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Gifted vs. Gifts

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Jennifer Ginsberg: There is nothing more boring than hearing some parent talk about how "gifted" their child is. It is no longer good enough for your kid to be sweet and kind; he now must be off-the-charts smart as well.

mom and daughter studying

I, for one, am much more concerned about raising children who are empathic rather than smart. Look at Nazi Germany -- one of the most academically gifted and intelligent cultures in history, yet arguably the most morally evil.

When I worked as a psychotherapist at a Jewish treatment center for alcoholics and addicts, I heard common themes from the residents, who often felt that their parent's expectation of success was so pronounced, they simply couldn't live up to it. When a child doesn't feel good enough, a cognitive dissonance develops. On the one hand, a child intuitively knows what he enjoys doing, but when this is devalued by the most powerful people in his world, he comes to believe that he is defective. This disconnect can set the stage for addictions to flourish.

This phenomena is markedly pronounced in the Jewish culture, where material success and academic achievements are highly valued. I remember one patient telling me how angry his parents were when he told them he didn't want to go to college: "I hated school. Yes -- my dad was a doctor and my older brother was a doctor. But I always loved building things, even as a little boy. When I told my parents I wanted to be a construction worker, they laughed at me. I was never good enough."

I asked my rabbi what his thoughts were about this. "The question isn't whether your child is gifted," he said. "The question is: do you see your child's gifts?"

I love this. Am I able to see and value my own children's gifts, or am I covertly trying to mold them into an image of myself (or who I wish I was)? How many parents project their own feelings of disappointment over what they didn't accomplish in an effort to give their kids what they never had? Am I able to appreciate Haley's introspective qualities, rather than criticize her for not being more expressive and "bubbly" like me? Can I help Shane find ways to appropriately channel his tenacity instead of simply telling him to stop being so demanding?

Most importantly, am I able to reframe my expectations of my children and stop judging them based on some bulls*** standard that they may or may not want to live up to? Can I see them as truly successful if they are able to contribute to the world in a positive way, without harming themselves or others?

next: Tori Spelling Deals with Temper Tantrums, Too!
6 comments so far | Post a comment now
ariana June 23, 2009, 10:01 AM

Great article….I wish more parents could stop trying to “one-up” one another and just let their kids be kids.Thanks!

messymom June 23, 2009, 11:26 AM

I am so over hearing about how gifted everyones kids are! I love when a mom says my child has this strength and this is and this other area is something my child is developing more slowly

Michelle June 23, 2009, 4:04 PM

I’m Jewish and I have to call BS on this smug little piece. You cite absolutely no evidence for your anecdotal claims; in fact, it’s not even clear what argument you’re trying to make. What “phenomena (sic) is markedly pronounced in Jewish culture”? Is it that Jewish children are made to believe that they are defective if they don’t perform? That this makes them susceptible to addiction? Wrong and wrong.

What Jewish culture emphasizes is learning and critical thinking. These are core values, and not the same thing as expecting your kids to follow a certain career path. There is a big difference between (1) pushing your child to use his/her mind and challenge himself/herself to do his/her best (in whatever endeavors he/she is most captivated by) and (2) making your kid become a doctor.

The people you counseled likely had underlying issues that contributed to their low self-esteem and alcoholism, and there is some research showing that these issues can be as much genetic as they are the result of bad parenting. Overall, Jews have lower rates of alcoholism than the general population.

By the way, I also roll my eyes at your implication that empathy and intelligence are mutually exclusive — that encouraging intellectual achievement is a zero-sum game. This just happens to be one of the central canards of know-nothing anti-intellectuals. True intellectual curiosity must of necessity also be deeply humanistic — too bad you didn’t ask your rabbi about THAT.

katharine June 24, 2009, 9:47 AM

wow, michelle. sounds like someone is VERY invested in holding on to the illusion that her child is gifted. get a grip.

The Voice of Reason June 24, 2009, 9:52 AM

I agree with Michelle.

Also coming from my own family experience and experience with other Jews, I learned you can’t make Jewish parents happy no matter what. There will always be something to complain about and some complaining. Even if you win the Nobel prize, they’ll complain why you didn’t save the world. I learned to tune people out and do whatever I want because it matters how you(or in your article’s case)if the child is happy and the child needs to learn how to not rely on support all the time and do things for the sake of themselves and not gaining praise from others. I find it’s what people say you can’t do is most motivational.

Ten Tees January 9, 2011, 10:58 AM

Interesting information! Good to read. I have got a point to submit about shirts.

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