by Joy Navan, M.A., Ph.D.
Mysteries of Giftedness: A Lifespan Perspective
Perhaps it is a sense of the mystery of life, the mystery of the universe that surrounds us, and the mystery that is within us. It is within these vast unknowns that we try to establish our identities. We strive to carve out a place that is known, a place that we can manage, a place that is safe, a place that allows us to grow our unique Selves."
It is advantageous to define the term elders with regard to the thoughts and perceptions offered in this blog post. I recall words written by former President Jimmy Carter, who published the book, The Virtues of Aging, at the age of seventy-four. He wrote,
So then, when are we old? The correct answer is that each of us is old when we “think” we are -- when we accept an attitude of dormancy, dependence on others, a substantial limitation on our physical and mental activities, and restriction on the number of people with whom we interact." 2
While I agree that the term old may provoke thoughts of dependency, limitations, the loss of some mental acuity, and a narrowing of our participation in the social stream, the term elder, used in conjunction with gifted, has a much different connotation. Elders throughout most of human history and continuing in some current societies, are the wise ones, the spirit guides, and the teachers of the young; those whose existence sustains the present and guarantees the future of a people.
To paraphrase the words of Jimmy Carter, it is incumbent upon our gifted elders to reject the forces that pressure them into dormancy. If they must depend on others at times, they can still strive to preserve their voice through surrender to the feelings of helplessness or powerlessness. When others talk about, rather than to older people in their presence, it is imperative that they interject their voice, diplomatically reminding others that they are cognizant of issues, that they have the ability to participate in decision making, and that they deserve to be addressed directly and respected.
In 1991, the Columbus Group defined giftedness as follows:
Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened
intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different
from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of
the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching
and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.3
Therefore, gifted elders defined are those older, highly intelligent individuals who demonstrate heightened sensitivities and are capable of continued creative productivity.
As a final point, I propose that it is not only in parenting, teaching, and counseling that our understanding of the construct of giftedness is needed. Rather, as we observed throughout our exploration of giftedness in elderhood, the vulnerabilities of gifted individuals continue to threaten our wellbeing throughout the lifetime and require the support and intervention of sensitive and compassionate companions.
Annemarie Roeper, my friend and mentor, sat with me in her living room one evening. Her windows overlooked San Francisco Bay. She pointed to the distance, where we could see above the hubbub of cars and trains below. We gazed on the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and above these, a dark blue night sky. There was where the mystery lies for her–the beyond.
Annemarie often expressed her belief that gifted children of the new millennium are much more in touch with the mystery than previous generations. I concur that many gifted individuals with whom I interacted over the years possess a sense of the mystery–of that which is beyond our conscious awareness. Their intuitive hypersensitivity to phenomena is a trait that allows them to make connections in ways that less perceptive individuals do not achieve. We will explore this strength further, but first we need to appreciate some of the more common characteristics of gifted elders.
Characteristics of Gifted Elders
One of the first traits we notice about a young gifted child is the voracious appetite for learning that the child displays. Often, parents and caregivers observe this rage to know when children become engrossed in learning everything possible about one particular interest or issue (e.g., dinosaurs, the solar system). Gifted adults and elders also possess the love of learning and immerse themselves in preferred subjects. In addition to intellectual characteristics of gifted children, we observe distinct social and emotional facets of their personalities. We see these facets as in our gifted elders. Below are traits of giftedness drawn from a variety of sources and my own experience.
Note: Gifted individuals may possess some or all of these characteristics.
Perhaps one of the most eloquent descriptions of the Self of the gifted adult was penned by P. Susan Jackson.
"Their extraordinary intellect, oceanic emotions, communicative capacities, social appetites, and
reservoir of uncommon talent pulse with the need for right expression, right experience and right
contexts, to be able to live authentically, and with verve." 4
Jackson continued that despite being so richly endowed, many gifted adults lack the self-awareness and explicit knowledge of Self necessary to actualize their potential and reach full development of their creative capacities. My work with gifted elders reveals similar findings with many not becoming aware of their giftedness until late adulthood or even elderhood.
For many elders, along with the characteristics and development of giftedness described thus far, the construct of giftedness may bring moments of transcendence – moments in which we may glimpse or perhaps touch that which lies beyond ordinary awareness when we come to see ourselves as integral parts of the mystery – of the interconnectedness of the universe. In such moments there is a sense of timelessness and an ethereal feeling of entering or being invited into to another reality. We may feel awe or trepidation as we confront the other worldly quality of the moment, especially the first time we encounter it. Afterward, often we feel as if we have received a gift to be honored and treasured.
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life … and the world.
Emotional Giftedness as the Heart of Giftedness
Precisely because of emotional giftedness it is vital that we understand the Self of the individual. It is essential that we hear and acknowledge a gifted person’s emotions. For gifted elders, emotions are just as important and profound as one’s intellect. We cannot separate cognition from the emotional and we must honor the integration of both as vital facets of the Self. Nevertheless, we know from research that the strong emotional components of gifted children and gifted adults often lead educators and mental health providers who do not understand giftedness to misdiagnose them.
Aging gifted individuals are at risk as well of being misdiagnosed with a disorder due to their intensity and heightened emotions. The avid reader who prefers solitude in order to engage in her favorite pastime is labelled antisocial. The elder who requests access to technology because he regularly corresponds with others throughout the world is told to be content with jigsaw puzzles. The introverted aging gifted person is often thrust into a residential living environment where residents are expected to socialize and to participate in group crafts and other activities. To paraphrase an aging friend when she told me that her family was urging her to move into such a facility, “I have authored several books, I continue to be professionally productive. What will I do in such a place? Make potholders?”
Often even those aging gifted with dementia have an awareness of the mis-fit between who they are and where they are placed. A close friend who I have always thought of as highly articulate with a keen sense of humor is currently an Alzheimer’s resident in a horrendous nursing home. When I visit her, she brightens and smiles, filling my heart with her quips. However, behind the smile, in the depth of her eyes, is the awareness of her dismal reality.
Hello Old Friend, You’re Back Again
Our aging elders may never have recognized that many qualities they possess would be identified by the gifted community as characteristics of giftedness. Their keen intellectual ability, their hunger for learning, their heightened sensitivities, their intuitive problem solving, are but a few examples. They may have spent their lives believing that they were flawed because they were so different from the norm. They may be in residential long-term care facilities that offer little or no stimulation or opportunities for enrichment. Consequently, their differences become the more misunderstood and often mislabeled.
Family members may treat the gifted elders as children, discounting their ability to think for themselves and participate in decisions regarding residential care, end-of-life decisions, and matters as simple as deciding what foods are healthy for them. Accordingly, the gifted individual feels disenfranchised in terms of her own abilities to self-regulate and is marginalized from family, friends, and society in general.
I was recently chatting with a friend of mine who is also a former academic colleague. We were talking of the many new projects each of us recently began in our seventies. He is a runner and used a very appropriate metaphor, which might resonate with gifted individuals concerning their continued creative productivity and their feelings regarding a life as yet unfinished. He shared that he felt as if he were just approaching the starting line of life.
My colleague’s words resonated strongly with me not only in terms of my personal need to be continually engaged and self-renewing. They also reverberate in terms of the mystery, of intuitive thinking, and of emotional giftedness. In so many ways, along with gifted elderhood comes the realization that the phenomena of giftedness are never left behind. Rather, they constantly re-present themselves as old friends, back again.
1. Annemarie Roeper, The “I” of the Beholder: A Guided Journey to the Essence of a Child (Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007).
2. Jimmy Carter, The Virtues of Aging (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1998), 11.
3. Columbus Group, 1991, July. Unpublished transcript of the meeting of the Columbus Group. Columbus, OH.
4 P. Susan Jackson. Gifted Adults, standing, like curious children, before the great Mystery into which we were born…paraphrased from Einstein. Accessed May 31, 2017. www.linkedin.com/pulse/gifted-adults-standing-like-curious-children-before-great-jackson. February 4, 2017
5. Sarah Ban Breathnach, The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude (New York: Warner Books, 1996), 2.
The term “gifted unlimited” is intriguing! That two-word combination generates contemplation and inquiry. (Which I’ll wager is what Molly Isaacs-McLeod intended when she selected that particular word pairing for the name of her newly established gifted-related publishing enterprise.)
What comes to mind when you hear “gifted unlimited?”
Here’s what rattles around in my head: Is giftedness really unlimited?
And perhaps more importantly: How can parents and teachers nurture gifted/high-level development?
Parents, teachers, children, and teens can think about these questions—possibly in relation to their own lived experience, or the experience of others such as family members or close friends. In the meantime, here are some jumping off points…
Is giftedness really unlimited?
We can’t foretell who will accomplish great things, or become a world leader, or have innovative ideas that will change the face of our planet or solve society’s ills. And, although a good education and a supportive home are critically important, they alone do not enable us to determine a person’s potential.”
Human development is complex and variable. People cannot predict the depth, extent, or impact of their capacities. The upper limits of anyone’s leaning potential cannot be predetermined or precisely charted. Potential—like the future—is unknown. Moreover, life is full of myriad factors and influences, and any and all of these can affect outcomes, including a person’s experiences, well-being, and levels of success.
Abilities, including talents or “gifts,” have to be nurtured. The old maxim, “Use it or lose it!” has merit. Those who have acquired mastery in a domain (for example, music, architecture, athleticism, astrophysics, jurisprudence, health sciences, etc.), lose their edge if they do not continue to build upon their proficiencies. It’s important to exercise the body and the brain. Neural plasticity refers to the individual variability and dynamic flexibility of brain development—in other words, the brain is always changing—and thus under the right circumstances exceptional abilities can develop.
I’ve written elsewhere that giftedness can be defined as “exceptionally advanced subject-specific ability at a particular point in time, such that a student’s learning needs cannot be well met without significant adaptations to the curriculum or without other learning experiences.” (Being Smart about Gifted Education, p. 28). That said, there are many definitions, and also conflicting understandings, about what giftedness is and isn’t. (Note the reference below to material by Scott Barry Kaufman.)
Nevertheless, and regardless of whether a person has been formally identified as “gifted” or not, it makes good sense—at any age—to take steps forward in order to continue to advance, push limits, and go to the next level. And beyond…
How can parents and teachers nurture gifted/high-level development?
That’s a loaded question—and the answer is inextricably tied to the answer to this one: What can individuals do to support and become actively engaged in their own optimal development? Learning is a personally-charged, multifaceted, ongoing process, and there are boundless opportunities for it to occur from infancy ever-onward.
As children grow, they are actively involved in creating their own intelligence, responding to and engaging in autonomous, shared, and multi-sensory learning experiences, and thereby becoming stronger, wiser, and more self-reliant through to adulthood.”
So, what can people do to help to ensure that their abilities are maximized—starting from youth, and continuing throughout the life span? Here are 5 tips, applicable for gifted/high-ability learners, for the adults who support them, and for anyone who believes in striving toward limitless possibilities.
Readers will find information and hundreds of strategies relating to intelligence-building and well-being throughout the pages of ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids. However, the material is not only applicable to young people—lots of take-aways will benefit learners of any age. By way of example, here are 5 short excerpts from just one page! (p. 160)
Indeed, “gifted unlimited” is a great name for a publishing company dedicated to stoking the fire of readers who seek to learn, but it is also a mighty and aspirational benchmark for anyone who intends to live life to the fullest!
Additional Reading and Resources
For additional information about how to support gifted/high-level development, see ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids by Joanne Foster, and also the multiple award-winning book Being Smart about Gifted Education by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster. Readers can also find out more about optimal child development by checking out the authors’ book Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids.
For tips on maximizing children’s efforts and industriousness, see Joanne Foster’s most recent book Bust Your BUTS: Tips for Teens Who Procrastinate (recipient of the Independent Book Publishers’ Association’s 2018 Silver Benjamin Franklin Award), and its predecessor, Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination (both published by Great Potential Press). To learn more about these books, and to acquire accessibility to a wide range of articles and links (including the author’s column at The Creativity Post), go to www.joannefoster.ca. Information about professional development workshops and speaker sessions with Dr. Foster can also be found at this website.
Be sure to check out the assortment of material published by Gifted Unlimited, LLC for excellent resources on gifted and high-level development.
Two organizations that have plentiful resources and information on giftedness are the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). There are links, articles, conferences, webinars, and more.
Scott Barry Kaufman writes about different types of giftedness in this article in Scientific American, and in much greater detail in his book “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.”
In the new parenting book ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids, Dr. Joanne Foster reveals how to encourage and support children’s abilities. She provides expertise, practical strategies, and LOTS of relevant resources.
Each letter of the alphabet has a thematic focus (such as Independence, Learning, Motivation, and Productivity). The ABC design differentiates this book from other parenting, gifted-related, and educational publications; the alliterative style makes the book unique; and the illustrations by Christine Thammavongsa are creative and thought-provoking. ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids is distinctive, engaging, and comprehensive. The early reviews are stellar.
For more information about ABCs, Dr. Foster’s work, and her award- winning books and other publications, please visit her website at www.joannefoster.ca.
During the middle school years, your child’s brain undergoes a growth spurt unlike any other since his first few months of life. The adolescent brain experiences a unique and powerful makeover, pruning away of all the unneeded bits of memory it has collected but not used since infancy. This house cleaning simultaneously makes room for the dynamic growth of fast, efficient memory circuits. These become the most important systems to direct thinking, reasoning, emotional self-management, decision making, problem solving, and creativity.
Adolescence is the start of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during which the brain is most responsive to turning information into learned memory at maximum speed. The enhanced rate at which new memory forms in response to input during these years results in its dynamic reorganization. Help your children make the most of these years of their most efficient learning potential by providing opportunities to increase their motivation.
RELATED: Guiding Our Children Through School Transitions: Middle School
The keys to unlocking their unique adolescent brainpowers lie in motivation and opportunity. Middle school often presents new and more challenging subjects and classes. At the same time, those classes can seem irrelevant, boring, or frustrating, especially when compared to friends, social media, and technology which can seem far more interesting and readily available.
This where you, the parents, come in. You have the power to engage their interest in the topics and subjects they study in school and promote their perseverance through boredom and frustration.
Before the brain learns powerfully, it needs to care
In their early school years children are engaged in learning because the information is personally relevant. School is about the shapes and colors in their world, how to count real things, reading books they choose, the story of their own history, and the secrets held in a seed, a cell, or a cocoon.
Although they might enter middle school with that natural curiosity and desire to learn and explore, the quantity of things now required to memorize and understand can be overwhelming and disconnect them from that love of learning. But parents have the opportunity to enrich their middle schooler’s education and raise their potential. You can make the difference and keep their brains caring, and therefore learning, if you use their own interests and skills, community resources, and your own experiences and associations to connect with the things they are studying at school.
Relate learning to their lives and the world around them from community to global
Get involved in their classes by either requesting upcoming topics from your child’s teachers, following the sequence of their textbooks, checking class assignment webpages, or asking your middle schooler about the current topics in her classes. Try to help her connect with, understand, care about, and ultimately retain what she learns.
The goal is to link school learning with your child’s interests, talents, passions, and experiences in the real world. The brain responds by increasing attentive focus to information taught at school and connecting to learning with more understanding and memory. Here’s why:
Activating interest and boosting memory circuits
By exposing your children to a variety of people and experiences, you will stimulate their curiosity to go beyond the classroom. They will see the value of academic effort and the opportunities available connecting through the doors of learning.
Have friends over who use the knowledge your child is learning in their everyday lives, careers, or hobbies. For example consider their use of math skills for robotics, foreign language skills for travel to other countries or creative artistic talents. Invite these friends to join you and your middle schooler on museum trips or technology expos. Visit them at their places of work.
Opportunities to use and enjoy the things taught at school - from home projects to on-the-go math
When you know the topic your middle schooler is studying, ask yourself, “What is something she loves that might connect to the knowledge or skills she is acquiring?” It might be a subtle connection, but if you find a way to link to something she likes physically, musically, socially, or recreationally you are hooking into her brain’s own most powerful motivational “reward” system.
What you’ll ignite
It is so critical for children in middle school to retain or reboot their sense of wonder and experience learning as something they want for themselves. When you ignite their interests to align with what they are learning and provide opportunities to make that learning relevant, you achieve that end. You will help them develop positive engagement with school and grow to teens and then adults who thrive from their natural enthusiasm, curiosity, wealth of knowledge, and confidence. You will spur them to investigate, interact with, and improve the world around them. And you’ll be helping them not just survive, but thrive during the challenges of middle school.
These 12 questions can help parents think about how they’re being supportive, how to proceed...
Most importantly, parents can question their own assumptions, inferences, and perceptions. They can also explore how to strengthen their own support networks, how to look after themselves better, and how to continue strengthening the parent-child relationship.
For more information, see the letter Q in ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids: Hundreds of Ways to Inspire Your Child. And, visit www.joannefoster.co
ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids
Written by Joanne Foster, Ed.D.
Illustrated by Christine Thammavongsa
Published by Gifted Unlimited, LLC. - Released July, 2019