I should have seen it earlier. My son Steven gave me the clues, but I didn’t recognize them. When he was 18 months old, he preferred conversations with adults. At two, he wanted to leave the park when too many children were there. In preschool, he was miserable unless he was one-on-one with a favorite friend or teacher. By first grade he was telling us that he had no friends, although he played with kids at school, in chess club, and on the soccer field. Although I hold degrees in early childhood education with an emphasis in gifted education, I wasn’t in the habit of analyzing my own child’s idiosyncrasies.
Adults found Steven charming and marveled about his intelligence. He was kind, considerate, and polite. Children liked him, yet they had a hard time socializing with him. The more he tried to engage other children, the more they shied away, because they couldn’t relate to him. Really, how could another five-year-old get into a detailed debate about whether Tyrannosaurus rex was a predator or a scavenger? He was slowly becoming an outcast.
As Steven became academically frustrated, his behavior went from bad to worse.
Steven’s teachers focused on his lack of social skills at the expense of fostering his intelligence. In Arizona, students must be five by September 1 to enter kindergarten. Steven’s birthday falls in mid-August, making him young for his class. I knew that his lack of social skills was an issue, but I couldn’t see holding him out of kindergarten when he was already starting to read and figuring out basic multiplication skills. After agonizing, I enrolled him. On the third day of class, I went in, cupcakes in hand, to help celebrate his fifth birthday. I was met with shocked faces from teacher, students, and administrators. “He’s only five? How come you enrolled him? No wonder he has social issues!” From that moment on, the school pushed me to move him back. I reluctantly agreed.
Academically, pre-K wasn’t a good fit. When asked to use manipulative cubes to represent numbers, his questions flew: “How can you show 17 using cubes? Did you know the biggest number is infinity plus 1? And the smallest is negative infinity minus 1?” As Steven became academically frustrated, his behavior went from bad to worse. Some days I would drop him off, only to return within an hour to remove him. He was yelling, fighting, throwing chairs, and trying to run away.
Three months later we took Steven out of the classroom and began homeschooling. We even visited a psychologist to make sure that our issues weren’t deeper than we thought. Homeschooling was great for Steven’s intellectual growth, but it limited the growth of the skill he needed most: how to get along with other kids.
Come summer, I enrolled Steven in a summer camp program and noticed that the problems he had experienced in school diminished. I wondered why he could do well in this situation and not in others. After careful observation, I realized that a shared interest with other students in the content presented at the camp was the reason for the change in his behavior. At space camp, everyone in his group had the same passion about the heavens, and the students had common interests, goals, and beliefs regarding the value and fun of learning.
From Steven’s journey I discovered some tips for helping socialize gifted children:
- Keep an open dialogue with your child about friendship issues. A gifted child’s heightened sense of justice and organization can create friendship conflicts. Parents must be available to help their children sort through these issues as they arise.
- Realize that a child’s social-growth stage may be asynchronous with his or her intellectual level, and treat them separately. Likewise, your child may need one group of friends for physical activities, another for intellectual outlets.
- Understand that your child may grasp the nuances that distinguish casual acquaintances from true friendships. Your child may be happy with having many acquaintances and only one or two close friends.
- Consider clubs, sport groups, and special-interest groups as springboards for your child to form deeper friendships.
- If serious problems arise, consult a child psychologist about the possibility of social-training groups.
Steven is now a happy grade schooler. He has academic peers in his classroom. His chess club allows children to play against kids at the same skill level. He plays soccer with age mates but has fencing bouts with older kids. He meets artistic peers in art club and scientific peers in space camp. One of his best friends is physically ahead of him but academically behind him. Steven happily drifts among these groups of peers, certain that all of these people have something to offer.
Ivy Jo is an early childhood music teacher, school volunteer, and children’s author.