On giftedness: A mother’s perspective

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Mummy Musings is a fortnightly column where Elisabeth Lee navigates the ups and downs of bringing up her daughter.

Last month, KC Wong wrote about his daughter’s experiences with the GEP programme. He offered a glimpse into what it’s like for his daughter – now in her second year of the programme – and the varied experiences of her classmates. While all of them are bright (only the top one per cent of each cohort are admitted each year), they all have their own struggles. Some are autistic, some have social challenges and all have their own stresses and insecurities

KC’s article brought back a flood of memories for me. I was also a GEP student but not a particularly successful one, back in the early years of the programme. I wondered how much the programme had changed, if they had tweaked it at all in response to the challenges and results of the first few cohorts

For me, the “gifted” label was a double-edged sword. When I tested well enough to enter the GEP in Primary 4, my parents thought it would be the challenge I needed. But while being in the programme brought new intellectual stimulation plus a coterie of similarly-abled friends (i.e., a group of like-minded nerds whom I could finally feel comfortable with), it had its downsides. My old friends shunned me. And I lost a lot of confidence as I struggled to cope with the fact that I was no longer top of my class. In fact, far from being an “average” gifted student, I was pretty close to the bottom in many subjects!

There was another rude shock when it was time to re-enter the real world. While being a former GEP student did open some doors academically, it didn’t help me learn how to live independently, or how to become more mature, or how to cope with the social pressures of being a teenager.

KC thinks that the modern GEP programme tries to counter this, by teaching many important “life lessons” that go beyond an academic curriculum, such as humility and social responsibility. While that is certainly better than nothing, students are still essentially in a world of their own, with all its positives and negatives.

As a gardener, I know there’s a difference between seedlings that have germinated outdoors, in the soil that they are destined for, and seedlings that were raised in a greenhouse or hothouse. For the latter, their mild and warm environment has helped them grow and develop faster than their hardy peers outdoors, but they are delicate, sensitive, and notoriously fragile. Transplanting them is risky – pick the wrong day, the wrong weather and they’ll just shrivel up and die. I treat mine with care. When they are ready, I harden them by placing them outside but under shelter, so they can adjust to the environment. I let the wind toughen up their tender shoots. I let them taste the real sun and a real rainfall, before digging them into the cold, alien ground. And still, many of them die.

The GEP programme can be like a hothouse, I think. It has pretty optimal conditions for raising bright, creative thinkers. For grooming intellectual powerhouses who will go on to big things, to glittering careers in academia, finance, government, and beyond. But I worry that they are going to be fragile, delicate, sensitive and not used to the real ways of the world.

I’ve been thinking about these things a lot recently. My daughter A has been showing early signs of giftedness – she learned to read at three, she’s already doing simple sums at three-and-a-half and she’s academically way ahead of her peers. I’m not ready to call her gifted – I’m not even sure I want to, ever. If given the chance to put her in the GEP or some other gifted programme, I’m conflicted if it will ultimately be the right decision for her. It wasn’t for me.

We planted a fig tree in our garden, even though we live up in cold and wet Vancouver Island, as far from the Mediterranean as we could be. Many people here hothouse their fig trees. They put them in pots, sometimes indoors in a sunny corner. We’ve planted ours outside, by the back gate. It came close to dying in the first few winters, but now it’s a lush, large bush and soon one summer, it’ll bear fruit.


Elisabeth Lee is proof that it is never too late to consider a second, third or even fourth career, having come to both motherhood and writing late in life. She occasionally freelances and can be reached at

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