Characteristics of Gifted Children: A Closer Look

Part I: Language Use
Part II: Breadth and Depth of Knowledge
Part III: Creative Thinking and Problem Solving

As a parent, you have undoubtedly noticed some unique characteristics of your gifted child. He may make sure that your DVR works properly or she may have installed the newest software on your computer. As a teacher, you may have seen a gifted child who wants to be creative with your lesson plan or one who alienates other children with her large vocabulary. In the next few columns, the focus will be on some of these unique characteristics and how they impact the lives of gifted children and their families—in an effort designed to help better understand the children we call gifted.

The information contained within these columns comes primarily from my interactions with parents, colleagues, educators, and gifted youth. The case examples are real children whom I have come to know throughout my years spent working with the social and emotional needs of gifted and talented youth. The names and other identifying information have been changed to ensure confidentiality. Some of these children, as you will see, have struggled with an issue like depression, anxiety, social problems, or school difficulties. Hopefully, these columns will increase your understanding and provide strategies that will be useful in handling the gifted and talented child or children in your life. Although parenting and teaching gifted children are challenging tasks, few are more rewarding.

Part I: Language Use

The first characteristic, language use, is often the one that is noticed the earliest. Parents and others see an unusual use of language early in a child's development. Precocious language development takes different forms, and many gifted children have special language abilities. They can be avid storytellers, telling their tales with rich details and expressive language. Gifted children often talk sooner than other children their age, know more words, use bigger words, and insist on precise words. For example, while testing the intellectual ability of seven-year-old Josh, I had to calculate his exact age. Somewhat jokingly to build rapport, I informed him that he was exactly seven years, two months, and twelve days old. He responded in a serious manner, "I don't usually get that technical."

Gifted children often enjoy wordplay and puns, combining words in unusual or creative ways. This can be refreshing, for example, when a fifth grader defines creativity as "the melding of dogma and karma" and the other students refuse to follow that response because they recognize it is superior to their own. It can also be extremely annoying. Once, when talking to a gifted child about his inappropriate behavior, I quoted British author Stephen Potter: "Knowledge is knowing how; wisdom is knowing whether." The boy jokingly responded, "What does the climate have to do with it?"

While it can be fun sometimes seeing the look of surprise on other people's faces when they hear your precocious toddler name several types of dinosaurs or Pokemon, you might also find yourself frustrated at the effects. Other parents or professionals may assume you are exaggerating or bragging when you matter-of-factly report something your child did. And your child may quickly learn how to use words to avoid feelings, manipulate situations, or downplay confrontations.

Verbal ability can also make kids stand apart from the crowd, and verbally gifted children sometimes have trouble with classmates and friends because their language highlights their differences. They may intimidate others with their vocabulary or get frustrated when other kids do not understand what they are saying. As a result, playmates and age peers may label gifted kids as weird or strange, and make them the target of teasing or bullying. This can undoubtedly have damaging effects.

Parents and teachers do make a difference in the lives of the gifted children they know. Regarding language use, here are a few tips others have used with success.

  • Help gifted kids learn not to show off and how to use their verbal skills to build others up rather than cut them down.
  • Model positive language use and encourage your child's verbal skills by incorporating new words into your everyday language.
  • Try looking up a new word in the dictionary every week and using this word as frequently as possible throughout the next seven days.
  • Play games such as Scrabble, Balderdash, and Boggle. These are great ways to build relationships as well as language skills. Crossword puzzles are also great.
  • Play word games and use puns with your children.
  • Show an interest in your child's reading. Encourage reading and, of course, model the necessity and benefits of reading. Whether it is a newspaper, instruction booklet, novel, children's story, or textbook, READ!

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Part II: Breadth and Depth of Knowledge

If your child knows more about the three-toed sloth than anyone would ever need to know, you probably have a gifted child. When your five-year-old can rattle off the types of dinosaurs you can't even pronounce or the scoring averages and turnover-to-assist ratios of the University of Kentucky Basketball Team's starting line-up, you wonder where she stores it all. "When did she have time to learn that," you ponder, "and why?" These examples illustrate that gifted children tend to get intensely involved in particular subjects from time to time. These passions may consume them for weeks, months, years, or in some cases lifetimes.

These kids we call gifted often become lost in certain subjects, show an affinity for certain tasks, or become experts in one or more areas. They seemingly need more and more information; the more they learn, the more they need to know. The research may seem endless because each new piece of information opens a new door to another avenue of exploration previously unconsidered. From music and chess to war and world peace, a gifted child's interests can be varied and may seem "adult" in nature. They may seek information others see as arcane and useless. For some children, it is this acquisition of knowledge that meets an intellectual need, and their passion may begin to seem like an obsession.

After obtaining such information, the gifted child retains it and must share it. Many parents have remarked that they are "tired" of hearing all of the excruciating details about Pokemon, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, or Star Wars. The children may even encourage parents to participate in the re-enactment of favorite movie scenes. A few years ago, while working in Ohio, six-year-old John came into my office and quickly spouted off the batting order, uniform numbers, and positions of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. He could also tell me virtually every player's batting average. Five-year-old Kevin could have given any museum curator a run for his or her money when discussing varieties and characteristics of dinosaurs. While some of these interests remain constant, others sometimes fade quickly. As a noted authority on giftedness, Dr. George Betts, states, "That is why you RENT the clarinet!"

The gifted child's quest for breadth and depth of knowledge is often evident in everyday life and reveals itself as a great memory and ability to recall minute details. The dimensions of the Titanic, the types of whales, and the rules to complex games are often recited quickly by precocious youth when they are given any opportunity. Unfortunately, a gifted child's great memory and ability to recall minute details can present at difficult or inappropriate times and create havoc for all involved.

Picture this scene:
It could be a playground full of children, a classroom, the grocery store, or even your living room. A problem develops between two children (at least one child is gifted), and it could lead to a physical confrontation without intervention. Having not seen the precipitating event(s), you decide to ask the participants what happened. In response, you get a discourse on all of the preceding events, probably starting about two years earlier, which gives an excruciatingly-detailed account until you have more details than you will ever need. You start to think you're listening to an established prosecutor from the Fifth Circuit Court, and the details hinder rather than help you address the situation. The situation is frustrating for you, but especially difficult for the children. As peers or siblings, these children have a history-usually a long history-that their memory often will not allow them to forget. In these types of conflicts, it is not unusual for adults to hear testimony that includes, "Yeah, but, when I was two years-old, she..."

Now, picture this scene:
Your seven-year-old is wondering about abstract concepts such as love and death. You notice a pensive, and somewhat puzzled, look on his face, and you ask what's on his mind. Again, you get a very detailed explanation, but this time it helps you understand his concerns. In the first example above, details are less important because they can obscure the important aspect of the situation—the inappropriate behavior. In the second example, details are extremely important as they allow the child to express concerns and get validation for feelings.

As a parent or teacher, it is important to honor and foster a child's passion by allowing them to use their memory and other strengths in positive ways. However, remember not to get bogged down in details when the behaviors or the feelings are the more important issues. If you do not need or want all of the details, do not ask. If you ask, you will undoubtedly get more than you bargained for.

Try some of these ideas to honor a gifted child's passions:

  • Foster a child's interests with trips to the library, museum, or art gallery. Day-trips to places that can provide first-hand information are helpful.
  • Incorporate side trips to points of interest while on vacation.
  • Seek out appropriate peer groups for shared interests. Be creative!
  • Establish a mentoring relationship for the child with someone involved in his or her area of interest.
  • Provide appropriate outlets for your child's interests. Extra-curricular activities can be helpful toward this end.
  • Be creative and work to connect a child's passion to his or her required work in school, to your work or passion, or to a national event. For example, if the assignment is a biography, find someone who is peripherally, but not directly, connected to the child's passion. Or, connect the passion with batting averages to mathematical procedures used for a various sports-related numbers. This can not only help motivate the child and foster learning, but also help broaden a child's interests and enhance your relationship.
  • Providing productive outlets for passions will help a child (and parent!) avoid getting bogged down in details at inappropriate times. Remember, in times of frustration or anger, focus on the feelings not minutia.

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Part III: Creative Thinking and Problem Solving

Gifted children see the world differently than other children, and their idea of a bird's eye view is often different from the norm. They view situations from different perspectives and, as a result, they show creative thinking, creative problem solving techniques, and a unique sense of humor. Sometimes, these unique viewpoints create imaginative results or different ways of doing things. Other times, they lead to what some see as rebellion when gifted children do things differently or do not take the path others take. They may fail to follow directions because they "know" their way is better; they may take the proverbial road less traveled.

Gifted children are often creative problem solvers who take pride in doing things their own way. Difficult problems present a challenge to such children, and they may work persistently to solve them. More than one gifted child has awakened Mom or Dad to ask them to go to the store in the wee hours of the morning to pick up that "one last gadget" that can make the science project "perfect" (even though the project is not due until the following week and will undoubtedly undergo more changes in the coming days that will make it even more "perfect").

A gifted child may view the world from an adult perspective. They can see problems (and, sometimes solutions) where others are not even looking. However, it is not only problems that they notice with their keen observational skills. They notice fallacies, inconsistencies, and anomalies. For example, one youngster asked me if I noticed that, in movies, when the hero is shot, he is frequently shot in the left arm so that his right arm is free to shake hands when he accepts congratulations. Gifted kids will notice things like this, things that many others do not notice or even care about.

Seeing possibilities that others do not see can be helpful. If the world is going to change, it will be because of those who can see how things could be, might be, but will not be unless someone is willing to do something about it. The Thomas Edisons and Benjamin Franklins of the world used differing viewpoints to actively pursue change by taking unconventional or non-traditional paths to find not just a different way, but also a better way. Unfortunately, a negative aspect of this trait appears when these creative problem solvers cannot change the things they know need changing. This can weigh heavily on a young child's mind, and they sometimes feel out of control. For certain kids, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness arise, creating depression.

Gifted kids' creative problem solving likely stems from their divergent thinking and ability to view things differently. One way that this different perspective presents itself in everyday life is through humor—often a very unique sense of humor. Many have noticed and remarked upon this aspect of the gifted child. Among other places, the Internet seems to have become an outlet for perpetuating some of this humor. Some time ago, I received an e-mail message with subject heading "Hmmmmm..." It had been forwarded so many times that I was unable to determine its origin. The message contained a series of questions, actually one-liners, undoubtedly thought up by those who view life from a different perspective than many others. Many of you have seen or heard these by now, but I am sure that gifted children (and adults) have probably whiled away hours pondering and creatively trying to "solve problems" like these:

  • Why is abbreviation such a long word?
  • What was the best thing before sliced bread?
  • How did a fool and his money get together?
  • Why doesn't glue stick to the inside of the bottle?
  • If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages?
  • Why isn't "phonetic" spelled the way it sounds?

These questions, and others you have seen or heard, combine three typical characteristics of gifted children: a different perspective, creative thinking, and a unique sense of humor. Unfortunately, this unusual sense of humor can alienate children at young ages when their peers do not understand it. At older ages, the humor can be somewhat cynical in nature, and this cynicism and sarcasm can create rifts between peers when it is misunderstood.

You can help foster creative thinking if you:

  • Remember that taking an atypical perspective may make a gifted child feel different from others. Although they may recognize that they are different, they may not be aware of how or why they are different. Gifted children need help recognizing, accepting, and valuing these differences.
  • Provide empathy and support as gifted children realize and come to accept their differences.
  • Support a child's interests and love his or her differences.
  • Value innovation, creativity, and giftedness.
  • Develop an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance.
  • Use brainstorming techniques to foster creative thinking and problem solving.
  • Remember that laughter and humor are an important part of life, and some enjoyment and leisure are necessary to decrease the stresses of everyday life. However, also help gifted children understand how humor can hurt and that jokes or sarcasm at the expense of others' feelings will inevitably create difficulties in relationships.

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