Gifted Children: ‘Tis Folly to be Wise?
Ignorance is bliss.
I’ve come across this snippet of a quote through the years without more than a few seconds of consideration to its true meaning or origin, I simply thought it referred to those who know less and are probably happier for knowing less—simple as that.
As the mom of gifted children, my newfound clarity of this quote and its relevancy to the life experiences of my gifted children was, to describe it accurately, a staggering revelation for me. An a-ha moment of sorts about an age-old quote which I now realize acutely represents a reality within my gifted family, and probably many others as well.
I got it.
So, what about that quote? Thomas Gray was an English poet who lived from 1716 – 1771. In his poem, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1742), he writes about his former all-boys boarding school and how school is a carefree time in one’s life in which little thought is given to future worries. He states that the boys attending Eton should be allowed to remain innocent and ignorant, and not be told of the pain and stresses their futures will inevitably bring. The last two lines of Gray’s poem state, “No more; where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”
“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis oft unpleasant to be gifted.”
I’ve taken the liberty to modify Gray’s quote and adapt it for gifted families: “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis oft unpleasant to be gifted.” Unlike most of the boys Thomas Gray was writing about in his poem, gifted children are most likely already wise to the worries and pain their futures may bring. It is said that gifted children have wisdom beyond their years, or are too smart for their own good—both sayings illustrating why ignorance may be bliss and knowing too much can be a burden to bear. You may be asking yourself, “how can knowing more than others be a bad thing?” and before I understood giftedness, I probably would have also asked that very same question.
They know more, but yet not enough.
How Is Knowing Too Much a Bad Thing?
Gifted children see and understand the world around them with exceptional comprehension, intuition and intensity, and they easily make emotional, social and factual interconnections with the information they take in. This level of understanding and extrapolating is usually beyond their same-age peers, and this knowledge is often more than a gifted child can emotionally assimilate. This can result in overwhelming fears, anxiety or sadness. They know more, but yet not enough.
To a gifted child, knowing more may feel as though they are peering into the crystal ball of life, seeing their entire world laid bare; yet, they do not have the life experiences or the emotional maturity needed to temper the stark realities they see and the connections they make.
Gifted children often have the extraordinary ability to accurately size up people, social situations, and concrete events accurately. They often know immediately if a teacher dislikes them, if a friend is to be trusted, or if a parent isn’t being completely honest. Gifted children can be given facts or be taught a new skill and they can immediately connect, build upon, or apply the new information in advanced or unexpected ways. They can use newly-acquired skills for creative, unusual purposes, and they will interconnect information they learn at advanced levels. It seems like they view life through a microscope while others see life only through the naked eye.
It seems like they view life through a microscope while others see life only through the naked eye.
So, they have advanced or unusual insights, intelligence and abilities—again, how can that be a bad thing?
Two Ways Advanced Intelligence Can Hurt Gifted Children
First, gifted children can experience negative emotional repercussions from what they see, understand and intuit. Because their emotional development is often lagging behind their intellectual development, gifted children may not be emotionally equipped or have the life experiences to appropriately handle some of the information they take in—much like a 3-year old gifted child who understands that fighting in a marriage can lead to divorce, sees her parents fighting, but does not have the emotional maturity or life experience to realize this information does not mean her parents’ fight will lead to a divorce. Having advanced knowledge without the emotional skills to deal with the knowledge sensibly can lead to anxiety, depression or other psychological issues.
The second way a gifted child’s advanced understanding of the world around them can cause them unhappiness is through the reactions of others to their degree of knowledge, level of intelligence or verbal acuity beyond their years. Yes, other people exhibit envy, resentment or even anger when gifted children are just being themselves when voicing their knowledge or displaying their intelligence. This can manifest itself in a gifted child correcting their teacher, telling an adult they are wrong, or explaining to their 1st grade classmates how the world’s depletion of helium can be devastating to the medical field. Teachers can and do get angry when a well-intentioned gifted student corrects them, and some may even retaliate against the child. Some adults don’t take well to children telling them they are wrong, even if done politely. And classmates may react with boredom, confusion or teasing when a gifted child goes on and on about advanced topics.
Life’s Crystal Ball is Not a Textbook
One last point I want to make about giftedness in this regard is that a gifted child’s advanced intelligence and high IQ should not always be tethered to his education and achievement in school. The ability of gifted children to see and understand the dynamics of humankind and the realities of life on Earth far beyond their years is often not associated with their education, school achievement or classroom performance. Life’s crystal ball is not like a textbook. Understanding the truths and realities of life is not really the same as learning facts and figures from a school textbook.
Why do I bring this up?
My goal is that those who are not familiar with giftedness begin to understand that giftedness and advanced intelligence is not achieved through studying, memorizing or the level of effort in school. Giftedness is who a child is, not how well they do in school. Negative reactions to a gifted child for just being herself happens much too often because giftedness is seen as a much-desired ability gained in school—hot-housed through enrichment or tutoring, or groomed by pushy parents. I can assure you, it is not. From my own experience, the uncomfortableness, envy and resentment many gifted children and their families often face results from interactions with teachers, classmates and other parents at school who do not understand giftedness.
Yes, ignorance can be bliss, and to many a gifted child, being wise can be more than folly. They do know more, but yet not enough, and we need to understand how this can hurt our gifted children.