Raising a Genius: Sacrifice Required

A few days ago Sue Shellenbarger wrote two pieces in the Wall Street Journal about the enormous challenges parents have to make just to help their profoundly gifted kids make it to adulthood. Her main point: Kids who are this asynchronous — who are many ages at once, whether it’s a 1.5-year-old playing guitar like an adult, or a 14-year-old college graduate — have immensely different needs than the norm, needs it takes tremendous sacrifice to meet.

And when we say sacrifice, we mean it. We’re talking sacrifice on the order of giving up half your family income…  Giving up one or both careers to be able to homeschool a child that can’t be served by the school system, private or public… Finding niche tutors who can teach a 6-year-old the quantum physics he craves, but still make it fun; or persuading a leading musician to mentor a prodigy… Braving the near-universal scorn of people who think you’re bragging, and thus learning to just not talk about your child in public… Giving up on the idea that your kid might ever want to do typical kid things like play party games, play ball, own a doll… The list could go on.

Most people think that having a smart kid is great, easier than having a typical kid or a kid with learning disabilities (but newsflash, there are gifted kids who also have learning disabilities; they’re called “twice exceptional”). That may be partially true for some garden-variety gifted kids, although we’re not sure their parents would always agree. But in all our research (see this summary) about kids with IQs more than 30 points above the norm, the usual threshold for giftedness, we have seen unanimity: The further from the norm, the more challenging the parenting and educating (also see this [pdf] link on educating gifted kids).

The truth is that exceptionally and profoundly gifted children tend to be exceptionally and profoundly asynchronous. These kids are almost always ravenous, self-driven learners with a highly developed sense of justice, intense sensitivities and perfectionism, and all the baggage and challenge that goes with those traits. Meeting their needs takes an enormous toll on parents, who are often grossly misperceived to be pushing their kids (and the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon has not helped, as Shellenbarger notes), when in fact most parents are struggling to keep up and in many cases face daily bouts of panic that they will succeed in doing so.

The best service we can do as parents — and indeed, the best the system can do as a whole — is to support and nurture these children, to meet their needs, just like we do for any other child. It’s challenging; it’s really, really hard. But it’s not without incredible joys. We’d like to thank Shellenbarger for bringing the challenges to the attention of a broader audience; maybe it’ll help with public perception, educator and administrator understanding, and overall empathy for this group of kids. They’re kids, and they deserve our support. And so do their parents.