I often find myself listening to conversations about talent development for gifted children. Now, I actually believe altruistic talent development is a great thing for kids: take their areas of strength and help them grow. What’s not to love, right? As with any altruistic notion, implementation and the need to pay for said altruism often takes away from the vision. What troubles me most is a sense of entitlement society seems to feel toward a child’s brilliance and how this entitlement infects the idea of talent development and twists it. I don’t mean holding high expectations of meeting your potential. I have high expectations for my girls but I don’t have expectations of what meeting their potential looks like or how they will “owe me” for supporting and helping them develop. I mean the notion that society feels ownership toward an individual’s intellectual gifts. For instance, it makes me pretty crazed when people tell my eldest daughter,”Don’t be a philosopher. You are so smart, you should be a doctor and cure cancer.” As her parent, my first thought is,”Have you ever seen her artwork or listened to her music? My goodness, I wish she would quit taking art off the table of viable career paths.” My second thought runs along the lines of,”You don’t own her intellect. Why are you telling her what to do? You don’t even know her well.” This is followed closely with the thought,”She has never been on the path to be a doctor and has shown no interest in medical research. Is she smart enough to pass the courses? Sure. Does she have the passion for medicine? No.” These “well-meaning” adults don’t realize the damaging message they have just given her: “What you want to do is meaningless. You owe us a cure for cancer because you are wicked smart. Any other path is a waste.” Now, if this had only happened once, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. It has happened a countless and depressing number of times. This brings me to my worry about the movement toward talent development with gifted children. If I felt like we wanted to develop talent because supporting and encouraging our children is beneficial for society then I would be the first passenger on the ship. That isn’t what the conversation has been, in the United States. The conversation is,”If we develop the talents of academically gifted children, imagine what they can produce for our society.” It is subtle but the message is,”In return for developing your talent, you owe us.” Our society has also begun to send a second message,”Artists and philosophers are not as important to society as scientists and mathematicians.” I beg to differ. There is balance in all things. The great minds of science and mathematics were often also philosophers and artists. We can’t separate out talents like we are separating the wheat from the chaff because art and philosophy are not chaff. They are wheat just like science and mathematics.
Here is my opinion: We should develop talent because it is the best practice for growing well-rounded children. It is the fertilizer for the seeds. We should be ecstatic for the wheat we receive but not become angry with the seed if it didn’t produce enough wheat or maybe wasn’t the variety we thought we wanted. We enjoy the wheat we have and are grateful. The same holds true for talented children. They don’t owe society their gifts and we should be grateful when they share their great gifts with us in whichever form those gifts take. My daughters don’t owe society another *Sputnik moment. Society owes my daughters the support needed for their growth with no expectation of what that result will be. When support is freely given, people feel more inclined to give back. When support is given with demands, people feel protective of their gifts.
Think about it. Won’t our society be better for creating happy, supported children over creating the next Sputnik moment?
*This post is somewhat in response to Paula Olszewski-Kubilius’ opinion piece in The Hill on May 13, 2012 but it is mostly an aggregate of things I have pondered over the years. The article can be found here: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/education/225289-stop-short-changing-our-most-gifted-children