By Jim Delisle, Ph.D.
Of all the issues confronting gifted kids, their parents, and their teachers, one of the most contentious can be whittled down to one word: expectations. Whether it is concern over grades (“A few B-plusses will keep you out of the top-tier colleges!”), career selection (“I don’t think wanting to become a fashion designer qualifies as a ‘gifted’ job choice.”), or choices of friends (“Do you really think this is the right crowd for you to associate with?”), expectations rear their heads on an almost daily basis in the lives of gifted kids and the adults who care about their well-being.
Of course, it’s entirely logical that gifted kids (or all kids, really) might hold different expectations for themselves than adults do. Why? Often because kids and teens place much more importance on the present than the future—the exact opposite of what adults value. So, if you are a gifted twelve-year-old who is more interested in video games than studying for the upcoming science test, your parent’s comment about video games being less important than acing a quiz on photosynthesis might fall on deaf ears. If hanging out with certain classmates helps you feel like something you would like to be—athletic, popular, artistic—you might choose friends differently as a teen than you would as a secure adult when such popularity is not as essential.
Another reason gifted kids may not strive to the same degree or in the same direction as adults is their often-unstated fear of failure. Most gifted kids are adept at certain things (especially academics) from the time they are very young. Needing to practice a skill to get good at it is foreign to them since things seem to come naturally and quickly, without exerting much sweat. So, when things start to get tougher (which is inevitable), the once-brilliant gifted kids may begin to see themselves as less capable than before. They haven’t changed or gotten less smart, but this is what many gifted kids believe. In this scenario, it is often safer, from a psychological viewpoint, to put little or no effort into something where success is not guaranteed. For some gifted kids, it’s better to perform poorly on purpose than to just miss a high level of achievement that adults may expect.
A third reason why there is often an “expectations divide” between gifted kids and the adults around them has to do with context. If you are used to being the smartest kid in class, and then you enter a class full of other gifted kids who are used to being the smartest kid in class, a new normal of achievement is set. All too often, kids in this position begin to see themselves as the “dumbest of the smart kids.” If this issue remains undiscussed or underappreciated, a downward spiral of achievement can result.
The preceding paragraphs point to one thing: expectations are a much bigger deal than just getting good grades in math or winning a medal for swimming. Often, gifted kids’ expectations are wrapped inside an intricate web of thoughts and feelings that revolve around one central question: “Am I good enough for the adults in my life?”
Trying to disentangle expectations from gifted kids’ self-worth is usually a futile effort. They’ve been praised since they were young for how smart they are and how far their minds will take them in life, so it makes sense that they would eventually internalize these comments.
There are all manners of books that will tell you ways that you can help your gifted child become less risk-averse, more open to challenges, and more comfortable accepting less than perfection. However, many of these “cures” have no more impact than does placing an adhesive bandage on a gaping wound. No overnight cure-all exists for something as psychologically embedded as a person’s self-worth.
My advice? Keep the lines of communication open with your gifted child or teen by following these few suggestions:
- Do twice as much listening as talking about what their personal goals are.
- Saying, “it sounds like you’re upset with this grade,” is much more soothing to hear than, “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.”
- Asking questions like, “Help me understand why ___________ is so important to you. What joy does it bring you?” will continue a conversation, while saying, “I just don’t get why you like ___________ so much,” will almost surely end the conversation.
- Instead of asking, “What did you earn on your report card?” ask, “What did you learn this quarter?”
- If your gifted kid is trying something that might be difficult, don’t remind her that she’ll do well because she is “smart.” Instead, thank her for taking on a challenge that she didn’t have to choose in the first place and let her know that you’ve got her back as she strives to do well.
At some point in each of our lives, we’ve probably been slapped around by the ogre of oversized expectations imposed by self or others. Getting a handle on expectations is less a matter of technique than an issue of mindset. And if all else fails, ask yourself this question to help guide your next steps: “What would I want someone to say to me if I were in my kid’s position?”
See? I bet that helps already.
Jim Delisle is an award-winning author of nineteen books, including The Gifted Teen Survival Guide, which he coauthored with Free Spirit president Judy Galbraith. He has been involved in the education and guidance of gifted kids and teens for almost 40 years.
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