Dr. Steven Pfeiffer recently wrote Lessons Learned from Working with Gifted and Creative Kids” for The Creativity Post. In his article, he talks about his impressive 35-year career which has led him to certain “truths” he shares about gifted children. He says:
The first lesson is that development of talent among highly gifted and highly creative kids requires more than intellectual ability, more than what I call, ‘head strengths.’ The second lesson that I’ve learned over the years is that success in adult life requires both head strengths and heart strengths.
On the surface, this imparted wisdom feels well-intentioned. Any of us who have worked or lived in the gifted world know that all too often parents jump on the achivement-by-proxy bandwagon and begin plotting how their taglet is going to find the cure for cancer before their 21st birthday. Some of them, I suspect, even harbor sweet dreams of how their child will one day stand on a podium and thank them for having sacrificed so much so they could be where they are at that moment.
The reality is, just like we see in the professional sports world, many of our gifted and highest intellectual ability kids might make it to the big leagues of academia, but few will actually make monumental achievements. Does that mean they did not have enough “head strengths” or “heart strengths”? Not necessarily.
Dr. Pfeiffer goes on to wax about how some gifted children also lack “strengths-of-heart”, which he defines as including:
- Concern for others
- Concern for the larger world
He adds, “Research in our lab and my own clinical experience strongly suggest that these heart strengths often can make a real difference in whether a gifted or creative kid grows up to be a happy, well-adjusted, and successful adult.”
And this is where I find myself uncomfortable with Dr. Pfeiffer’s piece. Dr. Pfeiffer literally tacked that last sentence on to his blog post, with no real elaboration – other than to say that heart strengths are not emphasized in today’s classroom. So, does that mean gifted kids are at fault for growing up cocky, ungrateful, and with little ability to relax and hang out?
NO, NO, NO, and NO, again! Please tell me a clinical psychologist who is influential in the world of gifted education and training others in the field is not suggesting that gifted kids fail to grow into happy and successful adults because they lack enthusiasm and a concern for the wider world.
In my opinion, why so many gifted children do not go on to extraordinary careers – or even happy adulthoods – has more to do with the pressure the talent development model that the leaders of the National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC) keep pushing as a priority in gifted education. Parents and teachers have been fed a lie that we need to find as many opportunities as possible to promote gifted student’s achievement as early in life as possible so that they can go on to make contributions to the world. Even Dr. Pfeiffer pushes the notion that “full development and actualization of talent at its highest levels requires … ‘eating bitterness’ … tremendous amount of practice … and stick-with-it-ness”.
The problem with the talent development model is that few 7-, 10-, or even 13-year olds really know what they want to do when they grow up. Just because a kid developed a passion for biology at a young age does not mean they want to become a neurosurgeon before they turn 25. When a taglet does not go on to great fame in an early area of interest, it does not mean they failed to stick with their passion. In some (most?) cases, the kid probably just grew up and discovered other interests that they would rather pursue.
Regardless, talent development proponents look at early interests as an opportunity to fast-track gifted kids into potential careers. The kids are fed self-esteem building messages. They’re groomed to compete in contests. And worse, because of the pigeon-holing, the kids don’t get the opportunity to continue to sample other areas of academic and personal interests.
Think about it: How would you feel if your entire K-12 academic identify centered around being the person who was going to one day win a Nobel Prize in Physics – and then you get to college and you realize that, really, what you want to do with your life is write science fiction?
Frankly, many kids won’t have the balls to tell anyone the truth. These talent-development gifted kids have been conditioned to focus on big prize recognition. Suddenly waking up at the age of 17 or 20 and realizing you don’t want to be what everyone has told you you are can absolutely lead to depression. Educators, parents, and clinicians need to understand it is not “underachievement” when a youthful passion transforms into a more authentic desire to live one’s life in a manner that other people might not understand.
If we have a true concern about the mental health and well being of our gifted children, then perhaps we need to stop pathologizing gifted children who don’t achieve to other people’s expectations. Instead of calling these young people ungrateful or uncommitted, let’s instead celebrate their tenacity and desire to be their own person. More importantly, let’s focus on helping them choose the goals they want to purse, not the goals other people think they should pursue.