THE BLOG
10/06/2015 04:42 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2016

"Is My Child Gifted?" Sending Up a Flare from Lake Wobegon

It's been one of those weeks. I write to you with half a soul. The other half shriveled up and died while I was meeting with yet another client who could not stop talking about how gifted her child is. We once lived in a time when such conversations were in poor taste. These are not those times. The voice inside my head was screaming please, for the love of God, shut up. Her boasting was getting in the way of discussing other critical issues, like her child's report card that included multiple comments regarding backtalk to teachers and bullying other kids.

Let me be clear. I both recognize and appreciate that some children are "gifted," whether you are characterizing that as intellectual ability above the top 2% on the bell curve of human intelligence, as measured on an IQ test (such as a standard score above 130 on the WISC), or whether you ascribe to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences that include aptitudes like music and social skills, and thereby allow many more people to be seen as gifted in some way.

I just tire of parents who ramble on about presumed or actual giftedness for the purpose of deflecting attention away from other reasons their child is going off the rails in school. It's true that some gifted kids are distracted, anxious, bored, socially awkward or "intense" because it goes with the territory or because their giftedness is not being properly addressed in school. Yet many gifted kids display none of these behaviors, and many average kids do.

2% of children are gifted in the ways schools tend to measure it, which leaves quite a lot of parents taking a mathematically untenable position. It's a beautiful thing about parenthood--observing all of the ways in which one's child is wonderful, being so very proud of that child, and wanting others to see what you see, too. I'm no different on that count, and one of my favorite things about my job is working with parents who deeply love their children. But...

Gaze upon reality for only a minute, and it is plain to see where the problem lies. Giftedness has become subjective and democratized in our congratulatory culture where every child gets a ribbon at the science fair and a trophy for showing up to t-ball. I hear parents complain all the time that their child missed some Gifted & Talented program cut-off by two points (or 15), or that giftedness can't be measured in kids who "don't test well." I don't know how to respond to that. Competitive sports teams require a certain demonstrated skill level, and if a child has performance anxiety and doesn't kick a soccer ball to the best of his or her ability during tryouts, he or she does not get onto the team anyway.

"Not testing well" is an epidemic, and I am flummoxed by how to reconcile the genuinely negative impacts of our test-crazed culture with the reality-denying beliefs of a large segment of society. I think too much emphasis is placed on testing and that a lot of kids respond poorly to these demands, but I also can't remember the last time I worked with parents who did not believe their child was above average, when, in fact, 50% of all human beings are not. My clientele self-selects and skews higher on the bell curve, but I routinely see intellectually average or below-average kids being pushed by bright and successful parents in ways that are academically and emotionally destructive. It really is ok for a kid not to be in or near the top 2%, and no amount of tutoring or enrichment activities is going to fundamentally change intellectual potential, but too much pressure makes a lot of kids feel anxious or depressed, or like they are failing their parents.

Years ago I witnessed many effective G&T programs in schools before budget cuts wiped most of them out, and they were helpful to the students who needed them. I always wondered whether part of the reason so few of them remain is not strictly financial, but also administrative. Dealing with disappointed and angry parents whose kids did not get into the programs--and who found fault with any approach used to make the determination if it did not include their own child--was extremely draining.

I used to routinely drive over 15 miles to another town so I could shop for food in peace on the weekends. The problem in my own town involved running into parents at the end of every aisle who wanted to tell me how smart their children were, and to hold me captive for lots and lots of minutes, sometimes numerous times as we successively ran into each other in aisle after aisle. I just wanted to smell cantaloupes in my sweatpants with my dirty hair in a baseball cap and no makeup on, anonymously. In my new town with my new job this is blessedly no longer a problem and I can shop locally, but I still shake a little when I remember that grocery store gauntlet.

I understand that parents of bright children are frustrated when their child's real or assumed giftedness is not receiving enough attention, but the venting of that frustration onto social media makes people want to throw their phones out the window. And lots of those people also have or think they have gifted children. The ones that don't, well, they might have children with disabilities like autism or epilepsy, so they cannot unfollow or unfriend the humblebraggers fast enough.

By all means advocate for your child, but harken back to the days of yore when bragging about your kid was considered at best impolite and at worst obscene. Your Facebook friends will be grateful, and I'll give you an insider tip--you'll actually get further with teachers and administrators. Your children, and all children, deserve the best possible education to help them meet their fullest potential. Start there, with that goal, and skip the word every teacher dreads hearing. Gifted or otherwise, your child will benefit most when his or her teacher is allied, not alienated. Executive summary: Don't be that parent.

Well, that's the news from Lake Wobegon! Signing off for now.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.