How to Teach Gifted Children Humility

two kids talking: how to teach gifted children humility

Reader Request

I love responding to reader requests, and I recently solicited some questions on my Facebook page.

This question came in from a mom of a gifted child, and I think it’s a common concern.

Mom writes:

What is the best way to teach a gifted child humility in youth? They know they are gifted, and it comes across to others as snobbishness. it’s so hard to find the balance. I want my child to be proud and sure of himself. But I also want him to not sound like he is boasting. [This is especially an issue because] his sister is not GT, and I think it makes her feel bad about the way her brain works because it is not the same as his.

I love this question because I think this is a common and very tricky issue. Let’s dive in!

Why is Humility Important?

Humility is an essential emotional intelligence quality. Under Dan Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence framework, humility is part of self-awareness.

The Washington Post published a great article on why humble leaders are more effective. In it, Ashley Merryman explains a commonly held misperception: Humility is not the same as humiliated.

She writes, “True humility, scientists have learned, is when someone has an accurate assessment of both his strengths and weaknesses, and he sees all this in the context of the larger whole. He’s a part of something far greater than he. He knows he isn’t the center of the universe. And he’s both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing his abilities, he asks how he can contribute. Recognizing his flaws, he asks how he can grow.”

Yes. This is what we want, not just for the gifted, but for everyone.

(By the way, I absolutely love Ashley Merryman. You can read a review of one the books she co-authored, Top Dog.)

Humility is a tremendously important attribute. It is the opposite of narcissism. People who are narcissistic have an exaggerated sense of their abilities, and they constantly seek attention, praise, and affirmation for those abilities. They make others feel badly because they don’t have the same abilities.

They dress up for Halloween as Henry VIII.

You get the picture.

When you are humble, you learn better, you get along better with others, you don’t feel the pressure of perfectionism, you can more easily persuade people to your point of view, you are more open to others’ ideas, and on and on.

What Arrogance Looks Like

Arrogant people:

  • ignore or denigrate others’ opinions (often without really listening to them)
  • go out of their way to be right and then go out of their way again to prove they were right to others because it’s just not fun if you’re right but not enough people know it
  • struggle with accurate self-reflection, unwilling to look at how they could have done something more optimally
  • make rude or unkind comments to others in a comparing way
  • don’t listen to others – not just their opinions, but also their wants and needs

In the gifted it looks like:

  • a lack of respect for the teacher because he doesn’t know what the child knows about dinosaurs (bonus credit for visible eye rolling)
  • refusal to listen to the ideas of other kids in the group
  • disinterest in doing an activity that others want to do and only wanting to do what he/she wants to do/play
  • anger over a less-than-perfect grade without really looking at whether the grade earned was deserved
  • bragging about how little effort he/she spent to get a really good grade
  • mocking others who aren’t going to gifted pull-out (or even just dropping broad hints about it, like “Well, at GT today we got to …. too bad you had to/didn’t get to…”)
  • lack of remorse when they find out they hurt someone’s feelings

The Optical Illusion

The problem with teaching the value of humility to gifted children is that often their arrogance is a mask. Behind the mask lies deep seated self-loathing.

When the question that led to this article was posted on the Facebook page, someone posted this comment: You don’t seem to know much about gifted students… most of them nourish a huge inferiority complex! Personally I find it terrible when people say we should teach gifted kids humility.


It is true that many of the gifted suffer from Impostor Syndrome – a debilitating feeling that you are a fake, a fraud. You’re not gifted, and you will be found out. It’s a real problem.

Some gifted children (and adults) avoid failure so often and so well that they have an identity crisis when they encounter a challenge. This leads to a feeling of inferiority while displaying bravado.

Yet I disagree that it’s terrible to teach humility. I could, in fact, not disagree more. When we accept that humility is a realistic view of your strengths and weaknesses, we understand that it is the antidote to an inferiority complex.

I’m at a loss to figure out how teaching this could be bad.

It’s important to determine if the child has pure arrogance or masking arrogance because the intervention will be different. This is easier said than done.

It takes candid conversations about how what we do well and what opportunities for growth exist. I wrote fairly extensively about this in my book.

Even if we don’t know for sure what the root of the arrogance is, and even if there is no arrogance, the teaching of humility is critical in the development of a healthy, happy human, which is what we want for all children, gifted and more typical.

How to Teach Humility

  • Practice listening skills exercises, like:
    • Telephone – This old game has lots of potential to help kids understand that even small changes in what we say can change the message .
    • Telling Together – The group creates a story one line at a time. Everyone adds one sentence. This forces us to really listen to what others have said. If you’re a small group, like a family, go around and around.
    • Listy Listener – In this activity, one person comes up with a list of items that are all connected (like things you’d find in a refrigerator, words you associate with vacation, toys, etc.). The list should be pretty long (15 items or so). The person reads the list, repeating some of items multiple times (milk, yogurt, fruit, juice, milk, lunch meat, mustard, milk, yogurt, salad dressing, milk…). After the list is read, everyone has thirty seconds to write down as many of the words they can remember. (If kids are too little to write, do this part orally.) Discuss why it’s easier to remember things you hear over and over and what that tells us about the importance of really listening to people.
  • Keep a journal (this allows you to develop self-awareness)
  • Discuss quotes like:
    • “A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.” ― Albert Einstein
    • “Every person that you meet knows something you don’t; learn from them.” ― H. Jackson Brown Jr.
    • “There are two things that men should never weary of, goodness and humility; we get none too much of them in this rough world among cold, proud people.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped
    • “Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord, where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble.” ― Andrew Murray
  • Role play problematic situations (playing with someone who wants to play with Lego when you want to play with Lincoln Logs, etc.)
  • Model it
  • Embarrassing or humiliating children creates defensiveness, not humility
  • Teach the art of the sincere apology
  • Read stories of leaders and celebrities who are humble (or at least not prideful!)
  • Teach the art of the true expression of gratitude, also someimes called a thank you
  • Practice sharing good news or things you’re excited about without comparison.
  • Serve other people. There are lots of resources on helping students serve (I wrote about this in my book, too), and the key is that they get to feel the effect of their efforts on others.
  • Practice seeking feedback and responding to it with kindness and acceptance. Explain to kids that thanking others for feedback doesn’t mean that you have to agree with all if it. The best cycle is:
    • get feedback
    • thank the person for it
    • assume it was given in respect
    • think about it later and decide what was true in the feedback
    • decide what actions (if any) need to be taken
    • repeat

The Talk

If a child is displaying signs of arrogance and/or a lack of humilitysurrounding their giftedness, it’s time for “the talk.” During the talk, these points need to come out:

  • Being gifted has its pros and cons, so it’s not something that makes someone better than other people. It makes some things easier and some things harder.
  • Sometimes when we feel like people have high expectations of us, we can feel scared that we won’t measure up. Sometimes when we feel like this, we act the other way. We act like we think we’re better than everyone else, even though we feel the opposite. When we feel this way, it’s important to talk with someone we trust about how we feel instead of acting like we’re better than everyone.
  • No matter how smart we are, there are always others who know more than we do about many, many things. Wise people know that they have something to learn from everyone.
  • When we’re around people we think are a lot better than we are at things, we can feel badly about ourselves. When you’re a gifted person, other people may feel badly without your doing anything on purpose to make them feel that way. We have to know this and be sensitive about it.
  • It is never okay to make people feel badly about themselves. It’s not our job, and it doesn’t work. No one becomes a better person because they were embarrassed or humiliated.
  • Brain smarts are not everything there is to being a great person. To be a great person, you also need to be kind and have other good traits. We can all become better people by working on it. Just like we learn things that make us more intelligent, we also learn things that make us kinder, more patient, more forgiving, and better able to control ourselves.
  • Giftedness is not a “get out of being a kind person” free card. Being intelligent doesn’t mean you get to use it as a weapon against other people. If you were super strong, that wouldn’t mean you could go around hitting people because you could. It’s the same thing.

The talk is best done as a series of short discussions, rather than some epic marathon lecture.

Please join me over at the Facebook page to find other parents and teachers who are serving gifted children. Feel free to send your own question my way!

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