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Gifted Baby Boomers, How They Were Raised, and How They Raised You

… and how it might still be affecting you, your parenting, and your relationships

By Deborah L. Ruf.

This article is the first in a series about giftedness through the lifespan and the generations before you. My doctoral dissertation study on which this series of articles is based is specifically about the Baby Boomer Generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Here are the living generations as described by Strauss and Howe:

  • The Greatest Generation (born 1901–1927)

  • The Silent Generation (born 1928–1945)

  • Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964)

  • Generation X (born 1965–1980)

  • Millennials (born 1981–1995)

  • Generation Z (born 1996–2010)

  • Generation Alpha (born 2011–2025)

Photo by Kampus Production.

The study uses case studies of 41 highly gifted adults who were all part of the Baby Boomer generation, the one I am in. There are generational effects related to the zeitgeist — that is, the history going on at the time groups of human beings were living their lives.

What were the pressing circumstances each generation had to deal with, face, endure, or benefit from? If you ever wonder where on Earth your parents or grandparents got their ideas, this series of articles might fill in some blanks for you. This qualitative research of mine was done with mostly middle class white people. If your families are not from this group, it may help you to understand a bit better how they thought and why they acted the ways that they did and do now. I use my original title to introduce the first part of the series because it is a good, representative heading for how my parents’ generations — the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation — seemed to view their smart Baby Boomer children’s “self-absorbed” behaviors.

If You’re So Smart, Why Do You Need Counseling?

Self-indulgent. Whiny. Weak. Many of the generation who lived through the Great Depression and World War II would admit that they do not understand the current popularity of psychotherapy. If you’re depressed, get on with it. Fix it. Change your attitude. To many people, needing therapy implies lack of strength, self-sufficiency, or competence. In fact, our “G.I.” generation views life quite differently than younger generations. According to Strauss and Howe (1991), “Throughout their lives, these G.I.s [the generation] have been America’s confident and rational problem-solvers” (p. 261). They continue,“Such a generation has had little thirst for spiritual conversion, no need for transcending new consciousness…Valuing outer life over inner, G.I.s came of age preferring crisp sex-role definitions … G.I.s matured into a father-worshipping and heavily male-fixated generation. As rising adults, they came to disdain womanish influences on public life…The G.I.s’ rift with their own children arose, in substantial part, from the refusal of Boomer youths to accept the exaggerated masculinity of G.I. fathers” (p. 264).

The Baby Boomers, who are the focus group of the current paper, have been born into and raised in an unprecedented era of prosperity and relative safety. If one considers Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1968), Maslow theorized that self-actualization could not even be considered until physiological, safety, belongingness and love needs are met for individuals. Ironically, the very attitudes and accomplishments of the G.I. generation may have paved the way for the current younger generations to take the time necessary for inner growth and change. The G.I. generation who underplays their problems and behave as though there is a solution to everything if you just try hard enough has spawned generations who more and more can recognize and admit when they are depressed, angry, sad, or unfulfilled.

Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jew who died in the holocaust, recognized that different times allow different kinds of talents and strengths to emerge (1983). In her final entry to her journal prior to her death in a Nazi extermination camp she wrote, “I always return to Rilke [philosopher-poet]. It is strange to think that someone so frail and who did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. Is that not further testimony that life is finely balanced? Evidence that, in peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions? A response that they are unable to formulate themselves since all their energies are taken up looking after the bare necessities. Sadly, in difficult times we tend to shrug off the spiritual heritage of artists from an ‘easier’ age, with ‘What use is that sort of thing to us now?’

It is an understandable but shortsighted reaction. And utterly impoverishing” (pp. 242–243).

Terman’s longitudinal study group was part of the G.I. generation. According to Terman and the follow-up studies, the gifted group had above average mental health including a low incidence of depression (Terman & Oden, 1947, 1959). The then-popular notion that giftedness brought with it mental illness or peculiarity was largely debunked by Terman’s study. It is possible, though, that the gifted group played the games of the day exceptionally well.

Highly Gifted Adults and Counseling

In the early 1990s I collected case study material from 110 highly gifted men and women between the ages of 20 and 83, three generations, as part of my doctoral dissertation study (Ruf, 1998). No one over age 60 reported any counseling; nearly a third of subjects between the ages of 40 and 60 sought counseling; and about half of the under-40s had already had some sort of counseling by the time they participated in the study. It became clear that a generational cohort effect was greatly influencing the viewpoints and outlooks of my subjects. Already needing a data reduction device, I decided to limit the data analysis to people of my own generation, the Baby Boomers.

The subjects quoted for this paper are part of a subset of 41 adults who were between the ages of 40 and 60 (in 1993 at the time of data collection), who have all scored at the 99th percentile and above on standardized tests of intellectual ability, and who all volunteered for an anonymous study of high giftedness in adults. Nearly all the subjects reported some painful experiences relating to their differentness as gifted when they were children. Fully 75% of the subjects wrote about their intellectual struggles to make sense of the world and their place in it. In fact, the over-riding cause of expressed sadness, disappointments, and depression appears to relate to that existential question.

When intelligent members of the Baby Boomer generation tried to talk to their similarly intelligent G.I. generation parents about “finding themselves” and other existential questions, it was all too common to hear, “If you’re so smart, why can’t you figure it out for yourself? What makes you think you need counseling?” As a result, guilt and shame were often added to the list of issues with which the study’s subjects struggled.

Within the 41 subject highly gifted group, 13 (nearly 32%) people reported that they received therapeutic counseling. Although several of the excerpts presented in this paper are from people who did not receive counseling, all are reflective of the issues that motivated individual searches for personal growth. Of the nine people (22%) of the study subjects who, at the time of data gathering, were exhibiting some evidence of higher level development behavior described by Dabrowski (1964), only three of them did not mention having received counseling support, although, unfortunately, it was not a direct question in the study questionnaires.

Incidence of Abuse Among the Gifted

In this study group of highly gifted adults, 56% reported some degree of abusive treatment in their childhoods. Although approximately half the group reported occasional slappings and spankings, I did not consider that common, at the time, form of discipline among this age cohort for a subject’s inclusion in the abusive category. Instead, repeated verbal and emotional abuse is included, as are the 19% who reported sexual abuse, the additional 12% who experienced sexual interference (inappropriate touching or adult exposure, for example, that the subjects reported as disturbing to them), and the 15% who described stronger physical abuse. Three subjects admitted to being outright beaten more than once during their childhoods.

Direct comparisons of abuse for study subjects compared to normal population figures are not possible because statistical incidence of abuse is for reportable, confirmed cases only. Only one of the 41 subjects wrote that abuse in her home was ever reported to authorities. According to figures reported in 1994 for 1993 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for all forms of substantiated abuse, about 1% of the population under age 18 was living in reportable, abusive conditions for which authorities were called to intervene. It seems reasonable to assume here that “reportable abuse” accounts for little of actual abuse in most homes.

It is important to note that some subjects described emotional or physical abuse but did not personally identify it as such. When they emphatically stated that they experienced no abuse, I did not include them in the “abused” category for the study. Whether or not subjects were abused, or perceived themselves as having been abused, was not the most prominent consideration for those seeking counseling. Feeling depressed, sad, or hopeless were the primary factors that lead subjects into counseling, and for most people, these factors related only peripherally to actual incidence of abuse. Furthermore, there were as many people who wrote about being depressed who did not seek therapy as those who did.

Watch for the 2nd section of the series next month in the SENG Library, entitled “Understanding Viewpoints Based on Dabrowski Levels — Inner Growth in Highly Gifted Adults.”

All Posts from Deborah Ruf, PhD are Always Available to Medium Members. No limits ever.

Story References

Hillesum, E. (1983). An interrupted life: the diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941–43. J. G. Gaarlandt, Trans.) New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, Inc. (Original work published 1981).

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, MJ: D. Nostrand.

Ruf, D. L. (1998). Environmental, familial, and personal factors that affect the self-actualization of highly gifted adults: Case studies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Strauss, W. & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The history of America’s future, 1584 to 2069. New York: Quill/William Morrow.

Terman, L. M., and Oden, M. H. (1947). Genetic studies of genius Vol. IV: The gifted child grows up. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Terman, L. M., and Oden, M. H. (1959). Genetic studies of genius Vol. V: The gifted group at mid-life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

(Published in Advanced Development Journal, 1999)


Deborah L. Ruf earned a Ph.D. in Tests & Measurement with a minor in Learning & Cognition at the University of Minnesota. She worked as a private consultant and specialist in gifted assessment, test interpretation, and guidance for the gifted for 30 years. Having been a parent, classroom teacher, and administrator in elementary through graduate education, she continues to write and speak about school issues and social and emotional adjustment of gifted children and adults. Dr. Ruf maintains an interest in educational policy, particularly how to set up schools that meet not only academic but social and emotional needs of children through grouping and instruction with true peers. She is the author of the award-winning book Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind (2005) and retitled 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options in 2009. In late 2022, Dr. Ruf releases her follow-up longitudinal book study of the now-adult children from the original book and how they are doing now. Her focus has now progressed toward the social and emotional health of the gifted adults who parent gifted children. Her most recent invited paper, How Parental Viewpoint and Personality Affect Gifted Child Outcomes (2020, Gifted Child International Journal) looks into specific parent-child interactions of the subject families from the 5 Levels book. For more than 40 years, Dr. Ruf has served as a keynote speaker, workshop, and conference presenter, and written chapters for 5 textbooks, more than 12 peer-reviewed journal articles, and 100 plus articles and handouts for newsletters, magazines, and websites. For more information see and LinkedIn.

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My subjects' viewpoints have been significantly impacted by the generational cohort effect. I chose to restrict data analysis to members of my generation, the Baby Boomers, even though I already needed a data compactor. Happy Wheels


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