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The trouble with labels

I've had in interesting week in the interweb. Because I like to learn and because it's important to have a virtual space to hang out with like-minds, I belong to a few forums on giftedness and also homeschooling and unschooling. These forums have been invaluable to me working my way through the minefield of figuring out this parenting/home education gig - others who have BTDT (I am so up on the acronyms!) who provide insight and experience. I don't necessarily have to agree with their approach, but their thoughts, ideas and experiences provide food for thought as I delve into previously un-charted territory. And the online community can be so terribly supportive (as the wonderful comments on this blog are testament to)!

However, this last week, a closed group on unschooling on Facebook had an interesting "discussion" that left me feeling very unsettled. Because it is closed, I won't quote directly, however, the crux of the discussion was that the word gifted had no place in unschooling communities.

The conversation started innocently enough - someone had mentioned that their child appeared to have the traits of giftedness, and that was one reason why they were considering homeschooling and they were also interested in the concepts of "unschooling". Some comments were made that "all children are gifted". This statement bugs me, because it shows a lack of understanding of what the word "gifted" (or specially, intellectually gifted) means. In the spirit of sharing my hard-earned wisdom (and Certificate of Gifted Education), I replied that whilst all children, and indeed adults, have "strengths" not all can be considered "gifted" and that for gifts to turn into "talents" all the stars and moons have to align (with regard to learning and home environments, motivation, perserverence, organisation, etc).

This was not well taken by some on the group. Despite my own and others best efforts to (calmly and factually) explain giftedness and why it was important, there were several people who repeatedly claimed that giftedness was a construct of the education system, where children are compared to each other and that the term was offensive and implied everyone else was of lesser value and as such, had no place in a group that was dedicated to unschooling.

I know the word "gifted" or even it's more specific phrase "intellectually gifted" causes issues because it implies that some rare people have been "given" something that others don't have.

I totally get that unschooling (and it's related term "deschooling") mean we can lose a lot of those "education-speak" concepts of comparisons and ranking and age-step grades (bring it on, baby!).

I do know that we are all special in our own way and we each have unique potential. We are all different (wouldn't it be boring if we were all the same?).

Some people find the term "gifted" disturbing - but identifying a student as gifted does not mean they are of greater worth or value than any other children - any more than identifying learning difficulties or disabilities means they are of less worth. It is an issue of understanding need. Children who are intellectually gifted have fundamentally different cognitive and learning characteristics. Recognising that is very important in a school setting. But I would argue that it is also important in a homeschool setting and continues to be important even if you follow an unschool path. Same as if my child was on the autism spectrum or had hearing impairments - they would be fundamentally different, and would require specific interventions.

Unschooling is a deliberate casting off of "schooling" and artificial, age-based curriculum. It is viewing education as learning, and giving children the freedom to learn as much as they want about what is important to them. I will agree that so much of the gifted literature is focussed on the school system and providing appropriate education for gifted kids. So I get why in the world of unschooling, the word gifted might be construed as unnecessary, because it is not about IQ, grade levels and achievements, and all kids get appropriate education.

However, to me, knowing my children are gifted (and I won't even venture into the why levels of giftedness are important as well) is important for understanding my children as a whole. Their giftedness impacts on their thought processes, their ideas, their emotions, their social interactions. It is not necessarily about knowing they are "smarter" than other kids . It is not knowing that they should be working several year levels above their age peers (although it did explain a lot when they were at school!).

Understanding giftedness explains why they ask sooooo many questions. Why life is intense (no, it's not just my abysmal coping skills). Why they see the world differently from so many other people. Why it is difficult for them to make friends. Even if we cast aside grade levels, testing and achievement and comparisons, my kids are still "gifted" and understanding that helps makes sense of my kids and the ensuing chaos!

Unschooling I believe can go a long way to allowing all children reach their potential - in a safe, secure, loving environment. And that is a fantastic thing and should be encouraged! But gifted is who my kids (and me - I said it!) are. And it allows us to understand our thinking and our emotions better. And that is a fantastic thing too.

So, after some thought, I left the group. One click of a button and they were gone. Ultimately, I didn't want to hang around in a place where I felt I had to censor my words or not be my authentic self. I want to spend time (cybernetically speaking) with people who "get" me and my kids. I didn't want to spend time with people who seemed to be very closed-minded about things that I have spent a lot of time and energy investigating. I don't even want to go into their thoughts on ADHD!

I don't need the angst. I do need the support and understanding of those who have either been through the same hoops or who are at least willing to be open-minded. If that means I am not an unschooler, then so be it. I will continue on our merry way to embrace natural learning opportunities by choosing eclectic resources, both formal and informal. I will continue to recognise that learning is not the same as education and certainly not the same as curriculum. I will continue to encourage my children's strengths and passion. I will keep trying to provide what my GIFTED children need to flourish and grow and learn. I'll keep learning and reading and finding my own way.

Now, if you excuse me, I have to go pick some labels for this post before I publish it!


  1. Ingi
    Fascinating post, I suspect I'll be reading it a few times to understand more about your life with gifted children. Thank you for sharing.
    btw fwiw's The Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and flourishing in Australia;) I've had to hide my children's 'light under a bushel' many times and it irks me that I fall into that trap.

    1. That is true Erin - and yet we have no issue with great talent in music or sporting endeavours...

  2. Oh and I meant to say, well done, to step away with one click of a button. Life is too short.

  3. Excellent post, Ingi. The more I understand about true giftedness, the more I realize what a challenge it is.

    1. It can be challenging - that is why that particular label was helpful to me, so I could understand better what the hell was going on (and not, it wasn't me going batty).

  4. Definitely life is too short. When you have challenging kids, (and gifted kids can be super challenging!) you need positive, supportive people around you online and off just to save your own sanity.

    1. Absolutely Theresa! And I was a bit worried I would put people off by posting this, but in the end, this is my blog from our point of view and our experiences. And my own version of "sane"!!

  5. "Unschooling to us means no separation from living and learning, or simply to live as if school doesn’t exist."

    This was what I wrote on my blog in today's post. :)

    This is why "deschooling" is so important. Like you said to shake school jargon, to not see your child as 5th graders but for who they are, to see them each as individuals.

    I will say I do not know the group you belonged to but do understand why unschoolers don't like parents to put labels on children. Labels can sometimes take a parents focus off of their child and be replaced too much on the label, sometimes it can be helpful, sometimes it can be hurtful too (and sometimes parents go *looking* for labels to place on their child). It can be difficult to separate who is who.

    We call ourselves Radical Unschoolers so that others who might read my blog can understand how we homeschool but our unschooling will not look like your families unschooling. My children are not your children (though they have many of the same interests :)).

    For us it is all about our families relationship. For us it is not about how we educate but how we get alone with one another. It's finding what makes every member in our family happy(not just mom or dads idea of happiness). Whether the girls are in school or schooled at home if there is no happiness at home none of it really matters anyway.

    Have you seen this Ted talk?
    I love her!

    1. The thing I find with labels, and why parents search them out, is to get understanding. With the label comes an explanation (sometimes an excuse). And homeschooling/unschooling/radical unschooling/natural learning - man, those are some labels to get your head around!

      I read your post this morning before I headed out to work - and totally loved it! The merging of life and learning - there is no separation! We are headed more and more that way - I just couldn't possibly keep track of all the little conversations and activities that add to my kids "education". Which is why I consider us to be unschoolers! I love that idea!

      I have seen that video - what a great talk! But have you read the comments?? So many people with negative thoughts about this intelligent, creative girl! Tall poppies indeed...

  6. btw did you catch April's post?

  7. I am Ingi, hear me roar! I'm so pleased you wrote this post—it is thoughtful and thought provoking, as always. I'm so pleased you spoke (and always speak) your mind. And what a mind it is, my gifted friend. You amaze and inspire me, and I always wish we lived much closer—even though you're really not far away!

    I think this is a fascinating post. I adore your last paragraph. Your posts are like meals, Ingi, something to take time savouring. And when they're done, you just want to go back and savour them all again!

    1. We're not that far, but it seems like an insurmountable distance, doesn't it?

      Anyway, that is about the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me - made my week! And you are not too shabby in the writing stakes too, Helena!


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