Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Too Clever to Ask for Help...?

I have a very lovely friend who has three lovely kids.  One of them is diagnosed 'gifted' (he's a full on fabulous genius), and he and his siblings are home educated, which I think is a big reason why he is still sane. Anyway, his Mum and I were chatting the other day about how difficult it seems to be for him to ask for help if he gets stuck on - say - a Maths problem, and as it's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, I thought it might be worth a blog post...

So, it was established fairly early on that I was "bright":  I was reading fluently age two; at primary school I was entered into a national maths competition and I got one of the highest scores in the country (bear with me: there is a point to all this apparent bragging);  I was first in the class to finish the reading scheme; I was effortlessly top of the class in most things; when the school did logic testing I was told I had an extremely high IQ.

So that was it: I was definitely and officially a smarty-pants.

Why then did this smarty-pants struggle at secondary school?  Why did I find student life so difficult that I dropped out of college?  I have thought about it often, and I am coming more and more to the conclusion that it was because of my inability to ask questions - to ask for help when I was stuck.

You see, I was "clever". That was who I was.  All of the evidence pointed to it, all of the grown-ups around me agreed: it must be true.  It was, if you like, my label.  Let me clarify: my parents, though proud of me for being me, were never pushy or bragging - it was just universally acknowledged that I was clever. And somehow subconsciously it became my defining factor - my strength, my identity.  For me to ask a question or acknowledge that there was something I didn't know or couldn't do wasn't simply a matter of being afraid to show weakness... it just didn't occur to me.  It wasn't pride - I got no sense of inflated ego from it - it was just who I was.  Maybe I subconsciously didn't want to let everyone (or myself) down, but I think it was more that I was "clever" therefore I had to know the answer.  I was "clever" so if everything wasn't easy there must be something wrong with me.  If I had been able to consciously acknowledge that I couldn't get something right first time, it might have rocked my whole world off the Richter scale.  That is not to say though that it was a conscious thing though - not at all.  It was just somehow two sides of the same coin: my cleverness and my inability to not 'get' something.  The first was something I absorbed from the people around me - the second was a wholly inaccurate deduction that my immature brain assumed.  So when I came across something I didn't get, (which didn't really happen until secondary school) it was like a glitch in the mainframe - my programming just did not compute.  My subconscious literally could not accept it, so I guess I went into unwitting denial.  That's easy at secondary school - you just stay quiet at the back and scrape through with good-enough grades.  It doesn't really work at degree level though - hence the dropping out of teacher training college.  Even then - even at the point when I dropped out, I was utterly confused as to how it happened.  I knew I could teach but somehow I hadn't done enough.  It was only later that I connected my failure with not asking for help when I hit an issue.

It was when I got to my mid-twenties that I gave myself permission to not be perfect - to not have all the answers.  It was a huge and liberating deal for me - I can still remember where I was and what I was doing (I was praying) - and it changed my life.  I started to enjoy not knowing because it gave me the freedom to ask questions and find out answers.  I was suddenly hungry to learn - and I was probably nicer to those around me who weren't perfect either.  It was like a fog lifted - the denial had gone and I could function better.  Of course, that much wasn't obvious at the time, it is only with hindsight that I can see better what was going on.

I guess I wanted to write this for people out there who may have gifted/ genius/ intelligent/ "clever" children.  Like all labels, even the unofficial ones - it has its benefits and its drawbacks.  And one of the drawbacks to the intelligence label can be - not in all cases, but some - a total inability to accept not 'getting' something.  It is not conscious.  Asking this person "why don't you ask for help?" is as effective as asking a depressed person "why don't you just pull yourself together".  It's like being stuck.  A glitch in the mainframe that needs reprogramming.

So.  A few ways that you can help re-write the program, from my experience...
  • If your "clever" child asks a question at any point, a good first response is "That is a SMART question".  It really helps to equate asking questions with intelligence.  After all, we know there really is no such thing as a stupid question if you don't know the answer, but a child with the "clever" label may not get that at all.  
  • Try to find other 'labels' for your child as well.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with them knowing they are "gifted", but it helps for them to also regularly hear about their kind heart/ sense of humour/ perseverance etc, so that their intelligence does not become their whole identity
  • If you see your child struggling with something they clearly don't 'get', proceed with caution.  Failure is actually a very important experience for them to have - don't feel you have to soften the blow of them not 'getting it' - but it really helps if you can be there to help them see the learning process as a positive experience.  Learning is not about exposing the weaknesses in their intelligence - learning is a chance to flex their intelligence muscles.
If anyone has found any other ways to help their "clever" child, please do comment below - I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. That's a really interesting post! Having Aspergers, J is considered to be "above average" intelligence, but there's a big disparity between things he's good at (reading, science) and stuff he's not (spelling, maths). I actually find that he will happily ask questions about the stuff he's confident about (and I quite often do say "wow, that's a really interesting question! Let's find out!") but with the things that he struggles with he would rather just not try than risk getting things wrong. Which does make things difficult sometimes, and puts a real roadblock in the way of any "formal" learning, hence why we're rather unschooly at the moment! I also find that he really struggles sometimes with practical skills, and will get incredibly frustrated if someone offers to help - because he wants to do it himself but just can't (more an ASD issue than "clever child", I know) No other suggestions really, I just keep letting him know that it's ok to make mistakes, no-one knows everything and asking questions is how we learn. R x

    1. Thanks for your comment Rachel! I do think this trait seems to be quite common among - if not exclusive to - those on the autism spectrum too. I don't have enough experience of ASD to be able to recognise the difficulties specific to Aspie kids when it comes to asking for help, but I totally relate to being frustrated with people offering to help if they saw me struggling. It's great that J is learning it's OK to make mistakes now - good for you for giving him such a good start! xx