'Children suffer' if singled out as gifted

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The Independent Online

Children who are labelled as gifted by their ambitious parents are more likely to grow into unhappy adults than equally bright pupils who are not singled out, a study over 27 years has concluded.

Many gifted children who were fast-tracked through the exam system were not allowed to develop "in a balanced way" and some endured "real suffering" while growing up, Professor Joan Freeman of Middlesex University found.

Parents who identified their children as gifted were often trying to use them to pursue their own dreams, her research concluded, and gifted children often adopted a posture of "defensive boredom" that could "eat into their happiness and achievements" in later life.

When reinterviewed earlier this year, many so-called "gifted" adults, now in their early 30s, said their greatest regret was that their parents had ever labelled them child prodigies. The experience had a lasting impact on their social skills and career choices. Boys tended to choose scientific or computing careers that required little social contact, while gifted girls were more likely than their equally able classmates to give up their careers and devote themselves to their children.

The study, which began in 1974, compared the lives of pupils whose parents joined a society for gifted children with equally talented students whose parents were not members, and with pupils of average ability.

Professor Freeman selected 70 children aged between five and 14 whose parents had joined the National Association for Gifted Children. Each child was matched with two pupils who were in the same class at school and were the same age, sex and came from similar homes. One had the same IQ as the gifted child, while the other was selected at random. The children were re-interviewed in 1984 and again this year.

"Gifted" children were less likely to fit in at school and had fewer friends, Professor Freeman found in the study, being presented today at the British Psychological Society's education conference. They were more likely to suffer from "nervous" problems such as insomnia and poor co-ordination..

But while parents believed their offsprings' problems were due to their talents, Professor Freeman found this was not the case ­ the children with identical IQs had few difficulties fitting in. She found that children labelled as gifted tended to have "unusual family circumstances" and that their parents were more likely to have separated or moved house often.

"The mantle of giftedness laid on these young shoulders was seen to have had repercussions," Professor Freeman said. "Sometimes their parents tried to live vicariously through them, which was a hard act for the child to live up to every day. For any children, emotional problems could follow from such circumstances ... But for them [the gifted], their difficulties were often mistaken for the anticipated 'symptoms' of giftedness."

The idea that the gifted were bound to be "odd" was common among parents. Well-behaved children who simply did well at their lessons were far less likely to be identified asgifted. Boys were twice as likely to be thought of as gifted than girls.

Professor Freeman also found that the parents of gifted children were different from those of other pupils. Although the mothers of each trio had been educated to the same level, far more of the gifted children's mothers had high-level jobs, and yet they remained more dissatisfied with their own achievements. Mothers and fathers of gifted pupils said they put more educational pressure on their children.

Professor Freeman added that today's gifted pupils should not face the same problems as the children of the 1970s because current methods tended to keep them with their peers.

Ruth Lawrence

Ruth Lawrence became the youngest person to graduate from Oxford University when she gained a first-class degree in maths at the age of 13. As a precocious eight-year-old she had become the youngest person to pass O-level maths.

She became a national curiosity when her father, Harry, accompanied her to university. She became a professor by the age of 19.

She married Ariyeh Neimark, a Russian mathematician 29 years her senior, three years ago. The couple have two children, one-year-old Yehuda and two-month-old Sarah.

Last month Ruth, 29, said: "Having a baby cannot possibly be compared with academic results. The arrival of my second child gives me a feeling of total fulfilment for the first time in my life."

Sufiah Yusof

The strain of living up to her parents' expectations drove 15-year-old Sufiah Yusof to run away from Oxford University to try to build a new life away from her domineering father.

Sufiah, now 16, disappeared from St Hilda's College in June last year, the day after finishing her exams. She was missing for 15 days and sent her parents an e-mail saying: "I've finally had enough of 15 years of physical and emotional abuse."

Sufiah won a place to study maths aged 12, but later said she only went to Oxford to get away from her father. She has told of her terrible isolation after being removed from school by her parents and educated at home.

She now lives with foster parents in Devon and hopes to return to Oxford to finish her degree next year.