Not the Underdog, Yet, the Underdog
It’s only human nature. When faced with having to deliver a subjective judgement or choosing one person over another, we humans often decide with our hearts and not with our heads. Providing feedback to an earnest, but struggling co-worker may cause us to temper the negative and stress the positive. Choosing between two deserving students to bestow one award—one student who seems to need more emotional support over another student who seems to have it made—may have us choosing the underdog because…well, because he needs that emotional boost. The other student is smart, mature and self-confident, and just doesn’t seem to need the recognition although he may have earned it. Sympathy can play a role in our choices sometimes.
Aaron, a 16 year old high school student, is extremely articulate and he has been highly verbal since he was two years old. His advanced verbal acuity casts him as highly intelligent, self-assured and very mature for his age. But, this poised appearance really belies Aaron’s strong emotionally-sensitive side, and it also hides the fact that Aaron has a debilitating fear of failure and a significant lack of self-confidence. Being intensely sensitive, having a chronic fear of failure, and having very little self-confidence are traits Aaron takes meticulous measures to hide, but they do negatively impact his life.
If truth were told, Aaron is in reality someone we may consider in need of encouragement and emotional support—he would be considered an underdog in many situations. Yet Aaron is rarely if ever seen as an underdog. To the contrary, Aaron is thought of as highly intelligent which many believe relates to easy success and an advantaged life. Paradoxically, Aaron is not at all advantaged or assured of success—remember his fear of failure and lack of self confidence?
The crux here is that Aaron consistently is treated by teachers, coaches and peers as though he is advantaged, has it made, and not in need of any sympathy or support. When Aaron proved again in third grade that he was an excellent speller and had won the previous years’ Spelling Bees in first and second grade, his third grade teacher asked him to sit out that year’s spelling bee to give someone else a chance to win. This was the first in a long list of instances where Aaron was to take a back seat to others who were seen as more in need of positive reinforcement or a chance to be on top—a chance that Aaron was assumed to have on many other occasions, but that was always the wrong assumption.
Surprisingly, Aaron was and still is an underdog, but he’s never seen as an underdog. Not being recognized for his efforts and being passed over for deserved honors or awards taught Aaron that life is often unfair, being smart was a bad thing, and striving for any position or achievement is not worth it because he will not be recognized for it—all because he was seen as having an advantage.
Ruth excelled in elementary school, her advanced intelligence was obvious. She was a conscientious student who threw herself into pleasing her teacher by making exemplary grades. Ruth was identified as gifted—having an IQ in the top 1% of the population—and she was then placed in the once-a-week pull-out class for gifted students. Undeniably, Ruth was smart, academically successful and a model student—that was until she began to be passed over every month for the monthly class awards she clearly earned and deserved, but which were all being awarded to other classmates.
Ruth’s mother questioned her daughter’s teacher about this when the emotional effects this was having on Ruth were becoming a concern, and Ruth’s motivation in school and her eagerness to learn began to wane. Ruth’s teacher explained that although Ruth had technically earned many of the monthly class awards, she, unlike her classmates, had the privilege of being in the weekly gifted pull-out class. Ruth’s teacher subjectively determined that the other students, even though they had not completely earned a monthly award, were the underdogs in this situation and needed the award and encouragement more so than Ruth who was never seen as an underdog because of her intelligence.
Unfortunately for Ruth, she was also passed over for end-of-the-year awards—Principal’s List, Speller of the Year and Hardest Worker—were all given to other students because as her teachers continually told Ruth’s parents, “it is the other students who need the encouragement.” Ruth’s motivation and earnest efforts in school were never recognized. More so, Ruth knew this was unfair yet it repeatedly happened so she quit trying, she gave up and learned to hate school. Ruth had become an underdog.
Gifted Children the Underdogs?
Aaron and Ruth are both highly-intelligent and identified as being gifted. To those who do not understand giftedness or know enough about the emotional and social traits common among gifted individuals, Aaron and Ruth would be considered privileged, advantaged and likely not in need of anything more than their already fortunate gifted designation. Sadly, this is a common misconception, but it is tragically flawed and often affects how highly-intelligent children are regarded, educated and the type of feedback they receive at school and from society at large.
What Aaron and Ruth have experienced can be considered a type of unintentional discrimination, but it needs to be recognized. For Aaron and Ruth, their seeming gift of intelligence has been used against them, and the assumed advantages of their intelligence are stripped away by those who feel that the playing field needs to be leveled for all. For many of us who understand giftedness, it is known as cutting down the tall poppies.
Cutting Down the Tall Poppies
Cutting down the tall poppies does not level the playing field; it promotes an unfair and inequitable situation. What many seem to forget is gifted children are human and they are children—children who have feelings, who have flaws, and who can also have physical and learning disabilities. Gifted children, like all children, need positive feedback, encouragement, and they need to be nurtured and supported like every other child. When support, encouragement and positive feedback is denied to a gifted child based on the assumption he or she probably does not need anything more, they grow up feeling left out and shunned. Gifted children become the underdogs and fall far from reaching their potential. For what others assume is an advantage has essentially become a disadvantage for gifted children. Not the underdog, yet the underdog.
Not That Parent
Continually being the underdog is emotionally devastating and it prevents any child from reaching their full potential. Like the majority of parents with gifted children, I am not that parent who wants my child to always be the top dog, I just want my child to be able to have a dog in this fight—a chance to be supported, a chance to be rewarded, and a chance to thrive, fair and square.
As a former public school teacher and the mother of three gifted children, I recognize the advantages of above-average intelligence. I have also seen firsthand these advantages crushed and destroyed in an effort to level the field, to support those seen as less advantaged. And I’ve seen the real and devastating effects this has on gifted students and on my own gifted children when they’ve been denied the support and encouragement they need to thrive because they are seen as a victor, never an underdog. Yet, they become the underdogs.
Has your gifted child been denied encouragement, positions or recognitions because he or she was seen as already advantaged? Have you experienced your gifted child treated differently because of their giftedness? When has your child’s giftedness proved to be a disadvantage? Please share your story in the comments below.