Move beyond the label of gifted underachievers. Life is fulfilling when we are good people who treat the world with love and kindness, are able to pursue our joys and passions, and are able to care for ourselves and those that we love. From this point of view, our paths will unfold naturally and healthfully.Barry Gelston, M.Ed.
Mr. Gelston’s One Room Schoolhouse
Intense focus on achievement is unhealthy
Gifted Underachievement is a term that has no meaning to me. I cannot fathom that there is a predetermined metric locked into our DNA that we need to achieve. I don’t accept that the letters A, C, G, and T are so precise as to meet a particular generation’s need for a particular achievement.
As a teacher for gifted children, I have a front-row seat to the stress and anxiety that parents go through when they learn that their child is different. Whether their child has a high IQ, is a gifted artist and/or musician, or a great athlete, the child has a label: Gifted. The expectation is greatness and the responsibility can feel overwhelming and awesome for parents. Many parents contort themselves beyond their parental instincts of nurturing natural learning to meet an accelerated learning schedule based on the needs of a theoretical gifted child.
Pursuit of achievement comes from cultural demands
It is understandable. We live in a culture that is heavily skewed to achievement mentality. We celebrate winning, success, high achievement, and competition as our primary goals. We are heavily socialized to the world being made up of winners and losers, rather than common partners trying to make it in life. Never before has it been more obvious that winning and losing are more important than goodness and decency.
Our education system stamps children with letter and number grades and we mostly accept that branding as business as usual. The culture celebrates achieving higher levels of branding. My child made the honor roll, my daughter is captain of the basketball team, my son is a celebrated musician. At what point do we ask if our child is healthy? Does our child demonstrate agency? Is our child moving along a path of self-sufficiency? Is our child enjoying and loving others with mutual dignity and respect?
Letting go of achievement and winning as primary goals
It can be done. I work with wonderful families that have made it through the gauntlets of achievement demands to support their child to become healthy people. There always seems to be a crescendo for many families where they decide that their child’s health is more important than fitting into the demands of the system. Although there may be a switch flipped somewhere, the process of transitioning to a new way of seeing learning and moving forward can take time.
There is a different path than being gifted underachievers
The path to a new approach is to begin to redefine our identity as teachers, parents, professionals, and gifted people. We need to learn how to get our positive reinforcement from an approach that nurtures natural learning and gives ourselves permission to take chances and have fun learning, creating, and collaborating.
What I see on a regular basis are parents coming to an understanding of who their children are rather than an extension or projection of themselves. Families learn to accept their child’s natural path. There are so many examples from acknowledging a child’s rest schedule, supporting a deep exploration of a new topic that is exciting and engaging, or giving a young person the space to understand their place in the world.
As parents and professionals working with gifted children, it is incumbent upon us to respect the uniqueness that is each person. On one hand, we need to give them the space to develop their own thoughts and problem-solving techniques, while on the other hand, we are also there to give a guiding gentle nudge.
The cool thing is that there is an irony that is quite rich. Once we let go of the intense need to compete, achieve, and win, we find ourselves able to enjoy games, accomplish more than one would have, and enjoy collaborating with each other.