Is It Good to Be Gifted? Optimal IQ and the Flipside to Giftedness
By David Palmer, Ph.D
Is it good to be a gifted? This may sound like a strange question -
of course being gifted is good... isn't it?
It's true that kids who score higher on IQ tests will have an
advantage academically. After all, these tests are designed to
predict school success. The skills tapped by IQ tests, including
memory, problem-solving, and language ability are also important for
doing well on college placement tests and succeeding in a career. So
there's definitely an upside to being gifted. But how gifted do kids
need to be to reap these benefits – and is there a flipside to
having a high IQ?
It may seem reasonable to believe that the higher our IQ, the
better off we are. Yet, it turns out that's not necessarily true.
Those with higher IQs will have an advantage over those with lower
IQs – all else being equal – when it comes to ease of learning and
having the cognitive skills necessary to succeed in certain careers.
However, researchers have found that beyond an IQ of about 120 there
is little relationship between IQ and personal achievement. (And
please note that an IQ of 120 does not even meet the cutoff score of
130 used by most districts as selection criteria for entrance into a
gifted education program.) Beyond this level, achievement appears to
be related more to things like creativity, leadership ability, and
personal motivation than to IQ. Those with extremely high IQs (in
the 145 to 180 range, for example) do no better than those with IQs
in the 120s when it comes to career success and creative
accomplishments. And having a higher IQ is certainly no guarantee
that you'll zip through life effortlessly accomplishing great
I've seen this myself. I've met many people who don't appear to
be particularly bookish or intellectual, but are very successful in
what they do. Then again, I've known lots of academic types who have
scored extremely high on an IQ test but lack the "people skills,"
personal motivation, or whatever it takes to translate their
abilities into outward signs of success – a college degree, a
rewarding career, a fulfilling family life.
Maybe you've noticed this, too. Consider people you know and
admire for their accomplishments - those who make everything look
easy and always seem to be getting ahead. It's likely that these
people are not all "brainy" types. Rather, most are probably of
average intelligence but know how to use their abilities to connect
with and lead others, to stay focused on their goals, and to work
hard to get what they want.
Of course, that's not to say that those with an exceptionally
high IQ won't do well in life. Many do, and some of them contribute
great things to our society in part because of their unusually high
intellectual ability. An exceptionally high IQ may also be useful,
or even necessary, in certain professions that require more isolated
cerebral types of work, such as theoretical physics or mathematics.
So what is the optimal IQ? It's arguable, but some would say
around 120 and no higher than 145. Why? At this level, you'd reap
most of the advantages of having enhanced abilities in some areas
but might be spared some of the potential downside of being too
"different" from the rest of the world.
The Flipside to Having a High IQ
Just as it's unfair and unrealistic to make generalized
statements about any group of people based on similar traits they
share, we shouldn't oversimplify our view on the effects of
giftedness on children. In fact, having a high IQ doesn't
necessarily come with any particular disadvantages. The research in
this area is mixed, at best. And much of it is based on interviews
or anecdotal evidence, which makes it hard to come to any firm
conclusions about the findings.
Yet, all children are susceptible to struggles at some time in
their development and gifted children are no different. A common
belief is that they are more prone to certain developmental problems
due to being perceived as different by others, or because they see
themselves as being out of touch with most of their peers. And this
makes sense. A primary need of most kids - and maybe, to a lesser
degree, of most s as well - is to "fit in." Anyone who's been
through school understands how important it is to dress like, act
like, and be like everyone else. Or at least like everyone else in
your own little subgroup. We seem to have a need to be folded into a
crowd with whom we can share certain interests - a social
connection, an identity. Yet gifted kids are, by definition,
different, at least when it comes to certain skills or talents they
possess. Yes, giftedness is arguably a positive difference - at
least from an perspective - but a difference, nonetheless. For kids
and teens, the pressure to conform is often so great that any
deviation from the norm can be distressing. We've all heard terms
like brain, nerd, geek or worse applied to kids who seem too
bookish, or too "into" school.
Of course, the potential for social problems is not unique to
gifted kids; all children are susceptible to teasing, bullying, or
social isolation when they don't fit in, for whatever reason. The
school years can be tough for all children. Gifted kids, though, do
share some unique pressures and developmental issues that others may
A Disconnect Between the Brain, the Body, and Emotions
Most six-year-olds look, act, and think like six-year-olds. They
use six-year-old words, think six-year-old thoughts, and react
emotionally like you'd expect a six-year-old to react. Gifted
children, however, are often described as showing "asynchronous
development." That is, while much of their development may be
typical for their age (their size and emotional reactions, for
instance), cognitively they are out of sync. Gifted children's
advanced cognitive skills allow them to process what's going on
around them at a different level than most of their age peers. An
outcome of this is a sophisticated and heightened curiosity about
what's going on in the world, and a desire to "fill in the gaps" of
All children are curious about the world and how it works. But
for most, their curiosity is satisfied by simple, concrete answers
that allow them to move on to other thoughts and emotions. They may
see s as the "experts" and not feel a need to question or seek
elaboration on the answers provided by them. Gifted children,
however, may not be satisfied with simple answers. These children
often have a need to delve deeper to satisfy their advanced
awareness and heightened curiosity.
For example, while most young children who lose a family pet may
be satisfied with parental reassurance such as, "Your hamster is
going to Heaven to live with his friends," a gifted child may not be
content with such a simplistic response and want more information
before moving on: "What is Heaven?," "Why do we have to die?" "Will
you die someday?"
Gifted children may also have a tendency to want to discuss
"adult" issues - such as , spirituality, and the afterlife – at a
deeper, more involved level than most kids their age. Other
potential topics may include quality, birth, money, relationships,
and divorce. While discussing these types of issues calmly and
openly is not necessarily detrimental to a child, there can be
drawbacks. A child who is excessively concerned about these things
may become overly focused, frightened, or "grossed out" by knowing
too much about issues they lack the life experience or emotional
maturity to fully understand.
A seven-year-old whose father loses his job, for instance, may
become anxious because he knows enough to understand the potential
negative outcomes associated with the lack of a steady income. He
may be concerned about the possibility of having to move out of his
neighborhood, or not having enough money to get by. A five-year-old
who knows "where babies come from" may find the whole subject so
fascinating that he shares his expert knowledge with all who will
In short, there is a certain bliss in the innocence of childhood
that may be lost on gifted children who are enlightened too quickly
concerning life's mysteries.
Gifted children are often thought to be more emotionally
perceptive and responsive than their peers. Some people have
described them as having finely tuned antennae when it comes to
picking up and responding to emotional signals that come from within
themselves or from those around them.
Some researchers have reported that gifted children may:
• Be overly empathetic to other people's problems or situations.
They might show a tendency to make the problem their own, and mirror
the moods or emotional state of the person they are concerned about.
• Overreact to frustration, rejection, success, or any situation
that triggers an emotional response – for example, sobbing over an
outwardly minor disappointment.
• Be overly sensitive to criticism or disapproval, or respond
strongly to minor suggestions or comments about their work or
• Worry too much about global situations such as poverty, war,
and natural disasters over which they have no control.
• Read too much into other people's comments or body language.
Friendships are often based on similarities. We tend to connect
with others who are like us in some way. That is not to say that two
people need to be clones of each other to bond - differences are
often what make a relationship interesting and may be what initially
attracts one person to another. But it's fair to say that long-term
relationships are often kept going because the people involved are
somehow similar. And arguably, mental similarities are one of the
most - if not the most - important ways that people connect and stay
connected. We tend to become close with those who think like us, not
necessarily people who have the same opinions or outlook, but rather
those who understand our ideas and perspectives, share similar
interests, and with whom we can carry on a mutually meaningful
conversation. Children and teens form meaningful and lasting
relationships in much the same way.
A potential problem for gifted children is that they often think
in a different way than most of their age peers – those they are
likely to spend a great deal of time with. They have the physical
appearance and probably the emotional maturity of their classmates,
but may have the vocabulary, interests, and reasoning ability of
those much older than themselves. They don't really fit into either
group. Consequently, developing meaningful friendships can be more
difficult for gifted children, and this problem can become more
pronounced as cognitive ability increases. Put another way, the pool
of potential same age "mental mates" shrinks as IQ rises.
Self-esteem can be thought of as the opinion we hold of
ourselves. So where do we get this opinion? As children, we begin to
develop a mental picture of ourselves in several different areas,
including how we look, how we act, how popular we are, and how good
we are at learning. This mental picture is formed from early
childhood through feedback we get from others and from comparing
ourselves to those around us. The picture becomes clearer and more
fixed as we get older, since our ideas about who we are get
reinforced over time. As we mature, we also develop a concept of an
"ideal person," or how we "ought to be." These ideas are likely
formed through messages received from sources around us like our
parents, teachers, peers, and the media.
Our self-esteem, then, comes from comparing our mental picture of
who we are to who we think we should be. Our feelings about
ourselves can differ greatly according to what area of our lives we
are considering and how we measure up to the ideal.
While studies show that many gifted children have high global
self-esteem (how they feel about themselves in general) and high
self-esteem when it comes to academics, it is also known that they
are not immune to having poor opinions about themselves. Self esteem
issues may be particularly troublesome for gifted children who are
prone to perfectionism – the desire to do everything just right
before one can be satisfied with the outcome. Realizing their own
potential and capabilities, these kids may get the feeling that they
should be able to do just about anything, and then become frustrated
when they don't perform up to their own expectations. For example,
getting less than perfect grades, not making the varsity sports
team, or not winning an award for the best science project may make
the gifted child feel that he has let himself down. Self-esteem may
also be negatively affected when gifted kids feel that they are not
measuring up to other high-achieving students, or to mentors whom
they see as role s or intellectual equals.
Gifted children who are not able to live up to their own
unrealistic or perfectionist expectations, or those who feel
alienated from the rest of the world because of their intellectual
differences, may develop feelings of sadness or depression. This is
particularly true for the highly gifted child or teen who may
develop the sense that the world they live in is a foreign land
where everyone thinks and acts differently than they do. As they get
older, these children may begin to question the meaning of a world
that is seemingly run by those whose values and interests are so
different from their own.
Becoming caught up in academic competitiveness can also lead to
depression and other serious consequences. It is known, for
instance, that attempts occur more frequently among young people who
excel academically, are highly creative, and attend highly
The very traits that help gifted children excel in learning can
make it difficult for them to participate in many school programs.
• Because they are usually able to complete tasks quickly, they
may become disinterested in a subject once they feel they have
mastered it, and then begin to tune out the teacher while they move
on to different things in their own minds. These children may be
perceived as unfocussed or as "daydreamers."
• They may be more focused on the big idea, rather than the small
details of a school task or subject. The organization of their
school work may appear to be lacking and attention to detail may be
missing. They may be perceived as disorganized, inattentive, or
• They may not need as much structure and teacher guidance as
most and prefer to guide their own learning and move at their own
pace. Teachers may become frustrated with students who are always
moving ahead or getting "off topic."
• Because they learn and complete work at such a fast pace they
could spend much of their school day with little to do or nothing to
engage their attention. Some become bored, apathetic, discouraged,
• Their thoughts may come faster than they can write - so there
is often a disconnect between how they think and what they produce
on paper. This could lead a teacher to group gifted children with
students of much lower ability, thus frustrating the child further.
Teachers that are not skilled at adapting their instruction to
meet the needs of gifted learners may feel threatened by how quickly
the child learns, or by how much they know. Such teachers may try to
make the gifted child conform to the pace of the classroom through
reprimands or discipline techniques that create hard feelings or a
poor working relationship between the teacher and the student.
Ways Kids Cope
Gifted children are as diverse a group as any other, and no two
children are alike. How they navigate through the social world and
cope with the stresses of growing up may have more to do with
individual personality traits, or the type of emotional support they
get from others, than with their IQ.
Yet there are some common themes when it comes to how gifted kids
cope. Because of the social isolation and negative feedback they may
encounter, there is some evidence that, as they get older and have
more of these experiences, some gifted children start to downplay
their abilities, becoming guarded or holding back when they are
around children their own age. Others may disguise their abilities
in other ways - like focusing on nonacademic-related talents, or
simply choosing to isolate themselves from others kids, preferring
to be alone or choosing the company of s.
Many though, as they mature and gain the insight that comes from
experience and maturity, learn to accept and appreciate their
differences without any long-term negative consequences.
Whether or not a child is dealing with any of the issues outlined
in this chapter, parents can help their kids through the school
• Being there to listen, understand, and support them emotionally
when they are going through a stressful period.
• Providing them with opportunities to develop and explore their
interests and connect with others who hold similar interests.
• Avoiding pushing them to excel or compete – or excessively
praising them for their accomplishments.
• Encouraging fun, playful activities and downtime.
Most importantly, research (and common sense) tells us that all
children benefit from having at least one caring, supportive in
their lives who provides structure, consistency, and a sense of
unconditional love, warmth, and encouragement.
Reframing the "Problem"
Again, the research is mixed when it comes to gifted kids and
social adjustment. Being gifted certainly does not mean that a child
will have a rough time growing up. Many of the potential negative
effects of a high IQ may never arise, particularly for those
children who measure in that "optimal" range of around 120 to 145.
Many studies have, in fact, shown that most gifted children are
well-adjusted and have no more social problems than most.
It's also true that the denser and more efficient neural
connections that some believe are related to gifted children's
emotional sensitivity and other issues can also help them in social
relationships. Many of the same characteristics that seem to create
problems for some gifted children can lead to positive outcomes in
others – and many of the possible drawbacks associated with
giftedness can also be viewed as potential advantages.
For instance, highly developed sensitivity and emotionality may
help gifted children develop social insight, enhance their capacity
to understand and connect with others, and boost their ability to
adapt to different social groups. Instead of causing them to
overreact or have melt-downs over little things, being highly
sensitive may allow gifted children to be more responsive to others'
needs, and give them an advantage in reading others' body language,
feelings, and emotions.
Similarly, having fewer social contacts, or true friends, could
certainly be viewed as a negative aspect of giftedness. But for some
children it may just mean that they are more discerning when it
comes to choosing who they hang out with. And preferring to be alone
at times does not necessarily mean the child is suffering from
social isolation. Gifted children are often highly introspective,
and choose to be alone to develop their gifts through solitary
Other gifted characteristics with possible negative implications,
such as boredom with school routines, bossiness, and questioning of
authority, can also be viewed as early signs of an independent
thinker or a natural leader.
David Palmer, Ph.D., is a parent, award winning researcher, and
educational psychologist currently practicing in Orange County,
California. He has served as Assistant Professor of Education at
California State University, Los Angeles, and has lectured on
university campuses, including UCLA, in the areas of counseling,
assessment, and education. Dr. Palmer has personally administered
hundreds of IQ tests to child of all ages and ability levels and has
helped many families find the right school program for their child.
Dr. Palmer's new book,
Parents' Guide to IQ Testing and Gifted Education: All you need to
know to make the right decisions for your child (ISBN
0977109852), is available at Barnes and Noble and other fine
booksellers. It can also be purchased online at
parentguidebooks.com, amazon.com, bn.com, and other internet