My work with gifted children and adults did not start as a crusade to heal the unidentified gifted child in me, but the work is meaningful to me for many reasons. Too often, gifted children, like me, go unidentified. The unusual behaviors that are normal for gifted children are often misattributed as willfully poor behavior or having one diagnosis or another.
My father was Chief of Surgery at a major medical center, founding dean of a Medical School, President of more than one University, an aerospace medical researcher for NASA, and he wrote numerous research articles and text book chapters. He always told me I was dumb, so I acted dumb. When a parent prescribes a boundary space in which that child is to act in order to gain parental acceptance, the child will act out their prescribed role. I was good at acting dumb. I was always in trouble as a child—always, whether I did something wrong or not. I was a slow reader and acted up in class. My stomach was constantly in knots from guilt and fear of my father’s innate creativity administering punishment with his careful balance of shame and humiliation.
I dropped out of college after one-and-a-half quarters and moved to Miami, Florida. After working as a valet and busing tables for a year, I began to realize the value of an education. I took a twenty-four-hour bus ride home, got a job and an apartment, and enrolled in community college. Attending community college to earn a two-year associate degree in Mental Health Technology was the best decision I have ever made for three major reasons: First, at least at the time, mental health was considered a female-dominated field, and I was told that I would always have a job, as men were needed. Second, with the associate degree I could get a professional job to pay for the rest of my four-year degree (no parental scholarship for this guy) as opposed to simply having two years of college credit. Third, I would have two more years of professional experience than my peers upon graduating with my four-year degree in psychology.
I got a job that offered health insurance, so I began psychotherapy—because to be a great psychotherapist, one must clean themselves out with psychotherapy. For two years, I was a five-day-a-week psychoanalysis patient, followed by another two years of four-day-a-week sessions. This is where I learned about intelligence, and that I had some. In therapy, I was told that if I ever acknowledged how smart I am, then I could not do all the stupid things I do. Acknowledging my intellect is still very difficult for me; parental introjects of stupidity are deeply sewn.
I finished the last year of my four-year degree in psychology by working an entire year without a day off. I worked a full-time day job and a part-time weekend second-shift job while attending school at night. Suffice it to say, my GPA was not very high. A bachelor’s degree in psychology is useless, except to get into graduate school. I took the General and Psychology Graduate Record Exams (GRE) and performed adequately. Knowing that I looked bad on paper and was unlikely to get accepted into a graduate program, I cut my hair and got a face-to-face meeting with the dean of the local master’s program in Social Agencies Counseling and Education. I talked my way into the program with the stipulation that I would have to get straight As for the first two semesters in order to be fully accepted. I received my acceptance letter a week after graduation. No student loans yet!
I subsequently earned my doctorate in clinical psychology and completed two post-doctoral fellowships in pediatric medical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology. I started a successful pediatric neuropsychology practice and then earned a post-doctoral master’s degree in psychopharmacology. I have lectured and consulted internationally, written articles in peer-reviewed journals, and co-written three books. I served at the governor’s pleasure on the Arizona Board of Professional Examiners and am a past president of the American Board of Pediatric Neuropsychology. Not bad for a dumb kid.
My work with gifted children and adults did not start as a crusade to heal the unidentified gifted child in me, but the work is meaningful to me for many reasons. Too often, gifted children, like me, go unidentified. The unusual behaviors that are normal for gifted children are often misattributed as willfully poor behavior or having one diagnosis or another. These children question why they are the way they are and why they may feel so different from others. The convergence of peer and adult opinions about the child and their own incorrect assumptions they may draw about themselves causes many of these children to believe and act on a false conclusion that destroys self-esteem and prevents them from reaching the peak of their abilities. Again, children will work and perform within the prescribed boundary space provided them. This means they may take on a way of being that is incongruent to the true nature of who they were meant to be. That’s dangerous.
There are several things I want a gifted child and their parents to understand. These children were born on the intellectual third base and did not hit a triple. They happen to be smart, and that means the key words to assist them are humility and responsibility. Identifying a smart child as gifted first and everything else second is a sure way to cause identity and motivation problems. A gifted child must first have awareness of their intellect and what that means before they can develop insight into their intelligence. To facilitate this idea, I explain intelligence to each child after their assessment. I do not give children their IQ score, but tell them they are bright and how this may be a source of feeling different than others. I tell them that being gifted makes an individual no more special than the next person; it is just another part of what makes you “you”! It is more important to show one’s intelligence through accomplishments, as opposed to bragging about intellect. No one likes a bragging gifted kid. It is important for a child to understand who they are first and how intelligence factors in second.
Gail Post, Ph.D. says
What an amazing journey! Thank you for sharing this.
J Mark Bade says
My compliments for putting all of this “out there.”
You have been a hero of mine for 30some years. Missing conversations with dear James and visiting his dog in the car, at conferences.
Sandhya Ravishankar says
Reading this helps me understand myself and a lot about how I could help my child.
Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts and life story. It is truly inspiring.