Confessions of a Former "Gifted" Kid

Growing up, I was a “gifted” student. I always did best in my classes, I read at a college reading level by sixth grade, and teachers regularly had no idea what to do with me. Everyone called me “smart,” and no one cared to delve deeper into why I did well when my peers sometimes struggled. After years of this, my so-called “intelligence” became a huge part of my identity. I was a smart kid, and therefore better than other students. Then, when I started high school and found subjects in which I wasn’t immediately perfect, I crashed and burned, and I had to drop out.  It wasn’t until college that I realized how common these experiences are among people my age.


The idea that some students are “gifted” is inherently flawed; the differences are not in ability, but in presentation. There are some students who seem to be geniuses at a young age, and perhaps they will go far, but neither they nor their education are inherently more valuable than that of students who “fall behind the curve.” The real difference lies in expectations of parents and how the children are treated and brought up.  Parents, particularly white, affluent parents, want to feel special. However, in the long run, their journey of setting their children apart as "smarter" than their peers is damaging, more than it is anything else.  If you have a child that’s doing better than their peers in school, don’t worry about finding the best class or the best school; worry about keeping them happy and making them feel supported and loved, as that will do more for their happiness and health as human beings than the most expensive tutors or the “best” colleges. “Success,” especially in the capitalist meaning, isn’t the metric by which we should measure someone’s value, especially that of a young person.

First off, intelligence can’t be measured in any simple ways. I was better at reading than my peers, but that could be just as easily attributed to my parents encouraging me to read, as it can be to any innate ability I have. This is the case for everything, even physical things. Is that musician really talented, or did they have rich parents who could afford to pay for constant music lessons? Are men truly innately better at sports involving strength and endurance, or do our biases just discourage women from pursuing those sports from a young age? We already know that the reason women are underrepresented in STEM is not due to any discrepancies in intelligence or disposition, but instead it’s due to the harassment they face in those fields and the biases we all pass on to children, whether intentionally or not. (more on that here)



Intelligence isn’t one simple value. There’s an infinite variety, from memorization skills to knowing how people around are feeling to the ability to know when the caramel you’re melting is going to burn (I’m still not convinced that caramel is not purely a game of chance). None are innately better than others, although obviously some knowledge and abilities are better in certain situations.  


The truth is that humans are pattern recognizing creatures. Compared to other animals, we are built with very little instinct, and a great deal of learning capability.  Babies are already learning accents in the womb, and will cry with a noticeably different accent to babies in other countries. This can be recognized even in newborns younger than a day old. This is why I don’t believe in gender roles. My personal belief is that no one comes out of the womb wanting to be more innately nurturing than another child, no matter their sex. Hell, human babies can’t even use their eyes when they’re born, even though their eyes are mostly developed, simply because their brains haven’t developed relevant pathways yet. Do you really expect me to believe that a tendency for a female child to follow traditional socially constructed gender roles is more evolutionarily important for the survival of our species than eyesight?


That aside, my point here is that it doesn’t help anyone to tell children and young adults that they’re smart. Sure, it sounds nice, and it’s easy to say, and most of the time it’s a well-meant compliment, but it builds a backwards understanding of intelligence. I’m not “smart” because I was magically born better than everyone else, I’m “smart” because I was expected to do well in school, taught and expected to learn by parents that had time and motivation to make sure I was doing well in school, and because I worked hard and genuinely wanted to learn, all of which are luxuries not afforded equally to everyone. There are people I grew up around that could have been brain surgeons, but they didn’t have the money for college. I’m graduating in May with a degree in metallurgical engineering, and I dropped out of high school. The reason for this success is partly hard work on my part, but there’s so much more to it than that. The most important factor? Simple, my parents could afford therapy for my depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Without that, I’d never have come near this point.


These chronic mental illnesses play a huge part in my life. Strangely enough, it’s almost as if they’re chronic illnesses that affect me mentally.  The reason they played such a part in my academic career, i.e., forced me to drop out of high school after going from a 4.0 GPA to failing every class over the period of a single semester, is because I was taught a backwards idea of intelligence. Everyone told me I was smart. “Such a smart kid, he’ll go far,” etc.. Problem is, as nice as that sounds, it made me think that my performance in school was due to an innate ability, not my effort. Thus, when I failed, instead of picking myself up and trying again like a healthy person would, I panicked and thought that was the end and I’d never get anywhere because I wasn’t actually smart. I thought I was just bullshitting my way through it all. No one ever complimented me on my hard work at school, they just said “oh you’re smart/gifted/science-oriented” and left it at that. To this day, only people my age and adults like teachers and mentors congratulate me for working and consistently going to class and trying to learn and do well. Those things were expected of me, but they were also not easy, due to the aforementioned mental illnesses. However, recovering from the mental illnesses was easier for me than for other people, because my parents could afford treatment. Academic performance is a mess of privilege, luck, and effort, and every student’s journey is different.


The point is, calling a young person “smart” takes away from all the other factors that got them where they are. They might have worked harder than any of their peers, or they might have just gotten lucky and been born with rich parents who already paid for them to go to Harvard before they were born. (Although, to be fair, those people probably don’t need your compliments or support nearly as much)


Regardless, if you want to compliment someone, I recommend you think about what’s going on in their life, what they’ve struggled with, and what they’re working towards, and congratulate them on their progress and effort. This will be much more appreciated than simply using praises that are sweet, but ultimately empty.


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