You’ve got an image already conjured up in your mind, a stereotype if we’re honest, of a gifted kid. She’s got glasses, probably, or maybe he’s even wearing a bowtie and suspenders. She’s at the chalkboard solving a math problem several yards long a la Good Will Hunting, or he’s smiling in a cloud of gasses as he mixes formulas in his own personal beakers. Their bedrooms are full of space posters, dinosaur models, computer parts, wires leading everywhere, Rubiks cubes, pillows that make up the periodic table, and a Rube Goldberg machine. So many gifted kiddos, they love their STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. They excel in it, find their place in it, enjoy the black-and-white or the theory of it. Retailers have caught on and started marketing STEM toys, STEM kits, even offering STEM as a filter category when searching online.
But what about that kid who doesn’t want a new chemistry set or microscope for Christmas? What about the gifted kid who doesn’t really get your science puns? What about the brilliant child who isn’t into STEM at all?
My oldest is almost a poster child for your typical gifted kid. He doesn’t wear glasses, but he collects – and speedily solves – Rubik’s cubes, enjoys computer coding, was invited to learn in an accelerate math and science program at his school, and drops words like “algorithm” into regular conversation. Oh yeah, and he totally plays chess. My other two kiddos, however… they’re a little trickier.
When I first discovered that my middle child was not just gifted, but profoundly gifted, I read about Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities and fixated on the intellectual oe. Challenging his brain became a major focus of mine, and we really did notice a difference when he finally got some meaty learning in. I began gobbling up whatever I could for him – science kits, books on the elements, documentaries about space, math puzzles… and they gathered dust. I didn’t understand, weren’t these like catnip to nerdy little gifted kids? Wasn’t he supposed to thank me for stimulating his brain that yearned for knowledge? Why wasn’t he building a lab at home and solving all of science’s biggest mysteries?!
Because it’s not his thing.
Instead of mixing it up with a petri dish, he wanted to read a biography of Marie Curie. Instead of learning to classify every known species of insect, he wanted to draw them. Rather than build an elaborate structure, he wanted to climb them. My brilliant boy is gifted, but he is no scientist. My daughter loves math and watching Project MC2, but would rather be in a dance class than a chemistry lab. Instead of making scientific discoveries they’d both rather read or write about myths and fantasies. They’re gifted, they’re talented, and they’re not really all that into STEM.
They’re rare, but they’re out there. Artists, chefs, readers, writers, dancers, musicians, linguists, all of the above. Kids who like space just fine, but like nature even more. Gifted kids who can crush their math work but would rather crush pigments. Gifted kids who can learn to code, but whose heart swells when guitar strings strum. Brilliant babes who appreciate the arts, the stories, or are just filled with curiosity that isn’t subject-specific. You see, intelligence isn’t a stereotype. An IQ score isn’t like a horoscope. Scoring a few standard deviations above the norm doesn’t dictate your personality, your likes, dislikes, talents, passions, or hobbies. It means your brain processes information differently than the majority of the population. That’s really it. Intelligence and brilliance are as likely to be found on a stage as they are in a lab. For every Einstein there is a Beethoven, for every Musk there’s a Spielberg.
It can be hard, when science and math are so concrete and quantifiable, to see your gifted child investing their passion into something much more subjective. It’s obvious when a kid is a math whiz, but how can you truly know if your child is excelling in art? How can my gifted son shine when all he wants to do is read history books and biographies? Honestly… it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have to shine, not outwardly, anyway. He doesn’t have to stand out. He doesn’t have to be the best. My gifted daughter is still gifted if she pours herself into singing and never advances beyond concerts in the living room. Maybe this is why the non-STEM gifted kids seem to be hiding in the shadows, because they’re not interested in subjects that would push them into the light. My STEM-loving, stereotypical gifted son gets ooohs and ahhhs when he solves a Rubik’s cube blindfolded, but my non-STEM gifted son gets blank stares when he launches into a monologue about political corruption during whatever war he’s currently studying. Too often the arts are only celebrated in popular culture when there’s a contest to be won, but our kids aren’t trying to be paraded, they’re just wanting to follow their hearts. Let’s let them.
But how? Just what can you do for a non-STEM gifted kid, a kid who needs mental stimulation, but not from a math equation or dinosaur exhibit? Two words – rabbit trails. Got a history lover like mine? Google is your best friend. Search for battlefields near you, historical markers, traveling exhibits, antique shops, renaissance fairs, and yes, enough books to fill a library. Raising an artist? Find all the museums you can. Text San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art to have pictures of featured art texted back to you. Load up on art supplies during back to school sales, scrounge up an easel, drafting table, frames, or pieces to experiment on from Craigslist or other sale apps. If you’ve got a nature lover, the outdoors are always nearby. Check out One Small Square books, Audubon Society books, a Farmer’s Almanac. Look for waders, hiking boots, specimen storage, a hammock, anything that can be used outside. Musicians can find music anywhere, but YouTube is excellent at guiding you down rabbit holes. Second-hand stores or buy-sell-trade groups are great spots for picking up more affordable instruments. Check Groupon for performance tickets. Download music-mixing apps like Garage Band. Local theaters are forever embracing new talent, or at least putting on a show. Load up on records, make your own sheet music, heck, make your own instruments!
Around the holidays, every group I’m in for parenting gifted kids will be full of gift suggestions and inquiries, and the overwhelming majority of those will be STEM-related. Toy stores don’t really have a section for history lovers and nature explorers, and dance lessons are expensive so you can’t just pile those on. It can be hard to find things to keep their interests fed, to encourage their passions, and stoking their flames can really require some detective work and creative thinking. Really, though, the best resource for non-STEM gifted kids is other parents of non-STEM gifted kids! So please leave a comment and share – what are your favorite gifts, classes, shows, and more for your non-STEM kiddo?
Latest posts by Jennifer Vail
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