What is a 'Gifted Child' Anyway- And Can Children Themselves Design or Defy This Term?

Jennifer Crane | 24 October 2019

Modern History | Social History | Medical Humanities

Child Therapy Sessions. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY Https://Wellcomecollection.Org/Works/Bbqbsnj2 

In Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel, Cat’s Eye, a character says of her sisters: ‘Cordelia says they are gifted. This sounds like vaccinated, something that’s done to you and leaves a mark.‘

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, interest surged across Western Europe and North America, from popular culture, policy, psychology, education, and in family homes, around identifying ‘gifted’ children, and nurturing them to achieve various goals; whether improving national economies through science and technology, or spreading liberal democratic values amidst the Cold War. In these decades, ‘gifted’ referred to a very small percentage of children – perhaps 1 to 2% – thought to have exceptionally high intellectual ability, and thus to be important ‘agents of future promise’.

Atwood’s quote encourages us to ask: was ‘giftedness’ imposed from above, ‘something that’s done to you’, or could children themselves co-design or even defy this label? Also, did the idea of being ‘gifted’ affect or ‘leave a mark’ on gifted children as they aged, shaping their life course?

There are sources available through which to think about these questions, because of sustained interest from the media and the voluntary sector in speaking with ‘gifted’ children, understanding their lives, and recording their testimonies. While these archival traces sometimes looked to interpret children’s testimonies within narratives of family discord, national progress, or dissonant precocity, children also used these interactions to fundamentally question how society thought about intelligence.

One example comes from the newsletter of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, an organisation founded at a conference in 1975 attended by over 500 professional delegates from 53 countries. The organisation’s newsletter of March 1987 featured committee and conference announcements and news from members alongside, in ‘Children’s Corner’, a poem from a ‘Grade 10 student’ (15 or 16 year old) from Toronto. The poem, ‘Being Gifted’, questioned what this term meant, and why – or if – it mattered. Responding to the idea that gifted youth were ‘Superior?’, the poem read: ‘Maybe, but maybe only in other’s eyes.’ Responding to the idea that gifted youth were ‘Able?’, again, it stated, ‘Yes to a point’.  Fundamentally, the poem concluded with the sentence: ‘We’re only human.’

These critical themes were echoed in writings by children published by the British National Association for Gifted Children. In these, children discussed how they felt about expectations placed on them, despite feelings of structural powerlessness (one child telling an interviewer in 1978 that they had ‘no power, no money, no influence and little experience’ to contribute to ‘the world’). Children also criticised the education system, describing teachers who did not adapt their classes for different abilities, and peer bullying. Media interviews from the 1970s and 1980s likewise describe children criticising IQ testing as ‘silly tests’.

As ‘gifted’ children have aged, many gave media interviews questioning the benefits of this term further. One famous example is Doron Blake, one of over 200 children conceived through the Repository of Germinal Choice, founded in America in 1971 by a eugenicist, Robert Graham, looking to collect and distribute the sperm of Nobel Prize winners. Doron scored very highly on IQ tests but, when reaching adolescence in the 2000s, told journalists that discussions of giftedness may miss what was truly of ‘value’ in society, and that ‘everybody has things about them that are exceptional’. Other adults who had been identified as ‘gifted children’ told British media outlets in the 1990s and 2000s that determining giftedness was meaningless – merely ‘pot luck’; that there was ‘more to life’; and that it should not necessarily reflect ‘success’.

From the 1980s, research in educational sociology and psychology increasingly challenged the testing used to identify ‘giftedness’. Such research argued that tests were disproportionately identifying white, middle-class boys, because of serious cultural biases ingrained within the most popular intelligence tests, and the samples chosen for norming. These issues, the research found, were perpetuated in practice by biases in who was put forward for testing. Academic research, then, extended and fortified the kinds of critical challenges raised by those labelled as ‘gifted’ themselves.

Overall, while nation states sought to identify and mobilise ‘the gifted’ for future gain, children themselves also provided an early active critique of this category, how it was constructed, and its effects on everyday life.  While it is sometimes difficult to trace children’s testimonies in our archives, they were active agents in constructing daily understandings of welfare and social duty. As Elaine Tyler May has argued, we must understand large-scale transnational political cultures and intimate and emotional family lives as ‘two sides of the same coin’.  Being labelled as ‘gifted’ was not just ‘something that’s done to you’, but also a process which children themselves changed, adapted, and at times rejected.

Jennifer Crane holds a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship in the Medical Humanities at the University of Oxford, exploring the definitions and experiences of ‘gifted’ children from 1945 to 1990.  She is broadly interested in how and when different publics respond to and challenge overarching systems of post-war welfare and democracy, and has published on these issues with regards to child protection policy and the NHS. She would like to thank Grace Huxford for sending me the quote which opens this article!