by Hanna Vock

(Lecture at the fourth IHVO-Symposium)


Does a gifted four-year-old’s reasoning differ from that of the average four-year-old? Yes.

Do its emotions differ? Yes.

Should we therefore interact with it differently? Yes.

These are the three theses to be discussed in the following.


The first part of the lecture (on the term ‚giftedness‘) can be referred to here:

Giftedness a Definition

Let us first turn to this question:

Exactly in which ways does a gifted preschool child’s reasoning differ from that of a pre-school child of average potential?

And how does this affect its emotions?

A gifted four year old child for example will often ponder the same question like any other child will:

Why is this so?

However, it oftentimes goes on to think much further:

  • Why isn’t it different?
  • How might it be different?
  • How did it ever come about to be just like this?
  • Has it always been like this?
  • Will it always be like this?
  • Who is responsible for it being so?
  • Is it good like this? Could it by the same token be bad?
  • Whom does it serve, whom does it harm?
  • What does its being so depend upon?
  • What needs to be for it to be changed?

By showing interest for such questions at an early age, possibly posing such questions by itself, that is, coming up with these questions by itself – and if not so – definitely reacting with great interest upon such questions when brought up by someone else,

therefore showing persistent and thorough interest in the clarification of such questions, the child shows traits which constitute giftedness, such are:

  • Imminent, downright sensual joy in intellectual pursuit and the understanding of interrelations.
  • Inquisitive behaviour and curious-mindedness.
  • The desire to understand everything precisely and thoroughly.
  • A high demand upon himself to integrate into greater contexts what has been newly observed or experienced.
  • A liking for logical, complex, inventive and abstract thinking.
  • An early ability of divergent and critical thinking.
  • An urge for independent and creative problem-solving.
  • Interest in topics which go far beyond the interests of its peers in age.

All this can be so pronounced that the child may in such pursuit forget other things like: playing, eating, listening…

This kind of conduct is normal for a gifted child. The question is, what damage may be done by any attempt to get the child to give up the inquisitive attitude and again and again letting the child know, that such behaviour is not appreciated.

Indeed there are cases of five year old children, who – reading a book while walking – smash into an obstacle along the way, exemplifying the cliché of the scatterbrained professor, where they are really simply preoccupied with more important things.

There really is this type of gifted child, but this is, after all, only one of the many different types. There is just as well the type with a highly developed motor coordination, never to stumble, excellently organised in the daily routines and always fully aware of the goings-on in its immediate surroundings. This, too, is a normal gifted child.

We must therefore beware of stereotypes of the gifted child. Aside from the above mentioned specifics

  • the effortless learning in one or several areas
  • the high degree of intrinsic motivation
  • the creativity
  • the craving for new information about the world and specifically for new information in the individual area of special interest
  • the logical, abstract, creative, critical and divergent thinking

Gifted children do display strongly individual personalities with all the world’s strengths, weaknesses and experiences of life.

Very intelligent, but emotionally retarded?

This is a widely spread stereotype. Certainly, why shouldn’t there be emotionally cold individuals among the gifted, just like among all other, not so intelligent and gifted people? Surely they do exist.

However, people who have to do with gifted people regularly do report the opposite: They encounter high sensitivity, empathy and great intensity of emotion. This corresponds to my own observations. The intensity of emotion has been depicted and substantiated vividly by Dabrowski, stated in Webb a.o. (1985, 3rd edition 2002), by means of the concept of hightened sensitivity.

(Please read: The Creative Personality and Gifted Children and Exceptional Emotional Sensitivity.)

Let us first take a closer look at the gifted preschool child’s reasoning. With regard to the limited time frame of the lecture I shall concentrate on three areas and features of reasoning which I consider vital for the understanding of the gifted preschool child:

  • The gifted preschool child ponders its experiences and observations earlier and more intensely. In doing so it strongly tends to draw conclusions and derive concepts. It is in an intense process of discovering the far reaching interrelations in life.
  • It is earlier – sometimes as early as in its third year – that it investigates into the future and sometimes even puts a high demand upon himself to get prepared for the future. If not successful in this pursuit, fearfulness may be the consequence.
  • Its reasoning has a strong tendency towards originality and divergence. It is in an intense process of discovering abstract, systematic thinking and divergence. Divergent thinking is to initially have an intuitive realisation that it is an exception if a question should allow for only one good and correct answer (as in: 2 + 2 = 4). In most other cases it does make sense to investigate further for the many possibly good answers (there might be one that is better, more to the point, more fruitful). The answers being found will then oftentimes diverge from the expected and „usual“ ones, which does not exactly make life easier for the gifted child in its interaction with the not gifted.

I would like to exemplify the link between reasoning differently and feeling differently by relating a true story.

A concept of friendship being developed

Sven and his friend Tom (both names changed) were in the same kindergarten group. From early on they as well as their families had been close friends and would often spend their weekends together. The two boys knew each other well and spent much of their time in kindergarten with each other.

Sven turned out to be gifted, which was later also determined in a test, Tom was a bright boy with an intelligence well above average, yet not gifted.

Both of them had just turned five, when Sven, the gifted boy, one day approached his kindergarten teacher sadly and said: „Tom can’t be my friend any more.“ This was somewhat outrageous and parents, kindergarten teachers as well as other children in the group tried to find out what this was all about. Everybody tried to reconcile the two, most of all unhappy and suddenly rejected Tom tried to get back together with Sven again and again.

Sven himself was very sad and perturbed, yet somehow seemed unable to explain his decision, which he nonetheless kept up. He wouldn’t play with Tom any more and for several days kept repeating his statement: „You can’t be my friend any more.“ All the while both of them suffered visibly.

Then one day Sven approached his kindergarten teacher and made a statement, which he had apparently long pondered and put into very specific words: „A true friend is someone with whom one can share the issues one is concerned about the most, shouldn’t he?“ He wanted to know the teacher’s opinion on that and whether she thought this was correct.

At first she must have been somewhat at a loss in the face of such maturity of thought and conceptualisation of friendship, which Sven had come up with by himself, let alone the high standard he had of what „a true friend“ was to be. According to my own experience children will no earlier than several years later come up with such concepts.

For Sven friendship was already something quite different from what we usually hear preschool children utter about it: „You’re not my friend any more if you do / don’t do this (now).“ Which most of the time will be forgotten soon or even turned into the opposite: „You’re my very best friend – but Ole, he isn’t my friend any more.“

So, what had happened with Sven?

Over time – he must have pondered this over and over again by himself – he began reaching towards an explanation for himself and for everybody else. Every day he approached his kindergarten teacher with another question or statement:

„In a war children are killed, too. Grown-ups kill children.“

„They have blown up a bridge. Now the people can’t cross the river any more, even if somebody suddenly gets ill, he won’t be able to get to the hospital quickly.“

„Why can’t they just stop the war?“

„Can’t someone come along and make them quit and rebuild everything quickly?“

„Don’t they feel sorry for the children and the babies?“

So there it was, Sven had been occupying himself with the event of „war, death and destruction“ daily, even though his parents had tried to keep him away from the news. They didn’t want to talk to him about war, because they thought he was too young for such issues. Sven, however, was already able to read and had been reading the headlines of the newspapers and – above all – had started to imagine things and ponder them.

These „big grown-up issues“ had appeared early in his psychological and intellectual development and he wanted to come up with answers by himself. This could neither be detained nor could time be turned back. And he was mostly left all by himself with this. The kindergarten teacher had to restrain herself, more than she wished to, from discussing these issues as the parents had clearly expressed they didn’t want these things to be discussed.

At the same time she couldn’t just shut him up, so they would philosophically explore injustice, the limited judgement of adults, powerlessness and helplessness and about how difficult it was to bear all the misery in the world. They assessed the (little) danger of war breaking out in their own city and the city where grandma lived. All the while they also did positive things like packing up a parcel for the children of war and writing them a letter. In this activity Tom joined them since he, too, had heard of the war and thought it was bad.

Finally Sven had come up with an explanation and confided it to his teacher:

„I wanted to talk to Tom like I talk to you, about the war and all, but he just said: ‚Yeah, too bad – but let’s play Lego now.‘ And the next day he said: ‚Cut it out, it’s getting on my nerves.‘ And that’s when he couldn’t be my friend any more.“

At the tender age of five several overwhelming realisations piled up on Sven, namely because of his already well developed ability to reason and his intellectual circumspection:

He was struck with the full brunt of the realisation that there really is evil in the world (in the shape of war, killing, cruelty, destruction).

He was struck with the full brunt of the realisation that even the nicest grown- ups were hardly interested in this, knew no answers and couldn’t help. (Grown-ups are not omnipotent which then also means: they cannot protect children – that includes me – from even the worst harm.)

He was struck with the full brunt of the realisation that his best friend Tom is not a true friend, because he does not meet the most important demand, which Sven had defined for himself, at all. And for a child who thinks beyond the surface of the obvious there suddenly looms the abyss of being left alone with its thoughts and feelings. Who is to understand me if not even my best friend? Where will I find a friend with whom I can have true understanding?

A five-year-old, even if more experienced and having made more observations than his peers in age, does after all have little excperience of life from which to draw. It is therefore no wonder if in a situation like this a developmental crisis arises which for other children usually does not occur before puberty.

The reasoning and emotionality described here is, when occurring in a five-year- old unusual and unexpected. It is not assumed that so young a child would think in such ways, it will therefore encounter lack of understanding. Soon will the gifted child begin to expect no more than this lack of understanding from its surroundings and make an early discriminative decision as to what thoughts to share with whom. Possibly it will begin to keep its abilities and interests to himself – an overall painful process of resignation, even though the child will not be able to term it this way.

See also: Concealing Abilities and Interests

Sven had applied his ability to reason and as a first consequence got negative feelings from that: fear, horror, deep disappointment, great sadness (for the friendship lost and the loss of childlike unconcern), feelings of abandonment and the fear of loneliness…

I hope it has become clear now, that here neither distraction from the problem nor placation will do any good. The child needs adequate attendance in its development, positively appreciating its reasoning and helping it to turn the experience into something good.

The child needs appropriate strategies, which enable it to

  1. find one (or several) „true“ friends
  2. differentiate the concept of friendship in the way that there is „true“ friendship and that at the same time „partial“ friendships – a friend with whom to play football, a few pals with whom to build a hut, a pen-pal in the war zone … – are of good value, too.

It would assumedly be good for Sven’s emotional and social contentedness if he were able to value and enjoy both kinds of friendship in equal measure.

In this example the early-on conceptualizing reasoning has resulted in an emotional burden. It must be mentioned, however, that intense conceptualizing reasoning may just as well result in enthusiasm and satisfaction, the so-called flow.

This I would like to show by the following example.

Abstract thinking as a merit of its own right

A gifted child wanting to learn, because it understands that reading will provide for independent access to everything in written form and therefore to all kinds of information about the world, may not be keen on listening to cute stories about letters, it will want to learn how to read. Since many gifted preschool children do not find assistance in learning how to read, it is up to them to teach themselves, which many of them manage to do successfully. A gifted child pondering avian influenza does not want to play some silly chicken-game or be skipping across the gym like a chick. Children, who want to play chess, do not want to do handicrafts building a beautiful chessboard but they want to get to the point: learn the rules and start to play.

In 2001 I was so fortunate as to experience what it is like if a group of seven gifted and far-above-average preschool children jointly concentrate on abstract questions. These children were between 4;8 and 5;6 years old.

In the rather sparsely furnished rooms of an adult education center I was so fortunate to conduct a learning group of children – some positively tested, some assumed to be gifted. The individuals – with the exception of two of them – had not met each other before, they didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, and most of them had already completed a whole day at their kindergarten when we met for the first time one afternoon at 15.30. There were no materials aside from what I had brought.

On this first occasion I brought raw and boiled eggs, which the children were to examine. These eggs, a few small glass bowls, some water, pens, some sheets of blank paper, and a few old episodes of Peter Lustig’s Löwenzahn on video, kept us all busy doing some serious thinking for an entire 8 weeks. Basically it was all about making precise observations, describing these, drawing meaningful conclusions and documenting them on paper. In other words it was all about doing scientific research. For these children it was – even if guided by me – genuine research.

One finding compiled in a several weeks long process of observations in conjunction with a lot of reflection on these was that an egg put into a container filled with water will over time begin to rise from the bottom to the top and eventually float at the surface. Only the explanation for this didn’t come easy. The children had to combine all their knowledge and put their gray matter at work for quite a while to come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem. Yet, they did manage to do so and in the decisive moment the only thing missing was their crying out loud „heureka“ like the Greek natural scientist Archimedes did when he – while taking a bath – discovered the principle of the buoyant force of floating bodies and therefore had hit upon a method of determining the concentration of gold in the king’s crown without damaging it.

Another example for a conclusion, they arrived at, was, that dogs will perceive a sonic signal from a distance four times as great as will humans.

These children – although differing from one another quite a bit with regard to their personalities and interests – focussed their attention for 1,5 hours on one subject, because they were confronted with a strong challenge. Only one of them was genuinely interested in dogs and several of them didn’t like eggs. Yet the intellectual challenge in and of itself presented to a group of equally motivated children – was enough of an incentive for all (!) of them to turn to their parents asking them whether the group could meet every day.

It was also remarkable that the children did not want to take any breaks. They decided in favour of continuing to work. This is where the brains inbuilt drive to operate is at work.

It can be observed here how just like some children have an irrepressible drive to climb (onto anything) and to romp around, these children have an irrepressible craving for knowledge and an irrepressible joy of thinking. They probably experience the same cerebral process which Csikszentmihalyi describes when he speaks of the happiness experienced by the researcher.

Gifted children feel differently, because they think differently – and they think differently, because they feel differently.

What can we do?

With regard to the third thesis:

Do we therefore have to interact differently with them in kindergarten? Yes.

I think it has become clear that we

  • ought to approach gifted children differently
  • ought to talk to them adequately
  • ought to bear in mind their craving for knowledge and reflection when offering activities and projects
  • ought to take care that they find playmates with whom they can maintain an adequate exchange

Two things must be provided for:

More understanding and more custom-fit advancement in order to

  • shield the children from negative thoughts and feelings („I’m weird“, „Nobody understands me“)
  • actively support the children find that happiness of the researcher whenever possible

In conclusion I would like to recapitulate:

Advancement of the gifted is (independent of age)

1. Being actively interested and wanting to find out:

What are the questions, problems, topics, contradictions

the child is preoccupied with (intellectually and at the same time emotionally)?

What does it want to learn?

2. Supporting:

Actively and adequately supporting the child in its self-determined processes of learning,

attending it, providing incentives and challenges.

Literature, which has been referred to:

Csikszentmihalyi ((spoken: Tschiksentmihail)), Mihali (1975). „Das Flow-Erlebnis.“ 9. deutsche Ausgabe: Stuttgart 2005: Klett-Cotta

Original title: „Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.“ New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihali (1996). „Kreativität.“ 6. deutsche Auflage: Stuttgart 2003: Klett-Cotta

Original title: „Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.“ New York: Harper Perennial

Webb, James T. u.a. (2002). „Hochbegabte Kinder, ihre Eltern, ihre Lehrer.“ Überarb. Ausg. Bern 2002.

Original title: „Guiding the Gifted Child“ (1982) Ohio Psychology Publishing Company

Wieczerkowski, W.; Wagner, H. (1981). „Das hochbegabte Kind.“ Düsseldorf: Schwann. (Original title)


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