Why I Hate The Word “Talented” – The “Gifted”/”Ungifted” Argument

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When we talk about our neurodiverse children, there can often be a great deal of weight with regards to their strengths and weaknesses. Dyslexia and Autism are both highlighted first on their deficits; but in almost the next breath we showcase “giftedness”. We talk about the “Twice Exceptional (2E)” child; one who has a disability and yet shows gifts and talents and ability. It’s as if people think having a disability should automatically equate to a child who is incapable of all things. But the scariest thing about the idea of a “talented” child is that it negates the time and effort it takes to get good at things.

“Talent” has become a word so ingrained in our social statuses. It sets people apart in a what is considered a positive way. It seems second nature to refer to someone who shows skill in an area to be talented. We revere talented artists, talented sportspeople, talented actors, etc. The trouble is, we put on pedestals those with talent and forget that they didn’t start out as good as they are. For our children that face challenges or haven’t found something they’re naturally “good” at or passionate about the word “talented” can be harmful, shameful, and defeating. It can seem like an unobtainable ideal, gifted only to the lucky few who were granted these remarkable talents at birth. And I HATE that.

As I was doing final edits on the show notes for a recent episode of The Literate Child Podcast, I found myself constantly coming back to the word, “talented”. You see, when I think of Xanthe Turner, our fourteen-year-old illustrator of Zany Circus: Paradox, I too keep thinking “she’s so talented”. Still, I resist using it in reference to Xanthe, because it’s very clear the reason she’s so “talented” is because she’s worked really, really hard to learn and practice and put in the time and effort to be great.

While we only touch on it briefly in our interview with this amazing young creative, I know her a little more off air. I’ve seen her behind the scenes as she works. I’ve flipped through her art books and seen the evolution of her ability. And I know that she’s been madly drawing and creating music since she was very, very young. Yes, she’s remarkably good and only fourteen-years-old, but she’s been working toward that mastery for at least ten years already and has put a lot of hours into practice. It’s difficult to expect similar “talent” from other fourteen-year-olds because they aren’t given the same opportunities to put in those hours. A lot of what has contributed to Xanthe’s ability is to do with environment, rather than inborn giftedness.

Xanthe was given opportunities to follow her passions and interests. She has an enriched environment where she has mentors and tutors and guides who specialise in art and she learns from them voraciously. She’s provided with artbooks and markers, paints and pencils, even technology that has allowed her to delve into her passion. She has the freedom to spend hours on hours of high focus time in a single activity without someone nagging her to get outside more, or get her homework done, or to focus on listening to her English teacher instead. She takes her sketchbooks with her everywhere and is drawing in the car or on train trips, when waiting in queues, and in any random corner when they’re not moving for more than a minute or two at a time (and sometimes even when they are moving!). Even when we were interviewed on a radio show a couple of weeks ago she was sketching in the studio while were were on air.

Ultimately, that’s what all “talent” really is. It’s not some inborn gift where someone was just born into the world brilliant at something. Talent is really about the time taken to develop mastery toward a skill. It’s about having the opportunities to follow a passion. It’s about dedication and hard work. It’s about trying and failing and trying again.

The trouble is, the word has a nasty dismissive stigma. So many people think talent is just natural-born ability. It discounts the hard work. And honestly, I think that is damaging, particularly to children with language and literacy difficulties. Children who know failure, can very much struggle to feel like they have any talents at all.

It is most definitely something I’ve had to work hard to combat with my son. He faced so many challenges and had so much focus put on his “failures” when he was in the early years of school that he came to believe he couldn’t do anything. This is known as “learned helplessness” and it’s a devastating psychological affect that can have long-lasting impact on a child’s sense of self and in turn their actual capabilities. The most important indicator of success is the belief that something is possible. When he believed he wasn’t good at anything, even when he did well he didn’t believe he was doing well. He yearned to be talented, but never believed he could be, and so couldn’t muster the passion and motivation to work hard at things. And the frustrating thing about that as his mother is that I could see that the difficulties he faced was limited to certain areas of his learning and that there were other areas where he excelled, but his belief in the absolute completeness of his failure, his personal ownership as being the failure, overrode everything else.

THAT is why I hate the word “talented”. Because in my little boy’s mind he believed, and perhaps still does believe, that being talented is something he can never be. And that simply isn’t true. Talent has nothing at all to do with natural ability and everything to do with passion and grit and determination. So, next time your child’s admiring their favourite “talented” sports star, movie star, YouTuber, illustrator, writer, astronaut, whatever, take advantage of this fabulous opportunity to foster their passion but also foster their sense of self. Look past that idols present day ability and delve into their history. Find out, how long have they been working at it? How many hours do they put in?

For example, if your child is into football, when did Aussie Football Captain, Shannon Hurn, first start kicking around a ball? (According to Wikipedia he was competing in the Juniors which means he’s been playing footy for at least 20 years! Bet he’s way better at it today then he was when he was nine!)?

Pick any of your child’s idols and delve into the truth behind the hard work, dedication, passion, and grit that created what people casually reflect on as their “talent”. And then, imagine together with your child, if they keep practising, how really great could the be in a few weeks, a few months, a few years, a few decades! THAT is where true “talent” is really born.

As for Xanthe, I never want people to discount her hard work by assuming she was born “talented” or “gifted”. I mean, obviously she was born with some pretty awesome gifts, but I think it’s her grit, determination, and passion that are the true “talents” and the reason she draws, sings, and performs so beautifully. And all of our children have these gifts within them. They can be nurtured, and fostered, and supported so that in time, their own “talents” will shine.

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