Tuesday, August 7, 2012

8. Why Gifted Teens should be Sponges not Spongers


10 ways Parents of Gifted Teens can support them in high school (continued)

My grandmother used to tell me that whenever I was feeling sorry for myself I should go and help someone worse off than myself.  “Be a sponge," she’d add.

A sponge will absorb water until it is saturated.  Because of gravity, water then gushes from the sponge, feeding water to living things around it. By doing so, the sponge itself thrives.  The sponge and its community are mutually beneficial.  A ‘sponger’ on the other hand, simply absorbs. Synonyms for sponger are “freeloader”, “scrounger” and “bludger”. 

Gifted teens are natural sponges, and high school is a time when there are many opportunities for them to both absorb and pour back the bounties that life offers.   Spending time putting back into the community in some way is not a whimsical “do-gooder” suggestion: it is actually as necessary for the gifted psyche as feeding the intellect; gifted teens must learn how to feed their souls as well as their intellects.

These teens often have a deep sense of social concern and social responsibility.  They are more profoundly aware of the ills of the world than their peers, and can become disillusioned and despairing of global and local problems. Their sensitivity combined with intense critical thinking and analysis can make them cynical and depressed by problems they may see as overwhelming. 

As parents we can help our teens ‘soak up’ being gifted, and celebrate the joy and satisfaction of sharing their gifts, thereby feeding their spirit or soul.  


Soaking up being gifted

 “Know thyself: Then to thine own self be true” - Socrates

Learning about being gifted is something that gifted teens complain they know little about[1].  Understanding their social-emotional sides is a really important part of knowing and accepting themselves.  One of the best ways I know of doing this is through reading.  Curling up with a book that describes many of your own personal characteristics allows you to reflect in privacy, draw your own conclusions, and make sense of your world through a fresh lens. What a gift a book is!

There are some excellent books available for gifted teens written by experts.  You will find them interesting as well, though I’d suggest you don’t force conversations about them – let conversation arise naturally.  Some topics are fairly innocuous and non-threatening, but others may feel deeply personal to your gifted teen.  Accept that there will be topics your teen prefers not to discuss with you.  This is a natural part of their growing independence in their transition to adulthood, not an attack upon your relationship!

  • Judy Galbraith's and Jim Delisle’s  “TheGifted Kids Survival Guide: A Teen Handbook”, This book describe what giftedness is all about, has comments and questions from gifted teens themselves, and deals with many other issues gifted face such as perfectionism, and the concerns of multi-potentiality (the scariness of being good at lots of things, and not knowing which area to pursue as a career).
Encourage your teen to read biographies on top achievers in fields they are interested in, or historical figures that inspire them.  This helps them learn that high-level success is hard won, after a lot of time and effort.  Join your local library – explore the biography section together. There is an almost infinite, rich selection to choose from. Have discussions with them about the heroes who inspired you through your youth and as an adult, and why you found them inspirational. 

 A wonderful source of good reading material for gifted is to be found in Judith Wynn Halsted’s “Some of my Best Friends are books”.  Encourage an eclectic range of reading and try not to be bothered by the ‘trash’ they may also read.  
Halsted observes:

By ninth grade, boys read more science fiction, fantasy, sports, war and spy stories than girls, but both girls and boys read crime and detective stories – such escapist reading may help them deal with the angst of this time in their lives.  Senior high students prefer protagonists who are making the same transition as they face from adolescence to adulthood. They are not interested in books with middle aged characters, but they do enjoy stories about the elderly, who face some of the problems they do – a changing peer group and adjustment to physical and mental changes.”[2]  

Feeding the Soul

Feeding the soul as well as the intellect becomes an important life balance issue through the teen years. If the focus is purely upon intellectual development these teens are often left asking themselves what it’s all for, because pondering these sorts of existential questions is a part of who they are.  On the other hand, when they are actively involved in helping others, not only do they become aware of the power of many to effect positive change, they experience a ‘feel good’ buzz that can give a real sense of purpose and achievement.  They realise that although they themselves cannot solve the big problems, joining with others builds collective strength. For many, a highly tuned sense of moral outrage and social injustice and ethical issues can fuel an intense passion and the need to make a difference. Volunteer groups, both local and international, can make a real difference.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed by life’s issues our teens find that participation in activities that make a difference to society fosters within them a sense of hope and optimism.   My grandmother wasn’t wrong! 

We do not learn the deep satisfaction that comes from helping others from a text book.  These are students who need to be actively involved in putting back into their community.  High schools generally provide plenty of opportunity for them to do so either as an individual or as part of a larger group.

For example:

Peer mentoring: in-school, or beyond (mentoring a younger gifted student with a similar interest / area of passion)
Reading to students in primary school: a “Big Buddy” system
Coaching younger students in e.g. Maths, Science, Sport.
Restorative Justice / mediation: a system where students are constructively involved mediators for other students

Groups that may exist within the school that work for a cause, e.g.

CanTeen A Youth Organisation in New Zealand and Australia which supports teens with cancer and their families. Students hold major fundraising events to donate to this organisation. Most countries have similar agencies that students may choose to actively support.
Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) A student led education program on drug and alcohol abuse. Information and resources available from www.sadd.org  
World Vision - 40 Hour Famine The 40 Hour famine is an event held in 21 countries to raise money for countries suffering from famine. www.worldvision.com  
Amnesty International An international human rights group that raises awareness of individuals suffering in countries abusing human rights and offers practical, peaceful ways of taking action. www.amnesty.org  

If there are no such activities or groups within the school, perhaps your teen could initiate one with their friends. What a wonderful opportunity for your teen to develop leadership skills!

As an alternative, you could encourage your teen to spend time out-of school (even as a volunteer) helping out in areas that interest them, with  Community Volunteer groups, such as rest homes, disabled children’s groups such as “Riding for the Disabled”, and church volunteer groups.

You may be concerned that the time your gifted teen spends upon community activities such as these will take away time away from study and academics.  I would argue that participating in positive social action to make a difference will bring a far healthier, more buoyant, and more resilient teen to their work desk. Your teen needs you to support these important areas of personal growth.


[1] Galbraith & Delisle
[2] Halsted, J.W., (2009). Some of my best friends are books: guiding gifted readers. 3rd edition. AZ: Great Potential Press,p.89.

© Sonia White, (M.Gifted Ed).  Author, Teacher, Teacher Educator, Gifted Education Consultant (2012),  www.giftedconsultant.ac.nz  

This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years.
To read preceding articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted:  2. Does your teen know you love them 'warts and all'?

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking


Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
To receive links for future articles on this topic, you can subscribe to Sonia's blog by email, RSS feed, or as a member of Blogspot, follow Sonia on Twitter: @SoniaWhite_  or Facebook: http://tinyurl.com/6nocuo7   


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