Updated on 09.24.08

The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Gifted Children Edition

Trent Hamm

Recently, I’ve been puzzling over how exactly to feel about the progression of a child I met several years ago. When this boy was about ten, he gave one of the greatest presentations I’ve ever seen in a science fair environment. He had the most complex project there and knew it from top to bottom, answering every question that any judge could throw at him in a clear and concise manner. He was also one of the most popular kids there, running around and talking to most of the other children.

Needless to say, I was impressed, and I’ve occasionally Googled him just to keep tabs on how he’s doing. A few days ago, I found his MySpace page. Most of it was filled with a mix of corporate logos and some bragging about his physique and about skipping classes. I was stunned – I wouldn’t have believed it was the same kid if it weren’t for the pictures.

So I contacted a few people just to see what was up. It turns out that about a year after the science fair, his parents (who were extremely involved, wonderful people) had a very, very messy divorce, and after the divorce, neither parent was really capable of giving the child the same kind of attention and focus he received before. So he just drifted and now he’s a C and D student who is a regular in detention.

It’s troubled me a lot. Here was a kid with all of the intellectual and social opportunity in the world, and just at the point where he needed guidance the most, it all fell apart for him.

I didn’t have enough of a connection with this child to serve as a mentor myself, or else that’s what I would do. Instead, it just weighs heavy on my heart. I think I’ll be remembering him for a while, particularly as my own children begin to grow up.

On with some personal finance articles.

When Frugality Isn’t Enough This was a guest post I wrote over at Frugal Dad, who needed a hand in a pinch. (@ frugal dad)

Laddering Your Emergency Fund I’m actually thinking about doing this through ING, as I just have an emergency fund sitting there in cash at the moment. (@ blueprint for financial prosperity)

The Never Ending War Against Advertising This is a big reason why I’ve basically eliminated my exposure to television – it’s mostly just lots of product placements followed by ads followed by more product placements. (@ get rich slowly)

Really Simple Goal Setting My guiding principle for setting goals is to just brainstorm everything I’d like to do, then eliminate a lot of them because, while they’re nice, they’re not really in line with what I want to be doing. (@ zen habits)

28 Gift Ideas That Save Money for the Recipient My wife and I are starting to really strive for gifts along these lines. (@ personal finance advice)

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  1. Frugal Dad says:

    Trent, thanks for the guest post, and for including a link to it here. It was a big help and gave me a chance to catch my breath while I dealt with a family medical emergency (which is steadily improving, by the way).

    I enjoyed the Laddering Your Emergency Fund post from Blueprint. I’ve read a couple articles recently on laddering CDs, but not incorporating it with your emergency fund…good idea. Like Jim mentions in the post, one drawback is only being able to “cash out” one month’s worth of expenses at any given time. If I were to implement this, I’d probably keep a couple month’s worth of expenses out of the ladder for smaller emergencies, just in case.

  2. Johanna says:

    Very sad and touching story about the science fair kid. It makes me wonder how many naturally gifted children there are out there who weren’t even lucky enough in the first place to be born to wonderful, involved parents who were married to each other (or otherwise in a stable relationship), and so never got the chance to realize their potential at all.

  3. Trent,
    Thanks for the “stop sign” this week.
    This reminds us to stop and realize that there is a lot more to life then just the financial side of things.
    Having complete control over our finances is great, but not at the expense of our friends and family.

  4. Laura says:

    Great post at Frugal Dad! Could you maybe make a list of guest posts you’ve written so we can find them?

  5. tarraguña says:

    That is quite sad about the young man. You should, regardless of not being connected enough, contact this young man and tell him how talented he is. It sounds like he could use some positive attention. Just letting him know about this post might be enough. Divorces are destructive and children sometimes just become collateral damage.

  6. David says:

    Wow, Trent. In just four paragraphs, you have illustrated one of the great challenges we face: how to nurture our most precious, and yet most fragile, investments: the next generation. Stocks, savings, long-term care insurance, 401(k), Roth IRA…none of it will mean squat in our retirement if we have an inadequate workforce to keep delivering the goods and services our economy needs. Some point to single-parent households, others point to inadequate schools, yet others point to the demise of our manufacturing sector and its dependable jobs…but I fret over how (if?) our children are going to do better than us.

  7. Kacie says:

    Get in touch with that kid! Maybe you can be his online mentor.

    Even though he’s off track, he’s still a highly intelligent person. Maybe if he hears what you have to say, it’ll motivate him to make more of an effort with his education.

    What could it hurt?

  8. jdp says:

    Life has a funny way of giving us obstacles we need to accomplish something or be something then also giving us help and encouragement, no? (I’m thinking of your own story here). Maybe this is an important obstacle for him and maybe you are to be a turning point for him? Or not but maybe to just communicate his story for someone else to see?

    Off to check that 28 gift ideas article!

  9. plonkee says:

    If he’s really all that, there’s a good chance that he’ll get there eventually, even if he does take the roundabout route.

  10. gnorten says:

    Interesting article about “laddering”, though it seems like an awful lot of work just to get MAYBE 1% more interest (comparing ING’s current 3% savings rate against the 4% for a 12 month CD, the rate would be 3.75% for <9 months).

    Over the course of the year, if you have $12000 in your emergency fund, that additional percentage would only amount to around $120 more interest.

    Seems like you’d be just as well off shopping around for a better money market account. That way you could keep your emergency fund liquid in case of, I don’t know, an emergency.

  11. K.J. says:

    I’m with Kacie.

  12. Salve Regina says:

    That’s a heartbreaking story, and all too typical, I think. I’m NOT with Kacie–I would freak out if some strange man contacted my kid online. Perhaps the parents wouldn’t notice, but…CYA, you know?

  13. Harmzie says:

    Turns out not all stalkers are creepy!

    Seriously, I, too, think you should try. Chances are he’s in a place where he’ll reject you, but leave the door open. If nothing else, you’ll have re-sown the “I’m worth it – I have something to offer” seed that will eat away at him until he comes back to you for advice – be there when he returns!

    I recall being a dumb flippy teenager and one day my English teacher slapped me upside the head (figuratively) and said “what the HELL? you’re smarter than this!” Suddenly I saw how goofy I looked (it was the 80s, after all), and gave myself a little more credit.

  14. AJ says:

    Quite a bit of research has been done on the effect of divorce on kids, and the old chestnut that “If the parents are unhappy together and will be happier apart, then the kids will be happier too” turns out to be true ONLY when the parents’ relationship is, in addition to unhappy, also high conflict, i.e., abusive, openly hostile or involving constant bickering and acrimony.

    Turns out kids don’t much care whether their parents are “happy” as long as they are reasonably civil and keep their conflicts from the children. From the standpoint of the kids, the ranking of desirable situations is:

    Happy parents together;
    Unhappy but low conflict parents together;
    High conflict parents apart;
    High conflict parents together.

    As a divorce lawyer, I see plenty of cases where the divorce will lower the level of conflict in the home, but also plenty of cases where the parents have serious incompatibilities but have managed for years to keep these from affecting the children, and finally get tired of it and call it quits. The effect on the children in such instances is often severe.

    A hint to the guys: When wife first says “we need to talk more” or “we need counseling,” get on it right away, and make sure you deal with the problem, whatever it is, ASAP. I can’t begin to tell you how many men I’ve represented who are shocked and devastated when wife files for divorce, claiming they didn’t know there were really any problems, but when I ask them if wife ever asked that they see a counselor, say “Well, yeah, but I thought she was just depressed/overemotional/it was a waste of time/the counselor kept taking her side so I quit/I don’t like talking about that stuff with other people. THEN they want to try counseling, but by then, it’s too late.

    By the way, I’m not sure that professional counseling itself is always of that much value, but the time set aside to talk over issues in a somewhat moderated setting, where feelings can be expressed and someone will keep the discussion civil and responsive, definitely is.

  15. Battra92 says:

    I was a bit of a prodigy child myself and at 10 I could explain Revolutionary War battles to you or the meanings behind the Declaration of Independence. People routinely voted me most likely to succeed.

    In high school I lost ambition because none of what mattered in those early grades matters in high school. My parents were always supportive but I lost the teacher support (I had a lot of teachers who hated me) and once I got college and was “thrown to the wolves” with no friends there plus being a commuter I lost touch with the world.

    By 20 I was a depressed and nearly a college dropout that spent all his meager paycheck on junk food and anime.

    Now I’m almost 26 and in an IT job making good pay and (even in this so-called recession and doom and dispair time) just recently got a raise.

    Sometimes we just hit the time where we need to grow up on our own. Part of growing up is figuring things out for yourself. Maybe this kid just needs to find what really works for him and he’ll look back at his wasted years.

  16. Kevin says:

    Nice guest post Trent – really makes me appreciate even more what I’ve been blessed with.

    The Get Rich Slowly post on advertising is funny, because just this morning I was leafing through GQ magazine looking for the table of contents. It was literally 30 pages into the mag with advertising cluttering the entire beginning up.

  17. That is such a sad story. :( And a good reminder that one of the kindest things we can do for our children is to work on our marriages.

    I hope the kid manages to turn around, despite his difficult circumstances.

  18. West says:

    Many highly intelligent students do not receive enough challenge in their classes and end up with poor performance records as a result. Unfortunately for teachers, it’s hard to justify giving more time and attention to a very bright student that seems “lazy” when you have not-so-bright students that are willing to work hard. Without accountability with parents at home, the school cannot provide enough incentive for students to care about school.

    Additionally, all adolescents go through an “identity crisis” in middle or high school whether or not they have attention from their parents. The attention of parents can help self esteem and avoid outside negative influences, but everyone goes through the struggle of “finding themself” sometime between 12 and 24. Anyone who frequents Myspace can see this is a regular outlet for struggling adolescents.

    If it makes you feel better, I know many intelligent students that got mediocre grades in high school because their were bored by the lack of challenge. They almost all went on the college to become straight-A students because they finally were given the intellectual challenge they needed and the opportunity to say something unique and valuable. Not doing well in public school is not a nail in the coffin.

  19. Chris says:

    Sad, but true. Unfortunately we’re going to see a large population of young people in the work force(including me) from broken homes. I am/was in the top 10% of pretty much everything. After the divorce and lots of rebelling and self destruction, I’ve finally found myself fairly well centered, but I am still plagued by lack of self confidence, social anxiety, pessimism, and skeptisism.

    The more important question is, though, when somebody recognizes these learned, nurtured traits, what can one possibly do to “get over it”?


  20. Jade says:

    Loved the CD laddering article. Of course my reason for laddering my emergency fund in CD’s is not so much for the interest, but to keep me from spending it! The interest is a nice little bonus though…

    If I really needed more than one month’s expenses at a time, I could still cash in several CDs, and I’m willing to accept the 3-6 months interest penalty. If things get bad enough to cash out the entire fund, I’ll have bigger things to worry about.

  21. fern says:

    That is a very sad story. It just reinforces my feelings that far too many people divorce without truly considering how it will impact their children.

    I speak from experience. My parents divorced when i was six. I had 2 absentee parents and 3 step-parents. I can say my parents’ divorced had a major impact on my life.

    I think too many parents are selfish and don’t comprehend how important it is to provide their children in their formative years witha a stable and loving environment that will serve as the bedrock of the rest of their lives. Anyone can have sex; not everyone can be a good parent.

  22. Ryan McLean says:

    Amazing how the attention a parent pays to their children can make a huge different to their life outcome

  23. a momma says:

    You could have been describing my son. He was identified gifted, honor society, star athlete and his middle and elementary school teachers loved him. A combination of things: parents’ divorce, absent angry dad, and inner city peers, all contributed to his spiraling downward in grades and run ins with the law. Now he is an adult, searching for his vocation, after turning down a college scholarship, then dropping out of community college. He has had a series of hard jobs with no real chance to advance.
    He works hard and takes full responsibility for his actions, but I know that a strong, steady male influence would have and still could make a difference.
    Any time a friend considers divorce, I tell them that if they don’t try everything possible to get help, they will be sorry for their children later. I know I am.

  24. Harriet says:

    I have two children, one gifted and one profoundly gifted. One has ADD and is bored and slacks off in class, and would just fail everything if I didn’t push him. He knows he’s smart and couldn’t care less about grades (he’s 14). My daughter, 11, is profoundly gifted, and needs therapy and meds for depression. She too is very bored in school and has no friends because she can’t relate to other children.

    Giftedness doesn’t mean anything if a child doesn’t care about school or external praise. And schools aren’t interested in helping the very intelligent–they concentrate their resources on the other end of the bell curve.

    My kids would much rather learn on their own than go to school. I don’t know where they’d be without my and my husband’s full attention.

  25. Someone says:

    People are acting like the divorce itself is the problem, rather than the attention to the kids.

    It’s far healthier for a kid to have divorced parents than parents in a toxic marriage (trust me, I’ve had both. And even though my Dad was never physically abusive, leaving him was the best thing my Mom ever did for herself, and it allowed her to be a much better parent to us, as well.)

    Divorce is a symptom, not a disease. And sometimes it’s a cure. It seems to me that “staying married for the kids” is incredibly wrong-headed if you’re in a truly unhealthy relationship, because you teach your kids that that kind of dysfunction is normal and acceptable– thus they’ll end up seeking it out, consciously or unconsciously, possibly for the rest of their lives. Far better to leave the toxic relationship, but then do everything you can to help your kids process and deal with the change.

    Us kids are all in healthy, functional relationships now. I highly doubt this would be the case if our parents had stayed married.

  26. darlene says:


    Great post – sad and sooo touching to those of us with kids! Perhaps get him one of those Blue Ribbons – have you seen those over at: http://www.blueribbonmovie.com Evidently, it can be quite life changing. I’d vote YES for you to get involved, too – even just a few kind words. You never know when you can make a profound difference.

  27. Suzanne says:

    I went to a candidate forum the other night and they spoke of our state’s extremely low educational ranking. So I’ve been thinking that the best solution is to get in touch with the school counselors and try to set up volunteer tutoring programs and such–especially concentrating on catching kids before they fall too far to be caught. Seems we mostly just talk about throwing more money at the schools but that sure isn’t going to happen in this economy. We have to see what time we can volunteer. Thanks for the nudge!

  28. LisaS says:

    Someone is right: the divorce wasn’t necessarily the issue, but what the parents did after the divorce. My parents divorced when I was 11, and while they weren’t high conflict before or after, my sister and I always knew we were tops in each of their worlds.

    Or maybe that wasn’t the issue at all. High school is boring to many gifted kids–not just the classes, but the social stupidity. I know most of my T & G class peers were counting the days to graduation along with me. A fellow parent and I were talking the other night that sometimes the best thing for those kids is to take the GED and the ACT, go to community college and get on with life. Better that than get into the trouble so many of us found as we marked time ….

    email him, Trent. Worst he can do is tell you to go away.

  29. J. S. says:

    You could have been describing me in high school. Gifted, honor roll student all through primary and middle school, hit high school and found that there was more to life than the next gold star.

    I slacked off, procrastinated, was extremely depressed and made a lot of art. Dropped out of high school. Went to community college (when family could afford it). Dropped out of community college when the financial aid regulations were changed and I could no longer afford it. Now I own my business and the ups and downs are just part of life. Looks like a waste of time, yes – but I got my wish: I own my own business and can actually function socially.

    I have a theory that almost all gifted kids will go through this phase of testing out the “other side.” Some stay there, some don’t. Length and intensity of stay depends heavily on what influences and events are going on at the time in question. I had a head injury in high school and missed a lot of class to go to the hospital; mine was pretty long.

    Someone had it right on the mark. If my parents had stayed married, either my mother, my sister or myself would be dead. The upheaval was minimal compared to the profound sense of relief we ALL felt, and my mom was certainly able to parent enough for two people.

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