The Perils of Giftedness or Confronting the Emma Dilemma

In Jane Austen's Emma, an intelligent, but sharp-tongued heroine gets her come-uppance after she lets slip a witty but mean remark, that is noticed by her close friend and confidant, Mr. Knightly:" How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?-- Emma, I had not thought it possible." Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry... tried to laugh it off... (but) as she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more..."

Many gifted people are vulnerable to the Emma Dilemma, and the young perhaps more so because they are frequently underestimated and limited in the world of adults as well as in formal education. Even fairly young gifted children soon learn they have intellectual power, and interactions with the world teach them that others are slow and may even be foolish. Intellectual sharpness is a gift, but it can also be a weapon.

Leta Hollingworth in her study of profoundly gifted children in the book Children Above 180 IQ concluded: "Of all the special problems of general conduct which the most intelligent children face, I will mention five, which beset them in early years and may lead to habits subversive of fine leadership:

(1) to find enough hard and interesting work at school; (2) to suffer fools gladly; (3) to keep from becoming negativistic toward authority; (4) to keep from becoming hermits; (5) to avoid the formation of habits of extreme chicanery.

In truth, intellectual precocity can create all sorts of mischief and misbehaviors. We all would do well to remember that being 'smart' doesn't necessarily mean 'wise'. In fact, having advanced abilities puts some children and greater temptation for arrogance, Machiavellianism, and trickery. If parents don't consciously teach and encourage their children in the moral leadership, or the importance of forbearance, self-reflection and critique, generosity, and personal integrity, then they are teaching them that these qualities are unimportant.

It is not always easy teaching these traits with intellectually restless and independent-minded children, but it helps to start early. Books that we've found helpful along the way have included reading biographies of intelligent and good famous people, Teaching Your Children Sensitivity, 'Acts of Kindness' books, and of course modeling and discussing acts of kindness as they happen.


  1. Patricia Hyde6:59 PM

    I actually went to this article because my granddaughters name is Emma. I just thought it was neat. It turns out to be more truthful than I could have imagined. Emma is only 9 but she is exceedingly smart and does not suffer anyone gladly. She is superior to all those who interact with her and has been nicknamed the diva. This is made all the more noticeable because her 12 year old brother has Asperger's Syndrome and he is his sisters victim much of the time. We put it down to sibling rivalry but maybe it isn't. Food for thought.

  2. Anonymous5:50 PM

    I enjoyed the comment about authority.