As a parent and gifted advocate for over twenty years, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about gifted children and their friendships. Teachers worry about children who play alone at recess; parents want their children invited to birthday parties. Everyone knows that friendships are an important part of life.
How might friendships of gifted children differ from friendships of other children?
In this article I first sketch some events that happened to my own children and students over the years. Rather than reveal details that can be traced to individual children, I’ve created two “composite” children—Sam and Nina. After sharing the sketches, I share some basic observations about gifted children and their friendships.
As young children, Sam and Nina enjoyed life. The student-teacher ratio at their university-based preschool was sufficiently favorable that the children enjoyed the company of adults whenever they wished. If Sam or Nina wished to talk about Norse mythology or frog biology at preschool, one of the three adults in each classroom would have time to listen and share reflections. The fact that few of their classmates enjoyed reading Norse mythology or learning frog biology didn’t cause Sam or Nina to feel any social isolation.
At home, Sam and Nina had each other and their parents for company. Sam and Nina also enjoyed visits with their cousins. Once when he was five-years-old, Sam spent two hours playing chess with a six-year-old cousin. Their parents noted that neither Sam nor Nina nor their cousin had chess-playing partners in kindergarten. Sam and Nina’s social skills in kindergarten by necessity developed around games they learned in prior years.
During first grade, Nina’s teacher complimented her social skills by noting that Nina plays well with all children, especially those who are otherwise loners. The teacher interpreted this fact as “Nina has many friends,” but Nina’s mother thought “Nina can feel the pain of the children on the fringes, so she makes a special effort to help those children.”
One afternoon Nina came home from second grade and announced that she had been nominated for student council. In an effort to prepare Nina for the possibility that a more popular child might win the election, Nina’s mother explained, “It’s ok if you don’t win because then another child will have the chance to feel special.” The next day, Nina withdrew her name from the election, telling her teacher, “I want another child to have the chance to feel special.” When the teacher told Nina’s mom what happened, the teacher praised Nina, but Nina’s mom acutely felt the difference between Nina and the other children in the class and wondered whether Nina’s classmates might understand her complex thoughts, feelings, and motives.
Sam was quiet during most of his elementary school years, but because he played ball with other boys during recess, and because other boys invited him to birthday parties, most adults assumed he had friends. Only the gifted program teacher noticed Sam’s lack of close friendships. She encouraged Sam to share himself with other children in the gifted classroom. Sam learned quickly that some of the other children in the gifted classroom shared his interests and appreciated his sense of humor. Within a few months, the gifted teacher happily allowed an instance of disruptive behavior by Sam as he experienced the loud joy of true friendship during one class session.
Many important lessons emerge from Sam and Nina’s experiences. First, what appears to be a friendship from an adult perspective might not be a friendship from the child’s perspective. Gifted children learn quickly what friendships should look like. Some gifted children mimic close friendships with others during recess, knowing that others don’t share their chess skills or mythology interests.
Second, although some adults think that children need many friends, some gifted children are satisfied by having just one or two friends, or by having only their family members as friends. When gifted children have friendship needs satisfied by family members, they might not feel the need to build close friendships at school.
Third, gifted children are more likely to enjoy close friendships with children who share their interests. Sometimes a gifted child will have one friend for chess playing at home, another friend for recess activities at school, and a third friend for sharing complex computer games. Adults, too, sometimes share one interest with one friend and other interests with other friends. Some of these friendships might be close; others might not be close.
The need for true friendships becomes more critical for gifted children during the teen years. In her article, Bright star—Black sky: A phenomenological study of depression as a window into the psyche of the gifted adolescent, psychologist P. Sue Jackson identified three important needs of gifted adolescents: the need for knowledge, the need for communion with others, and the need for expression. Jackson defined the need for communion as the need “to be able to exchange thoughts and emotions or share something in common involving strong emotional or spiritual exchange.”
I recommend that all parents of gifted children read Jackson’s entire article to learn more about the importance and characteristics of true friendships in gifted children. Her article, which was originally published in Roeper Review, is available on the SENG website. May we all help the gifted children and adults in our lives achieve true friendships that allow the sharing of their interests, their humor, and their beings.
Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D. is currently president of SENG, Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. This article was first published in the SENG Update, a free e-newsletter available at www.sengifted.org.