Growing up Gifted and Generation Z: A Problem with Compassion?

Mark Hess

As a defender and champion of Generation Z (born 1996-2010), it was with chagrin that I read about college kids defiantly partying on the beaches of Florida as coronavirus swept across the nation.  These were not kids but young adults who should know better--who might trigger exponential effects based on their choices. I asked myself, where have we failed our youth in helping them understand the need to support the greater good?

Casting Understanding Instead of Throwing Stones

As educators in gifted and talented instruction, we must continually ask ourselves how a gifted learner’s experience is different from others. Though I’d like to say, “Surely our gifted kids weren’t the Florida beach partiers, some likely were. Before we start wagging our fingers at an entire generation, let’s remember that Generation Z is the generation of:

  • Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019, 
  • the Parkland teens whose passion set in motion Enough: March for Our Lives—the largest youth protest since the Vietnam War with 88 sister events and an estimated 1.2 to 2 million participants,
  • the University of Colorado School of Medicine students who, while hundreds of students on their Boulder campus threw a last minute fling as classes closed, mobilized more than 300 classmates, nursing, pharmacy, and physical therapy students through social media to volunteer at nine different locations including hospitals,
  • and medical student Amal Cheema, who wrote an op-ed piece for NPR that stated “We risk our moral character in how we choose to respond to the pandemic.”

Her statement speaks volumes about the gifted mindset with its heightened sense of justice. “Two fundamental virtues,” she goes on to say, “benevolence and justice—can be embodied by us all.” These are the words and thoughts of our GenZ gifted kids.

My therapist and counselling colleagues can address the young adult behavior on the Florida beaches much better than I can.  As an educator with more than 30 years working with gifted learners, however, I believe that Generation Z gifted learners, like many gifted learners, actually do have a problem with compassion . . . too much compassion that is, to absorb all of it in a healthy way.

A Problem with Compassion

Ironically, even while most GenZ kids are safe at home, the coronavirus pandemic has been an assault on one of this generation’s most valued structures—emotional safe spaces. Anticipatory grief—an uncertainty about the future that usually centers around death, says grief expert David Kessler (That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief)--is a prevailing feeling during our present crisis. In this case, the anticipatory grief isn’t necessarily about an uncertainty surrounding death but, collectively, a feeling for the loss of safety which literally hits home with GenZ and their parents.

In uncertain times, anticipatory grief can easily lead to anxiety while our minds race to unsettling images about what might be. For our gifted GenZers who are highly visual, possess active imaginations, and deep, intense emotions, these imagined scenarios can be frighteningly vivid. Added to that is the anxiety in feelings of existential dread—those feelings of grief over the meaninglessness of life, death, and loneliness which gifted children often develop at a young age. Our gifted children make connections others to do not make, absorb life (including, at times, other’s pain or negative emotions) through uncommon clarity, and get swept away in large imaginations. One road takes our children toward anticipatory grief and anxiety. Another road leads to images of calamity. Existential dread waits at the end of a street. At these intersections lie empathy and its actionable counterpart, compassion.

But aren’t empathy and compassion good things?  Dr. Nicole A. Tetreault answers that question directly (Emotionally Gifted and Navigating the World), “Too much empathy can be a disadvantage because it can hinder one’s processing of other information.”  For children and young adults who can be intensely focused, these feelings of empathy and compassion run the risk of becoming unbearable.

OK, let’s all take a deep breath here...

Un-focus and Re-Focus:  Moving Forward

This is our life now. Let’s come into the present. Let’s live it. Let’s literally focus on the things around us. The sun shines. A neighbor walks with her dog outside our window. She waves. Chalk drawings on the sidewalk make us smile. The breeze brings a fresh scent. A dove calls from an elm tree. Another answers. In a recent podcast from Radiolab, features producer Molly Webster wonders what would happen if we refocused our attention away from the data on Coronavirus deaths and infection rates to data which showed the number of trees flowering on the first day of spring (roughly 1.5 billion), how many rocks were skipped on a lake, or how many people danced on the previous day. In addition, let’s encourage GenZ kids to use their powerful imagination and visual ability to picture a positive reality because positive imagination reduces anxiety and fear. If we can imagine the worst, can’t we also imagine the best? Can we imagine that rock skipping across the water—ripples spreading outward? Can we see the people dancing?  A woman smiles and curtsies.  A folds an arm in front of his waist, bows, and invites her onto the dance floor.  The spin as the music plays.

Many of our gifted children may be feeling an existential urgency that there is something very important they should be doing—that time is running out. We’re just sitting and waiting.  Shouldn’t we be doing something? Let’s empower our kids in small and appropriate ways. In When Your Child Goes Overboard:  Fears and Compassionate Concerns, Nancy Robinson, Ph.D., explains to parents that feelings should be both experienced and acknowledged. Feelings are genuine, but we should help our children avoid being overwhelmed by modelling calm, using math and graphs, pointing out low probabilities, and investigating factual information. Few times during a person’s life do we realize that we are living the moments of history. We can help our gifted learners gather these moments in a collection of primary sources which focus on hope—at the same time helping to provide active purpose and gather factual information. (Download the free lesson plans here.) Now we are doing something!  Hope and positive, forward thinking go a long way.

Compassion is taking action guided by one’s cognitive and emotional empathy. Compassion is the doing something part of empathetic feelings. Empathy researcher Daniel Goleman states, “Not only do we want students to feel and acknowledge empathy toward others, we also want them to apply their problem-solving and critical thinking skills to positively impact situations that are causing distress for others (as cited by Developing Compassionate Empathy in Gifted Children, Barbara Swicord. NSGT Website. 2/15/19.) Who better to do this than gifted learners?  Resources are already out there and easily accessible. The National Society for Gifted and Talented provides tween and teen courses that provide structure in developing compassionate empathy. The Making Caring Common Project from the Harvard Graduate School of Education is another excellent resource. Saving the World is a social-emotional unit for upper elementary and middle school and is available free for a limited time. Saving the World examines the polio epidemic through primary sources and the brilliance and generosity of the polio vaccine’s developer, Dr. Jonas Salk. The unit helps gifted learners sort their feelings of empathy and compassion into manageable actions they can take this very moment. Suggestions for mentoring support of gifted students links compassionate children with service organizations and community leaders who are actively involved in providing support.  NAGC has also developed resources and tip sheets focused on social-emotional support in guiding gifted children in this unique time.

With Compassion We Move Forward Together

Grief expert David Kessler advises us to “stock up on compassion,” as those around us will experience grief at different levels and in different ways. Let’s take another deep breath.  Our GenZ gifted kids will be O.K. After all, who better to fight a pandemic in pajamas with only devices connecting oneself to an outside world than the generation who spends less time in social interactions than any other demographic? Gifted medical student, Amal Cheema says, “This is an opportunity for us to rise to the occasion and lead the charge through small ways with a significant impact.” The youngest members of Generation Z will take present feelings forward—not necessarily the specifics, but the prevailing feelings of the time. They vividly feel a world re-setting its priorities of love and family and taking stock about what is important in life. These youngest members of Generation Z are whose compassion we will depend on in our future.

About the Author: Mark Hess has spent 31 years teaching gifted learners.  He is the Gifted Programs Specialist in Colorado Springs District 11, the Pikes Peak Association for Gifted Students president, state board member for the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, and a member of the SENG Editorial and Research Committee.  As Portable Gifted and Talented, he trains teachers and has published 225 units specifically designed for gifted learners.  Mark has three social-emotional lesson collections due to be published by Prufrock Press in the spring of 2021.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC