Developmental Phases of Social Development

By Linda K. Silverman.

A parent who had just learned that her son was highly gifted remarked fearfully, “But I want my child to be a good neighbor!” She was worried that if her son was placed in a self-contained program for the gifted, he would not be able to get along with anyone except other gifted children-a familiar concern. His IQ score was beyond the norms in the manual, estimated in excess of 170. His parents were not prepared for their son to be this bright; his mother wanted more than anything for him to lead a “normal life.”

For this child’s parents, as for so many other children’s, “being normal” means having the ability to get along with people from all walks of life. This is an important value for most people, particularly parents of the gifted. How does the gifted child learn to do this? There appear to be three key factors involved in gifted children’s social development:

1. A responsive home environment in which the child is respected;

2. Opportunities to relate to other gifted children-particularly during the early years, when self-concept is being formed;

3. Opportunities to relate to the mainstream during adolescence.

Children are sponges, absorbing all that their environments have to offer-language patterns, attitudes, values, impressions of themselves. They usually begin life trusting, affectionate, exhilarated with each new discovery. If children are cherished by their parents, they come to cherish themselves and feel secure. A child whose ideas and needs are respected at home is likely to respect the needs of other children. Children also imitate the way their parents talk about and act toward others. When parents genuinely appreciate people of all backgrounds and abilities, their children usually do the same.

Due to their expert ability to pick up social cues, girls are better than boys at imitation. Therefore, it is important for them to be in an environment where imitation is conducive to growth. If they live in a home filled with kindness, they learn to be kind. If they live next door to children who call each other names, they learn how to swear. And if a girl who is mentally eight years old is placed in a kindergarten with only five year olds, she will imitate the behavior of five year olds.

Many gifted children receive a good foundation for self-esteem within their families. Then something happens: they meet other children. By the age of five or six, openness and confidence are frequently replaced with self-doubt and layers of protective defenses. Being different is a problem in childhood. Young children-even gifted ones-do not have the capacity to comprehend differences. They have difficulty understanding why other children do not think the way that they do. They equate differentness with being “strange” or unacceptable, and this becomes the basis of their self-concept. It’s difficult for a child who has been wounded continuously by peers to feel generosity toward others. It takes positive experiences with children like themselves to build the self-confidence needed for healthy peer relations. Later, when their self-concepts are fully formed, they are better equipped to understand differences, to put negative feedback of age peers in perspective, and to gain appreciation of the diversity of their classmates. But acceptance precedes positive social values.

Children only learn to love others when they have achieved self-love. The process usually involves the following stages:

1. self-awareness;

2. finding kindred spirits;

3. feeling understood and accepted by others;

4. self-acceptance;

5. recognition of the differences in others; and, eventually,

6. the development of understanding, acceptance and appreciation of others.

Social Development of Gifted Boys Young gifted boys have extreme difficulty relating to children who are not at their own developmental level. They think the games of average children are “silly” or “babyish.” A gifted five-year-old boy with an eight-year-old mind gets angry when the other children do not follow the rules; he is unable to comprehend that his age-mates are not mentally ready to understand the meaning of rules. His own games tend to be highly organized and sophisticated. If the other children cannot relate to his games, or if they laugh at him or reject him, he concludes that there is something wrong with him (Janos, Fung & Robinson, 1985). Because he is unusually sensitive (Lovecky, 1991), he takes the teasing and criticism of others to heart and begins to develop a protective veneer. This thin layer doesn’t really protect him-underneath it he is as vulnerable as ever-but it manages to place some distance between himself and other children in hopes that they can’t hurt him as easily. This scenario is even more likely in the sensitive, artistic boy who is perceived as “feminine” and teased mercilessly for his lack of “manliness.”

If a child is perpetually exposed to a hostile environment, he will withdraw more and more from social interaction. He will come to see himself as awkward and unlovable, incapable of making friends. He will distrust not only the children who make fun of him, but most other children as well. He will expect to be laughed at and rejected even by strangers. A child who has had too many early negative experiences with others grows into an alienated adult, one who may withdraw permanently from social contact. Too much risk is involved.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to this fate. If the child has early contact with others like himself, he does not come to see himself as different or “weird.” He is able to make friends easily with others who think and feel as he does, who communicate on his level and share his interests. Association with true peers prevents alienation. Roedell (1985, 1988, 1989) has studied the social development of young gifted children. She stresses the immense importance of true peers and suggests that a major function of programs for highly gifted children is to help them discover their true peers at an early age. “The word peer refers to individuals who