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“A Rage to Master”: A Blog on Gifted Children by Dr. Ellen Winner

Consistent with the name and purpose of this website, most of the entries provide support for the notion of several, relatively independent intellectual capacities, called the “multiple intelligences.” That includes reports on gifted children, most of whom have jagged profiles—that is, they may be very strong in one or two intelligences, less strong in others. Having studied gifted children, Ellen Winner has described many of these youngsters as having a “rage to master”—spending many hours each day engaged in, say, playing chess or practicing the violin.

But, counter to popular lore, there are no necessary patterns across the intelligences. Life is not fair! Some individuals are strong across several intelligences (Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind), while others, less fortunate, struggle in several intelligences. And the reasons for these diverse patterns are also multiple—genetic, cultural, and/or familial.

Recently, my wife, Dr. Ellen Winner, spent time with a remarkable child who, quite unusually, exhibited a “rage to master” across a wide range of learning opportunities. I’m pleased to post this blog—a contribution to our understanding of human giftedness.

-HG

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A Rage to Master…Everything

Ellen Winner

October 2018

As a developmental psychologist with a particular interest in gifted children, I have observed many unusual children. Most gifted children have one domain in which they excel. Domains in which one most often finds such children are language (speaking in sentences at a very early age), music (playing an instrument), drawing (typically very realistically), mathematics, and chess. These children exhibit what I call a “rage to master,” the domain in which they are strong. They spend hours working at developing their craft, and it is often hard for parents to tear the child away in order to eat, go to school, or go to sleep. These children have an enormous amount of energy which they focus exclusively (or at least primarily) on their domain of strength.

Recently friends of ours visited with their daughter who was on the cusp of turning six and who showed such a rage to master. But hers was unusual. She did not zero in on any one particular domain. Everything she came in contact with seemed to stimulate a rage to master. Because of her boundless energy for everything, she seemed to have a compulsion to keep busy, and if there were no obvious activities to engage in, she made up games for herself.

An example…

When she found some fine markers in our kitchen, she asked for paper and then proceeded to write out the alphabet and numbers up to 20 in very neat handwriting. She did this numerous times, and then used the phone to photograph each image.

Next, she discovered a puzzle where you have to put wooden shapes into a square box so that they all fit perfectly. She used my phone to time herself and was satisfied when she got her time down in half from her first try. After thus competing against herself, she then insisted that everyone else (six adults) try the puzzle, and she timed us each time, smiling broadly each time another person’s time was longer than hers.

In terms of attention, she also stood out. She noticed everything that the adults said in conversation even when she seemed to be concentrating on something else. We could tell because every once in a while she would look up from what she was doing and make a relevant comment.

I was surprised by the acuteness of her memory. At dinner she had asked me for my iPhone code which I gave to her orally. The next morning she picked up my phone and immediately typed in the code. When I told her I was amazed that she remembered, she began to tell me the code for the phone of one of her mother’s friends.

Her personality was strong, and she liked to be in control. She consumed all of our time and attention. We were like pieces in a human chess set that she manipulated. When she saw me holding my iPhone, she took it from me and began to take photos and videos of everyone in the room, including selfies of herself making funny faces. (I should note that her parents rarely take out their phones in front of her.)  She was however an iPhone expert, and instructed me on how to take a still photo and then to press loop or bounce to make the picture move in funny ways (this was news to me!).  She did allow me to take a few photos if I pointed the camera exactly where she instructed me. She was behaving like a movie director – making it clear she was in charge, and we were working for her.

Another way in which she “ran the show” was recounted to me by her father. He told me how he tried to keep her amused at a restaurant by showing her his two closed fists and asking her to guess in which hand he held a piece of paper. After one or two trials, she took over and insisted that he be the one to guess in which hand she was holding the paper.

When she was four, Trump was elected. She asked her parents what a president was. Her father, a policy scholar, listed to her all the things that presidents do and that the government does. When he finished, she said, “Then I want to be president!” That evening over dinner her parents found themselves being bossed around by their daughter. Her mother paused for a moment and then turned to her and asked, “Who set the rules in this house?” Their daughter’s instant reply: “Me because I’m the government.”

Most gifted children have very jagged profiles – ahead in language, average in math; ahead in drawing, average in music. But this child seems to be high in many different intelligences – verbal (did I mention that she is bilingual and speaks fluently a language unrelated to English?), spatial (that puzzle), mathematics (timing everyone on the puzzle; remembering iPhone codes), bodily-kinesthetic (she climbed to the top of the three story climbing structure at the Boston Children’s Museum), musical (she plays the recorder and recorded herself singing for me on my phone), and interpersonal (she had everyone marching to her orders; she formed a strong relationship with both my husband and me the first night she arrived, and I observed her strong connection not only to her parents but to two adult siblings). About intrapersonal intelligence, I can only say that when she was asked a hard question (how can you test which colors a dog can see?) she thought for a while and then said (reflectively and accurately) that she did not know. In addition to her gifts across the board she showed a powerful motivation to compete and an equally powerful motivation to fill her time with goal oriented activities.

The point of this sketch: While most gifted children have a rage to master in one area, this child showed a rage to master everything she came into contact with. Of course, it’s not at all clear what she will grow up to become. But perhaps Bill and Hillary looked like this as young children. Perhaps she really will grow up to be president – of something. I suspect she will not be passively taking orders from any boss.