Sometimes There is a Curse Associated with Being Labeled “Gifted”

Posted: October 12, 2010 in Education

When children are labeled as “gifted” we like to think the world will be their oyster when they grow up. Be very careful, warns British psychologist Joan Freeman. As she explains to Alison George, in New Scientist magazine, her 35 years of studying children with extraordinary abilities has revealed that the label has as many negatives as positives. Having spent much of my adult life teaching “gifted” or “highly gifted” students, I found her comments interesting. She is coming from a British perspective but I don’t really think it matters.

You have followed one group of gifted children for the past 35 years. Did they all go on to lead brilliantly successful adult lives?

No. Only a few rose to fame and fortune, and no matter how glittering their early prospects, they had to work extremely hard most of their lives to get there. There is a big difference between a gifted child and a gifted adult. A child is seen as gifted because they are ahead of their age peers, especially at school, while a “gifted” adult has to be seen to make a difference to the world.

How did you define a “gifted” child?

That’s the most difficult question. A gifted child is someone who is distinctly better at something than other children of the same age. Each one is something of a prodigy. While some can do anything brilliantly, whether it is sport, music or philosophy, others focus on a single area. The criteria for giftedness vary, not only with the culture, but with age. The people featured in my latest book, Gifted Lives, which investigates what happens when gifted children grow up, all had IQs above 160.

Were all the children you studied gifted?

No. My study was unique in that from the beginning I compared three groups: children labelled “gifted”, children of identical ability but without a label, and average children.

What were the parents’ reactions to having a very bright child?

The healthy reaction is to be nurturing, while the unhealthy is to do with parental need for their child to be bright. If you label a child as gifted when they are not, as some parents do, the child has the most terrible burden. If you are incapable of fulfilling your parents’ dreams, you must fail over and over – you can’t win. There was one boy whose mother was convinced he was gifted. She went on and on about how school didn’t appreciate him. When I tested him, he had an average IQ. As a child he was very depressed, but he escaped and now runs a bar in Spain and is having a great time.

If you label a child gifted when they are not, the child has a most terrible burden

So the parent-child relationship gets abusive?

Yes. This certainly can happen. Child abuse isn’t just hitting, it’s psychological abuse too. But as a researcher you are not supposed to do anything, which is really infuriating. You interview the parents and the child and later you think, I never want to go in that house again. Thank God they’re not my parents.

Is there a difference in how mothers and fathers push the truly gifted children?

Mothers tended to encourage the children to do arty things like music and theatre, whereas with fathers it was sport, mathematics and chess. For example, the father of the mathematics prodigy Ruth Lawrence gave up his job to tutor her and then accompanied her when she went to the University of Oxford at the age of 11.

One easy way out for children of overbearing parents is to fail exams, or do something their parents would disapprove of. Sufiah Yusuf, another prodigy, ran away after her finals and become a high-paid prostitute. I mean, how much more can you disappoint?

Another problem is that children who have been labelled gifted tend to be much less well behaved than non-labelled children, despite identical IQ, social status, gender and school. This is because they came from families with all sorts of emotional problems.

Does this mean that troubled families are more likely to pick one of their children as gifted?

It may suit a parent’s purposes to say the child is gifted, and therefore uncontrollable. If the child has tantrums at two-and-a-half, they can say: “Ah, my child is too clever, it can’t cope with a mediocre world so will have tantrums.” Parents label children unconsciously and children do their best to live up to this. One 6-year-old boy I studied was having lessons seven days a week. His mother complained constantly about what a terribly difficult child he was because he was gifted, yet I had never met a more passive child. She was complaining about nothing. Luckily he was able to ignore her, and is now a consultant doctor, perfectly contented and successful.

So a gifted child may not become a gifted adult?

Most talented adults – be they scientists or entrepreneurs – were never identified as gifted as children.

Does birth order affect labelling as “gifted”?

A very high percentage of all the gifted children in my study were first-borns or singletons, a feature of birth order which is associated with a high intelligence.

So did you find that the gifted children you studied did better than their non-gifted peers?

Overall, those with gifts did better than those without them. But a host of other factors affected the fulfillment of potential, such as personality, emotional stability, social circumstances, education – not to mention fate and how each one dealt with it. Being gifted means that people may treat you differently. If you are accelerated in school you may be small for the class and find it difficult to be chosen for the sports team or to make friends. But for the gifted with the capacity to work hard and the personality and motivation to see and grab opportunities, the sky’s the limit.

As adults, some children were still paying for decisions made because they were labelled “gifted”. What kind of thing had happened?

The first wrong decision was the acceleration through school, which they often resented. Some were sent to high-powered academic schools which did not give them the freedom to be themselves, and some had to travel enormous distances to school. I saw children who were too exhausted for out-of-school activities. And some were sent to the wrong kind of school. For example, one girl was sent to a music school. She was musical, but would have been much better off in general education, not specializing at the tiny age of 7.

Do you think that identifying children as gifted is wrong?

No, I don’t, but I do think that it has to be handled with kid gloves. It’s a balance between knowing what a child is capable of, supplying what the child needs, and not expecting something which is unrealistic. It’s good for parents to know what their child is capable of. We have to give our children fats, carbs and veggies in the right proportions and I think it is the same with intellectual nourishment. But at the same time, you have got to remember that is a child you have got there, not a learning machine.


Joan Freeman is known for her continuing study of gifted children in the UK since 1974. Her new book, Gifted Lives, updates her research and is published by Routledge. Freeman is a visiting professor at Middlesex University, London, and a fellow of the British Psychological Society

  1. Altair Maine says:

    Bah. As is usually my gripe with psychologists who aren’t doing neuropsych, this seems to simply be an “expert” generalizing from her anecdotal observations. It doesn’t look much like science, and it doesn’t seem particularly insightful.

    It looks to me like she’s just backing up her preconceptions with those individuals whose experiences happen to concur with her expectations. I would call it a textbook case of confirmation bias. Unless. perhaps, there are some deep, well-founded statistics that simply not presented in this interview, which is a possibility I can’t dismiss without reading her work directly.

    Parenting matters. Psycho parents who try to live vicariously through their kids’ accomplishments tend to raise offspring with emotional problems. Go figure. Yeah, the gifted label is often misapplied. And yes, the whole identification as gifted is probably correlated (not strictly, though!) with a certain class of pushy parent.

    I hesitate to generalize from my personal experiences, lest I be committing the same intellectual crime that irks me in Freeman’s interview. But I begged to be accelerated, and am incredibly glad in retrospect that my parents (reluctantly!) acceded. I think I would have just snapped had I been obligated to slog through the additional 7 years of public schooling that I bypassed by heading off to college at 11. Skipping grades and starting college young were the best decisions in my young life.

    Nearly all of my close friends went through the same program, and they feel the same way. We’re happy adult professionals now, and are generally a well-adjusted group with healthy personal lives. Freeman would have a tough time finding an alumnus of our program who regrets starting college early. I don’t know any, in a sample size of at least 100. And that, unlike any generalization made in the interview, starts to approximate a meaningful datum.

    • Yes Altair, this is not particle physics and was certainly not meant to be a scientific treatise. It is just an interview with someone who has worked with “gifted” kids for 34 years.

  2. t_fish says:

    I think there is a lot of truth in what she has to say.

  3. Altair Maine says:

    Freakin’ psychologists. 🙂

  4. calistolite says:

    Wonder how many of those global warming advocates were labeled gifted as children. It would sure explain a lot.

  5. E=MC2 says:

    I can really relate to much of what is written here.

  6. Sam Kim says:

    Some were sent to high-powered academic schools which did not give them the freedom to be themselves, and some had to travel enormous distances to school. I saw children who were too exhausted for out-of-school activities. And some were sent to the wrong kind of school.

    Bingo. BINGO. What I would have done to ensure that my parents never discovered the HGM program…

    And as for Mr. Maine’s comment:

    Bah. As is usually my gripe with psychologists who aren’t doing neuropsych, this seems to simply be an “expert” generalizing from her anecdotal observations. It doesn’t look much like science, and it doesn’t seem particularly insightful.

    Absolutely. I do read articles in sociological journals from time to time, and while the social sciences can be interesting, they are anything but science, and shouldn’t ever be regarded as such. It’s when people put too much faith in the ability of social scientists to make accurate predictions that you get abominations like forced busing, lobotomization of homosexuals, or sterilization of the “feeble minded”…

    • Re “Social Science”. I have always maintained that if you have to put the word, “science” after your discipline then it probably isn’t. Anybody ever heard of physics science? Chemistry Science? Biology Science?

  7. Zeke says:

    As someone who’s always been more interested in art and music, but never got to pursue it as much as I would’ve liked due to ever-increasing academic pressures, I can definitely relate to this. Of course, it depends on the person—I’m sure a lot of the more science and mathy people are happy in an environment like the HGM, but stress doesn’t benefit me in any way whatsoever, and I really would rather have been able to focus on more creative things (alongside academics) during my “high school career..”

  8. Vinay says:

    ahah I never felt like I belonged in this program, mostly because they tested my IQ at 5 or 6 years old (an inaccurate gauge I might add, citing haut’s psych textbook, which also said that the most accurate age to test IQ is ~16-18, but by that point most have already settled in their externally determined niche) and I just rode along in the program for 12 years.
    I wish the woman talked about the group that wasn’t designated ‘gifted’ with equal intelligence to see how they ended up relative to the labeled group.

  9. Daniel D says:

    I like the idea of offering a special track to those lucky enough to have been born with the genetic gift of intelligence. Obviously a smart kid will not learn anything in a public school setting filled with barbaric non-english speakers who care not to learn but to at best go through the motions. In theory, a special track does sounds beneficial to a gifted child. Unfortunately though, that is precisely what the education system has become – a system that no longer promotes learning, but instead “passing.” Students no longer care to learn – they care to pass. For if you care to learn, you do not pass, and if you do not pass, you don’t go to college, don’t get a job, etc.

    Let’s say I’m reading my history book and I really like a specific period, say, the Renaissance. The Medici’s, the art, the architecture. This is what I want to spend my day, my week, my month learning.

    NOPE! Rennaisance time is over kid! On to the protestant reformation!
    “But wait, teacher, I don’t care about Martin Luther! I finally found something I enjoyed learning, and you’re taking it away from me. WHYY?”

    Anyhow, so this is the system that is in place. Because we do not get to choose what we get to learn, we are forced to do things we do not want to do – and, to an intelligent kid, this will often be met with rebelliousness, or at best, extreme animosity based in submission with reluctance. “I’ll do it only cause I have to! I hate my life!”

    This gifted student is now in a tough position. Go through the motions with animosity, or fail and get screwed by the system. Personally, I chose the latter and I shall see where it will take me. But let me tell you something Mr. Hatem – I respect the fact that you enjoy Biology. It makes me happy to know that you found something that makes you happy, something that offers you fulfillment. But to be entirely honest, I couldn’t give a shit about biology if I tried. So why then must I be forced to take a class in biology? Why can’t it be enough that I let other people (those who actually enjoy it) assume the role of practical biology and respectfully hand the duty over to them? Why must I be forced to assume the tedious grind that is 43 chapters of perpetual, never-ending boringness?

    A student may find maybe 1 or 2 classes in all of high school that they actually enjoy. They said it would be different in college. I get there and I have to take Calculus (fucking BORING), anthropology (BORING) and Italian, the one class I was excited to take. But unfortunately, that’s not how you learn Italian – you learn Italian by living in Italy and speaking with natives. You don’t learn by perfecting arbitrary conjugations, subjecting yourself to tedious memorizations only to pass tests, no no no. That is not efficient at all.

    Similarly, if I wanted to be a doctor, why then must I go to university and take 2 years of these meaningless General Education classes, subjecting myself to stress, depression, and competition then choose a major only to up the amount of stress, depression and competition? If I REALLY wanted to become a doctor, why can’t I go intern with an actual doctor gaining in-field PRACTICAL lessons for FREE, volunteering my time? If I REALLY wanted to become a lawyer, why can’t I go intern with an actual lawyer gaining in-field PRACTICAL lessons for FREE, volunteering my time? Which path do you save more money? Which path do you learn more? DUH. But you can’t do shit without that piece of paper – that degree. What the fuck!?! The more efficient path is closed off due to some technicality? Fuck that shit, I’ll opt out. And you know what? I wake up every day when I want, study what I want to study, experience life in another country, experience a new culture, my mind is wide open and learning more than I ever would have had I been forced to “learn” things I had no desire to learn.

    Think about the very nature of a school – what is a school? Who goes to school? Everyone goes to school. So, the system is designed for everyone – for the masses. It is designed to work for the majority (as it should be). But what then happens to the minority, to the gifted? They get fucked by the giant dick that is the average.

    So back to my initial point way up at the top – “I like the idea of offering a special track to those lucky enough to have been born with the genetic gift of intelligence” what then fails? This is a program designed to appeal to those students who are in the minority – great! Hold it right there though mister, because like I said earlier, it only works in theory. Take data from the happiness rates of a barbaric non-hgmer to an hgmer and you’d find very unsettling figures – these kids are simply not happy, despite the fact that they are in a program with others of their kind. This is bad. The problem is that the HGM does not take a holistic approach to learning – it can’t! We need to get these kids into college! Princeton, Harvard! There is no time for arts, for music, for specialized studies! We need to assign a universal curriculum and force them to do the things they don’t want to do…. so they can get into college!

    For the smart kid, school closes his mind and suppresses his ability to learn. He is forced think in terms of passing rather than learning holistically. And what’s worse, students then resort to any means necessary to win the competition that is school, including methods of cheating which only increase in stealth as the child’s IQ goes up and as the pressure to succeed rises.

    tldr, A smart kid has no place in school.

    • Altair Maine says:


      Maybe I get a different vibe. There’s clearly a mix, as in any group, but I don’t feel like the average HGM student is miserable. Some are deeply unhappy, some are ebullient, and most are somewhere in the middle. As is true in any group of people.

      I’ve frequently given anonymous surveys about my classes and the HGM experience as a whole. The average response is usually moderately positive, with outliers at both ends.

      I have mixed feelings on a compulsory rigorous education. Yes, it’s more fun to study what you love. But there’s considerable societal value, I think, in having well-rounded citizens. Everybody should know a bit of science, just so they can make decisions in a democratic setting that are intelligently informed. And everybody should know a bit of art and music history, simply because they’re part of our societal canon.

      No, I’m not going to go out and get a master’s degree in literary analysis. I hate that crap. I’m dreadful at basketball, and thus can’t really make myself enjoy it. But I value that I have a certain degree of grounding in both fields, even if I didn’t enjoy the experience.

      Perhaps a general education is completely irrelevant to the practice of medicine. But frankly, I want a doctor who is sufficiently dedicated, intelligent, and focused to learn tough academic material that they dislike. Even if physics or calculus have no direct relevance to practical medicine, a doctor should be familiar with that KIND of analytical thinking.

      If I could single-handedly rework the whole HGM, I would indeed allow a greater degree of personalization. We’re hamstrung by lack of resources – there simply aren’t enough staff members to offer the breadth or flexibility that would be ideal. And I think we are misguided, for instance, in requiring 4 years of math, or AP European History in the 10th grade. But there are greater crimes; you have a whole life ahead in which you can specialize to your hearts’ delight. Four years of a compulsory broad education, particularly for gifted students, isn’t actually a dreadful idea.

  10. johnathan_is_here says:

    The gifted program was a nightmare for me. Hours of travelling time each day, inordinate amounts of useless homework, childish projects like posters and presentations——– yuk! I wish I was never labeled highly gifted.

  11. jendo321 says:

    LOL at the HGMers.

  12. keylyme says:

    The HGM was the biggest mistake of my life. I am still mad at my parents for sending me there. With only two exceptions (both science teachers who will remain nameless because their heads are already too big) the teachers were horrible.

  13. Mary T says:

    I have to step in for the other side, the HGM was NOT the biggest mistake of my life.

    Yes, at times (most times) it may have been miserable, too much pressure, too much stress, too much stuff I don’t actually care to learn, too many frustrations with irrelevant test scores and numbers, etc etc, BUT I agree with what Mr. Maine says, its four years, you have the rest of your life to learn in any way you please. But those four years of broad education are important, its a quick way (relative to years of life) to experience many different subjects and to get to know what it is that you like. How else will you know that you can’t stand biology but art history strikes a chord? Left to your own devices sure you may find plenty of things you like, but you will also certainly miss something.

    A broad general education in high school is a good thing, certainly I agree, in some cases it doesn’t need to go quite as in depth as it does, but overall the concept is a good idea. The execution in some cases needs to be improved.

    In COLLEGE however…we should be expected to have gained something from a broad high school education, to know what we want to study, and to be allowed to take whatever class we so please.
    I have to say in my case, my high school education showed me all the things that I do enjoy, and it turns out, there are so many of them, so varied, so unrelated even, its nearly impossible to fit them all into the square boxes of majors and minors and fulfilled requirements. Now I am going to have to focus on career-oriented majors/classes to meet those requirements and what not, but I decided that I am also going to learn everything else that intrigues me on my own. I can’t just limit myself to learning things I’ll be given a paycheck to know. That’s the curse I get for being gifted.

    I’m satisfied, I’ll make do. And in the meantime, maybe the education system will loosen up a bit and make life easier for the next batch of graduates.

  14. KathyS says:

    HGM sucked!

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