“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

Ender's GameI 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.


15 thoughts on “As Speakers for Gifted Children

  1. I am very touched by this post Lisa. As an advocate for children on both ends of the spectrum, how we talk about them and the issues they face is something I am highly attuned to. Love that you related this back to one of my fav books too!

    1. Christine, why am I not surprised that you love Ender’s Game, too! I am always very much aware of how we as adults talk around and about these very sensitive and intuitive children, especially because we don’t mean to do any harm when doing so. The effects, however, can be long-lasting (for good and otherwise). Thanks very much for your kind words. ~ Lisa

  2. The views on this by kids change as they age. When I was “outted” in public high school as a sophomore having my writing read to a number of classes, that was very traumatic with the attendant worries that now the bullies know where to look. But by the time I was a senior, when the film teacher was showing my film to everyone who would look, it was just normal business. I learned by that point that any experiment/exploration worth doing took real money, someone else’s money, and that being known or being someone’s public relations whore was just part of my chosen academic profession (just part of being academic). And I would never have been able to jump that barrier had I not been prepped in my middle school by a mentor who showed me how to come out of a hole and deal with people. This may not be a popular view, but what that taught me is that gifted kids performing to their full ability will always be in the spotlight. It may not be fair since they did not choose giftedness but were born this way. But it’s the fact. And that means, to perform at their best, they will have to be helped to come to grips with the spotlight to varying degrees. So I think that part of gifted education needs to help the gifted student become comfortable with who they are, understand how to help their positive friends feel comfortable with who they are, and how to deal with negative peers. I think with this kind of education, receiving public praise will not harm them.

    1. Rusty, those are excellent points, and I agree completely that the overall goals are self-understanding, self-acceptance, and self-worth, which take more time for some of these children than others. For extremely introverted children (and adults), I think that public praise continues to be an issue that affects them even in complicated ways after they have self-confidence. Thank you for taking the time to stop by!

      1. Yes it’s amazing how that stuff doesn’t go away even as an adult. When I got to college both the professor over the lab I worked at and I would try to find hiding places when the public relations photographer would come around to give the politicians a trophy. Unfortunately administrators have master keys.

  3. As I work with both end of the spectrum and with any form of “disability” it is so necessary to be sensitive to the person as a person I am working with. I attend IEP meetings and the talk around for the professional exchange has it benefits, but can be so insensitive without intention.
    Adults I work with have had such a struggle with “professionals” labeling or addressing only niches of the individual creates a high sensitivity and self-defense response. Incognito is a survival technique as well as characteristic of introvert style. A dilemma arise with the spotlight and the target issue – not much fun. Gaining understanding of one’s differences, gaining communication skills to integrate with those you come in contact with are beneficial to be you.
    My sons and I have created an interaction with humor to minimize the negative effect of sharing our stories and also as cues for time to be quiet.

  4. Thank you for this, Lisa, both for the reminder to be aware of the true needs and desires of the children we claim to speak for and for the nudge to reread “Ender’s Game.” I have been meaning to re-read it and see if I think my eldest is ready to read it.

    1. Kate, I’d love to hear what you think of Ender’s Game! It was not originally written as a children’s or even YA book, and there are definitely some aspects that might be too intense for sensitive young children, so it’s smart for you to read it first. Once our son was ready for it, it led to a lot of really good conversations.

      1. Oops! I just realized that you have already read the book, so I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on re-reading it. 🙂 I did find that reading it now, mainly for my own enjoyment rather than mainly as a parent, was a different experience. (My distractedness is due in part to figuring out how our family will get out of New York today–we are on a spring break vacation–in the midst of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. What were we thinking??)

      2. I first read Ender’s Game as an adult, but before I was a parent, so I gave no thought to it as a book for teens. I have seen some people recommending it for the under 10 crowd recently, and although I don’t remember the book in detail, my gut instinct is to be shocked. My instinct when I read it was that I would have gotten the most out of it at 14 or 15, but I really do need to go back to it and look at it closely.

  5. Well, are we talking gifted kids? I read it at 14, my husband at 10. We both loved it and still do. The unintentional killings of the 2 bullies would be the only concern. I feel that the child would need a good grasp of right and wrong so that they are ready to discuss the grey areas.

  6. I know this is an old post but I am compelled to share my thoughts. As a gifted teen myself, this book truly resonated with me. I remember being a five year old. My mother would walk me into the kindergarten room and loudly exclaim, “Oh look over there, a friend! Why don’t you go say hi?” She didn’t realize the little girl she was referring to was publicly told by her mother not to play with me because I was “weird” and that’s a direct quote (my advanced social and intellectual development led me to express interest in unusual topics for my age, to the great horror of many adults). My mother never treated me like I was sophisticated to understand any of the behind-the-scenes politics of housewives at age 5 anyway, even though I was. I remember causing havoc in my classroom while the other kids learned the alphabet. I was already reading chapter books at the time, anyway. I remember my father bragging about me to all who would listen, which caused even adults to become insecure and defensive. Other children heard him brag and resented me. I remember publishing articles on the European Migrant Crisis when I was ten. My grade 8 math teacher told me actually told me not to come to class because I would constantly correct her equations which where often incorrect and question the legitimacy of certain explanations. So, I didn’t come to class that year. Instead I studied on my own time, took the final a month early, and still finished the course with an average of 98%. In addition to all this, I had a physically and mentally abusive parent and sibling so I can relate to the characters in that regard. Many people criticize this book’s portrayal of the children, however from personal experience I can tell you the characterizations are remarkably realistic. It was revolutionary for me. I read it first at age ten and I resounded even then, and I’ve recently reread it along with Ender’s Shadow (which was even more relatable in some ways).

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