Who or What?

19 Apr

Everyone knows the pattern of the knock-knock joke.  “Knock, knock,” the first person says.  The second says “Who’s there?” and the joke follows.  These silly jokes tend to be popular with kids.  But hidden in them is is an important philosophical truth.  The second person never says “What’s there?”  We are all perfectly well aware that it is a being doing the knocking, not an object.  We know the difference between who and what.

But all too often we lose that awareness in our interactions with each other.  It can be especially hard to keep track of it when we deal with our highly to profoundly gifted kids.  The HG/PG label has a meaning that can and does help us to see the child’s particular beingness.  But if we aren’t careful, the label may end up obscuring it instead.

Before my son was tested I knew rather a lot about his who-ness.  One of his most obvious traits was his passion for humor.  At a very early age he not only readily understood jokes and puns adults made, but could create his own that made adults laugh.  He was generally messy and comfortable with chaos, tended to use whatever came to hand to serve a purpose of his own, usually very different from what it had been intended for.  He could see connections between ideas, concepts and objects and was able to generalize from particulars in surprising ways.  And his temperament was generally sunny, cheerful and accepting.  He expected to like people.

My husband and I had him tested because it was clear to his kindergarten teacher that he needed something more than the public school he was attending could give him.  The test gave us some really important information about who he was (an exceptionally gifted learner) and how we might meet his needs better.

But it did something else as well.  It changed how I thought about him in ways I didn’t recognize at the time.  In addition to a who he had now become a what.  I had some fixed ideas about how exceptionally gifted should look, what an exceptionally gifted child should do.  Those ideas were culturally based and academically oriented.  And while it was clear that he had the intellectual capacity to fulfill them, I began to lose track of how well those ideas of mine aligned with his essential nature.

A few years after he became the first what (exceptionally gifted child), he became a second–underachiever.  The most obvious example unrelated to school came when he was ten years old and had developed a passion for the Marx Brothers.  He watched their movies over and over. The fact that I don’t happen to like the Marx Brothers factored into my dismay–probably a good thing for him, at least,  that it wasn’t the Three Stooges.  Here was a child, I thought, who could perfectly well be reading Shakespeare, wasting his time instead memorizing whole portions of “Duck Soup.”  Meantime, in school, whatever fed his passions or introduced him to new ones he did willingly enough, though he might well forget to hand the work in once it was done.  Anything else got little attention and less follow-through.  He spent most of  his pre-college life being told by teachers that he was not “living up to his potential.”  Everyone who told him this was thinking of his academic potential, not those attributes and passions that made him the very particular individual he was–attributes and passions that he went on developing willy-nilly.

In the years since I’ve been able to recognize my own pattern of losing track of the who because I have seen it over and over again in the parents who come to me for advice.  There was the mother, for instance, who complained to me that her son played too much.  “He won’t concentrate on his work!” she said.  “He comes home from school and just wants to play and goof off.  I can’t imagine how he’s ever going to get into a good college.”  As she talked, I was picturing a budding teen, preferring to hang out with friends or play video games over doing his algebra homework.  I began marshalling ideas for dealing with a boy who hadn’t yet realized that his grades were soon to count on his transcript.  But then it occurred to me to ask for some information she hadn’t yet shared.

“How old is your son?”

“Five,” she answered.

Five?  He’s five years old?”

Our conversation from then on went in a very different direction than I’d expected or she wanted.  A five year old is supposed to play–it is part of the developmental process of natural learning.  There is real concern now whether our new cultural focus on academics in pre-school and kindergarten might actually be slowing rather than encouraging most kids’ overall development.  But so caught up was she in the culture of achievement, and her son’s giftedness, so disconnected from his beingness, that she was planning his college career while he was still needing to be a very little boy.

I would have given her different advice if she had told me he came home from school eager to learn something more, to read or search the internet for information about his current subject of interest.  Some very gifted kids do that even in kindergarten.  But that wasn’t who this boy was.  Who he was wanted (actually needed) to play.  She could describe his play–building with Legos, running his cars around tracks he had built of blocks, pretending to be a superhero–but she’d never noticed that it was full of creative exploration, imagination, planning and then following through on his plans.

A similar pattern emerges often around reading.  A child whose reading level is well advanced over others of his or her age, is given (often by teachers and sometimes by parents) reading material that fits the what of her reading level rather than the who of a child whose emotional development is much closer to that of her age peers.  One of the early students at PEG, the Mary Baldwin College early entrance program for exceptionally gifted girls, told me that when she was packing to come there she found a book she’d read in her gifted program in the second grade.  She had hated the book back then, and was about to throw it away when she decided maybe she ought to read it again now that she was thirteen.  To her astonishment she loved it so much that she’d brought it with her to PEG and had read it twice more since.  The book was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, a splendid and powerful novel that ends with the death of one of the two main characters and the other’s having to come to terms with it.  No one paying attention to the who of a highly gifted and sensitive second grade girl could have assigned her or the whole gifted class that book.  It would surprise me if there was any child in that class for whom it was an appropriate choice.

Another example is a teacher of a fifth grade self-contained classroom of highly gifted children who had his class read the local newspaper’s front page every day before class began.  He went on having them do this even when, for more than a week, the primary story on that newspaper’s front page concerned the murder of a local nine year old girl who had been kidnapped from her school bus stop and was later found hanging from a tree limb in a nearby woods.  The what of highly gifted children that this teacher was focusing on was their documented interest in and ability to comprehend current events.  The who of sensitive and intense ten and eleven year old individual children who waited every morning at bus stops in that same town did not factor into his choice to continue that particular reading assignment.

Schools, of course, are essentially designed around perceiving what rather than who.  Students are cogs in a carefully patterned system, grouped by the first and most obvious what–their age.  As much as we would hope for individualization that can recognize that each child is a unique self, with both obvious and subtle differences from classmates, very few schools are equipped to make that happen.  The effort usually stops with the assigning of one or more labels that are used as general guides for providing services.  Those labels are useful and often important, but they are seldom enough.

Even parents who homeschool their extremely gifted children are not immune to letting the what of extreme giftedness get in the way of who.  There are infinite subtle and not-so-subtle ways parents can pressure children to fulfill their own images of what unusually bright kids should do, should enjoy, should choose or accomplish.  Just because a family may not prescribe a particular curriculum or pace of study in the way schools do doesn’t mean there is no pressure on the child to fulfill a parent’s version of what he should become rather than to follow his own internal passions or drives. 

High level giftedness is not the only what than can cause problems.  We are inundated these days with labels and diagnoses that can so focus adult attention that the rest of who the child is can get lost.  A young blind woman told of her mother’s overwhelming coddling and protection throughout her childhood.  So focused on and traumatized by her daughter’s blindness was she that she’d lost track of the fact that the girl’s high level giftedness was a major asset in finding ways to navigate the world.  It wasn’t until she got away from home that the young woman could become the independent and capable person she had always longed to be.  Similar scenarios can come from twice-exceptional diagnoses when responsible parents who have diligently searched for ways to support their children’s need for extra help later find it difficult to quit providing or insisting on it when the children have developed the ability to cope on their own.  In another scenario a child can become so dependent on extra help that he never does discover ways to move beyond it.

In the gifted field right now the forces supporting achievement as the definition of giftedness seem to be on the ascendent.  Those who suggest that the whole goal of gifted education is eminence, challenging education to identify talents and develop them toward extraordinary and recognizable achievement seem to have lost sight of the who entirely.  Perhaps they aren’t aware that external success does not necessarily bring internal fulfillment or life satisfaction.  Or perhaps they don’t agree with me that these are critical human needs.

Here’s what I believe about who and what:  we who deal with this unusual population of potential achievers need to engage in a constant balancing act between the two.  Both are important, and they are inextricably bound together.  As we raise and teach and counsel these kids, we should be constantly asking ourselves, as we make a decision or advise them, “Which am I considering here?”  Sometimes the answer will be both at once, and that’s great.  But sometimes–like the Marx Brothers and Shakespeare–they conflict.  The who is foundational.  My very strong suggestion is that when they are in conflict, who trumps what! 

And in case you’re wondering, my son went on through the Marx Brothers to Monty Python to Douglas Adams to George Carlin and beyond, but he also discovered a love for Shakespeare.  That important bit of his who–his powerful sense of humor–has led to our current collaboration on the writing of the third Applewhites book.  (Applewhites at Wit’s End, the second book, will be out the first week in May. If he hadn’t agreed to collaborate on the next, Wit’s End would have been the last.)  Whatever the outcome of our joint project, our work sessions tend to be full of laughter!

14 Responses to “Who or What?”

  1. Zada Terzenbach April 21, 2012 at 3:44 am #

    Thank you for your insightful sharing about the importance of understanding the “what” and “who” of our exceptional learners. It truly helps to put the whole child in perspective.

  2. Kerri Beauchesne April 21, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read about giftedness. I certainly see some mistakes I’ve made, which I’ve already begun trying to fix. I’ve begun focusing more this year on my son’s who-ness, letting him follow his own passions rather than pushing him relentlessly toward achievement and “fulfilling his potential.” It’s already borne fruit. He has spent more hours than I can count practicing music, making faster progress than I anticipated. He has also used great creativity, initiative, communication, and leadership skills to assemble a role-playing group and design multiple elaborate campaigns. He has learned so much more — and so willingly — from these authentic experiences than I ever taught him with my carefully designed lessons.

    • Elizabeth April 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

      Thank you for this post (and all of the others, as well). My daughter is very young, and she is a rocketship and a mermaid and so many other things. I am running to keep up with her, and I often wonder what I’m doing wrong in the process. I am sure I will re-read this article many times. Thank you for taking time to do this.

    • Stef April 23, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

      We can all learn from our mistakes–and from those others have made as well. Important to forgive our own errors and just move forward.

    • Stef April 23, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

      Thank you, Kerri–check my reply to Elizabeth. Mistakes help us correct our course. So glad things are working out…

  3. Shari April 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

    That’s the first time I’ve seen in writing what I struggle with in dealing with my son. Part of the issue I believe is that as parents we have hindsight. We think to ourselves “if only I could go back, the path would be so different” so we try to force that upon our children.

    The truth is everyone has to find their own path. My PGlet loves school but could care less about grades. His interests are so wide and varied that he often finds his own thoughts more interesting than the teachers. But the “who” that is my son is an amazing person and I trust that eventually he’ll find the balance for himself.

  4. kikiandkyle April 27, 2012 at 7:42 am #

    Learning my child was highly gifted stirred up some powerful feelings of resentment towards my parents for never realizing the same about me, or doing anything about it. I’m struggling massively with my own disappointment both in them, and myself, for never having lived up to my potential, so it’s hard to not project that onto my daughter.

    Thankfully, allowing her the freedom to explore more than just reading and writing, which I thought were her main strengths, has helped her to discover she is very much into science and math, both areas I would have considered weaknesses for her before. I’m realizing as I type this that her latest obsession of researching and writing mini books on snakes is actually helping her develop her language abilities too. I just have to keep this in mind when she asks yet again to use the computer instead of reading a book!

  5. Joshua Raymond April 27, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on Rochester SAGE – Supporting Advanced & Gifted Education and commented:
    I highly recommend following this blog! Stephanie Tolan has been on the front lines of advocacy for gifted children for many years and is sharing her wisdom earned during this time. And she’s a really great writer…

  6. Ruth May 2, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    It was not easy to find out my kids are gifted. I am struggling to find out how to let him find himself and know the who and what bit you mentioned. The holding back factor is the classroom and perspection the world require of him. Almost at wits end trying to find good counsellor with passion for gifted kids and seeing him being “Schooled” syndrome creeping into him sadden me. My older son has lost alot of the curiousity. and high excitment he has when he was 4. I find the school is at times unschooling them..

  7. CKGray May 23, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    I’ve been going back and reading more responses to the ‘call to eminence’ as the new commitment/direction for the field of gifted education, and just have to share that I wonder about the assumptions that if this direction is followed widely and accepted, what the consequences would be…If our success as educators of the gifted is dependent on more students and children arriving at eminence in their fields of choice, does that mean there will be more than one Nobel Prize awarded in each category each year to accomodate the greater number of eminent people our collective project will produce? More Academy Awards each year? More funded research agendas and professorial chairs when recent trends have been fewer? By what criteria do we measure eminence? If our only call to action is more eminence, and we do not also simultaneously increase the capacity of society to accept and acknowledge more eminent people than it currently does, aren’t we dooming ourselves to a predictable failure? Even Terman wrote how the Termites, as a group, were not as eminent as he had expected to find. So few Nobel prizes, museum-collected artists, etc…but who can count the laughs generated by scriptwriters, animals treated by veterinarians, well designed and constructed highways where inferior designs could have contributed to accidents or even fatalities? Children identified as gifted emerge in such a wide range of professions and activities that using “eminence” as the criterion of success discounts and devalues entire vast swaths of human experience, success, value, and satisfaction. Edison and Tesla, indeed. Thank you for your recent essays, I have enjoyed reading and thinking about them!

    • Stef May 23, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and pointing out the logical consequences of making eminence the goal of gifted education, CKGray. Plus, it helps us all to be reminded that not all human endeavors that are necessary to us or add value to our world even allow for the concept of eminence. As one of Terman’s female study subjects said, there’s no such thing as an “eminent” mother.

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  9. Nick December 4, 2022 at 4:30 pm #

    Gratefuul for sharing this


  1. Schools are to Creativity… « The Deep End - July 15, 2012

    […] by his amazing mind.  I wrote about that a bit in my “who/what” post in this blog here.  Luckily, he never convinced himself that he loved school, and he wasn’t seduced by the demand […]

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