Peers–Enriching the Social Life of Your Gifted Child

What is life without friends? Children and adults alike need and want true and lasting friendships, but for the gifted child, finding a friend who she can relate to intellectually among her same-age classmates in her traditional school classroom can be quite difficult. Given the age-old method traditional schools use to divide students into grade levels by their ages, it is understandable that a gifted child who is intellectually ahead of her same-age classmates can can struggle to find a true intellectual peer—one who gets the higher level and the complexity of the content of discourse of many gifted children.

For this reason, gifted children, in the absence of finding an intellectual, similar-age peer, gravitate towards older children and adults for social interaction. “It is common knowledge that gifted children often prefer the company of adults or older children. The reason is obvious: They don’t need to explain who they are or how they know what they know. Accepted as bright, competent individuals, the stigma of being smart is not a stigma at all”, explains Dr. James Delisle in his book, Parenting Gifted Kids.1

Traditional schools, by their very nature of segregating students into grade levels based on age and then teaching the same level of course work, en masse, to each child in the same grade despite the varying achievement and aptitude levels of the students, can make the social life of gifted children awkward.  And many times, the social life of gifted children can be emotionally painful.

We all know that intellectually gifted children are too often miseducated and unchallenged in their regular classroom of  same-age classmates.  Subsequently, the regular same-age classroom creates an unintentional emotionally and socially ill-suited environment for gifted children—the regular classroom becomes an inopportune place for gifted children to easily find friends. With the varying achievement and aptitude levels of same-aged children, age-based school segregation really just makes finding an intellectual peer a crap shoot for any child the further away they are from the norm—at either end.

My experiences with gifted children and their need for friendships is multifold—from remembering a classmate I grew up with in grade school through high school whose only social interaction at every recess was with the words on the pages of her book she was reading, to recalling my years as a teacher and seemingly having at least one student each year in my class who was a loner, but loved engaging in lengthy conversations with me which made her light up, and then of course with my own gifted sons. And although there are no easy solutions to helping a gifted child find true, intellectual peers, there are ways to help your gifted child find like-minded friends.

Groups, clubs, classes, activities and teams which focus on your gifted child’s passions, strengths and interests are all opportunities to meet like-minded peers who have the same interests in common. Volunteer opportunities are also a rich resource which can further your child’s interests, enrich his social and emotional  development. and extend his learning.  Enrolling your child in after-school, weekend and summer gifted programs is another way to boost your child’s social and emotional growth and provide an opportunity for your child to make lasting friendships. All seem practical enough, and they do provide workable solutions, but be prepared for some of these opportunities end up not being a good fit for your child.

I offer this caveat—be prepared to try a few or even many to find the one that works for your child. I’d have to say, it seemed I was always in search of an opportunity for my gifted sons to be able to find strong, lasting friendships, not just acquaintances. We have moved many times over the years and the minute we would land in each new hometown, my priority was to find the right social opportunities for my gifted children. This has given me well-earned experience and I have two take-away bits of advice when searching out an activity or opportunity for social interaction for your gifted child:

  1. Be prepared for what can seem like a never-ending search with some opportunities not working out as hoped.  Don’t give up!  This was never more true than with our last move. Although the opportunities for a good social environment for our gifted son were out there, many did not turn out as we had hoped, so we had to continue our search for quite a long time—nearly two years. It was important to keep reminding myself as well as my gifted son not to give up hope and to accept that it may take some time. This was also a time where I had to take numerous steps out of my comfort zone to continually email, call and ask others for information to the point where I began to feel like a unwanted pest. But, our long search was finally fruitful. Our youngest gifted son found a highly-engaging robotics team with team mates and mentors who are all on the same page.
  1. If you can’t find what you need, create your own.  I’ve had experience with implementing this tip, too. When my search for groups of like-minded kids didn’t seem to be turning up much, I created my own group. The many avenues of social media make this easier than you might think. As to my comfort zone doing this? I felt like I had jumped off a cliff, but you may be less apprehensive than I was.

The North Alabama Parents of Gifted Children Facebook group was created one morning after an anxious night of tossing, turning and worrying about the struggle to find a social environment for my gifted son to blossom in. With little forethought, but a huge payout in the end, I created the Facebook page for NAPGC (North Alabama Parents of Gifted Children) hoping to gather other local parents of gifted children for support and fellowship for the parents and their gifted children. Things just snowballed from there.

Within a month of forming that little Facebook page with LIKES slowly trickling in, I was asked to help create the North Alabama Association for Gifted Children in conjunction with the state organization, Alabama Association for Gifted Children (AAGC) and national association, National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). What I learned from this worthwhile and rewarding experience was, if you build it, they will come  (paraphrased quote from the movie Field of Dreams, 1989).2  These two groups essentially became one, filled with parents of gifted children with one commonality—improving the lives and education of our gifted children.

In the end, my family truly received more than we had expected in the way of empathetic support, sharing of resources and lasting friendships. So, go ahead and form your own group of teens who want to code, or girls who are interested in science, or families who love geocaching. You can never predict the many rewarding experiences and relationships which may result in the end!

Yes, for a gifted child, finding true peers can seem elusive, and traditional schools are not often a field of opportunities. As a parent, it may take effort on your part to seek out ways for your gifted child to connect with like-minded, intellectual peers. Be persistent, remain positive and reassure your child—finding three-leaf clovers is easy, and finding five-leaf clovers will take some time, but they are there.

 

SOURCES

1. Delisle Ph.D., James R. (2002-04-06). Parenting Gifted Kids (p. 22). Prufrock Press.

2. Field of Dreams. Dir. Phil Alden Robinson.  Perf. Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, Gaby Hoffmann, Ray Liotta, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, and Timothy Busfield. 1989.

 

RESOURCES

National Association for Gifted Children

Alabama Association for Gifted Children

North Alabama Association for Gifted Children

North Alabama Parents of Gifted Children

 

 

This is the third post in my Gifted Lagniappe Series. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series:

Your Gifted Child and the Gift of Gab

It’s a Funny Thing: A Gifted Child’s Sense of Humor

The Gifted Lagniappe Series

 

9 Comments on “Peers–Enriching the Social Life of Your Gifted Child

  1. Thanks for this. My 7th-grade daughter just had a major, sobbing meltdown a day ago because she feels so lonely sometimes. Everyone *likes* her, but they all have their own little circles of friends. She’s doing some sports and orchestra, but even there — the other kids already seem to have their small clique. I keep hoping things will change. We have two other children, and my 4th grader is in the same boat. He has two friends nowhere near his cognitive level who hang out with him but just don’t get him. My 1st grader seems to “fit in” the most, but I think it’s because at this age, the others don’t quite get what he’s about and just follow along when he talks all about Martin Luther King Jr. (his current obsession) or sings Harry Belafonte. Maybe the ties can be forged before they realize he’s “weird” (ha!).

    I do really hate the age division, though. And unfortunately, our work schedules (and commute) don’t allow for scheduling more extracurriculars during the week. Luckily, my daughter loves school (she’s in advanced classes) and her teachers, so most of the time, she’s fine. Just when she hears other kids talking about slumber parties and outings, and she’s not invited. 🙁 [Oh, and I should mention that she sneakily tried to bring getting a Smartphone into the discussion — as if that would solve all her problems and get her “in.” Nope! Not going there yet!]

    • Oh yes, the “I have a smartphone and that will make me cool and popular” demand. Andrea, take it from me, we caved, got the iPhone and he had his moment of popularity for about an hour one day! Our son lost this “fans” when he began a recess tutorial comparing and contrasting the different features of each iOS version.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences with the social lives of your gifted children with us!

  2. Pingback: The Gifted Lagniappe Series | Crushing Tall Poppies

  3. Hi Celi, thanks for talking about the social side of things for Gifted kids. It’s a problem for adults too, by the way. My son, now 13, is in this situation. Never mind that he’s being held back scholastically because he gets so bored so easily, that he’ll learn a topic, master it, and want to move on, while the teachers are still droning away, teaching the same concept to the average kids, so my son gets bored and forgets the skills he’s mastered (or doesn’t bother to use them, due to his annoyance and frustration, we’re not sure which).
    He has age-appropriate friends, and what he’s learned to do is to mask or hide his intelligence. He doesn’t talk about anything that truly interests him with anyone but his mother and myself. He “dumbs-down” — the very opposite of my approach when I was a kid, and each has their attendant problems. Being oneself, as I did, gets you bullied, taunted and tormented. Dumbing down, as my son does, convinces him (in combination with his sup-par school performance) that he’s just not that smart, and so he settles, as a career goal, for jobs that are WAY below his abilities. He loves math and science, loves to read, thinks of going to the library as fun and recreational, and always has (how many non-gifted kids do that?). His latest bad decision was he wanted to be a barber. Now, I had to be very careful, because i don’t want to impose my own hopes and expectations on him, so when he asked me if I thought that was an okay job to have, I said to him, “Daniel, you can be whatever you want to be, but just think of how much you are capable of. Does being a barber really satisfy all that curiosity and questioning of yours?” Of course it didn’t but I also told him, “If after you’ve explored all sorts of career options, if you want to be a barber, I will support you (emotionally)”.
    The problem is, he sets his sights so damned low. He doesn’t want the other kids to think he’s better than they are, so he tries to fit in as much as possible, because he desperately wants to be liked. And to further the problem, for immigration reasons, I’m in Canada, and he lives with his mother, my wife, in Mexico (she’s Mexican, and had to go there from the USA where they had been living so she could get her passport as part of the immigration process to come to Canada. He’s a naturalized Canadian). So we talk for an hour or two five to seven days a week.
    I spend a lot of time trying to buoy his self-confidence, to tell him how much he’s capable of; he taught himself to read at age three, had learned both English and Spanish as a baby/toddler.
    My wife and son had to stay in Mexico for about a year when he was two or 2+1/2 years old. He lost almost all his English while in Mexico, and then, when he moved with his mom back to Texas, even though all she spoke to him was Spanish (she does speak English, but not fluently), he taught himself English from cartoons and movies, etc.
    I was banned (for very capricious and stupid reasons by an overly-officious border guard from entering the USA about eight years ago, but for the last 7-8 months, i have been allowed back in, ever since my wife left the USA for Mexico. So I am planning on travelling soon through the USA to fly down to Mexico (Monterrey) see them. I know face-to-face conversations will have huge impact, and I am really hoping to make a “breakthrough” and really get Daniel to reverse his “dumbing-down” during my visit there.

    For myself, everything you described in your post happened to me. I always preferred the company of adults, because I could talk on their level. Sometimes this really took some adults by serious surprise, and I recall many conversations with especially much-older adults who were bemused to be having a serious intellectual conversation with a pre-teem me. In high school in Grade eight and nine, I was friends with a whole raft of grade 11 and 12 students, who accepted me for the most part without question or judgement. I could talk at their level, and was nothing like my grade eight peers. Once most of them graduated, I happened to have made friends with three guys my own age, all of whom could be reasonably called ‘gifted’ to some degree; one of them is an internist, one was publisher of a major Israeli newspaper, and the third was at one time, a vice president of a technology start-up. I’ve had several of my own businesses as an IT consultant. None of us is dumb (ooh, sorry, am I allowed to say that?).
    In college and university I found myself at the right level, but gravitated towards the students that were serious about getting an education. Too many college students enter college and it’s just not their “thing”, whether that’s because they’re still too immature, or they don’t have the “right stuff” to be intellectual, or because their interests don’t correspond with a university-transfer program, I don’t know; probably all three to one degree or another.
    But as an adult, I don’t hang out with “regular” guys. One of my friends has what he calls “smoking buddies” (he smokes socially, about ten cigarettes a week). I have spent time with my friend H., and his smoking buddies, and almost all they talk about is (a) women (b) hockey (c) cars or, when one ex-cop shows up, guns. it’s boring and I can only manage to tolerate being with them once every couple of months. On the other hand, I am a member of a computer technology “club” that focuses on the (sometimes very arcane) topic of Linux and open-source software. We have some really interesting conversations, not just about computers. These guys (and a few women) are a real pleasure to hang out with. I end up being so starved of interesting intellectual social interactions, I am seriously considering joining snobby old MENSA -though the mere mention of that caused the brother of a now-former friend of mine to harass the holy crap out of me, an adult version of the bullying I endured as a kid in elementary school and the junior grades in high school. He used my friend, his sister, as his proxy. She’s very sweet but very easily manipulatable, and by a series of threats and false promises, used her to harass me to the point where I ended up in hospital for (in part) emotional exhaustion, something that so aggravated an existing medical problem that I ended up weighing close to 500 lbs. (most of it water-weight), and could barely walk. Not fun. So I am approaching joining MENSA very trepidatiously, because of the three-year trauma associated with it.

    Celi, you mentioned the problem of the segmentation of kids by age and not by ability. In my son’s case, he is a grade behind in terms of his school placement, and three grades behind in terms of his work assignments.
    I wrote another comment about a radically different school structure that I don’t wish to repeat here (I am already long-winded enough!), But one addition to that plan I wrote about would be that I would not have strict grade assignments, but rather age-groupings, so, for example, a school may have K-3, grades 4-7, grades 8-10, and then 11 & 12. And while I wouldn’t move kids DOWN, I would move them UP, if they prove to be gifted. If the school is less segmented, there is less trauma for the gifted kid being moved up, and less stigma associated with being moved up, since kids would not necessarily be mixing only with almost immediate age-mates, but would experience several age-ranges throughout their schooling.

    The final thing I want to mention is this: the smarter the kid, in my experience, the more socially isolated they tend to be, especially in primary & elementary school. High school is its own (huge) shop of social horrors, and kids end up isolated because bullying and harassment is openly tolerated by many schools, or the systems they have in place to stop bullying are highly INEFFECTIVE. As adults, we are a lot more free to choose with whom we hang out, but kids don’t have that luxury, and for gifted kids especially very gifted (genius) kids, that’s much to their detriment.

    • John,

      Your son’s subsequent behavior in reaction to wanting to fit in is, unfortunately, very common among gifted children. Many parents I have spoken to all have the same issues: their children, even at a very young age, don’t fit in because their intellectual interests are very different from their age-mates. It is a difficult situation to deal with as a parent, and even more difficult for the child.

      And I can very much relate to a gifted adults’ need for stimulating social interaction. I have two friends who I know I can have long, terribly interesting conversations with about politics, history, social constructs and religion. It’s like food for thought when one’s brain is starved for “real” food and not junk food.

      Appropriate social interaction with like-minded peers is one of the “needs” gifted children have and which advocates stress when campaigning for gifted education programs in their area–gifted programs where gifted children can have time to interact with like-minded peers. Gifted kids are starved for social interaction on their level of intellect and it can have detrimental effects as you stated with your own son.

      John, as always, thanks for sharing your experience and isights with us!

  4. Pingback: Envy and Your Gifted Child | Crushing Tall Poppies

  5. Gifted kids naturally peer by mental age… which, in a nutshell, by age-grade lockstep, the whole problem socially in education. Differ by 30 or more points of IQ with agemates and it ain’t gonna happen.

  6. This thread makes my opinion of public* schools sink even lower. They really have nothing to offer Gifted children. Sometimes I even think that if a smart child does succeed in public school, then he or she is not really Gifted. Schools favour the slightly-smart kids with concrete ambition.

    * – This applies really to all schools not specifically geared to Gifted children. A small private school might be better than a public one, if only because the school and its classes are smaller and more personal. But there are plenty of bad private schools, too. You need to find one that is not just good in general, but good for your kid, Gifted or not. Many schools do advertise themselves as “gifted and talented”, but check to see if the school itself is geared for Gifted kids, and had the specialized teachers / mentors. Pull-out programs, part-time mentoring, grade skipping, and Gifted classes in ordinary schools are often not enough.

    If you or your children live outside of a Gifted enclave, or even a very large city, then searching for Gifted pen-pals (or Internet pals) may be the only solution. Of course, the Internet is a double-edged sword, so exercise caution when letting your kids on there. Think of yourselves as part of a world-wide Gifted diaspora,and socialize accordingly. That has worked for me. There is a certain advantage to being both Jewish and Gifted, mostly because of the Jewish diaspora culture. I do not believe that Jews (or any other ethnic group) are smarter than anyone else. It just works out that Jewish parents often try to find long-distance Jewish peers for their kids, and if their kids are Gifted, they look for that too. It is time that Gifted parents and children of all nations follow that model.

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