Getting Smart About Gifted Kids

Psychologist Winner says they are stereotyped and left out of education reform

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

Gifted children are their own best motivators, says Prof. Ellen Winner (Psychology), and push themselves in an intense desire to develop their unique skills. But society often won't accept them as individuals and views these children as pawns of overly ambitious parents.

Such attitudes reflect Americans' low expectations for their children's capabilities, Winner says in her latest book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities . Exploring in detail the lives of several gifted children, Winner found these youngsters endure persistent, and sometimes harmful, stereotypes - that they are "made" by their parents, for example, or they possess a general intellectual power enabling them to excel in all disciplines.

Yet even as she urges more attention be paid to gifted children's needs, Winner says Americans should expect and enable all children to perform at a high academic level.

"I'm not saying [raising educational standards] will be easy because I think we have a real pervasive anti-intellectual attitude in this country," she said. "Our culture does not particularly value education; we value getting good jobs and getting rich. But maybe if Americans wake up and realize that we're going to fall behind in everything if we don't properly educate all our kids, change will finally come."

Winner uses 10 case studies in Gifted Children , based on interviews with children possessing special abilities in academics, music and art. Their parents and teachers also were interviewed.

Prof. Ellen Winner (Psychology)
Her subjects include David, a 3-year-old who learned to read in two weeks; KyLee, a 5-year-old who mastered elementary school math concepts on his own; and Nadia, an autistic and retarded "savant" who draws like a Renaissance master.

Not all the children she studied had high IQs, as one might expect, nor were they well-versed in all academic and artistic areas, Winner said. However, each of the children displayed an obsession with a particular skill and, whenever possible, looked for or created opportunities to express their specific talent. One with a fervent interest in painting constantly recruited playmates to be his models, for example; another seemed to turn every situation into a mathematical equation, such as calculating distances every time she passed a road sign while on a car trip.

"These kids," Winner said, "turn the world into food for their talent."

Another common myth holds that any child can become a prodigy if given the chance, but Winner says gifted children likely have inherent characteristics which set them apart, regardless of the environment in which they are raised. Still, she noted, the children she interviewed all had supportive families who clearly valued hard work.

Winner added that gifted children - who are not as well-adjusted and popular as is sometimes assumed - also benefit emotionally and psychologically if their parents make a point of socializing them with other children of high ability.

"Parents must play an important role in making the opportunities available for their child's talents to grow," she said, "but we can't ignore the powerful role of biology in determining whether there is any gift for the environment to develop."

Even with natural abilities and proper nurturing, Winner says, gifted children may have a difficult time in school because there are few programs to meet their needs. American education seldom devotes the resources necessary to adequately challenge the extremely gifted, and "typical enrichment programs are so minimal as to be practically useless," she said.

Winner believes that recognition and cultivation of the special talents of gifted children ought to be included in the discussion of education reform in this country.

"I know it sounds elitist, but I think it's unfair to treat these children like you treat everybody else, because they're not like everybody else," she said. "They know and understand too much too soon and they are feared as strange, oddballs or freaks. But they are America's future leaders and are much less likely to become successful, creative adults if they don't have the right kind of education."

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