It was not easy to write this or post it. I hope you’ll remember that when leaving comments and try not to make me feel completely like an asshole.
Here’s the question I keep seeing about James Holmes, the Aurora shooter: How could a young man with such clear intellectual promise turn so wrong? It’s a legitimate question with many possible answers, most likely including mental illness.
Here’s the thing you may not realize: Holmes is the worst nightmare for parents of gifted kids. Like Ted Kaczynski before him, he’s likely (although I can’t say for sure) a highly gifted person gone horribly awry. Parents of gifted kids spend a shitload of time worrying their kids are going to end up like that.
Now, I know we’re not supposed to talk about gifted children because we’re a country where everyone is above average and it’s downright un-American to even hint that maybe kids have different levels of cognitive strength. If you mention your kid is gifted, it’s bragging, shameless bragging, right? Shut up about it because no one wants to hear about your kid being gifted.
For years I’ve been very careful what I’ve said. I’ve tried to keep my sons’ intellectual ability as quiet as possible, both here in my writing and in real life. We worried so much about the boys learning they were “gifted” that we erred in the other direction. But, I think the time has come to say something here.
There are a hell of a lot of challenges in having kids with far-above-average IQs, and I’m not just talking about the fact that Zachary is long out of books that engage him intellectually but are emotionally appropriate for him.
If you have a kid who is behind in math, the school jumps through hoops to help him with appropriate work. If you have a kindergartener who is doing division and reading on a god-knows-what-grade level and has an advanced understanding of scientific concepts that his mother doesn’t quite get, the school says, “We have a lot of kids to serve here” and “He’s doing fine cognitively.” So your kid is bored. And a behavior problem. And at risk for becoming an underachiever.
There’s something called “asynchronous development.” Parents of gifted kids are pretty damned familiar with this because our kids often lack the kinds of social skills that other parents take for granted their children have. So, while we’re struggling to challenge and engage our kids intellectually (because the schools can’t), we’re at the same time trying to teach rudimentary social ability that might come naturally to other children.
Still sound like I’m bragging? Did you know gifted kids are at much higher risk for existential depression? Anxiety? Driving their poor parents fucking insane? Trust me – I’d gladly trade 20 IQ points for a kid who is happy and feels like he fits in with his peers. Gladly.
I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about James Holmes’s parents. Again, I know nothing about them or their kid, but given that it seems he is a very intellectually gifted person, I’ve been wondering. Did his parents struggle to get the schools to meet his needs? Because, make no mistake, those are needs the gifted children have. They need to be stimulated. They need to feel at home with real peers who use the same kind of vocabulary and think in the same kinds of ways. They need to be taught in a different way. They need to be taught social-emotional skills.
Did James Holmes’s parents worry that they weren’t up to the task of teaching humanity to a boy who lived so much in his head? Did they worry that he was so much brain and not enough heart? Did they wake up at night and wonder whether he could ever find a place of peace and happiness? Did they sometimes cry in the afternoon after seeing the other kids going home on playdates?
It’s really hard to raise a kid like that. There’s no road map, and since you can’t talk about it, you can’t sit around with your girlfriends getting advice on the matter.
Gifted education in this country is a joke at this point. In New Jersey, we had one hour a week. ONE HOUR A WEEK. And the work they were doing wasn’t even particularly challenging. It was, frankly, the kind of work all the kids should have been getting. Here in Massachusetts, although there’s no formal gifted program, things are better because the curriculum is more progressive and the school is excellent. But the American public schools aren’t set up to serve kids like this because we’ve got a system where passing the tests is what matters and when kids can pass the test two years before they even get into the grade, there’s not much the schools can do. They’re given extra worksheets or told to help teach the other kids.
These children have amazing potential. They can do all sorts of remarkable things with their brains as they grow up. It’s up to us as a society to decide what sorts of remarkable things we want them doing.