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