Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Gifted: The double-edged sword

 

     Most school districts in the United States have something called a "gifted" program. My wife (a lifelong teacher) was the head of the gifted program for one school district in California once upon a time. I suspect that other countries have programs that are similar but I am ignorant of them. (I would be happy to hear about them.)

     In the case of the school districts, "gifted" meant the ability to excel on various academic tests and within school performance. The word "gifted" can certainly be used for other attributes -- and should be (perhaps more often than it is). Gifted as an athlete. Gifted as a musician whose instrument is played as if it was a part of their body. Gifted as a generous, giving, person. Gifted in external beauty. Name any attribute that is celebrated by a society, or some subset of society, and there will be people who will be considered as "gifted" within that group.

     The advantage in being identified as gifted (in whatever area you are being classified) is to be able to get, or qualify for getting, additional incentives and training within your focal strength. In the case of academic giftedness, it means classes that challenge a person more and prepare the people for more advanced courses quicker. In the case of athletic giftedness, it may mean additional coaching, trophies, scholarships, and being higher on recruiters examination roles.

      Most high schools (in the US) have yearbooks. There is often a section called "Most likely to" which apply to the various "gifted" categories as well as ones considered humorous (or insulting). When the yearbook is passed around to classmates for signatures and notes, any additional mention often focuses on the area of giftedness -- acknowledging what continues to be acknowledged.

     There is nothing wrong about appreciating, and encouraging, strong "gifted" foci. But, it can be a burden to be ONLY acknowledged for that "gifted" quality. Everyone has gifts. Everyone has areas in which they most need to improve. Sometimes a person will be gifted in more than one area but there is a hierarchy of recognition of gifts. A person considered beautiful according to societal norms may ALSO be very intelligent, very caring, and very empathetic. They may struggle throughout their life to have acknowledgement of those non-praised aspects. "Blonde jokes" are not only hurtful but may also be self-determining.

     This focus on the area of "gifted" qualities can become a burden if it goes out of balance. In fact, it is possible to push a person to the "burnout" stage if perfection becomes the goal and assumption. A talented child may lose all interest in sports after having been pushed to never fail. In academics, there can never be a mistake -- one missed question is a catastrophe (and has been known to even lead to suicide). And, if that focus doesn't have any balance, what happens when a talented young athlete -- who has focused on their sport all of their life -- has a severe compound fracture which cannot be set correctly?

     If a particular "gifted" quality is acknowledged and praised, then the person with that characteristic may find it difficult to be treated as a whole person. "Brainy" children may be ostracized from the other children and have a difficulty in being able to learn to socialize due to lack of opportunity. While a person judged beautiful by societal norms may also have other internal attributes that are more useful to a full, active, life -- the societal pressures to accentuate that "gift" may push them away from becoming better integrated into society. Likewise, the high school football star may be fantastic in business classes and practical application and also have a great ability to do well academically -- but the pressure to perform within their gift can make it harder for them to achieve, or be acknowledged for, balance in their lives.

     These "shadow aspects" of the "gifted" have a strong need to be acknowledged and nurtured in order to have a good, balanced life -- especially for those whose "gift" may decrease over the years (for example, physical prowess or external beauty).

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