I know, I know. We’re in modern times and people aren’t really into labels these days. Never before in history have we enjoyed a society so willing to acknowledge and embrace an individual’s uniqueness. Personality tests and enneagrams and DNA heritage tracking make it possible to understand oneself in ways that never existed in previous generations. We are not only free but encouraged to explore what makes us us and appreciate every unique detail that goes into our makeup.
It’s no surprise, then, that with this celebration of the individual comes the often-heard complaint that we label kids too much. “Why can’t kids be kids?” “Back in my day we didn’t have all these disorders.” “I just want to appreciate him without some label telling me who he’s supposed to be.” While there is certainly a level of validity to each of these statements, labels persist, and at some point most parents of gifted kids will ask, “Does my gifted child really need a label?”
First, allow me to make a differentiation between “labeling” and “pathologizing” a child. As both are commonly used in similar settings, there can be a tendency to confuse one for the other, or to use them interchangeably.
To label a child means to identify them, in simplest terms. The salt and sugar in the cabinet each have a label that let you know what you’re working with, and a label for a child does the same thing. Pathologizing a child or a child’s behavior is akin to a diagnosis. Dismissing the wiggly kindergartner as having ADHD is pathologizing, whereas knowing that kindergartner is a wiggle worm is labeling. Both have options for “treating” the behavior, be it medication or taking a short walk, but only one “blames” the behavior on a diagnosis or condition. For the purpose of this post, we are discussing labeling in the context of identifying only.
Labeling gifted children has been happening (in varying forms) since around 1868 (check out this Brief History of Gifted and Talented Education for more info). Over roughly a century and a half, the idea that some students are gifted has been both researched and balked at, and we’re sadly not in a much different place of acceptance all these years later. When presented with gifted and talented programs in schools, some parents will proclaim that these programs are elitist, are unnecessary, or worse, that all children are gifted. “Albert Einstein said that everyone is a genius, you just can’t judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree!” Yet if you ask one of these parents if they would consider themselves as intellectually advanced as Einstein himself, they would almost all say no.
It is not difficult to recognize or admit when an adult is intellectually gifted, yet so many adults seem intent on refusing that a child can be. As though there were some limited resource of giftedness that children draw from, and another child being gifted takes some away from their own. There is an enormous amount of push-back when it comes to gifted labeling… which is one of the many reasons we need it.
Gifted kids – gifted people – do exist. IQ tests are more in-depth than a Meyers-Briggs online questionnaire, yet we accept someone as an INFJ more readily than we do someone as gifted.
The fact is that the gifted brain is quantifiably different from that of an average brain. The problem is that we’ve come to take “average” as an insult.
When a child is identified – labeled – as gifted, many will see this as an affront to their own intelligence.
It’s identifying a difference in the way their brain processes information. It’s saying that salt is different from sugar. Neither is better than the other. They look similar, they both have their benefits, they both have a place in the cabinet, but you would never expect salt to be the main ingredient in a cake and wouldn’t think of using sugar to preserve. Labeling a gifted child as gifted says, “Hey, this kid is still a kid, you can’t tell from looking at him, but he works differently than the other ones around him.”
He’s not more than.
He’s just different, and now you know why.
Because the gifted brain, the gifted child, exists in a measurable way, it is imperative to then have a label that a) exists and b) has a narrow definition. If the gifted label were allowed to be fluid to account for hurt feelings, offense, or “such a neat little guy,” it would harm those students whose brains are legitimately different.
Giftedness is not attributable to everyone and therefore cannot adjust to accommodate everyone. In order to remain a label, a way to identify, there has to be a measure, a line, a cut-off that does not include everyone. You cannot identify a subset if you include everyone. Gifted labels are as real as hurt feelings, but one cannot negate the other.
The question still remains, though – does your gifted child need a label?
For the most part, yeah.
Identifying, as mentioned above, helps you know what you’re working with. When you’ve got a kiddo on your hands who is intense, emotional, has trouble sleeping, suffers from anxiety, or experiencing any number of the typical signs of giftedness, it’s invaluable to know why they are this way. Rather than trying every type of therapy or diet or parenting style out there in an attempt to change your child, having a label can help you understand that they don’t need changing, they need challenging. Instead of wallowing in the guilt of blaming yourself for your child’s struggles, a label helps you know exactly what types of supports are needed… and helps narrow down the search for them.
When your child is very young or very emotional, they may not always have the words to describe their experiences. They don’t always know how to explain that they’re experiencing anxiety when they lash out. A gifted child who acts up in class may not yet have the insight to explain that they’re not bad, they’re bored. When a gifted kiddo struggles with finding friends they can share interests with it helps, tremendously, to have use label that can explain – to others and to them – that nothing is wrong with them, their brains just work differently.
If your child is in a traditional school setting, a label can help secure them much-needed gifted services. Having a gifted label gives you a direction to point a new teacher or a reluctant librarian. If you are homeschooling your gifted child, a label helps you know which co-ops may work best, or which ones won’t work at all. You can narrow down curricula when you have an understanding of just why your kids’ brains work the way they do. In any educational setting, labeling a gifted child for what they are can only prove to benefit the kiddo, not box them in.
As you likely know by now, not everyone knows what “gifted” means. There will be people who think it’s made up, people who think everyone is gifted, people who think you’re bragging, and people who think you’re coddling. This is possibly the most important reason for a gifted child having the label – so that they know who they are before anyone else can tell them. Statistically, gifted kids aren’t like most people. They are outliers, different. The majority of things are made for the majority of people, and it’s difficult to feel like such an outsider. But when a gifted kid knows who they are, knows what they are, knows why they are the way that they are, they can carry that difference just a little bit easier. They will be different for the rest of their lives, and having a name for that difference can sometimes mean the difference between depression and self advocacy, between existential angst and self acceptance.
With so much misunderstanding surrounding gifted children and so many attempts to redefine giftedness to include everyone, does your gifted child really need a label? I’d say so.