Help! My child's a genius: parents of SA's gifted kids are riddled with anxiety

26 March 2017 - 02:00 By Oliver Roberts
"I don't want that light bulb in him to get dimmed by a one-size-fits-all education," says Oratile Tyobeka of her son, Kokeletso (6).
"I don't want that light bulb in him to get dimmed by a one-size-fits-all education," says Oratile Tyobeka of her son, Kokeletso (6).
Image: Oliver Roberts

Oliver Roberts discovers that being a parent of a gifted child is laden with angst and secrecy

Being the parent of a gifted child is often more stressful than it is to be the child. Take the case of Hjalmar Rall, 14, who this year made history by becoming the youngest person ever to enrol at the University of Pretoria.

His parents, Heinrich and Annette, are of course delighted, but it's been a topsy-turvy experience. They invited me into their home but have subsequently turned down interviews and cancelled TV appearances because of some of the bad press and misrepresentation they've experienced, with inferences that they are pushy parents (they're not) and that admitting their son's extraordinariness is a form of bragging.

The Ralls moved to Pretoria in January purely for Hjalmar's sake. He was born in the Western Cape town of Riebeek Kasteel and almost immediately started to show signs of giftedness (at three he was drawing 3D representations of cars).

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"I was cautious," Annette says. "I was thinking it was just me thinking that my child was wonderful, like most parents do. But I had to stop telling other mothers what my child was doing because they either thought I was lying or they didn't like it."

When Hjalmar reached Grade 4, he was becoming frustrated at the pace of learning and had to wear earplugs for the noise in the classroom (aural hypersensitivity is common among gifted children) so his parents removed him and began to home school him.

"We hadn't read up on gifted children," Heinrich says. "But school was destroying him. We had no choice but to take him out."

Under the Cambridge system, Hjalmar completed his International General Certificate of Secondary Education exams two years ago, aged 12. (The test is designed for children between 14 and 16.) In November last year, a week before his 14th birthday, he wrote his last A-level exam.

"He had four hours a day of school and then endless time to explore other things," Heinrich says. "This defies the idea that these kids have pushy parents and don't have a childhood."

Annette and Heinrich say their anxieties about their son going to university at such a young age have been salved somewhat by knowing that Hjalmar has always been more comfortable in adult company and by the fact that he has already made friends at university .

"We always went out of our way to expose Hjalmar to other people, other adults and children, so that he had as big a spectrum as possible, so he didn't become inept or feel isolated," says Annette.

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Feelings of isolation are a concern for Charlene Hudson, single mother of Chequita, 13. Chequita's IQ puts her in the top one percent of the population. She is also shy, gentle and incredibly sensitive.

According to Charlene, Chequita expressed signs of an existential crisis around age six.

"Academically she developed really early, but emotionally not."

After Chequita reached several developmental milestones early on, Charlene began consulting psychologists, psychiatrists and then neurologists. Chequita has trouble sleeping because she can't shut her mind down and is now on a mood stabiliser to pacify her high levels of empathy (another characteristic of giftedness).

If something upsetting happens to her she sometimes has to miss school to recover. Of course, she catches up instantly and is still an A-plus student. Her incredible art (she's a fan of manga) brings her a measure of contentment.

When I manage to get Chequita to speak, it's in response to a question about the difficulty she has making friends.

"Well, mmm, sometimes they won't really understand me," she says. "Then I don't know exactly how to tell them in a way that they will understand so I just leave it, so it's really difficult to make friends."

How many friends do you have?

"Just two."

And how is being this smart a good thing and a bad thing?

"Ummm." Long pause. "If we were all like this it would be a dis..."

A what?

"A disaster."

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Kiara Herbst is the opposite of Chequita - confident, extroverted and somewhat cheeky. By age two, Kiara could identify cars on the road by their badges.

As with the other parents, Kiara's mother Hannelie was none the wiser, believing this kind of intelligence was normal. Kiara also has a high sensitivity to noise (this is called misophonia; Mozart suffered from it) and certain textures and seams on clothing.

Hannelie's anxieties regarding Kiara have little to do with Kiara herself. She worries about public perceptions ("The moment you say your kid is gifted people think you're bragging") and about what to tell Kiara ("I don't want her to not know who she is ... you have to explain to her so she can make sense of it and love herself.")

Hannelie is aware that Kiara's intelligence can isolate her from her peers.

"Kiara reads people so well," Hannelie says. "Which is good in some ways because you avoid certain types of people but at the same time you put yourself out of the social bracket because you see people in a different light, and I don't think it's always adequate for her. It's something we're constantly aware of."

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Oratile Tyobeka is mother to six-year-old Kokeletso, aka "KK". Like Hjalmar's mother Annette, Oratile hesitates to tell other parents her child is gifted because of the reaction it evokes.

"It can become a sort of stigma," Oratile says. "With some people we decide not to say anything, and they'll say something like, 'Wow, your child is very smart,' and we'll just say thank you. Some parents will try to compare their child to yours. It gets very weird."

On a Wednesday afternoon in the Tyobeka's home, KK is engrossed in a pile of National Geographic magazines. "Twenty-to-three," he says when I ask him the time.

Oratile and her husband are devoted to giving KK the correct schooling (they also have two other children), so much so that KK only started Grade 1 in February this year, missing the first few weeks because Oratile decided she hadn't found the right school for him. KK now attends Montessori in Midrand.

"I'm not going to dump him anywhere just because it's a school," Oratile says. "I don't want that light bulb in him to get dimmed by a one-size-fits-all education. That has been my biggest concern."

KK shows the potential to be another Hjalmar. Would Oratile consider skipping her son up a few grades if he became unhappy with the pace? Would she let him go to university aged 14?

"Everything is up to him," she says. "I just go with the flow, whatever he's interested in. Sometimes, it's like I'm schooling myself."

• For more information, visit giftedchildrensa.co.za