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Keeping Parental Pride in Check

"Jenna is so gifted. You should see her grades  -- all top marks," a fellow mother confides in me. In case you think we are discussing an advanced-placement high school student, we are not; we are talking about a kindergartner.

The only marks she could possibly have received are "Y" for "Yes, she can do it," or "N" for "Needs help" in such academically rigorous categories as "Doesn't throw a hissy fit when asked to share" or "Can scratch and walk at the same time." The mother is frantically signing up her daughter for every activity in town. "I don't want her to be understimulated," she adds.

I have known Jenna since she was a baby. Now 6, she is bright and engaging, but as far as I know she has not composed a symphony, juggled algebraic equations, or isolated a new strain of bacteria. She is unique and special because she is Jenna and no one else is. But gifted?

How come all children seem to be gifted these days? No one seems to be merely smart or just simply good at something anymore. Now, the last time I checked, gifted meant possessing some extraordinary talent that only a chosen few in the universe have. Mozart, for example, or Tiger Woods. But it seems these days that if every child whose parents claimed was gifted truly was, then gifted should become the national norm.

Lest I come off as holier-than-thou, let me admit that I, too, think my son is amazingly gifted. Convinced that he has perfect pitch, I have made any number of bored friends listen while he has sung or imitated accents. Lately, however, I no longer prompt him to perform. Why the change of heart? Parents have been boasting about their children ever since the first hominid gave birth. But with this "gifted" tag, it seems to me the game has gotten insidious: Parents are looking for physical proof that their children (and, by reflection, themselves) are somehow vastly superior. And when someone is superior, by definition, someone else has to be inferior. I shudder at the significance of this and all its scary ramifications. Don't you think children are much too rich, too interesting, to be relegated to one side or the other?

I also worry about what this tells our children about the durability of parental love  -- you are not good enough for us if you are just a plain kid, you have to be extraordinary. Isn't just being themselves special enough?

I remember hearing one overbearing mother whose son played on the most competitive Little League team say that if your child was not on that team, it really was not worth playing. What is the message here? Be the best or get out of the game? How is that for a mantra to take through life!

When I went to school, children were tracked by ability. All the supposed smarty-pants kids were in one group, and the supposedly not-as-smart in another. Most schools have done away with tracking, recognizing that children are much more complex than that. But while the elimination of tracking may or may not be better for students, for parents it takes away obvious bragging rights ("Of course, Mary is in all the honors groups.") So when some schools decided to do end runs around this tracking business by instituting "gifted-and-talented programs," parents grabbed ferociously onto this next label. Presto, change-o, every former honors student is now gifted.

This, of course, prompts just about every parent in the school to demand that his child be placed there, simply because of the label. All children do have a spark, a talent, but it may not be that exact talent required by that particular program. Program and child might be a miserable match. The beleaguered child promptly flounders, making him think he has failed and disappointed his parents, just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time in his life. It is one thing to hold up high standards, to encourage your child's talents to blossom; it is quite another to set the mark so unrealistically high that failure is almost ensured.

But what bothers me most about this "gifted" movement is how it has sapped everyone of their sense of humor. Parents have become so deadly serious about their children and their achievements that there seems to be little joy in any of it. Parents used to balance out their bragging with goofy stories of how their child mistook the wastepaper basket for the toilet. Now no one can admit to such imperfections. My feeling is, if you cannot laugh at your child's less-than-perfect behavior, and you cannot laugh at your own eccentricities, life is going to be a very dreary affair.

Is Jenna really gifted? Is my son in line to be the next Pavarotti? Who knows, there is always that possibility. But if they are not, that should be okay, too. Whatever they end up bringing to the world, that will be their gift to us all.