When Gifted Children Challenge Authority and Their Teachers
Oh boy! Here comes one of those steep, steep slopes on the raising-a-gifted-child roller coaster. It is that scary ascent and descent you ride when your gifted child zeroes in on her teacher’s mistakes and conclusively corrects misinformation presented in class. There seems to be no middle ground—she feels she must correct it, or challenge it. Period. Because, hey, what good is information if it is not accurate, right?
Gifted children are challenging to raise and to teach. They are rarely passive learners simply soaking in information. Gifted children are extremely curious, often asking profound questions and expecting nothing less than the correct answers. They are deeply passionate about topics that interest them and address these topics with a fury that can push teachers to reach beyond their prepared lesson plans. And this curiosity and fury repeats itself at home also, giving parents a run for their money. Unless you recognize and understand these behaviors in gifted children, it would be easy to mistakenly judge these behaviors as being pushy, indulged or arrogant.
Challenging the teacher and authority is one of those passion-driven behaviors gifted children often have which may just benefit them more when they are an adult debating a coworker’s dubious information rather than a gifted student challenging his teacher on a presented fact he knows is not correct. As adults, we understand we shouldn’t take offense to another adult correcting a mistake we’ve made or disagreeing with something we’ve said—we just don’t seem to always view it as disrespectful or unacceptable. When a gifted child whose intellect and knowledge are often years ahead of his age corrects a teacher’s mistake in class or disagrees with information she has presented, it is most often judged as disrespectful and inappropriate behavior.
Yet, how many parents would want their child to accept anything an adult tells them without question? How many parents would want their children to think critically and question information presented to them if they feel it is inaccurate or questionable? How many of us would hope for our children to be active, engaged learners and be able to think critically and to work diligently to get to the truth, the right solution, the correct answer?
One of my gifted sons was more apt to question authority, challenge disputable information or correct a teacher’s mistakes. We had to handle each situation carefully as we wanted him to respect and have consideration for others, but we did not want him to lose his curiosity, his sense of justice nor his need for accurate information. And even though we were surprised each time we were notified of his challenging behavior, we were previously clearly warned when he was very young that this sort of thing would happen.
Our gifted son had an educational evaluation done by a child psychologist when he had just turned 5 years old. At the end of our appointment to review the results of his IQ testing with the psychologist, we were heading out the door when the psychologist pulled me back inside his office. His mood turned oddly solemn. He reiterated how very talkative, outgoing and friendly our son was, and he stressed how our son felt as comfortable talking to adults as he would with other children. But, this behavior which would otherwise be perceived as a compliment seemed to sound more like a criticism.
The psychologist wanted to warn me about my son’s interactions with adults. At the time, I listened to what he told me but I didn’t quite understand the very real glimpse into our future this wise psychologist offered to me. He explained that gifted children like my son often do not realize their place in society as children—they feel an equal standing among adults as with anyone. Because of my son’s above-average verbal skills and knowledge, he was extremely comfortable conversing with adults on many topics. The psychologist explained that because my son felt on equal footing when communicating with adults—he possessed no affiliation with the philosophy, children should be seen and not heard—there would likely be times where an adult would feel disrespected or insulted by having a child address or challenge him on an adult level.
The psychologist said that throughout my son’s childhood, he would very likely encounter adults who would be intimidated by his intelligence. He specifically mentioned that this would more likely occur in school with teachers who “lacked self-confidence” or were “weak and insecure.” The psychologist also warned that when my son addressed such a teacher as an equal, this could lead to retaliation against him in the classroom. At the time, the psychologist’s advice seemed a bit cryptic to me to the point where I dismissed it believing it would likely have little bearing on my son’s future. Yet, almost like a clairvoyant, this psychologist had accurately predicted some of the most emotionally devastating experiences my gifted son would have in his childhood. How was he able to see this all so clearly?
Before I understood that challenging authority (teachers and other adults) was a somewhat common behavior among gifted children, I actively disciplined my gifted child each time he informed me he had to correct or challenge one of his teachers—or help them, which is how he thought of it. Of course, all children should be expected to show respect and to understand there are social limits to correcting others, but recrimination by a teacher who has been challenged by a student is emotionally destructive to a child.
The predicted scenario the child psychologist warned me about played out many times for my gifted son. Disagreeing with information the teacher presented in class, or correcting misspellings or mispronunciations the teacher had made backfired on our son. After the first few times, we would remind our gifted son, “Don’t correct the teacher! Try not to correct any adult even if they are wrong!” This never worked. His need for accurate information and his comfortableness with addressing adults prevented him from seeing his behavior as inappropriated in any way.
He, like many gifted children, crave accurate, truthful information—life is about truth, fairness and what is right. He had little control to not correct his teachers when they delivered questionable information or misspelled a word, and for him, it was intolerable that his classmates would learn incorrect information. He felt very strongly that it was his duty, his responsibility to make sure his classmates were learning accurate information. Not righting wrong information and allowing his classmates to learn incorrect information was completely unjustifiable in my son’s mind.
Knowing that challenging the teacher is common behavior among gifted children is the first step in handling these situations with your gifted child and their teacher. Work with your gifted child’s teacher to come to a workable, agreed upon solution to help your child find appropriate ways to ask the delving questions he needs answers to, challenge information he finds questionable, and to be able to correct misinformation or mistakes in a respectable way. We want our children to learn to become critical thinkers and not passive learners, so any solution which expects your child to not exercise his need to question, challenge, correct and debate information presented to him is unrealistic. A solution which respects both the teacher and your child’s needs may take some time to iron out, but is the better approach to strive for.
Helping our gifted children navigate a world which mostly misunderstands their giftedness while not damning their inherent needs, behaviors and personalities can often be parenting at its most precarious, but you probably already knew that raising and teaching a gifted child is a steep and scary slope on that roller coaster ride, right?
This post is the 4th in my “Gifted Lagniappe Series.” Check out the other posts in this series listed below.