The challenge of raising gifted girls


Dear Adele,

We have three children so are not inexperienced parents. However, our third child seems to be out of step with the norms for development. She is only four years old and can name all the elements in The Periodic Table, can point to and name correctly dozens of countries on a world map and can write sentences and paragraphs correctly on the computer for children’s stories she likes to create. We suspect she will be identified as a gifted child when she starts school. We have heard gifted children have special needs and wondered what ideas you have for us to ensure that we, as her parents, meet those needs.

Out of Our League


Dear Out of Our League,

Thank you for identifying a topic that affects about 2 per cent of our population. Raising gifted children is indeed a challenge. What you may not know is raising a gifted girl has a whole set of special issues of which you may be unaware. I will focus my column today on the problems in raising gifted girls.

A National Association for Gifted Children article (2017), by Lauren Broome, entitled “Nurturing gifted girls self-concept and academics at home” states that gifted girls often do not realize their potential and may live average or unfulfilled lives. Societal pressures may force them to choose between an identity of being smart or an identity that allows them to fit in.

Sally Reiss, past president of the National Association of Gifted Children wrote an article (2019) entitled “Issues faced by gifted girls in elementary and secondary school.” The author says that gifted girls may face dilemmas about their abilities and talents and often have trouble with their self-perception. Parents, teachers, and our society, regularly send gifted girls subtle, or not so subtle, messages that discourage them from developing their talents and abilities for life.

Surprisingly, much research referred to by Sally Reiss, shows that teachers often underestimate the intelligence of girls, and report liking gifted girls less than other students. They often rate boys as more competent in critical and logical thinking skills and creative problem-solving skills. Educators regularly rate gifted girls as more emotional, higher strung, more gullible, less imaginative, less curious, and less individualistic than males. Research has found that teachers tend to believe and reinforce common stereotypes that males have more innate ability and that females must work harder to get the same result. This is especially true when discussing the subject of mathematics. Finally, teachers often expect less from females than they do from males in the area of mathematics and science.

Sally Reiss goes on to discuss the internal and external barriers for gifted girls reaching their potential which include personality factors, priorities and decisions. For example, gifted girls may not even be aware of their talents and abilities because they are not supported in their family, in their schools or in their peer group. Girls often have to make a choice about family or their duty to be caring for others. Religion and social norms sometimes discourage gifted girls from pursuing certain areas of talent and support the girls actually hiding their abilities. Females are often encouraged to be polite and to attribute their success to luck or hard work rather than talent. Sometimes, women choose poor partners that do not encourage them to reach their potential. As well, often messages in their homes growing up are confusing.

Joan Smutney, of the Davidson Institute, wrote an interesting article in 1999 entitled “Gifted Girls”. It speaks to the fact that gifted girls are treated differently than gifted boys in society. Gifted boys are encouraged and accepted more everywhere, including in the peer group. Over time, gifted girls may retreat from their talents and interests in school. They may become shy and isolated so that their talents are barely visible. Social pressures may cause gifted girls to shift their priorities. Their desire for friends, their fear of ridicule, their need for acceptance, and their disinclination to stand out, may keep girls from reaching their potential. Societal messages which downplay women and female achievements begin early. Some gifted girls may achieve well but are blind to their own accomplishments. Some perform poorly and attribute that performance to low intelligence rather than lack of encouragement. Some become disinterested in school but excel socially. Some struggle with conflict about serving themselves or serving others in life. Many do not even know they have abilities and keep them secret.

Smutney quotes the Kerr, 1994 study, “A society that wastes female brilliance has made it the norm for gifted women to lead an average life and gifted women have largely adapted to that norm.” I encourage you and your partner to help your daughter have a different experience and outcome.

 A few guidelines to help you with the challenge of raising a gifted girl follow:

1: Work hard at building the self-confidence of your gifted girl. Let her know she can succeed in almost any field regardless of her gender.

2: Encourage your gifted girl to take higher-level academic classes in science, technology and mathematics which she might otherwise avoid. Such academic endeavours allow girls to pursue careers in STEM based, higher-paying jobs.

3: Try to find your daughter a mentor. Finding an adult gifted woman with whom your daughter can identify will be helpful. She will come to see that she can pursue careers and advanced education that matches her ability.

4: Seek out opportunities for your daughter to be involved with peers of similar abilities. Peers can be found in leadership groups, athletics and competitive activities. Congregated classes for gifted children and possibly schools specifically designated for females might be beneficial as well.

5: Bibliotherapy can be helpful. Try to provide your daughter with novels and bibliographies which feature gifted females as the central figure.

6: Become an advocate for gender equity everywhere your daughter is involved, especially in her school.

7: Research ways to counteract the emotional impact of being a gifted girl which include low self-esteem, inaccurate self-concept, fear of risk, desire for acceptance, fear of success, ambivalent feelings about being gifted and the conflicts presented by the culture about achievement by females.

8: Help your daughter to become aware of her gifts. Offer her opportunities to use those gifts. Encourage her to do what she loves with intensity.

You have been blessed Out of Our League, with a beautiful daughter. From your description, it sounds like she may indeed be a gifted human being. I wish you the best in rising to the challenge of helping her reach her potential, capable of making a unique contribution to the universe.

 I conclude with three quotes about gifted girls:

“A wise girl knows her limits. A smart girl knows that she has none!” — Marilyn Munro

“Teach your daughters to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings.” — Unknown

“Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God”. — Leo Buscaglia

Sincerely, Adele

Photo: Eye for Ebony Unsplash