Busting the Myth That Matters Most

19 May



The theme of the New Zealand Blog tour is “Mythbusting.”

Humans are the storytelling species, not just telling stories, but often, then, living by them. Some of these “stories to live by” become enshrined in a culture as Myths, defined as “accounts of gods or superhuman beings involved in extraordinary events or circumstances in a time existing apart from ordinary human experience.” Those myths can be of real value. But when we live by the other kind, defined as “widely held, but false beliefs or ideas,” they can do great damage to ourselves and others.

For nearly 100 years those of us interested in giftedness, and especially education of gifted children, have been doing our best to counter—bust—the sorts of harmful myths that surround giftedness. They are legion: “Early ripe, early rot.” “All children are gifted.” “Gifted children are so smart they don’t need help.” “Gifted kids may start out ahead, but others eventually catch up.” “Giftedness is measured solely by achievement.” “Giftedness is created by schools.” “Giftedness is not innate—it is nothing more than a matter of grit and determination.”

I’ll stop there, though anyone reading this can probably supply plenty of others. Now here’s the thing:  there’s a massive supply of evidence disproving them! We’ve been collecting and pointing to that evidence decade after decade.

And yet the myths persist. Not only do they persist, but education (certainly in the USA and perhaps elsewhere as well) is quite literally going the other direction, using many of those myths to justify backing away from actually meeting the needs of gifted children. For that matter, even a few of those who are considered gifted “experts” have created some myths that serve their own purposes instead of the children.

So I want to offer an idea that is bound to be controversial. The basic principle I wish to point out is that literally the only myth we can successfully “bust” is one that we harbor in ourselves. You may protest that we (especially we who are parents and/or gifted ourselves) have truths, not myths. But our truths, too, are stories, and some of them may not be helping our kids or even ourselves.

I would like to suggest that the single most harmful story we may tell is that for a gifted child to “succeed” in life, to live up to, develop, and fulfill his or her potential, the environment around that child has to change. In that story the world’s myths must be busted and the “right” sort of education must be provided to meet the child’s particular needs. Because, we say, those needs are real, and if not met will result not only in pain and misery, but the loss to the world of that child’s unique gifts.

That, in fact, was the myth that drove my own efforts to give my son the very most appropriate education I could find or force or pay for. (That last was tricky, given my husband’s and my professions in the arts.) There were both successes and setbacks along the way, but they didn’t change my quest, until my son took over the direction of his life, and set off on his own.

Please understand that I am not–repeat not–advocating that we who live or work with the gifted do nothing! Those of us who care and hope for change, should and will continue to work for better educational options.

What I am advocating is changing perspective on the story we tell–the “myth” we tell ourselves and directly or indirectly, our gifted kids. It’s a small change but has a huge meaning and impact. Difficult circumstances, inappropriate educational opportunities, unfairness and prejudice are not insurmountable obstacles. In fact, sometimes they can be exactly the opposite, spurring increased effort and unstoppable determination. The gifted human mind is a powerful force.

Throughout history many gifted humans have overcome almost unbelievable challenges and have found ways to use their innate gifts and talents no matter their surroundings and the setbacks or enemies they have encountered. Sometimes they’ve brought the world great and recognizable achievements. In the slide show accompanying one of my talks I have an image of Nelson Mandela looking out the barred window of his prison cell. I captioned it “How do you cage a mind?”

Many of those who, like Mandela, have managed to overcome the forces ranged against them, have “merely” been able to live fulfilled lives, lives that have benefited themselves and those nearest to them. The whole world might not know their names, but how they have lived has made a difference. Some have become genuine heroes, however unsung.

The change of perspective I’m suggesting requires us to examine our own stories to erase any aura of victimhood in them. We need to find for ourselves a way to trust that the story of an unusual, powerful, extraordinary mind is, in fact, the story of a powerful gift, no matter what the rest of the world has to say about it. It is not a gift to flaunt, but to be truly, deeply grateful for. That is a true story we can tell both ourselves and the kids we live and work with—such a mind has the capacity to rise to whatever challenge it faces. And yes, it is also true that it’s highly likely to require some serious grit and determination!


15 Responses to “Busting the Myth That Matters Most”

  1. Elaine Le Sueur May 19, 2019 at 5:34 pm #

    I love this.

    • Stef May 19, 2019 at 5:57 pm #

      Thanks, Elaine. I carefully followed directions, but the NZ logo keeps coming up on FB, which is what the directions do NOT want, so I’m trying to figure that out and change it. But thanks also to NZ for getting me back to my blog after a long time away!

      • Stef May 19, 2019 at 6:02 pm #


  2. cmd1122 May 20, 2019 at 12:02 am #

    I agree; the mind is truly incredible. While, yes, it would be ideal for educational and other systems to change, this can’t stop us from focusing on accomplishing all that we are capable of. Unstoppable determination is mighty and powerful when unleashed.
    Thanks for this post. It came at an ideal time.

    • Stef May 20, 2019 at 9:32 am #

      You’re most welcome. I’m glad the timing worked for you!

  3. Pegi May 20, 2019 at 3:15 pm #

    Well, yes, in general I agree. But there is a big difference between an environment that is not perfect, or not even good, and an environment that is toxic. Especially because the power structure in schools is so unbalanced, sometimes one must remove the child–or the adult, for that matter–from the environment. People who are toxic can injure a mind to the point where the only escape is oblivion.

    • Stef May 20, 2019 at 9:56 pm #

      Hi, Pegi–I’m not suggesting that leaving a child in a toxic environment is appropriate. We do what we can, of course to find something that works better. And we live in a time with many alternatives–homeschooling or online courses, etc. But however challenges are met, the underlying story needs to be one that recognizes the power to recover and find ways to move on. Life can have some VERY tough experiences for all of us, but keeping one’s strengths and possibilities in mind is crucial for meeting them, recovering, and healing.

      • Melissa May 21, 2019 at 5:00 am #

        Yes, a bitter pill to swallow. But I agree. I’ve had to move my youngest son due to toxic environment, teachers bullying him, etc. I agonized over where to send him. He has settled now and is much happier. But I agree, there is no value letting him label himself a victim. I don’t want that for him. This helps me reflect on how I can help him change the inner and outer dialogue we/he has about the past. Also in respect to the future, because no school is perfect. Just like no job is perfect.

      • Stef May 21, 2019 at 12:25 pm #

        Melissa, thanks for sharing your experience. No school, no job, no LIFE is perfect, unless we choose very carefully how to define the word. Sometimes even the most difficult experiences can turn out later, in hind sight, to have been in their own way “perfect,” as in providing something that could not have come any other way.

  4. Petra Bunnik May 21, 2019 at 9:56 am #

    Would you mind if I translate this to Dutch and publish it (with the proper reference of course), for a lot of people in the Netherlands are unwilling to read English and I think they should really read this. Thanks in advance for your response. Kind regards Petra Bunnik

    • Stef May 21, 2019 at 12:21 pm #

      Hi, Petra. Feel free to translate and share! Since I am a person who speaks only one language (and can sometimes read a little French from my high school and college not-good classes) I am VERY happy to have my work translated for anyone who isn’t comfortable with English!

      • Petra Bunnik May 23, 2019 at 4:12 am #

        Thank you so much! I will post the link here once I’ve translated it. ❤

  5. Dr. Dad May 24, 2019 at 1:42 pm #

    I appreciate your observation here:
    “… the single most harmful story we may tell is that for a gifted child to “succeed” in life, to live up to, develop, and fulfill his or her potential, the environment around that child has to change….There were both successes and setbacks along the way, but they didn’t change my quest, until my son took over the direction of his life, and set off on his own.”

    If I understand it properly, or if I may change its meaning to meet my own needs of the moment, it’s not that we shouldn’t try to give our children the most appropriate educational circumstances we can manage; of course we should! In the end, however, nothing we as parents do can really be enough: the children have to take care of themselves. And sometimes in trying too hard to help we just get in the way.

    I’ve been puzzling lately over how, despite living through a disordered childhood with ample adversity, I managed to direct myself on an ambitious course early on; whereas my son has had a stable and safe childhood, but has not taken advantage of opportunities as I thought he would, and has instead displayed all the signs of suffering even more than I did during adolescence.

    Perhaps it’s a myth that his needs could ever completely be met. By anyone other than himself, that is.

    I think that my biggest joy lately has been seeing what he did when I told him no, rather than yes. He asked me to buy him a trumpet, and I told him no: he has enough instruments. He asked repeatedly over months, and I told him no for months. So he borrowed a saxophone, learned how to play it, and busked until he made enough money to buy a trumpet. Now he’s teaching himself to play the trumpet too.

    I feel like I should not betray to him how pleased I am with that display of gumption. That, more than any fine-tuning of his educational environment I could accomplish, sets him walking on a road.

    • Stef May 25, 2019 at 3:20 pm #

      “And sometimes in trying too hard to help we just get in the way.”

      Dr. Dad, I think that does in fact happen when we try too hard to make the road ready for the kid rather than the kid ready for the road. In an article I wrote called “The Problem of Pain,” http://www.stephanietolan.com/problem_of_pain.htm I provide a “handy tool kit” for coping with pain, but also suggest not only that we can’t totally protect our children from encountering it, but that if we could do so, we would also end up protecting them from finding their own ways of coping. Pain is inevitable in human life, and it isn’t necessarily doing them a favor to give them the message that they can and should be shielded from anything that might bring it to them. OTOH, it is about the hardest part of parenthood to see your child hurting.

  6. Author_Joanne_Reed September 1, 2019 at 10:32 pm #

    My new Hobby is “Myth Busting”! I wrote an article a couple of days ago titled “Charlie Chaplin Self Love Poem and The Subtle Art of Myth-Busting”. I also wrote about the “Carrot Myth” a few weeks ago Information and Disinformation – How Carrots helped win world war II. Check it out! http://www.authorjoannereed.net

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