It's not easy being a child genius

How do parents cope with intellectually brilliant offspring? Sarah Edghill hears the experiences of three such families
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Most parents like to think their child is rather special, that first steps taken early could be a sign of future athletic stardom, or that a child who grasps the alphabet with exceptional ease might go on to write Booker Prize-winning novels.

But living with a gifted child is not always easy. Families who spawn a genius - composing symphonies at 10, and ready for university by 12 - find they come up against disbelief, outrage, envy and a complete lack of understanding.

Fellow parents don't like it when your child develops faster than theirs; children don't like it when another's intelligence makes them seem stupid and slow; and most local education authorities don't cater for pupils who are years ahead of themselves academically.

Dr Peter Congdon, an educational psychologist who runs the Gifted Children's Information Centre in Solihull, sees hundreds of concerned families a year. "They often come to me as a last resort. Having an incredibly bright child is causing them problems at home and at school, but no one seems able to tell them how to cope," he says. "Parents feel isolated, inadequate and overwhelmed by their own child."

Part of the problem is behavioural. Gifted children are often hyperactive, demanding and awkward. As newborn babies they may require little sleep, and as they get older and find their mental abilities far outweigh their social skills, they may rebel against parental control.

At school they might have to work beneath their abilities, and boredom can manifest itself as aggression towards teachers and other children. There may also be severe social isolation - a child who is inordinately intelligent may have nothing in common with fellow pupils, and inspire jealousy and dislike rather than respect.

Although her son Jeremy is now seven, Di Roberts can only remember two occasions when other children have come back to play after school. "The other children think of him as a kind of boffin, and I think they're a bit frightened of him," she explains. "He's way ahead of them in all subjects and uses a very adult vocabulary. He's not the sort to kick a ball around in the playground, and he doesn't get invited to other childrens' birthday parties."

Some parents would find this heart-breaking, but Mrs Roberts and her husband, Ellard, have come to terms with the fact that their extraordinarily bright son's requirements are different from their own. "He doesn't seem to need other people like we would," says Mrs Roberts, who works as an art teacher. "He gets on well with his sister Laura, who's nine, and she is his best friend. Laura hasn't got his brains, but she is a happy, sweet little girl, and there's no envy between them.

"Sometimes she tells him not to use such big words, because she doesn't understand what he's saying. But she doesn't resent his intelligence, she just feels sorry for him because she has so many friends and he doesn't. She can tend to get overshadowed because he is so far advanced, but we try to emphasise their different interests."

Parents also have to play the role of mentor, and even those who describe themselves as being of average intelligence have problems dealing with the constant questions and mental meanderings of a gifted child.

"I pick Jeremy up from school and it's like turning on a tap," says Mrs Roberts. "The questions start and don't stop until he goes to sleep - sometimes not even then. He's a light sleeper and will wake in the night thinking, and want to ask you something there and then. Jeremy and I have discussed life, the universe and everything at 3am. It's very draining, and as he gets older the need for constant stimulation gets ever greater."

Many parents experience problems with the educational establishment, because few local education authorities have specific policies for dealing with gifted children. The Roberts were only able to get a very demanding and advanced Jeremy into school one term early, and now they are convinced that he is stagnating there because he finds the work unchallenging. "They won't put him up a year because they say he won't mix," says Mrs Roberts. "But he doesn't mix now, so there would be no difference."

Steve and Karen Barton have also fought long battles with schools and educational authorities in Swindon. Their daughter Yolanda, 11, was reading while in nappies, and by the time she started school she was on teenage books.

"But then other parents told us that their children were being told to help Yolanda in class," Mrs Barton recalls. "When we challenged the teacher she told us that our daughter was educationally subnormal, had a limited vocabulary, couldn't read or write, and needed special help. She was bored with what they were telling her to do, because it was too easy, and the teachers had totally misread her."

Mrs Barton took Yolanda to be assessed by Dr Congdon at the Gifted Children's Information Centre. "She went off the scale in his tests, but when I took the results back to the school, they said he must be mistaken and told me I was being a pushy mother."

"We couldn't afford to send her to a private school, so she stayed there for two more years and was desperately unhappy. She was writing stories pages long at home, but in school she was being made to trace letters in inch-high letters."

Eventually, Mrs Barton, an education officer for Wiltshire Young Artists, took Yolanda out of school and taught her at home until she was nine when, on her own initiative, she contacted a private school, sat the entrance exam and got a double scholarship. "She is now blissfully happy," says Karen. "She is in a class two years ahead of herself, so although she still gets top marks, she isn't outstandingly different any more. That has enabled her to be a normal little girl."

Although both families are proud of their offspring, they admit that having a gifted child can be socially isolating. "We've always felt that if we tell people about Jeremy and what he can do, it's like showing off," says Mrs Roberts. "Parents can be very competitive and don't like to feel your child is doing better than theirs."

Like many gifted children, Yolanda herself has suffered, simply because she is different. "She always knew she was brighter than other children her age, but although she wasn't pompous, she was honest about it," says Mrs Barton. "She didn't see the point in pretending she was stupid for the sake of it, but that made her unpopular. At her first school she got horrendously bullied and came home with ripped clothes and bruises."

Stories like this persuade some parents that there is nothing to be gained by making an issue out of their child's intellect. Caroline Woods is 10, and her parents always suspected she was gifted. "She was much more active than her older brothers, and as a baby she never slept for more than 30 minutes at a time," says her mother. "She started stringing together sentences when she was a year old, and by two she was reading and writing. Just after her fourth birthday she won first prize in a local storywriting competition - for the under-nines."

The Woods have never had Caroline's intelligence assessed, and they sent her to the same local primary school as her older brothers. "We just wanted her to be normal," says Mrs Wood. "You read about children like Ruth Lawrence who achieve so much at such a young age. But although they are fantastically bright and get top marks in every exam, they don't seem happy. They don't have friends their own age or do the things children should be doing. We didn't want Caroline to miss out on all that."

The Woods admit that it hasn't been easy coping with Caroline. "We haven't ignored her abilities, we've just not made a big deal of them," says Mrs Wood. "She is leaps and bounds ahead of her brothers, who are 11 and 13, but if they have worked hard and pass a test with 60 per cent, we show them that we're just as proud of them as we are of Caroline, who might have passed with 98 per cent."

The Woods don't believe in private education, but admit that the state system can't always cater for children like Caroline. "The teachers just don't have time," says her mother. "Her teacher is great and encourages her to do more than the other children, but we still spend a lot of time with her at home, answering endless questions, setting her tasks on the computer. It's hard work, but worth it because she's just a happy, normal little girl."

Yolanda and Jeremy's parents know their children have suffered because of their abilities but hope that problems encountered in their early years won't hold them back in the long term. Yolanda wants to use her creativity. "I think I'll write books and be an artist when I'm older," she says.

At seven, Jeremy is already quite certain about his future. "When I grow up I want to be a lift operator, because I like technical things and can pick them up quickly. But I also want to be a homeopathic doctor, because I like helping people."

Gifted Children's Information Centre, Hampton Grange, 21 Hampton Lane, Solihull B91 2QJ. Tel: 0121-705 4547. The National Association for Gifted Children, Park Campus, Boughton Green Road, Northampton. 01604 792300.