“There’s only one boy on this launch with any brains at all, and that’s Ender Wiggin. Take a look at good look at him, little boys. He’s going to be a commander when you’re still in diapers up there.” ~ Ender’s Game
I recently re-read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game in preparation for the coming movie and to discuss it and the series of books with my 20-year-old son—home this week on spring break—who remembers the novel fondly from his childhood. With this re-reading, I am convinced that Ender’s Game offers valuable insight for any adults who live or work with gifted children, particularly concerning the often unwanted effects of public praise.
In the book, adults single out Ender as an exemplary student in front of his peers in order to isolate him and to develop his self-reliance and leadership:
“In your old schools, in your old families, maybe you were the big shot, maybe you were tough, maybe you were smart. But we chose the best of the best, and that’s the only kind of kid you’re going to meet now. And when I tell you Ender Wiggin is the best in this launch, take the hint, my little dorklings. Don’t mess with him.”
The result is that the rest of the students resent, torment, and avoid Ender. Of course, we read Ender’s story knowing that, as parents and teachers, we would never purposefully set up a child in this way. However, when I recently asked a gifted youngster if being singled out publicly for being the best in the class had similar effects, he said, without hesitation, “Absolutely.” His answer reminded me of an informal panel of teens I once facilitated. The teens were all highly gifted, and when asked what they thought about being referred to as gifted, every single one said they didn’t like it. They did understand the gifted difference and its important in knowing themselves, but they found that the label and attention caused too much misunderstanding.
The diversity among gifted children is profound, and we should not forget that there are some children who do either brush off such attention or even thrive on it. These children often let us know very clearly that they want the acclaim, and adults are hard-pressed to stop them from getting it.
But we can be very careful not to assume that most children secretly want such attention (especially if we, ourselves, struggle with not having received the attention we feel we deserved from parents or teachers) or that we are do them a favor by giving it to them, thinking that they will thank us later. In fact, as both a parent and a teacher, I have found the safest course of action is to assume that, unless I know otherwise, most children and students do not want to be singled out publicly, even at the college level. Instead, we can find more personal and private ways to acknowledge their accomplishments and leave the decision to share up to them.
Several years ago, I attended a session on gifted children and the media, led by Kathi Kearney and Stephanie Tolan at a Hollingworth Conference. They offered information and considerations for parents and others about interviews and other media requests. Stephanie also talked a bit about the privacy of children and her thoughts, in hindsight, on what she wrote about her own son and his friend in Guiding the Gifted Child.
Their discussion has stayed with me as I’ve had to make similar decisions about how much personal information to share as I write and talk about homeschooling and giftedness. Gifted children are very sensitive to their environment, and many of them are absorbing and interpreting conversations long before we are aware of their understanding. When they are older, they might appear self-absorbed or unfazed by comments made around them, but we can never know for sure what snippets of conversation will stay with them, how they are defining themselves based on what they hear or read about themselves. I continually grapple with this issue, being the mother of a very private son as well as an author who clearly has put his giftedness “out there” in a public way, even while I have tried to do so judiciously.
In his introduction to the author’s definitive edition of Ender’s Game (1991), Orson Scott Card wrote that the book has resonated so deeply with many young readers because it “asserts the personhood of children”:
“Children are a perpetual, self-renewing underclass, helpless to escape from the decisions of adults until they become adults themselves.”
Toward the end of the novel, Ender says, “You never asked me! You never told me the truth about anything!” Our connected, shared, digital age poses ever new challenges for adults to tell the truth that needs to be told as we advocate for gifted children while, at the same time, being careful to respect their personhood and privacy.