Harry Potter is the boy wizard in a series of books written by British author J. K. Rowling. These books then inspired a series of major motion pictures. On a surface level, the books are about the struggles of a boy wizard who must deal with the pointless cruelty of muggles (ordinary people), as well as contending with the threat that an evil magician poses to the entire world. Yet Harry’s struggles can also serve as a metaphor for the kinds of problems that gifted children face in the real world.
Like Harry Potter, gifted children have astounding abilities that cause many mediocre people to become pointlessly hostile. Also like Harry Potter, gifted children often feel that the world is hurtling toward disaster and that it is somehow their responsibility to save it. Like Harry Potter, gifted children also need to find other children who are like themselves, so that they can find real friendships. They need a supportive atmosphere where their gifts can be cultivated instead of suppressed. After all, the world really is hurtling toward disaster because of the actions of foolish and evil people. We really do need to empower the gifted, to save us all.
What Does It Mean to Be Gifted?
Gifted children are children who have outstanding talents and show the potential for performing at very high levels when compared with other children of the same age. These gifts may be in various areas, such as music, art, or math. Often, they show unusual abilities in more than one area. There are two aspects to giftedness: intellectual and emotional intensity. The intellectual intensity generally involves extraordinary powers of memory and some advanced ability in abstract reasoning. As a result, gifted people can see patterns that are not obvious to other people. Their intellectual intensity is often matched by emotional intensity. This emotional intensity gives them their drive to develop their gifts, but it can also lead to a problem called existential depression.
Existential depression is a form of depression that arises when a person faces such ultimate concerns as death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. The late psychologist James T. Webb pointed out that gifted children are prone to existential depression because they tend to be idealists. They can imagine a better world, and they quickly become disappointed and frustrated with how things actually are. Gifted children can spot the foolishness and hypocrisy of the people around them. Yet the gifted children’s attempts to raise these concerns with others are often met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. As a result, gifted children often start to become isolated from their peers as early as first grade.
Finding Real Peers
Like Harry Potter, gifted children are extraordinary people who will find it difficult to get along with the muggles in their lives. Children tend to develop real friendships only with other children whose IQ is within 15 points of their own. For a child with an average IQ (i.e., an IQ of 100), 68% of the population falls within his or her friendship zone. But for a child with an IQ over 140, only about 5% of the population falls within his or her friendship zone. For this reason, gifted children may have to search far and wide to find people whom they can really befriend. Like Hogwarts, programs for gifted children often give gifted children the opportunity to make real friendships.
Living With the Muggles
Harry Potter was orphaned in infancy when the evil magician Voldemort killed his parents but somehow failed to kill Harry, who was left with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. After his parents’ death, Harry was sent to live with the Dursleys: his mother’s sister Petunia and her husband Vernon and son Dudley. The Dursleys are small-minded nonmagical people who live in a suburb called Lower Whinging. (To whinge means to complain in a peevish or irritating way.) The Dursleys are cruel and neglectful to Harry. Harry must live in a closet under the staircase while his spoiled cousin has two bedrooms to himself.
Like other gifted children, Harry starts showing extraordinary abilities at a young age. At first, young Harry has no idea that he is unusual in any way, but his muggle relatives are horrified by his abilities and want to suppress them. Gifted children who read the Harry Potter books know from first-hand experience what it is like to be attacked or shunned for having some sort of natural talent. Often, the gifted child is the only gifted person in the family. Like Harry Potter, gifted children often have to deal with flack from their own family.
Escape to Hogwarts
In the opening of the first book, Harry Potter is transported from Lower Whinging to enroll in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter thrives in this new environment, where he is surrounded by other children with magical abilities and nurtured by adults who appreciate his gifts. It is heartbreaking that Harry thrives at boarding school. In recent years, British psychologists have increasingly become aware of a condition called boarding school syndrome, which is a set of psychological problems common in adults who had been sent away to boarding school at a tender age. For normal children, being sent away to boarding school is traumatic because they are being deprived of a normal family life. But for Harry, boarding school was a deliverance from a dysfunctional family life to the warm embrace of the wizarding community. At Hogwarts, he was accepted and even revered for being who he was. Gifted children desperately need that kind of acceptance and respect, from peers and adults.
Because of their intelligence and emotional intensity, gifted children often feel the weight of the world on their shoulders from an early age. They realize that there are serious problems in the world, and they are frustrated that they can do nothing to solve them. Gifted children have enormous potential, but they need help in achieving their potential. Because they may be gifted in several different areas, they are often frustrated by the problem of opportunity cost: by spending the time to develop one set of skills, they are using up the time that they would need for developing others. One of their most important needs in life is to do something meaningful. They need help and guidance on how to engage in a struggle that will ultimately make their life meaningful.
Helping Gifted Children
Harry Potter was allowed to escape from Lower Whinging to Hogwarts, where he was able to develop his magical abilities and ultimately save the world. Meanwhile, many gifted children in the real world remain stuck in schools that are failing to meet their educational needs and living in families that do not understand their emotional needs. James T. Webb founded the organization called Serving the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (www.sengifted.org) because he realized that gifted children have important emotional needs that are not being met. These children need to be nurtured and guided by adults who understand them, and they need to find fellowship with children who are like themselves.