Social & Emotional Issues: What Gifted Adults Say About Their Childhoods
by Deborah L. Ruf
Deborah L. Ruf, Ph. D., Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota. Dr. Ruf is a high intelligence specialist who directs Educational Options, an educational consulting service, in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and is the mother of three highly gifted children.
Previously printed in the Conceptual Foundations Newsletter for NAGC, 2000.
I recently attended a school conference that included the school psychologist, principal, classroom teacher, district gifted and talented coordinator, parents of the gifted child, and other interested parties. Five minutes into the discussion I wanted to shout, “I already have a tape recorded copy of this meeting!” Predictable camps of the debate espoused the same arguments, platitudes and attitudes that usually emerge in these discussions. Although the research is done and the information is available, few people in the trenches even know what giftedness is, let alone what to do about it.
Because I believe that giftedness is an inborn trait, I also believe the qualities of giftedness are present throughout people's lives, even if they are underachievers or hide their abilities. It follows, therefore, that I believe former gifted children become gifted adults. Adults have experience and hindsight. I asked gifted adults what they thought of their childhood experiences at home and in school.
Case Study Feedback from Highly Gifted Adults
I gathered detailed case study information from 41 adults who scored in the 99th percentile and were between the ages of 40 and 60 in the early 1990s (Ruf, 1998). The following excerpts illustrate some of the feelings and conclusions that subjects had depending on their exposure to ability grouped classes, explanations about intelligence, and emotional support from family, schools and friends.
Knowing I'm Gifted
Although gifted people usually know they are smart they often do not know the many ways their intelligence affects them emotionally and socially. Just a few excerpts from subjects reveal how easily gifted people are both confused and hurt by lack of enlightenment about their giftedness. A woman who became an attorney wrote,
I was aware of being the smartest person in the class in first grade, but even then I suspected that I was not really bright but that the others were very slow. [By the 4th grade she was so widely read that] I did not realize then why I felt left out and thought it was due to some personality flaw. I often thought that I was really stupid because I couldn't understand why teachers taught things that I thought were obvious. I thought the other children were smarter because they saw complexities that I now know never existed. I had a hard time understanding other children. It never occurred to me that I felt different because I was ahead of them intellectually. For example, in class they would ask questions about what the teacher was saying. I thought what the teacher was saying was so obvious that it needed no explanation - yet there were kids who kept asking for more explanations. Instead of realizing I had grasped the concepts quickly or knew them already, I thought I was missing some subtle point that confused others and I was too dense to even see it!
The above subject is representative of gifted children who were never ability grouped or told about their giftedness. In fact, the theme of, “I thought something was wrong with me,” was prevalent among those who did not receive some form of explanation or confirmation of their intelligence. Apparently this confirmation can come in the form of direct statements or selection for ability grouped classes or programs prior to high school. A number of subjects were grouped in high ability classes as early as elementary school. Through this experience they learned to some degree what they were capable of and entered challenging educational programs and careers as adults. The social and emotional result, too, revealed an understanding and tolerance of people who are less intelligence. It is interesting to note that for a number of subjects who were in temporary programs that used ability grouping for only a short time, a few months to a couple years, they all report that the experience had significant positive affects.
Another subject had many events and experiences in her childhood that led to confusion and anger.
I read well in first grade. I think I read before that, but my mother [a high school teacher] had the idea that it was detrimental for children to read before first grade and she vigorously discouraged any attempts to read.
As an adult, she was still angry about her mother's refusal to accept her abilities.
My mother never wanted me to feel superior, so she always told me that I was not terribly smart, just good at taking tests. Perhaps that explains why I have such a distorted view. The most important turning point in my life came in my first year of high school when I got hold of my school records and learned my IQ. That information explained why I felt so different from others, why I had different interests, and why I had trouble understanding other people. It was a great relief.
Learning not to Trust Authority Figures
High intelligence often placed the young person in an untenable position with those in authority. For example, most of the subjects read well before or early in their school lives. About half were allowed to read independently; the other half was forced to stay with the group. Subjects reported that being allowed to read independently made sense, while being denied the opportunity was frustrating, confusing and anger-provoking. When those in authority, teachers, for example, forced children to do things that made no sense to them, problems with authority arose.
A man in a creative arts career described how his own issues with authority came about:
I regard myself as “normal” - this created (creates) a problem in that I became disillusioned with people around me who constantly fell short of what I regarded as “their potential” - teachers who could not, or would not, attempt to answer complex questions - people who seemed to have no passion, people who took the beauty of life for granted. I have no desire to feel exceptional.
It is possible that his intolerance could have been changed to tolerance if adults around him could have helped him understand his level of ability and how it impacted his understandings and reactions compared to others.
Another subject shed more light on the issue:
My biggest problems with jobs is when there is rigidity, stupidity and control on the part of those in charge - and, unfortunately, these are the very type of people who tend to rise to the top in my field. I quit, become dangerously close to quitting, or I get fired … because I speak up!”
Many of the study subjects eventually did learn tolerance as they matured and as they understood themselves better. Many misinterpretations of intent and motive occur, however, when teachers, parents, and children do not take intellectual level and complexity into account when they interact with each other. The asynchronous development of the gifted child (Silverman, 1993) causes problems when the adults assume more advanced maturity than young, highly verbal children possess. A 47-year old woman wrote,
I was inquisitive, which both parents interpreted as rude and challenging to their authority. I was smart so they confused my ability to learn with a capability for understanding my actions in a greater context. Therefore, they attached adult motivations to even the simplest questions of a 4-year old.
Good Feelings for Life
Subjects who reported feeling loved by their parents tended to show a general lack of resentment or bitterness in their questionnaire responses. A professional woman in her 40s explained:
I was very fortunate. I never had a doubt that I was loved and wanted in my home. I don't remember if anyone actually ever told me they loved me, but I knew they did.
It is also common among the gifted subjects that people around them seemed to assume the gifted children knew how smart and capable they were. Her doctoral adviser, in contrast, did not assume his students automatically understood their potential. She described the very positive affect he had on her:
When he first suggested that someone might publish something I'd written (much less that someone might want to read it), I thought he was crazy. I looked at my Ph.D. program as a route to [her career], never really thinking about making contributions to the field. His confidence in my abilities (and those of his other students) and his constant challenges to do things we felt were beyond our knowledge and skills was enormously influential.
“Outsiders” sometimes provided the love and acceptance the gifted subjects needed. A woman whose mother was so busy with a career that she had little time for her daughter found a woman neighbor who played a large role in her nurturing.
From the time I was 4 or 5 years old I considered a neighbor who was my mother's age to be a very special best friend; I still consider her a best friend and she has become a good friend to my children as well. I spent more time with her after school hours than with children until I reached high school.
My highly gifted adult subjects wrote about many of the changes they would make in their childhoods. They wanted more information and confirmation of their intellectual differences; they wanted to be loved for who they were and not what they could do; they wanted intelligent teachers who understood how to really teach and go at the student's pace; they wanted to be surrounded by age-mates and adults who appreciated them the way they were, understood them, and cared about them. The majority of the adult subjects reported that they did not receive most of these things. The consensus seemed to be that an acceptance and love of who they are and what they are like is the most important and necessary.
Ruf, D. L. (1998). Environmental, familial, and personal factors that affect the self-actualization of highly gifted adults: Case studies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Silverman, L. K. (1993). (Ed.) Counseling the Gifted and Talented. Denver, CO: Love.
Copyright © Deborah Ruf, 2000. All rights reserved.