The importance of friendships

Some time ago when chatting with an expert on gifted kids, I asked how I would know if my children were in the correct academic environment. How would I know if their classes were challenging enough or whether I should switch them to a more rigorous school. She answered by asking whether they were happy — whether they had good friends with whom they could be their true selves.

So much of the time when raising highly and profoundly gifted kids, we focus on academics. Are they in a school with enough advanced classes? What summer enrichment programs should they enroll in to make sure they get the academic resume edge that will take them to the next level? We want to make sure they aren’t wasting their potential.

Frequently the social aspects of their schooling are a secondary consideration. One we only pay real attention to when things are bad. We notice if they have zero friends or are bullied. We don’t necessarily notice when they have friends, but not ones they can completely relax with and just be themselves.

Watching the 2013 Golden Globes last night I was struck by the fact that two of the most creative and brightest women receiving awards, Lena Dunham and Jodie Foster, both mentioned loneliness. Everyone feels alone at times, it isn’t just a burden for gifted kids. However, it is something that we as parents of sometimes quirky gifted kids need to keep on our radar. Forming friendships is tricky, especially for introverted, analytical young people who see the world differently than most of their peers. Highly and profoundly gifted girls are particularly at risk of feeling alone. This is due to a variety of factors. First, there are fewer profoundly gifted girls than boys and they are less likely to be identified because they “blend” better.  Gifted girls tend to hide their intellectual abilities and instead pour their energy into social relationships. As they reach their teen years, they are valued more for their appearance and sociability than their intelligence. Gifted girls in middle school frequently face a not so subtle choice between high achievement or social acceptance by their peer group. Many girls decide to suppress their innate abilities, others who continue to aim high and succeed at rigorous coursework, may end up depressed and with lower self-esteem than boys with equivalent GPAs.

Many lonely gifted kids eventually find good friends and soul mates at college and beyond but the harm done by feeling and being alone for much of elementary school, middle school, and high school can leave lasting damage. The suffering could manifest itself in great works of art yet it can just as easily create an adult who never really finds their place in the world. While it is sad for the individual, society can also pay the price. Although there is a tendency to describe mass shooters as loners, they are generally more likely to be individuals that struggled to connect with their peers and form meaningful friendships.

While we can’t create friendships for our gifted kids, there are things we can do to make it more likely that they will form their own. Generally it is easier to make friends with people who are like us. Take a good look at your child’s school and extra curricular activities. Do they seem to be populated by kids that are similar to your child? If your kid likes Dr. Who and National Geographic are you making sure he or she has a chance to hang out with kids who like to discuss rain forests and David Tennant vs. Matt Smith? Take your child to festivals, chat nights, and seminars that interest them and help them keep an eye out for kids they can talk to. Hanging out isn’t just in person. The Internet has been used since its beginning as a way for ubergeeks to connect. Help your kid find other kids they can relate to and then encourage them to use phone calls, email, and Skype to stay connected. Be ready to drive outside your neighborhood to help your kids meet up with their new friends. Facilitate outings and sleepovers to help the friendships grow. Teach your children that good friends are worth the extra effort.

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