Question: My 9 year old suddenly announced that she was a vegetarian. This came as a complete surprise to me. Is this common in gifted families?
While it is impossible to know how common vegetarianism is in gifted families, your child is showing several of the qualities that are associated with giftedness. One of the qualities is what is called “asynchrony”.
A group of respected professionals in the field of gifted suggest a definition based on the gifted child's differences from the norm:
"Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally." The Columbus Group, 1991, cited by Martha Morelock, "Giftedness: The View from Within", in Understanding Our Gifted, January 1992
In other words, many gifted children show qualities that are more typical of older children. By questioning what is traditional or customary in your family or culturally, your daughter is exhibiting the kind of independent thought that is more typical of an adolescent.
Your daughter may also be showing another typical characteristic of gifted children in the motivation for her decision. Many gifted children have high ethical standards, which may develop at an early age. In the case of vegetarianism, your daughter might be influenced by concerns about animal rights and humane treatment. Or she may be influenced by a concern for the economic and ecological effects of dietary choices. The asynchrony is shown in her awareness of these issues at a younger than usual age.
As a parent, you may be wondering how to handle this situation since it potentially affects the entire family. This presents an opportunity for you to explore with your child what her concerns are. It could be a learning opportunity as you encourage her to research the nutritional aspects of a change in her diet. It could also be an opportunity for the development of practical skills through participation in planning menus, shopping, and cooking either for herself or the family.
You and your child may also want to take the opportunity to explore ideas about independence and belonging. Her independent choice about her diet has potential effects on the family and perhaps on relationships with friends. You may want to talk about how the rest of the family will react. You may also want to discuss social situations where friends are un-aware of her choices or are not prepared to accommodate them. These may be areas that because of her age and limited life experience (her asynchrony) she isn’t expecting to encounter questions about her decisions.
It is very common in gifted families for the children to have deep philosophical questions and concerns about something as common as the food they eat. By respecting their concern and encouraging them to articulate their thoughts and feelings, parents can facilitate the child’s deeper understanding and emotional and ethical development. Whether your child’s desire to eat a vegetarian diet is a short-term experiment or the beginning of a lifetime commitment is unpredictable. But it could be a valuable experience for the family to explore this decision with her. It could lead to a broader consideration of the consequences of conforming to or disagreeing with family expectations or cultural norms.