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Why Is My Gifted Child Bringing Home F’s?

Excerpted from The Essential Guidebook for Parents of Gifted Children by Jennifer Ault

Gifted children have the potential to have all of the problems that all children are subject to and then some when it comes to underachievement. One that seems to affect them with some degree of frequency is a fear of failure, and this is often a direct result of their perfectionism.

Many gifted children begin life doing things well. They read early, they compute numbers quickly, they remember facts readily, and they make interesting and accurate connections between various pieces of information. And during all of these processes, they receive praise from the adults around them. They learn that being smart is good; it earns them positive attention and rewards.

Gifted children in regular classrooms often learn to do well with little effort. They go through the motions of busywork and homework and get all A’s. They carry perfect records of achievement for their schoolwork, and their teachers and parents are proud of them for it. They are proud of themselves, too.

But then something happens to shatter that image of the perfect student, and everything changes. Often this happens when a child meets challenge for the first time, such as when a high schooler is introduced to more difficult topics in math or science. Suddenly the amount of effort required to learn or to do the coursework increases substantially, and the gifted student who has never had to put in effort, who has no idea what studying looks like, gets a grade that is lower than an A.

It can be terrifying to discover that you are not who you think you are—that you are not, in all probability, what everyone else thinks you are, either. If you’re not perfect, then what are you? If you don’t get all A’s, then how is it that you can consider yourself smart? Maybe you aren’t gifted after all. Gifted people get all A’s, right? If you’re smart, then the work should be easy. If the work is hard, then that means you have to work at it, just like everyone else. If you’re just like everyone else, then you certainly aren’t gifted. Your entire existence, your whole identity, has been a lie.

Some gifted children consciously work through to this erroneous conclusion, known as impostor syndrome, while others simply find themselves paralyzed with the fear that something has gone terribly wrong for them. Either way, it can be debilitating.

Procrastination sometimes enters the picture at this stage. Perfectionistic children who can’t stand the thought of working on something that they don’t think they can do well can put off working on it until it’s too late, either to do at all or to do a good job on it. This can be the result of feeling utterly paralyzed by the fear of failure or a deliberate stalling to prevent the ultimate completion of the work. That way they can blame their poor grade on the fact that they didn’t have enough time to do the assignment well. This is a much better—and safer—reason to do poorly than to admit to not knowing the material or not being perfect. Certainly there are other reasons that people procrastinate, but when perfectionistic people do it, it is often to provide an excuse for a less-than-perfect outcome.

Conversely and yet similarly, a child who spends too much time on a project can do the same thing. If nothing is ever quite good enough and needs to be tweaked and changed and added to again and again and again, then it is never actually finished, and it is never ready to be handed in for a grade. So a child who has worked on a paper or a project for weeks—doing the exact opposite of procrastinating, in fact—may refuse to turn in the assignment because it doesn’t yet seem perfect. The resulting failing grade is not because of a lack of understanding, not even because the child was less than perfect, but because the teacher never got to see the final product or saw it so late that it could not earn a passing grade. That, too, is a safe way to fail. It does not expose the child for the fraud that she believes she is for not being perfect and not knowing everything before it is taught to her, as well as for her lack of study skills, which she has never had to learn and which smart kids shouldn’t need to know anyway, according to her.

This is a mindset that can be enormously difficult to change. Contrary to what some people believe, gifted people still have to put in effort to achieve when faced with new and challenging ideas and concepts. Being gifted does not mean being born knowing everything. It does not mean being good at everything. It simply means being able to do some very hard things very well, and that almost always means putting in the effort to do those things by learning and studying and working, by trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and succeeding. In the same way that doing something courageous that anyone would do doesn’t make people heroes (doing something courageous that almost no one else is willing to do makes a person a hero), doing something well that is easy for them doesn’t necessarily make people gifted.

Perfectionistic children need to understand that it is normal and necessary—even for the gifted—to make mistakes and to struggle. These children will need interventions by parents and educators and, if the problem is severe, counselors or professional mental health experts as well. A great place to start (in fact, a great place to begin before perfectionism even becomes a problem) is to praise effort instead of achievement. If the focus is on what the child has produced, then the lesson is that achievement is paramount. But if the focus is on what the child has done—what actions the child has taken, what steps he has pursued, what challenges he has overcome, what progress he has made—then the lesson is that hard work is good, even if the final product doesn’t turn out as one had hoped. That means no finger wagging at the single B on the child’s report card, accompanied by, “What happened here?” Expectations of perfection obviously serve only to make problems worse.

Parents and teachers should also make sure that gifted children learn adequate study skills and habits, which by themselves can stave off the problem of perfectionism becoming a debilitating condition. If something is hard but the child knows how to go about learning it and practicing it in order to do well on it, then that usually prevents it from becoming an albatross that will drag the child into failure. And in that same vein, encouraging the child to take challenging classes and to embrace academic risk will also help to discourage perfectionism. It is hard to be a perfectionist when you can’t be perfect, and that’s a great lesson for all kids to learn.

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