Who is the gifted boy? Is he Bill Haverchuck from Freaks and Geeks? Malcolm in the middle? The socially awkward computer geek wearing thick glasses? The absentminded daydreamer tripping on untied shoelaces? The little professor whose shirt is always tucked in? The “well-rounded” overachiever who excels in three sports while keeping a straight A average and a steady girlfriend?
I know gifted boys who fit all of the above descriptions and more. One of the biggest challenges of raising or teaching a gifted boy is that he is not always who or what we expect. In fact, because of their intensity, sensitivity and complexity, I would argue that there are more differences in the population of gifted boys than in the general population of boys. Whatever their personality, they are always “more so”: more physically active or more introspectively sedate, more widely curious or more intensely focused, more resolutely stoic or more artistically expressive.
Keeping this “more so” aspect of giftedness in mind is especially helpful when it comes to boys because, as Barbara Kerr writes in her introduction to Smart Boys: Talent, Manhood & the Search for Meaning (Barbara A. Kerr and Sanford J. Cohn, Great Potential Press, 2001), “being gifted puts a special burden on boys, not only to prove their masculinity, but also to develop their gifts. It is just one more expectation to meet….”
It’s not that being gifted is harder for boys than for girls—just that the challenges are different and the expectations are narrower. For example, young boys soon learn that being “more so” in terms of emotional sensitivity is not as acceptable for them as for their female classmates. In fact, I know of one first grade class where three sensitive, gifted boys were kept in during recess to learn how to “take teasing” better—that is, without crying—after they were bullied on the playground. I can’t imagine girls being treated the same way.
We can’t change society’s attitudes, at least not overnight. And we can’t always be there to protect our young sensitive boys from the world’s misguided expectations. What’s a parent to do? First, we can always accept and even celebrate our boys’ complexities and work hard not to give our sons’ messages—overt or otherwise—about what boys should or should not be like. At the same time, we can realize that even the most sensitive boy might enjoy a rough-and-tumble game of tag, and even the most rambunctious boy might fall in love with an art museum, if given the chance. Keeping possibilities open for new experiences, interests and behaviors helps our boys to know that the whole world is open to them, that they needn’t choose what others tell them they should prefer just because they are not girls.
Second, we can seek out adult male mentors who are comfortable with the complexity of their giftedness and personalities, who show passion for their careers and intellectual pursuits, and who offer varied and rich examples of what it means to be creative, smart and intense throughout the lifespan. Our son, now seventeen, has been lucky to have many such mentors: Al, his father, a literature professor who rereads with passion every novel he teaches, every semester, and has done so for the past 27 years; Harley, his grandfather, a retired farmer who at age 79 continues to be curious about every aspect of life and every person he meets; Roy, a piano teacher who is a stay-at-home dad with a law degree and a penchant for philosophy; John and Todd, theater directors and drama teachers who give everything they have to each play they direct and each group of students they work with.
Seeing the “more so” aspect of giftedness in adults can help us to accept it in children. We parents worry that our sons might never learn to make small talk or mingle, that they will forget life’s basic routines while their heads are wrapped around computer code, that they will be seen as too rigid or too scattered, or that they will burn themselves out with their own drive and ambition. As a college teacher of gifted engineering students, I’ve seen that these worries rarely translate into long-term problems—unless the boys themselves see their inherent traits and tendencies as problems. While everyone can benefit from learning skills of organization, communication and balance, being happy and successful—especially for the gifted population—depends more on self-acceptance than trying to be someone else’s idea of normal.
Who is the gifted boy? He’s intense, sensitive and complex in his own way. And that’s a beautiful thing.