How do I know if my child is in with the right peer group?
Editor's note, winter 2009: Developing and maintaining friendships is an important aspect of any child’s development. However, for many gifted kids this can be a struggle. The second friendship article offers some talking points that may be helpful when discussing friendship with a gifted child. We include both articles to show a variety of views on friendship. Differences of opinion don’t always signify one being right and the other wrong, but rather differing values of what is important.
How do I know if my child is in with the right peer group? What should I do if he or she isn’t?
Gifted children often need several peer groups, rather than one “right” group. A peer in chess may not be the same as a peer in baseball or reading. These peer groups may include older children or even adults.
The best peers allow youngsters to enjoy mutual interests and activities without pressuring them to be someone they aren’t. Yes, having friends and acquaintances is important, because they validate a child’s feelings and provide a sense of belonging. However, I have seen parents and educators worry that certain gifted children have too few friends and pressure them to accommodate themselves to age mates in school or in the neighborhood, only to see these gifted children underachieve in order to conform.
Being different from peers or spending time alone is less a problem for adults than for children. Adults should examine their own peer behaviors and the peer relations of the gifted and creative adults they know. Gifted adults usually migrate to small clusters of friends with whom they share interests, values, and ideals. Most adults have several peer groups; the people who join them for the opera are not necessarily the ones with whom they play golf.
How can you help your child learn to avoid or ignore inappropriate peer pressure? Talk to him or her about peer issues, including the peer pressures that adults experience. Some questions might be the following:
- “How much do I need to be like others?” Emphasize that if a “friend” wants your child to sacrifice his or her true interests and beliefs in exchange for acceptance, then this “friend” probably is the wrong companion. If your child is uncomfortable with the conversations and actions of the group, then he or she is probably sacrificing too much to belong to it. Help your child determine which areas of one’s identity can be sacrificed and which cannot, no matter what the cost.
- “Why do I have to conform to others’ expectations?” Discuss how people conform in different situations to fit social expectations and why social “rules” are often a good thing. It may also be beneficial to discuss how some behaviors in certain situations may make others uncomfortable.
- “Why don’t others accommodate themselves to me instead?” Explain that whether your child realizes it or not, everyone makes some sort of adjustment or accommodation to gain acceptance.
- “How many real friends do I have?” Help your child differentiate between friends and acquaintances and define the characteristics of real friends.
- “What happens to adults who differ from their peers or choose to be loners?” Discuss the ramifications this has on the individual, both personally and professionally.
I am not recommending that a gifted child become reclusive or intolerant of others. However, I do not think that children should conform by sacrificing their authenticity simply to be liked.
Peer relations can be especially difficult for children who are “double minorities,” such as gifted and Latino. In addition, the cultural peer pressure for sex roles—for fitting into the “boy code” or the “girl culture”—is often both subtle and intense.
The key is to help gifted children learn to value getting along with others and to be aware that acquaintances are not the same as friends. Through discussions about peers and by modeling adult behavior, parents can help their gifted children learn the skills they need to interact successfully with a variety of peers. Most important, parents can help them learn to value themselves.
—James T. Webb, PhD
James T. Webb is the founder of SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and Great Potential Press.