Growing Up Gifted & Normal

"Normal" is a setting on a clothes washer.


Normality is an ideal fiction. It doesn't exist. It is something we seek after all our lives.

Sigmund Freud

Normality is characterized by strength of character, the capacity to deal with conflicting emotions, the ability to experience pleasure without conflict and the ability to love.

Melanie Klein

Are Gifted Kids Ever Normal?

Normality is the ability to learn by experience, to be flexible, and to adapt to a changing environment.

Laurence Kubie

Normality is the ability to achieve insight into one's self, an ability that is never fully accomplished.

R. E. Money-Kryle

Many of the concerns that parents express on our TAG mailing lists are about child development issues. We want and need reassurance that our children are developing normally, that things really are going to work out OK. We look at other people's children and often find that our gifted child isn't like "other people's children." We read parenting books and attend seminars and classes only to find out that our child isn't at all like the children being discussed. Sometimes, it hits closer to home. Our child's teachers or a relative, possibly even our spouse, declares that this child has PROBLEMS because the child's behavior does not conform to the adult's notion of normal behavior for a child of that age. Sometimes, we ourselves, are the ones who observe our child's behaviors and find ourselves wondering if there isn't something wrong with a child who doesn't act or react like other children his age.

At times, outsiders conspire to pressure the parent or the child or both "conform" to a more "normal" (expected) behavior model. Parents are told to "stop treating the child like an adult" and children are told to "act your age" and "stop trying to pass as an adult." In extreme cases, emotional blackmail may be used to try and persuade a parent, usually the mother, that the child must be taught (forced) to "act like other children," i.e. act according to someone else's interpretations or authoritative definitions of the types of behaviors considered "normal" for a given age.

The Importance of Life Experience In Child Development

To have the intelligence of an adult and the emotions of a child combined in a childish body is to encounter certain difficulties. It follows that (after babyhood) the younger the child, the greater the difficulties, and the adjustment becomes easier with every additional year of age. The years between four and nine are probably the most likely to be beset with the problems mentioned.
-- L. S. Hollingworth in Mental Hygiene, vol 15(1), 1931

It is important that parents and other adults interacting with gifted children remember that intellect is just one aspect of the child's development. The child's past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior. Parenting decisions must take into account not just the child's intellectual development but also the development of impulse control, moral judgement, and social skills. The development of these is controlled by how much "life experience" the child has -- type, quality, frequency of experiences. Advanced or precocious verbal abilities are not sufficient indicators of reasoning abilities, emotional maturity, or moral judgement.

We frequently hear of very young children whose parents, believing the child to be more mature than the child's behavior indicates, punish the child for misbehaving. Or, children whose parents grant age inappropriate privileges such as starting the car or using a lawn mower or other power tool. These parents are unaware of the normal disparity that arises between the gifted child's intellectual precociousness and the child's psychological maturity in areas regarding judgement. Gifted children, because of their advanced verbal abilities, are often able to repeat, paraphrase, and then explain safety procedures or problem resolution strategies back to the adult instructing the child. Yet, when the child is in the situation requiring those procedures or strategies he is not able to follow those procedures. Thus, discipline, privileges, and rewards must be appropriate to the child's developmental levels across the board and include due consideration of the child's developmental maturity in those areas of behavior and judgement which depend upon life experience.

Asynchrony In Developmental Stages Of Childhood

"Normal" childhood behavior is that which conforms to the expectations of the majority in a given society or culture at a given point in time. The definition of "abnormal" behavior arises from what the majority of adults consider inappropriate in form, frequency, or intensity.

The criteria for such judgements are often nebulous and often arise out of the prejudices and biases of the adults.

          -- Melvin Lewis

Some researchers believe that the developmental stages for gifted children do not follow the synchronous developmental models put forth by Jean Piaget (cognitive and moral development) or Erik Erikson (based upon the principle of epigenetics). Current research and clinical case studies cite cases of gifted children who appear to experience both paralleling and backtracking between the various "stages" of development. The shared experiences of hundreds of parents during two years of EMail conversations seem to agree that a synchronous model does not adequately explain the cognitive and moral development of our gifted children. The obvious answer is that the theories are wrong since they do not adequately explain or account for reality.

What should we do when faced with conflicting expectations, based upon inadequate theoretical models or oversimplification of those models? The best advice for parents and teachers of gifted children is to take it all with a grain of salt. If Piaget's or Erikson's theories of human growth and development were proven facts then we wouldn't refer to them as "theories." They'd be called "Laws." Base your decisions and expectations upon the child's behavior rather than upon theories, parenting books, or cultural expectations. Be open to the idea that your child may be precocious in logical thinking but not in the development of "common sense" or impulse control. Learn the basics of each theoretical model and what it says your child should be doing or should not be capable of at the current age or stage of life so that you can appropriately address the concerns of other adults. This is especially important should you find yourself dealing with educators or other professionals who believe whole heartedly in an oversimplified and watered down version of Piaget's theories and thus believe that "normal" childhood behavior is that which conforms to their expectations.

Temperament in Children

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It frustrates you and irritates the pig.

Old Saying

If what you're doing isn't working, change what you're doing.


Another source of frustration and misunderstanding amongst parents of gifted children is a lack of understanding with regards to the influences of the child's temperament upon both behavior and development. Temperamental style is an important factor in a child's early development, birth through age six. Temperament is inborn, that is, it is fixed at the time of birth. Temperament greatly affects and influences how a child acts, reacts, and relates to his environment and the people, places, and things in it. Temperament factors are rated on sliding scales (continuums) rather than as yes/no or on/off conditions. Scores for the majority of children lie somewhere towards the middle of each scale rather than at the extremes. Though there are many different combinations of factors and thus many different temperaments possible, three specific clusters of temperament factors have been identified by researchers Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess in their thirty year study of children from birth through early adolescence (The New York Longitudinal Study -- NYLS). These clusters, called temperamental styles, are labeled "easy," "slow to warm-up," and "difficult." Easy children are a joy to raise and teach. The "slow to warm-up" child seems shy at first but eventually joins in and enjoys life. The "difficult" child is so labeled because raising and teaching this child is a difficult challenge for any adult and more so for those who are fixed in their ways or unwilling to change and adapt.

Dimensions of Temperament

These are the temperament factors whose existence as stable characteristics from birth was established by the multifactoral NYLS study.

Children who are highly distractible and low attention span (and/or persistence) may be misidentified as having attention deficit disorder. Their brain is not malfunctioning; this is just their normal temperamental style -- difficult as it may be for parents and teachers to cope with. ADD, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder that is diagnosed by medical professionals and treated with medications. One of the greatest tragies in the life of a gifted child with ADD may well be having to use 100% of his giftedness just to concentrate or stay on task since his performance levels are often just high enough to keep him from being identified as having a learning difference requiring accomodations or assistance in school.

Temperamental Clusters

Temperament plays less of a role in determining a child's behavior as he/she grows older and the personality is more fully developed. Temperament is part of one's personality as are: motivation, goals and ideals, and cognitive competencies (intellectual abilities, skills & talents). Specific behavior patterns develop from the interaction between a child's personality and his/her environment.

Last Updated: 10/29/99
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