How To Avoid Accusations of Inequality: Share the Heart of GiftednessPosted: February 16, 2015
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:
- Global Connectivity of Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Cognitive Control and Intelligence (2012)
- Brain Plasticity and Intellectual Ability Are Influenced by Shared Genes (2010)
- Cortex Matures Faster in Youth with Highest IQ (2006)
- Interhemispheric Interaction During Global–Local Processing in Mathematically Gifted Adolescents, Average-Ability Youth, and College Students (2004)
- Individual Differences in General Intelligence Correlate with Brain Function During Nonreasoning Tasks (2003)
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.
One 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.
I 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.