Gifted Children are NOT Zoo Animals

Sigh.  I’ve tried to think of a more creative way to start this blog but my overwhelming sentiment is one that simply produces an exhaustively frustrated sigh.  Gifted children are not zoo animals.  I feel like this should be an overwhelmingly obvious statement, especially for those of us with gifted children and gifted students.  Time and time again, I receive messages from producers asking me if I have any children that would be interested in participating in one of their ‘genius’ reality shows — shows that put gifted, or ‘genius,’ children on display to idealize their intelligence and publicly identify them as ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ with little regard to the many other dimensions of these children.  
 
​These shows seem to grow in number each year, evidence that the entertainment industry has successfully commercialized gifted children.  I have no doubt that this commercialization lessens the power of the gifted label.  It lessens the already barely existent public support for gifted resources.  It, in many ways, demonstrates that these children are indeed doing “just fine” without specialized resources.  This notion, as we know, is not the reality.  

I suppose I may be a bit biased in this instance because I don’t really appreciate putting children on any form of reality TV, a form of entertainment that seems to undoubtedly rest on the commercialized public image of impressionable young children.  These same young children, and their parents, are no doubt excited that a mass audience is intrigued by their success.  In a society that, more often than not, lacks appreciation for intelligence, I can (vaguely) see the appeal.  Yet, it’s the future, and the reality of that reality TV, that will eventually hit home — hard.  

Gifted children are not zoo animals.  Their bright nature is nothing to be amused or entertained about.  Whilst it is appropriate for a parent, friend, guardian, teacher, mentor or other related person of the sorts to express pride and appreciation for the child’s success, it is unwarranted to place a gifted child in such a spotlight — a spotlight which values the child not for their grit, creativity or humanity, but rather their ability to recall facts and spit them back with robotic precision.  

Our children are not zoo animals. They are not robots.  They are children — the sunshine to our communities, the hope for our future and the innocence that brings warmth to our hearts.  

These “Genius” TV shows depreciate the value of our gifted children.  They place emphasis on memorization, éclat, and (of course) the optics.  This is such a striking contrast to what our gifted children truly need.  Our gifted children need to know that we appreciate them, we love them, and we are proud of them for who they are.  They need to feel as if they fit in, not as if they stand our more than they already do.  Similar to any other child, they want — and often need, to feel as if they fit in somewhere.  These highly competitive shows accomplish quite the opposite.  These shows cause even more isolationism.  They deepen a gifted child’s self-prognosis as gifted and nothing else.  They encourage the child, and their family, to value the child’s skills in memorization and their innate intelligence rather than the child on a whole.  

It is these ideals that can ultimately lead to depression, self-loathing, and an uncertain sense of self.  We see it happen with celebrities every day.  They turn to drug addiction, alcoholism, and other self-destructive behaviors.  Whilst not every child genius celebrity will turn to such radical self destructive behaviors, we must not expect that this fame as child prodigy will be an overwhelmingly positive identity.  It’s anything but.  I’ve seen students who once loved mathematics more than most children love video games or athletics become the most reluctant students, exhausted by their reputation as ‘math kid,’ ‘child genius,’ or the ‘smart kid.’  I’ve seen writers who seemed constantly inspired become averse to even pick up a pen.  I’ve seen this sort of fame tear children apart at the seams — negating potential with sheer determination to identify as more than gifted, or simply not as gifted..  I’ve seen it tear families apart.  

Child “genius” shows showcase everything that Gifted is not.  Child “genius” shows showcase memorization and the acquisition of factual knowledge, without demonstrating any understanding.  Not only is it a shame that this is being equated to genius, but a true telling of a child’s learning and environment.  This skill set requires drilling.  Certainly, there are many gifted children who enjoy acquiring new facts.  They may acquire new facts with an ease that most of us would only dream of.  Yet, there comes a point at which the child’s success is no longer a result of passion or curiosity, but rather a result of pushy parenting.  I have no doubt that some children may achieve success on these child genius shows on their own accord.  However, there is a fine line between the supportive parent and the pushy parent — a line that is difficult to ascertain and one that is even more difficult to referee.  These child genius shows provide a safe-haven for these tiger parents, an outlet in which this behavior is seen as a step towards success.  

Pure facts can be learned.  They exist to be learned.  Yet, isn’t the purpose of genius to utilize it for something more? to create something new?  We must inspire our gifted children to be creative thinkers — to use their astounding intelligence to be innovators, creators and reformers.  When we define pure genius as the ability to memorize facts, we discount the true gifts of giftedness.  When we put this ability on TV, we are demonstrating that this skill set is something to be gawked at.  These shows allow the public to pretend as if they know these children.  However, they only know the child as the producers have shown them — a character which parents and children have little say in.  Gifted children are tragically mis-represented by these shows.  They become exposed to a world that is less than kind to the intellectually gifted — a world with a habitual inability to relate to what is different.  They become pawns in the entertainment industry.  They begin to shape themselves based on their projected image.  It’s a tragedy at best.  

Gifted Children are not zoo animals.  They do not belong locked behind a screen for entertainment purposes.  They do not need to be paraded around.  They do not need to be gawked at for skills in memorization.  They need to be valued for who they are — a child — a person — an individual.  They need to be loved for who they are, not for their giftedness.  They need the world to love them for who they are, not for their ability to recite facts.  They do not need to be put on display.  They do not need reality TV.  The gifted community certainly does not need this mis-representation of idealized, commercialized gifted children.  

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