A taboo topic?
I have been to several conferences and read many books on giftedness, but one subject that is little discussed is the social/emotional effects on gifted children of being envied. It’s as if we are hoping that by not talking about it, it will go away, and we will not run the risk of being accused of bragging.
A few months ago, I was struck by the candor and self-awareness of Joyce Slaton in her blog post, “I hate hearing about your gifted child.” She said, in part:
I get it that the moms are proud, and certainly, I don’t mind hearing about the kids’ other wonderful accomplishments. It’s the gifted thing that gets me… But why am I comparing? Why do I care? Normal is a good thing! Normal is great! Normal is what I prayed for. But that’s a lie. I didn’t. I prayed for better than normal. I wanted the Amazing Super Child who was going to prove to the world how 5-star my DNA is (believe me, typing that out, I realize how stupid that sounds). Maybe that’s why I feel like crap when a mom I know brags about the advanced-aheadedness of her kid. Do the braggers even notice that I fall silent and get downcast, listening? I try not to let it show. I know the moms are just excited and proud, and maybe I’d feel the same way if I had a lot of stuff to brag about.
Her post generated over 400 comments! Clearly, there are many parents who feel the same way. There were also many comments from parents of gifted kids who felt that they were being unfairly accused of bragging.
Envy mediates self-interest and group interests in social groups
What I want to focus on first are Joyce’s questions: “Why am I comparing? Why do I care?” To answer that, we should first ask, “Why do humans feel envy?”
“Envy can be defined as feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that arise when our personal qualities, possessions, or achievements do not measure up to those of someone significant to us.” (Salovey & Rodin, 1985; Silver & Sabini, 1978a)
Envy has both positive and negative aspects. In the positive form, we admire the object of our envy and seek to emulate that person. It’s the negative aspect that we consider socially unacceptable: we seek to steal or destroy the object of our envy.There’s also evidence that envy plays a greater role in our reactions than we’re consciously aware of. The stronger and more negative the envy, the more likely our awareness of it is to be suppressed. Silver and Sabini (1978b) pointed out that
Since an attribution of envy presupposes that the individual has been diminished or at least that he perceives this to be the case, to be seen as envious is doubly damaging. Not only have we committed a “sin,” but we have tacitly acknowledged our inferiority. Considering this, people usually find it very difficult to admit that they envy someone else.
What I’ve read about envy mostly considers it the result of individual self-interest. Salovey and Rodin (1984) proposed three eliciting conditions of envy:
- Negative or esteem diminishing information about oneself with regard to another person
- High self-relevance of that information
- High similarity to or close relationship with the reference person.
I propose that envy also serves the function of mediating individual interests (resources, status, self-esteem) and group interests (sharing, stable social hierarchy). The basis for envy is the social principle of fairness. We see this principle in other primates. In primate social groups, if one individual takes more than his share, the others become envious. That individual is seen as committing a social transgression, and is challenged by the group or by more dominant individuals. In this way, envy maintains resource sharing among individuals in social species.
Envy also maintains a stable social hierarchy in the group because it is moderated by social status. Envy is held in check when the individual who has more resources also has greater status and can defend that status. In other words, if a weaker individual couldn’t challenge the stronger one in a test of dominance, then the weaker individual’s envy must be suppressed. This is also observed in humans who experience more intense envy of people they are in direct competition with than they do toward people they see as being much higher status (e.g. admired movie stars).
On the other hand, envy is given free rein when the group perceives that an individual has more than his share of resources than his status would merit. Because of this, individuals who experience envy automatically seek to justify their feelings with the rest of the group. They rationalize their responses by attributing social transgressions to the envied person. In this way, envy helps individuals transform their own interests into group interests. The rationalization process also serves to cover up the individual’s self-interested goals, and may even conceal it from his own conscious knowledge. This is more likely to occur when the envy is intense.
Outliers inspire envy
Envy occurs whether or not it is “justified”. We may envy someone for taking more than his share of resources (a behavior over which he has control), but we also envy someone for being more beautiful or intelligent than we are (things the envied person doesn’t control). In the case of beauty or intelligence, if a person is much more beautiful or much smarter than everyone else in the group, that person will be in the position of always defending their right to that higher level of status, and of constantly being envied by those in competition with them. The group may work together to undermine the status of the envied person, and make things more “equal”. As James Fenimore Cooper said, “The tendency of democracies is, in all things, to mediocrity.”
In order to understand interactions like what we see on Slaton’s blog, the key is that when people experience envy, they automatically generate rationalizations to justify the actions they want to take, and to seek support from other group members. Sometimes these rationalizations are logical and support the group interests of resource sharing, for example, “It’s not fair for John Doe to take more water for his farm just because he lives upstream.” Sometimes they are fabrications that other group members recognize as false, and are considered socially unacceptable expressions of envy. But they can also be fabrications that the group accepts because they are expedient justifications for actions that are seen as being in the best interests of the group.
Envy can reinforce stereotypes
The latter case is more likely to occur when the person who is envied has an outlier trait that cannot be shared with the group and that is seen as serving the envied individual’s interest alone. In Slaton’s blog, the trait in question is having a gifted child. The parent of the gifted child cannot share the child’s intellectual gifts with the other parents’ children. Those who envy the parent of the gifted child tend to immediately attribute their negative feelings (actually generated by the envy) to some social transgression on the part of the envied parent. In this case, the charge is “bragging”. This makes sense, because any discussion of the gifted child’s abilities makes their envy salient, and they naturally want to avoid that emotional discomfort. Parents are not only defending their own self-concepts as good parents and intelligent people, but even more vitally, they are defending their own good opinion of their offspring. Slaton’s blog is again an excellent example of this mechanism because she goes on to talk about what she values in her own daughter: kindness and being thoughtful of others.
In fact, even if the parents of gifted kids say nothing about their children’s abilities, they are still often perceived as committing some social transgression. The list of these transgressions corresponds very closely to the negative stereotypes of gifted people:
Negative stereotypes of the gifted
- Showing off
- Being a snob
- Evil genius
- Disrespectful of authority
Social transgressions that parents of gifted kids are often accused of
- Showing off
- Feeling superior
- Mistreating their children by pushing them academically
These accusations of social transgressions serve the purpose of reducing the salience of the envy (If parents of gifted kids are not allowed to talk about their kids, then I won’t feel envious) or denying that the children are actually gifted (If the parents are cheating and helping kids with work, or pushing their children inhumanely to produce high achievers, then the children are not really gifted.) They also serve the purpose of reducing the status of parents of gifted children by making them appear to be bad parents or selfish people. In some cases, this extends to justifying social exclusion or outright bullying of gifted children and their families.
“But wait!” you say. “When they talk about what their gifted kids can do, they really are bragging!” Now we come to what impressed me so much about Slaton’s blog post: she recognizes that if she were in the position of having a gifted child, she would want to talk about her child’s abilities, too. As parents, we are not given a manual on how to raise our children. We have to make choices without knowing how things will turn out. We all know it’s impossible to follow all the advice out there on child rearing, so we seek feedback and reassurance from other parents. Are we doing a good job? Are our kids developmentally on track? Ordinarily, this works pretty well. Most people’s kids are developmentally similar, but when a child is gifted, it becomes socially unacceptable for her parents to talk about her developmental trajectory. Here is an example of a normal scenario leading to envy and charges of bragging or pushing.
Scenario: Two moms, Abby and Betty, are sitting on a bench at the park. Abby introduces herself to Betty and starts asking about Betty’s child.
Abby: Is that your daughter in the green over there? How old is she?
Betty: She’s two.
Abby: Oh! (feeling uncomfortable) I saw her reading that sign…
Betty: (feeling uncomfortable) Is that your daughter on the slide?
Abby: Yes. She’s four. She isn’t reading yet. I don’t believe in that flashcard stuff. Kids should be allowed to be kids.
Notice that Betty has few choices in this exchange that could lead to a good outcome. She can let the assumption stand that she drills her child for hours with flashcards every day and doesn’t allow her to “be a kid” (despite the evidence that she does take her to parks), or she can deny using the flashcards and say truthfully that her daughter learned to read spontaneously which will lead to Abby perceiving her as bragging. Also note that neither Abby nor Betty is feeling good about this interaction. The usual script has failed them both, and neither is getting a feeling of support from the other.
One thing Betty might try to do is find a way to deny being in an enviable position. She might say, “Well, if only I could get her to stop pooping her pants.” Or, “I am looking forward to when she is four. She still won’t sleep in her own bed.” This tactic may soothe Abby’s feelings, but it comes at a price: Betty is forced to think of her own child in a negative light, and to express negative feelings about her child in front of the child. If this happens occasionally, it probably doesn’t have much impact, but the since Betty’s daughter’s abilities are rare, Betty will have to use this approach much more often than other parents.
Envy affects the social development of gifted kids
During infancy and early childhood, in highly gifted children, giftedness may already be apparent due to precocious development of speech, reading, and/or math abilities. Gifted children may also have other behavioral differences such as high levels of activity and alertness that make parenting a challenge. The child’s precocious abilities create conflict within the larger social context which is an obstacle to the development of a realistic self-concept and trust in adults. Parents of gifted children report feeling uncomfortable about mentioning their children’s abilities in front of other parents. Other adults may react strangely toward the gifted child, for example, a two year old reading labels aloud in the supermarket may attract attention. This attention is sometimes positive (Wow! How old is he? He can read already? What a smart boy!) but sometimes negative (How can you do that to your child! You should let her be a child, not force her to practice reading all day!) Unfortunately, even the positive response does not promote a healthy self-concept because when a child’s abilities are always called out, the child concludes that these are the most important aspects of his self, and perhaps the only facet of himself that is valued. The negative responses (which are often delivered with a judgmental, angry demeanor) are also damaging to the parent/child relationship, and to a child’s trust of other adults.
Highly gifted children whose abilities are very out of the ordinary can inspire shocking displays of envy in adults. One young boy, who learned to read before he was three years old, was granted early entrance to Kindergarten at age four. When the time came for the cute little “graduation” ceremony in the spring, a parent objected to his participation saying that he was not really in Kindergarten because he was too young, and that allowing him to “graduate” Kindergarten would be cheating because he had not achieved everything that his own son had achieved. I put quotes around “graduate” because in that state, Kindergarten is not legally required and there are no standards for such a graduation. Here, the gifted student’s family was accused of a (fabricated) social transgression, and the other parent successfully recruited allies on the school staff and convinced them to exclude the boy from the end of year party.
Middle childhood, or the grade school period, marks the child’s first friendship experiences with other children. Unfortunately for gifted children, most of their exposure to other children happens in the context of school. In the school context, competition and comparisons between the abilities of the children are more prominent than during ordinary play interactions. Age-based segregation in grades contributes to these comparisons because all children in a given age group are expected to meet certain standards. Students are aware of each other’s grades and performance in school, and high achievers are often the targets of bullying. It is likely that this bullying is the result of envy. Bullies seek to reduce the status of their targets by physically dominating them or by undermining them socially.
The gifted child also must navigate relationships with teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are not immune to envy, and this creates conflict that the gifted child is forced to resolve. We would predict that teachers’ envy would manifest itself as the perception of the gifted child as socially transgressing, and research bears this out. (Geake & Gross, 2008) Although the teachers did not directly report feelings of envy, they reported fears that the gifted child would undermine the teacher’s authority (the teachers’ anxiety seems to center on fears that the gifted child is subversive and not pro-social). Gifted children who know more about some topics than the teacher can be threatening to the teacher. Young gifted children may not realize this and helpfully correct the teacher in front of the class, undermining the teacher’s status.
This research also shows that teachers may have unconscious negative responses to gifted children in their classrooms. An envious teacher’s behavior toward the gifted child sends subtle signals to the other children that the gifted child is a threat and should be ostracized. The gifted child also receives this message and feels rejected. Envious teachers can also unconsciously undermine the gifted child by attacking his self confidence through criticism or by constantly testing him. This creates anxiety in the gifted child and promotes the conditions for unhealthy perfectionism and underachievement.
Some teachers may be concerned about protecting gifted students from the envy of others. I often see educators recommending that gifted students not be grade accelerated because they will face “social problems”. Gifted programs in schools often include differentiated instruction. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice it is rarely well-executed. Concerns about envy may play a large role in the teacher’s reluctance to give different work to the gifted students in their classes, and the reluctance of some gifted students to be seen doing different work.
Sometimes, teachers avoid differentiation because they want to spare other students from feelings of envy. In one anecdotal example, when a gifted 5th grade girl in a 5th/6th combo class (where she had been placed so she could work at her own pace) finished the 5th grade math book in a few months and asked to move on to the 6th grade math book, the teacher told her that she couldn’t do that because “the 6th grade boys would feel bad.” Not only did this teacher deny the gifted student an opportunity to learn, she also sent the student the tacit message that her giftedness “makes others feel bad” and should be hidden.
Gifted children, who are often sensitive and perceptive, respond in various ways to these mixed messages about whether their intelligence and achievements are good things or not. Some of them withdraw and stop exhibiting gifted behaviors. They underachieve in school and intentionally withhold what they know from the teacher. Some of them act out in frustration at their rejection by the group, and some reject the group in turn. When the teacher’s envy is a problem, the gifted student is in a no-win situation. If he hangs back and doesn’t participate, he is seen as aloof or uncooperative. If he participates enthusiastically, he is seen as a show-off. Some carefully balance on a narrow middle path of acting as average as possible, and denying their true selves.
The responses of others to the gifted child set him up for increased anxiety and sensitivity. Being excluded from the group creates anxiety, and increased anxiety can lead to psychomotor agitation, emotional lability, and/or withdrawal. Many of these behavioral responses correspond with overexcitabilities observed in gifted students. The constant vigilance required to carefully navigate around the envy triggers of others can contribute to increased sensitivity. In this way, I think anxiety over exclusion from the group contributes to the observed intensity and sensitivity of gifted students. The increased anxiety and sensitivity are in turn interpreted as social defects inherent in the gifted child, and unfortunately, envious adults can unwittingly reinforce these behavior patterns because they are eager to find fault with the gifted child. Even parents can overemphasize these difficulties in their own children in their attempts to convince others that their children are not in an enviable position.
Adolescence is a period of increasing competition and increased attention to differences as teens build their identities. (Massé& Gagné, 2002) The interactions increase in complexity as teens practice imagining the mental states of others. They assume that downward comparisons should lead to reassurance and pride, and therefore interpret the gifted teens as prideful and snobbish. Meanwhile, the gifted teens are faced with stereotype threat, “Gifted kids think they’re better,” and are forced to cope with it by denying the stereotype and working hard not to confirm it (Steele, 1997). Teachers in middle and high school may have reactions to gifted students similar to those of grade school teachers: unconscious negative affect. They may single out the gifted student, modeling exclusion for the other students. Gifted teens are faced with a choice: deny the self to gain acceptance of the group or preserve their gifted identity and face exclusion.
The problem of dealing with other people’s envy is one of the central problems of gifted development. This is why gifted programs are so important for gifted kids; they need to be in an environment where the teachers expect to teach gifted students and welcome them, and where the discrepancies between the students’ abilities and their age-peers are not so dramatic so that competition and comparison generate less envy. It is not because they can’t make friends with non-gifted kids, or because gifted people are elitist. Like everyone else, they need a social group where they can feel accepted as they are, and where they can receive positive feedback for their achievements.
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Thanks to Margo Burns and Nina Paley for creating Comic-O-Matic, which I used to create the images in this piece.