Many articles have been written by internationally well respected experts about gifted children who ‘hide their light’ in order to be accepted by their peer group. This issue can take place sometime during the school years, and is known as the “forced choice” issue in gifted circles. It describes the nerdy outsider who makes the private and painful choice of abandoning his or her giftedness and intense interests in order to gain friends. Grades at school drop, and the child takes on the interests and behaviours of his or her peer group.
During my time as a gifted consultant I have discovered a seemingly similar problem that occurs much earlier. It involves children who appear to be very bright and pick up things quickly when they are very young, and then lose interest and apparently even ability by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. The stories parents tell me are quite similar. They describe initial excellent memories, curiosity, and interest in a variety of subjects, ability to count to, say, 500, when their peers struggle to recall which number follows 13. I even hear about children who were initially able to work out simple square roots at age 3. These parents come to see me because they are confused: First it appeared that their child was gifted, and now the child refuses to answer any questions about things they previously knew by heart. The child ‘pretends’ to not know something he or she knew well three or six months before, the child is no longer interested in engaging with any teaching and learning at all.
So parents come to find out whether their child is gifted and ‘hiding their light’, or whether it was all an illusion.
There can be several reasons for the sudden change in children, but I will focus on one possible cause I know about intimately and can therefore verify, as I was the mother of this particular child with a similar problem. I was a very (perhaps over-) enthusiastic mum, working as an early childhood teacher, and eager to follow up even the smallest sign of interest in my children. We religiously read stories to the children every night, and gladly read at other times, too, when they requested a particular book.
At the time I was rather smitten by Glen Doman’s Teach Your Baby to Read, so when my son was 11 months old, I made up large flash cards with single words that were familiar to him. Every afternoon I suggested we should read, sat him on my lap, and read up each word on the flash cards. I would then spread them out on the floor and ask him to “read” or point to a particular word. New cards were added as his reading vocabulary grew. We made up a book of all his favourite things labelled with matching words, repeated in a larger version on the flash cards. He would “read” this book with me each day. I was excited about his amazing progress, and often asked him to show his skills to friends and family. At these “show” times, each correct word would be met with enthusiastic clapping and cheering.
Then one day he refused to play along. He did not want to read the words and couldn’t “remember” words he had previously known. Although I was disappointed, I understood that he was tired of this game, and we put away the flash cards and the book for good. Instead we continued to read stories for him, which he loved. We went to the library every week to borrow books, and some of his favourite books were read ad nauseam – thank goodness for older siblings! In despair we recorded his favourite stories and showed him how to replay the tape and when to turn the pages. We took turns recording various characters in the stories, and he enjoyed listening, exclaiming when he heard my voice, “that’s you, mum!”, and with equal amazement each time he heard his own: “That’s me, mum!” He recognised some words in the books, but we never returned to the flash card game.
My son commenced Kindergarten class as a non-reader, but having had a literacy-rich early childhood, he learnt to read effortlessly and fluently in a space of a few months. And when he was tested a few years later, it was confirmed that he was, indeed, gifted.