The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

“Passing” is a term from the history of racial discrimination in the post Civil-War United States. At the end of this post is a little more information about that context. I apologize in advance to anyone who thinks I am being insensitive to the history of the word in using it in the context of this post. 

Gifted girls face enormous pressure to be more average than they are. Because giftedness is not a visible difference from the norm, they have the option to do this.

“Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues and their early conditioning about the critical importance of social acceptance, gifted girls are much more adept than gifted boys at imitation….They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd.” – Linda Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented

This leads to under-identification of the giftedness in girls:

“By the age of 9, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities.  Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores.”Linda Silverman, What We have Learned About Gifted Children

Highly gifted teens who suffer existential depression are at an unacceptably high risk for suicide and are adept at hiding their troubles from everybody. Because these teens often present as highly successful, they are very hard to help once they have started suffering. They have also generally learned to distrust adults and are suspicious of proffered help. Prevention is key in helping these children. And that means identifying them early and helping them see their own true colours. And, we must listen to them and take them seriously.

“Gifted people often adjust what they say so that they will be accepted. They sometimes feel that other people do not take them seriously. This can lead to not trusting themselves. Careful listening can also be a lifeline. It can convince children that there is someone who thinks that they are valuable and worth understanding.” Betty Meckstroth

**A Note About Passing

In American usage, “passing” without further reference to what one is passing as refers specifically to light-skinned black people assimilating into the white community to avoid racial discrimination. When explicit discrimination was law, any traceable mixed-ancestry qualified a person as coloured. This meant that a sizable portion of people legally identified as coloured could “pass” for white if they left the communities where their family history was known. What I know of the psychological experience of passing in this context comes from literature, in particular two books I read in my law school class on the legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, Passing, by Nella Larson and Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams.

Passing involved isolating oneself from one’s family, denying one’s ancestry, and constantly living in fear of being found out. For some people, it was the better of two evils, but it was an awful way to live.


About Kate Arms-Roberts

Posted on March 29, 2012, in Daily Life, Education, Parenting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I thought I had given up on “passing for normal” when I was in school and I would make some remark that was meant to be funny and I would get looks from other girls that said, “Oh my god, she is so weird!” and then they would immediately start whispering to each other–but I swear it was funny! I even saw the teacher smirking along with me–but sometimes my teacher would be the only one who got it.

    Later in life, I gave up guitar lessons because it meant I would have to keep my fingernails trimmed short. This was the ’80’s and one of my Goals in Life was to have LONG finger nails (I succeeded –yay me.) That was an example of me attempting to pass for normal. I would go back and forth between trying to fit in, and trying to find other “misfits” to hang with.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I absolutely went back and forth between trying to fit in and hanging out with “misfits”. There was even I period when I tended to dress like the New-Waver in the geeky crowd and the geek in the New-Wave crowd. I was hugely conflicted for a long time.

  2. I suspect there has always been more pressure on gifted girls to “pass” as normal because in girls more than boys it was not expected or accepted to be smart, good at math or science, etc. Not long ago, in most cultures and socio-economic groups, girls were not encouraged to go to college and have a career, so excelling in academics was considered not just a waste of time but, to borrow again from the race analogy – uppity.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Probably true.

      Also, in my school, the math/science smart girl (me) was seen as seriously encroaching on the one realm where the geeky boys felt superior and being outsmarted by a girl was the worst for them.

  3. I think of my Mom who wanted to be a writer, but went to “business school” to learn to be a secretary instead.

  4. Running to Excellence

    Thank you for the information. My thesis is on the effects of age of identification in gifted females to achievement in post secondary school. I will be considering both personal and academic achievement.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I would be very interested in what you discover. Do you plan on looking how an individual’s level of giftedness affects the optimum age for identification.
      My gut instinct is that the higher the IQ, the earlier identification is useful, but I have no data either way.

  5. Running to Excellence

    Level of giftedness will be my subcategories. I also would love to investigate the effects of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, birth order, dual diagnosis, and language arts gifted vs math gifted.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I have a bee in my bonnet about gifted programming that only helps the moderately gifted, so I love seeing people look at the differences between the levels. I also love seeing variations in temperament looked at as well, because sometimes it is hard to tease apart the contributions of personality/temperament and giftedness.

  6. Thanks for this post. “Passing for normal” is also an affliction of us adults, and being highly sensitive is one way people are “abnormal.” Elaine Aron has commented “The parents of gifted children are often raising those kids well, but I have had too many sensitive patients who were gifted but too distressed to ever show their talents because their parents and teachers had no idea about how to meet the special needs of an HSC [highly sensitive child].” From her article Growing Up Gifted Is Not Easy – see my list of articles on Gifted children and teens

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Thank you for pointing out that wonderful article by Elaine Aron. The issue of depression and suicide among highly sensitive children is one I hold quite heavily in my heart.

  7. I remember my own parents telling me to be more “like the other girls” if I wanted to fit in. They told me to stop eating too much, told me to get rid of my acne, to do more “girlie” things, rather then sit in my room and write. And I remember that the other girls would call me a know-it-all behind my back if I made them look bad in class. In the end, I never even ended up passing for normal because I tried to straddle both sides. I’m now a mother of a precocious toddler and I’ve already been planning on doing everything I can to make sure she doesn’t have the same experiences.

    • As a parent of a now adult gifted child, and a teen with adhd, all I can say is that when your child is suffering from lack of friends, its hard not to try to teach them how to better fit in! Sometimes its just basic stuff like “I know we aren’t supposed to judge people by how they look, but we do make first impressions – if you combed your hair you’d make a better impression!” Sometimes it is discovering that their “annoying behaviors” are suppressed when they take medication to help them focus academically, so wanting them to take the medication in situations when it wouldn’t be necessary for focus. It did really bother me that one of my older son’s teachers told him to stop raising his hand in class.

      • Kate Arms-Roberts

        You make a really good point about the struggle from a parent’s perspective. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I wish you strength and success helping your daughter. I, too, look at my children and ask how I can help them avoid reliving the worst of my stories.

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