How To Avoid Accusations of Inequality: Share the Heart of Giftedness

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 10.37.53 AM I recently met an interesting couple at a social gathering. At one point, the father mentioned that his 16 year old high school junior, who is taking two college courses, finds those courses to be easy. Fine, I get that. Then the father quickly added, “we didn’t push him or show him flash cards when he was young.”

I found the father’s “disclaimer” to be disturbing. I wasn’t sure whether to reveal myself as a gifted advocate or not. The only thing I said in response was, “I understand, I understand.”

In this blog article, I give parents of highly intelligent children advice about how to talk about their children’s successes, challenges, and needs without risking accusations of inequality. I admit that’s a tricky business: avoiding accusations of inequality where inequality obviously exists. But it’s possible. Here’s how.

1. George Orwell’s Horrible Pigs

In the last chapter of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s horrible pigs abridged the seven commandments of Animalism to one sentence: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The pigs used that sentence not to explain a natural phenomenon, but to justify their murderous and grossly unfair behaviors towards the other animals.


When we speak of children having different levels of intelligence, we are not justifying any murderous or grossly unfair behaviors. The inequality of intelligence levels among children is a simple difference, not an injustice as Orwell’s horrible pigs intended with their commandment of inequality. Some children have lots of hair on their heads; some children have lots of intelligence in their heads. Nutrition and hair caring behaviors might change the amount of hair on a child’s head; nutrition and mind caring behaviors might change the amount of intelligence in a child’s head.

2. The Heart of Giftedness

The heart of giftedness is that intelligence is a real phenomenon. If you don’t believe me, check out the following studies finding brain differences related to intelligence:

To avoid accusations of inequality, remind people that intelligence is a real phenomenon, not an evil plot. Remind people that an individual’s intelligence can change through time as a result of a myriad of factors. Remind people what when we talk about different children having different levels of intelligence, we’re not advocating the mistreatment of anyone. Instead, we’re advocating that all children receive an education appropriate to meet their individual needs.

3. The Worshipping of Intelligence

Once upon a time, I taught middle school at a private Catholic girl’s school in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America. I loved the school’s mission statement because rather than embracing academic goals, the mission statement embraced the much deeper goals of faith, respect, awareness, community, and freedom. Most of the girls in the school came from wealthy families. Many of the girls told me that their parents pressured them to earn high grades, and to aim for Ivy League colleges.

At one point during that school year, my 17 year old daughter spent a day shadowing me at the school. My students marveled that she was already a sophomore at a highly selective college.

DSC02243One day, as my students’ voices rose to fortissimo levels as they sang their admiration of my daughter’s intelligence, I interrupted with a loud, “Stop!” The girls, surprised by my seriousness, became quiet and listened intently as I reminded them that both their school’s mission statement and the tenets of their religious faith hold other aspects of human lives to be far more important than smarts. I urged the girls to admire their own strengths of character in lieu of worshipping intelligence.

From that experience, I realized that worshippers of high intelligence usually are not people with high intelligence themselves, but rather are people who wish they or their children had *higher* intelligence. Underneath the worship lies a thin layer of discontent. And underneath that discontent often lies a deeper layer of envy. For more information about envy with respect to gifted children, I highly recommend Catharine Vetter Alvarez’s essay, Envy and Giftedness: Are We Underestimating the Effects of Envy?  In the essay, she nails the sources, varieties, and consequences of people’s envy of giftedness.

Whenever you encounter people who worship high intelligence, I recommend deflecting their worship from intelligence to whatever their religion or philosophy considers to be most important to life. Remind them that few people on their deathbed ever say, “I wish I was smarter.” Instead, people looking back on their lives talk about friends, family, happiness, and love.

4. The Foundation of Love

As I write this article on Valentine’s Day, I’m savoring Newbery Honor Book author and gifted expert Stephanie Tolan’s recently essay, What’s Love Got to Do With It?  In the essay, she writes,

What we call “gifts,” could also be thought of as “loves.” Now imagine an education in which love really did have everything to do with it. Imagine, instead of categorizing and grouping children by their abilities, we were to purposely set out to help them find what it is they love and then to support that, even as we help them learn what else they’re likely to need on their life journey. What would that change? How would such a world look?

For years, I have steered conversations about intelligence back to basics…back to my belief that we need to affirm the worth and dignity of every individual. Tolan goes one step further: she advocates that people focus on love.

HeartI love Tolan’s idea. Instead of talking about our children’s grade skips as better meeting their academic needs, let’s talk about the grade skips as giving our children a chance to love what they do in school. Instead of talking about our children’s honor roll status, let’s steer the conversation to how wonderful it is when schools give students multiple places to express their passions, whether those passions include a love of history, sports, math, music, science, art, or leadership. Let’s use love to deflect our neighbors’ praise or criticism of our children’s achievements.

5. Concluding Cautions & Hopes

When I shared the title of this article with a friend, she cringed. She reminded me to tell parents, particularly those with highly or profoundly gifted children, that often it’s better NOT to talk about giftedness. I agree that it’s sometimes better to remain silent. Giftedness is a taboo topic in many circles. Parents of the other 95% generally don’t want to be reminded that your child has a higher level of intelligence.

But when we gently share the heart of giftedness with our children’s teachers, with curious neighbors, and even with parents we meet at social gatherings, we can avoid accusations of inequality. When people understand that differing levels of intelligence are a real phenomenon, they are less likely to accuse us of pushing our children. When people understand that we view love and passions as more important than intelligence, they are more willing to listen to our concerns.

Together, let’s remove the taboo that suppresses honest discussions of giftedness, let’s douse the fire of intelligence worship, and let’s reach common ground by agreeing that although we affirm the worth and dignity of all children, no two children are exactly alike.

Brain Research References:

Brans, R.G.H. (2010). Brain plasticity and intellectual ability are influenced by shared genes. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21 April 2010, 30(16): 5519-5524; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5841-09.2010.

Cole, M.W., Yarkoni, T., Repovs, G, Anticevic, A., and Braver, T.S. (2012). Global connectivity of prefrontal cortex predicts cognitive control and intelligence. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27 June 2012, 32(26): 8988-8999; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0536-12.201.

Haier, R. J., White, N. S., & Alkire, M. T. (2003). Individual differences in general intelligence correlate with brain function during nonreasoning tasks. Intelligence 31, 429–441.

Shaw, P., et al. (2006), Cortex matures faster in youth with highest IQ. Nature 440, 676-679 (30 March 2006) doi:10.1038/nature04513.

Singh, H. & O’Boyle, M. W. (2004). Interhemispheric interaction during global-local processing in mathematically gifted adolescents, average-ability youth, and college students. Neuropsychology, 18(2), 671-677.


I took all the photographs in this article. 

I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the February 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.


26 Comments on “How To Avoid Accusations of Inequality: Share the Heart of Giftedness”

  1. Elaine says:

    I agree with your article. I can completely identify with the Dad in your introduction though. I have made similar remarks, especially when my children were really young. When ds was 2 years old, we were on a preschool fieldtrip and he asked me why the sign said,”authorized personnel only”. Then came the questions from other parents and the accusations of “pushing” ds. lol.

  2. Wenda Sheard says:

    Thanks for your comment, Elaine. I was happy to see the “lol” at the end. I wish all parents would have a sense of humor to combat those ever-present false accusations of “pushing.”

    • Elaine says:

      I think you have to have a sense of humour when you have children. The newest joke is that I’m laughing at myself for apparently looking below average intelligent. The GATE co-ordinator of DS’s school called to tell me that DS did the CoGAT at school and scored higher than the 99th percentile (I refrained myself from correcting her that there was no such thing as HIGHER than 99th percentile unless my kid was THE ONE). Anyways the results were not a surprise. I guess the GATE co-ordinator (who told me this) felt that I didn’t understand because I didn’t have enough of a reaction. Then she started MUCH speaking SLOWER and said, “99th percentile means that he did really well.” LOL. Yeah, like the parent of a kid who scores in the 99th percentile would not understand what 99th percentile mean. I guess we don’t look bright enough to be parenting our kid!

  3. mylittlepoppiescaitie says:

    Love this, Wenda. The Orwell reference is fantastic. I love the articles that you linked to within and the concept of gently sharing the heart of giftedness. Beautiful.

  4. “Remind people what when we talk about different children having different levels of intelligence, we’re not advocating the mistreatment of anyone. Instead, we’re advocating that all children receive an education appropriate to meet their individual needs.”

    –It is so sad that many gifted children never get their individual needs met particularly within school.

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Yes, very sad. Thank goodness many parents are willing and able to find alternative ways to educate their children. I worry most about those unchallenged children who must remain in underfunded public schools due to their family’s poverty or due to other reasons.

    • Elaine says:

      It is sad that many gifted children never get their individual needs met – and that most people feel that they don’t deserve/require their needs being met.

  5. poprice says:

    Excellent post, Wenda. I do identify with the dad, though. There’s a mixture of wonder and also too many encounters with dismissiveness about one’s experience to feel truly comfortable.

  6. Paula Prober says:

    I always look forward to your posts, Wenda. So full of substance and clarity. I love having the list of articles on the brain and intelligence. I’m often tempted to print your posts to save as resources for parents I consult with. I will certainly refer them to your blog. Thank you!

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Thank you, Paula. I’m always happy to hear that the time I spent writing was worthwhile. I hope my words do end up helping some of the parents with whom you consult. Thank you for all your work.

  7. Amy Lobner says:

    Love,love love! I am always amazed how easily parents share kids athletic achievements, but if you mention academic achievements, the tone immediately changes. In the younger years, I really struggled to meet my son’s need for more challenging education and I felt that there was no one to help me. It was very isolating. I learned quickly that playground mommy chatter did not include talking about your child’s academic prowess. I adopted the following line when I needed to talk about it – “God gives all children their own set of gifts. My youngest has the best sense of humor, my middle a nurturing heart and my oldest a strong brain” This really seemed to deflect the “intelligence worshiping”. (well, most of the time anyway!)

    Love all your writing! Looking forward to the next one!

  8. Wenda Sheard says:

    Thanks for your wise comments, Amy. I love your line about God’s different sets of gifts. Your children are lucky to have you supporting all their humors, their hearts, and their brains.

  9. “Together, let’s remove the taboo that suppresses honest discussions of giftedness, let’s douse the fire of intelligence worship, and let’s reach common ground by agreeing that although we affirm the worth and dignity of all children, no two children are exactly alike.” I love this final thought, Wenda. This call to action is what is exactly needed.

    I have one concern about the intelligence worship–There is an irony in that gifted children who excel in school may have their intelligence worshipped, but not the gifted children who cannot thrive in a traditional school environment. That is where your belief, “we need to affirm the worth and dignity of every individual” is so necessary!

    Loved your thoughts on giftedness, Wenda!

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Excellent point about children who cannot thrive in a traditional school environment. Thanks, Celi.

    • Elaine says:

      I don’t think that gifted children who excel in school have their intelligence worshipped. I think that they also are constantly put down for their intelligence. I can’t tell you how many times my ds has been told “You think you are so great because you are smart” or “Brains isn’t everything”. Although intelligence isn’t everything, when was the last time a runner was told, “running isn’t everything.” or “You aren’t great because you run”.

  10. overexcitable says:

    Reblogged this on Overexcitable.

  11. susanneand4 says:

    This was exactly perfect Wenda. Thank you.

  12. throughastrongerlens says:

    I especially enjoyed your perspective on giving children a chance to love their learning, and follow their passions. You and Tolan are absolutely right; focus on the love. Who can argue with that?

  13. Madredegifted says:

    Yes, the topic that I have learn to avoid, and keep avoiding as much as I can. Our 6 year old gifted son has a passion for Science, Biology and the preservation of endangered species. There was a “cool event” in our area, in one of our most sought-after high school (YES, TJHS). We went there thinking that we could just hang up with the cool, smart kids, and hear about their cool projects in Science. Sadly for my son, there were not “cool projects” to see, but instead we found one of the “welcoming parents” not being so welcoming, judging why we brought such “little kid” (with the mind of a teen) to the event, and advising to “let the kid, just be a kid”. At that point we felt the negativity and judgement and just moved on. My husband and I left scratching our heads, thinking, why such negative attitude… I get it. We live in a very competitive society, where we worship and “hate” (if we do not have it) intelligence. Parents are pushy, and everyone is in the rat race. Funny thing is I wished this parent, and all the judgmental parents knew that our son was going to a Montessori school, where “we follow the child’s interests”, we do not do homework, instead lots of play in nature, we stay away from TVs and gadgets (as long as we can), and instead we promote social interaction every day, like the water that you need to drink everyday to stay alive. We do not aim for the high scores and prizes, but for the continuous joy of learning.
    My son says since I remember that he wants to be a Scientist of animals and have a farm. And we encourage his dream. He could probably be a farmer, a veterinarian or and advocate at National Geographic. Who knows, maybe a David Attenborough? He has plenty of time to decide what will he do for a living; meanwhile we just support his curiosity, the love for discovering, and creating. His beautiful sense of humor and kindness. We just need to keep it to ourselves the joy that is to have a kid, so funny, sweet, and creative. And the challenges that is to raise a kid with a brain that I aim everyday to nurture in the right way, and respect for what it is. I hear your advice about how to talk about this, but I just gave up on that one. In a very competitive, society, people do not care or understand much about real LOVE.

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      I wish we could re-wind life, and I wish I could attend that “cool event” with you and your son. I would position myself as an ice breaker, and move along in front of you crushing all the negativity as we entered and walked through the event. I would spend time raising awareness, while you and your husband and son would enjoy the event unaware of any crushed negativity. I would do that much for you, if we had a time machine. You and your husband and son did not, under any circumstances, deserve the negative reception you encountered.

      Trust me, though, that positive encounters will happen. Love will prevail in many venues. You’ll have chances to enlighten people. Your son, himself, will enlighten people.

      I wish you all the best. Your son is very lucky to have you and your husband as parents.

  14. Jennifer Alford says:

    I didn’t actually read all the comments so forgive me if I am redundant, but I am pretty sure you meant Animal Farm, not 1984.

  15. […] How To Avoid Accusations of Inequality: Share the Heart of Giftedness ~ Thoughts on Life and Learning (Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D.) […]

  16. helenjnoble says:

    In relation to my daughter, I have been accused of ‘making her different.’ I replied that she is already ‘made’ and I am just trying to allow her to be who she is, as unique and individual as the next child! By nature most gifted children are I believe, extremely self-directed, and it is a huge challenged to get them to do something that they don’t want to do…!

  17. helenjnoble says:

    Great post! And thank you for the useful references.

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