The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Friday, July 01, 2011

The gifted disclosure dilemma.

Often, being gifted feels like a secret. More pointedly, being the parent of a gifted child feels like a rather complicated secret, with many layers of burden.

The big issue for parents of gifted children, is whether to disclose their child’s giftedness to those they encounter socially. You see, the reactions to such knowledge can range widely, from interest, and approval, to shock, envy and open dislike. Often, one cannot judge the reaction, before the news is imparted – so there is ever a dilemma: “Should I tell, or not?”

I generally don’t discuss our lives much, directly, with those who are not close to us. I am typically a little reserved – a listener, more than a talker (though I can talk quite abundantly if I so wish!); a watcher, more than an interlocutor. Again, of course, this can be misunderstood as aloofness, rather than introversion. It seems that everything about the gifted and being gifted, carries its own penalty, if one is not careful to communicate one’s essence, effectively: misunderstanding awaits at every step.

So, being rather quiet, in my own life, I am left to wonder just how quiet I should be on the part of my children, in a social context. Today, for instance, I brought Ainan to a new social group of homeschoolers. The people were very nice. They had a relaxed quality that comes to youngsters brought up at home with their parents, rather than in the conformist, often stressful surroundings of a school. However, there was one question that I didn’t know how to handle, very well.

“What is Ainan studying?”, asked a curious Australian lady, with an encouraging smile.

I wasn’t encouraged, I was a little hesitant.

Should I tell the truth or not? If I did, she might react disappointingly – if I didn’t, I was storing up trouble for later, when she eventually found out.

My words tripped a little on my tongue. “Well… he is at a University, now.”

What?”, she asked, in a very strange way: she seemed both shocked, and sure she had misheard.

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know whether it was wise to repeat what I had just said.

My silence seemed to answer her.

“Oh.”, she said, as if that said a lot. “I see.”

Again, I didn’t answer her, not knowing how.

It was time for her to pause. I let the silence linger for a while between us.

“Is he the one I read about on the homeschooling website?”, she pursued, more gently now, calmer, perhaps over her shock.

“Yes.”, I said, aloud, “Probably”, I said, to myself, not knowing for sure which article she was referring to.

Then she became very curious and motivated. Something seemed to come alive in her.

“Do you have other children?”, she asked, looking thoughtfully at her own three sons.

“Yes. I have three sons.”

She lowered her voice. “One of my sons, even homeschooling, is obviously more gifted than the others – but I don’t want to focus on just one: how do you cope with that?”

“Give each son what they need. Their needs will usually be different.”

She nodded at that, as if seeing differences in her own children.

“Never compare them. Never say: “Look at your brother, look at what he can do.” If you do that they will hate each other.”

Again she nodded.

“A lot of parents do compare. They think it will goad the others on. It won’t. It is very destructive.”

“I make sure they do different things.”, she revealed.

“It doesn’t have to be different – though it usually is. You just have to make sure you never compare.”

There were other questions, all delivered with the same intensity.

I needed a drink, so I said so.

“Of course, I have more to ask, but I don’t want to keep you.”

Her parting gaze seemed very meaningful and evaluatory. There was much thought in her unvoiced, perhaps many questions unasked and unanswered.

I recognized that look. I have seen it many times before. It comes to people who want to find out how and why Ainan became the way he is. (Or at least, her look seemed like that look.)

The answer, of course, is one that they wouldn’t like very much: the largest part of what made Ainan occurred at the moment of conception, when particular genes from the mother joined up with particular genes from the father. It was this natural endowment that gave him all the potentials we have seen unfold, to date. Without his native gifts, I don’t think it would be possible for any child to do as he has. Still, however, that doesn’t prevent people from asking, from trying to find out some hidden “secret” about what made Ainan, Ainan. Of course, I don’t think I can ever really satisfy them, since there is nothing that can be imparted to them, readily, to magically transform their child, in an instant. Though, I often sense that that is what they are looking for.

I rather regretted my openness with the Australian lady. I felt her attitude change from the casually friendly to the intently interested and it made me uncomfortable: I would prefer it, if she had remained casually friendly. Perhaps some of my discomfort comes from my own quietness of person: I prefer to be left in peace. To speak of Ainan’s particular gifts is to invite a lack of peace into one’s life. Then again, once people know that about him, the way they see him is likely to change. Perhaps they will come to expect certain behaviours from him, certain mannerisms, words and deeds. I don’t think it is fair for him to have such expectations. He should be free to be as he is – a child of eleven – even if one particularly blessed in one particular way.

Maybe I will decide on total silence on the issue, in future social meetings. I might decide on secrecy, as the best policy, moving forward. It seems a pity, however, to have to do that – but, at times, I feel that it is not helpful for people to know that about him, at the outset. Perhaps, they should gradually find out over time, by simple acquaintance and observation of their own. Of course, there would not be a need to even be considering secrecy on the issue, if people could just quietly accept him as he is. More often, however, one sees an elevated interest in finding out ever more about him and what made him the way he is. That, I find discomfiting, largely because it is misplaced interest: they are looking in the wrong place, for his essence. With Ainan, nature is stronger than nurture. That is clear looking back to the beginnings of his life. He was always unusual, right from the very first glance, out of the womb. That is something people consistently fail to understand. I wish they understood that. Then they could go about befriending him, rather than being interested in decoding him.

Up until now, I have been honest and open with people when they ask about what my son is studying and other matters of academic development. However, today’s experience has made me pause to re-evaluate my stance: am I doing the right thing? Should I just give noncommittal, empty replies, that evade the issue? Should I learn to obscure, rather than reveal? Do I risk isolating Ainan by being open about him? Would it be better to be cloaked?

Even these questions are uncomfortable for me, because I am not one to dissemble. Though reserved, I am open when I speak. Yet, witnessing the reactions of people to news of Ainan’s nature does make me think that perhaps I should learn to be a little obfuscatory on the issue. I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know if it would make me more comfortable. It remains to be seen whether I will adopt that stance in future. I shall continue to observe people’s reactions to him and allow that to inform my decision. In the meantime, perhaps readers who have had similar experiences might like to discuss them, with me, in the comments below. Do you think it is better to keep silent about a child’s giftedness, in new social situations – or to be frank and open about it? Does being open risk isolating the gifted child, further? Is it better for the child to be accepted for what people come to see them as, rather than viewed in a certain way, because of what they learn of them, at the outset?

Your views, thoughts and feelings below, please…

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 9:58 PM 


Blogger Kristianmd said...

It is not hard to imagine the thoughts running through your heard while positioned in this social context. I find the solution to this problem paradoxical, even though it is quite simple. In this case, i think you have to remember to differentiate between not telling the truth and simply not revealing everything. Obviously i can only relate or compare to myself; should i tell people that i’m gifted or should i not. My approach is based on very simple psychological assessment consisting of two parts. Even though i don’t know if this is true, i believe that gifted people, probably some more that others, have the ability to estimate other individuals level of intelligence – at least how far the person if from the average. This should be an indicator of the individuals reaction to such information. An intelligent person would obviously be able to relate to the given facts – and probably be interested in sharing information about being gifted – or in this case having gifted children. There is a high correlation between iq and genes – you wrote about the subject in several previous blogs. Again, i don’t know if this is as i true as i want it to be, but i think there is an undefined social consensus among intelligent people, that differs from the one between intelligent people and people around the average.

The second part is simply based on a personal estimation to the reaction of such information compared to the individuals personality. As in the first part this is of course a lot easier if you’re able to just have a few words with the person you’re talking to, instead of the person just popping the question out of nowhere – but i guess that in this particular context, it is a conversation opener, and probably a good one. If i don’t believe that a person is able to understand and value the fact that i’m gifted, i simply won’t reveal it. It is only making the relationship between the two parts more complicated, for reasons i’m sure you are aware of yourself. Information that the other part of a one on one conversation won’t value or is able to comprehend is not necessary to reveal.

As written above, i think everyone who is gifted is able to make a fast estimation to whether you should reveal certain information or not – at least in this context. If the other person is intelligent or able to comprehend such information, there’s nothing as delightful than sharing it, given that the two parts will fit in the mentioned social consensus. In opposition to this, there is nothing as uncomfortable to be met with negativity and prejudice.

Therefore i find the solution paradoxical. I differentiate between lying and not revealing everything, as i differentiate between the people i reveal the truth to. Don’t lie, don’t tell everything, tell everyone, but don’t.

This is of course just my opinion. I hope my thoughts helped you. Good luck with the future 'interrogations'.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Mochi said...

I think, that now, I can finally give a proper opinion on these matters. I have completed my first year of high school and I've made several gifted friends in the gifted program. Though the other kids in my other classes see them as a burden. They seem to be split up into two groups, as well: Those who think the gifted program is no harder than the regular program and that they're getting pointless recognition, and those who think the gifted kids are super geniuses who get high grades in everything. From what I gathered, the reality is an in-between of both. Now, knowing this, I question whether I should tell people I'm in the gifted program. I typically don't, and nor do my parents. Most of the time, I find people simply don't react well to it.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

There is wisdom, Kristian, in your suggestion. Perhaps I should gauge the intellect of my interrogator - and react accordingly. I have, until now, taken an honest approach and simply answered questions factually - but it hasn't always had the desired end.

My worry, until now, is that, if I am not open in my answers, that the inevitable later discovery of my omission, might lead to even more social trouble. It is a delicate matter. However, I find your view inviting. I shall give it some thought.


11:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yours, Mochi, is another vote for discretion, over the issue of giftedness. It is a pity that this should be advisable. Would it not be better if people could simply accept some people's giftedness as they do other human differences?

I wish you luck on your education - and hope you get what you need from your gifted classes.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Pam Lim said...

I tell people that you need to have 5 children in order for them to excel. They learn from each other. No one dares challenge that or try that. If I'm lucky, we laugh about it and then move on to other topics.

But you are right. The repercussions is always the same. They either choose to think you hot house the kid like crazy or try to find out what method you used so that they can achieve the same. I tell them the exact method and give them all the resources.

I agree it is better to just keep quiet and talk about other people's kids. Or talk about the food the kid loves.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Pam,

It is funny you say that you need five kids, to excel. I came from five kids. Now, I wonder...

What makes you pick the number 5?

Yes. There is the "hothousing assumption". They think that because they believe that is the only way it could ever be achieved. None of my children have ever been in a hothouse. I imagine it requires quite a bit of energy to put one there, too.

Good luck on raising your kids - and coping with the curiosity.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Lim said...

Why 5? Because I cannot have anymore! But I would have opted for 6 if I had the energy, but it already so tough raising 5 with different needs.

3 is not easy as well, and I can imagine what you are going through. To some extent, I admire you, but I know it is not easy, and so lack of understanding. I really hope you'll look back all these years and say it is all worth the while, fighting, working and slogging with love.


10:49 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Wow, have got serious demands on your energies: five of them. I know how that is: I came from five, too.

Thank you for your kind words. I do what I can. Nowadays most families are quite small, so perhaps three seems like a largish family to some (well, five, if parents are included, of course).

I enjoy being a father and could not imagine being otherwise. So whatever the demand, I have no complaint.

Best wishes to you on raising your own brood.

3:02 PM  

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