.

– Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree

Giftedness also has a dual nature. When we obscure the lens of the Gifted Label, we begin to see places in our culture and conversations where giftedness behaves as an identity. For example, Gifted Identity has emerged as a response to misdiagnosis where gifted traits are treated as illness, or where legitimate needs are minimized or simply not recognized. It’s emerged as a response to ineffective educational environments and unsupportive workplaces where being different is a serious liability. We constantly talk about, and teach each other what we know about protecting and developing the emotional and imaginational traits our gifted kids have that are misjudged and constantly ‘corrected’ by a myopic, mainstream understanding of giftedness. And with every conversation, blog post, conference presentation, and podcast, we add pieces to this alternative narrative of giftedness where intensity and sensitivity are valued and respected. Where intellectual ability is seen as an inextricable part of a greater, more complex, and more uncomfortable whole.

So, just to compare, label-like questions about giftedness include:

  • How does it work?
  • How prevalent is it in the general population?
  • Where does it originate?
  • How can we identify it?
  • What support, accommodations, and therapies do gifted people need?

And identity-like questions about giftedness include:

  • How do we feel about being gifted?
  • How do we want to be treated?
  • Do we have equal access to health, self-actualization, and happiness?
  • What unique challenges do we experience as a result of giftedness, and how can we solve them?

By exploring Gifted Identity questions, we can discover the tools to help our gifted kids tackle real-world obstacles to social connection, creativity, and belonging. We can identify the areas of society where we need to advocate for change. We can single-out cultural norms that we want to reshape so we can make space for a different, Gifted way of being. And perhaps most importantly, exploring Gifted Identity with and for our gifted kids helps us create billboards of validation, empowerment, and love with which we can line their path through life, making sure that at every unexpected turn and fork in the road they’ll also find a skill or experience that can help them.

Let’s Get to Work

We’re already doing the hardest work- developing the Gifted label and building Gifted Identity. Now we simply need to start passing these onto our kids more intentionally, and together. Especially together, because identity, culture, and joyful, loving rebellion are created by vibrant, unified communities.

So how can you get started?

Well, the first thing you can do is take what you already know and feel about your child’s experiences of giftedness and turn them into goals, values, and a list of systems you want to help change. These three tools will help keep you inspired and help you focus your conversations about giftedness with your little ones in a way that actively integrates your own vision, priorities, and aspirations as a parent/teacher. As you’ll see, this activity isn’t just fun and creative, but also empowering.*

The second thing you can do is join our community. By joining our email list, you can help us shape each issue of Gifted Culture Kids and ensure that, together, we can help tackle the barriers and questions that keep our gifted kids from showing-up in the world bravely and with creativity, inquisitiveness, resilience, and joy. Once you sign-up, you’ll receive a special email every six to eight weeks with a short series of questions about an upcoming issue’s theme. Your answers will not only help us understand what tools you and your gifted kids need, but they’ll also give us material that we can share with all GCK readers in special features where we highlight community questions, ideas, stories, and insights.

Together, we can make Gifted Identity a source of collective strength. Together, we can ease the overwhelm and make real our aspirations as parents, teachers, and advocates of gifted kids.

I thank you from the very bottom of my heart for joining us in this journey. I can’t wait to see the loving and joyful revolution that’s to come!

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