Hamel: The toxic ‘you’re going to be a doctor someday’

Opinion editor and columnist Peyton Hamel discusses the toxic expectations placed onto gifted children at young ages. 

Peyton Hamel

Welcome high achievers, top-of-the-liners, 10-out-of-10 dimers. And welcome to those who hear about these gifted kids all too often.

The majority of people understand what a gifted child is. They can probably pinpoint one in a classroom or social setting with accuracy without knowing the actual aptitude of the child. The fluently outspoken, opinionated child is a classic example of who would be chosen as “gifted.” Another could also be the quiet, observant introvert on the other side of the room. Either way, both are noticed.

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, “Students with gifts and talents perform — or have the capability to perform — at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience and environment in one or more domains. They require modification(s) to their educational experience(s) to learn and realize their potential.” 

While this realization is reinforced in academic settings, it is also highly influenced by everyday social interactions with others, especially adults. 

“You’re so smart!”

“You have so much potential!”

“You’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer someday.” 

Gifted kids, how many times have you heard an adult tell you that you could be a doctor or lawyer someday? Adults, teachers and parents, how many times have you told a child that they could be a doctor or lawyer?

This social interaction is extremely harmful, especially when these children have to decide what to do after their academic journey ends. It sets such a high standard; it seems impossible to achieve. That’s why gifted kids have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and harmful perfectionism. The National Association for Gifted Children restates these issues: “heightened awareness, anxiety, perfectionism, stress, issues with peer relationships and concerns with identity and fit.” It’s the pressure of living up to the expectations of others and their own. It’s a killer. 

A special note should be made to emphasize the “concerns with identity and fit.” Also note the “you’re going to be a doctor someday.” On a subconscious level, the fate for gifted kids has already been decided for them. Doctors, lawyers, etc.

I’ve been fighting this struggle myself. I’ve been toying with the idea of changing my possible career path from a medical and doctoral degree in cardiovascular research and medicine to cardiovascular therapy. It’s going from a doctor to a physical therapist. Even though it doesn’t seem like a gigantic gap, it certainly feels like one. 

“It’s kind of shooting low knowing you, don’t you think?” 

“You can achieve so much more. Why?”

“Seems like a waste of school. Are you sure?”

Each of these have been said to me in the last six months. Am I actually shooting low? Am I putting my brains to waste? Why is being a physical therapist considered so much lower on a ladder than a doctor? Aren’t they both important? It’s been a hard battle.

My whole life, I have been programmed to think the best occupations I can dedicate my life to are being a doctor or lawyer (or something of the like). Yes, they’re important, but the world doesn’t revolve around doctors and lawyers. I’m having a really hard time finding what I want to do with my life. And I know I’m not the only one that’s fallen victim to the reality of what a college gifted kid’s struggle looks like. 

Do I want to go to medical school because that’s what people expect of me? Because I’ve had my mind set to that high of a hard-achieving goal that I haven’t looked at anything else? Or do I actually want to be a doctor? 

We all know every field needs smart people. Innovative people. Creative people. Not just the fields full of doctors and lawyers.

I think all college students should ask these questions, not just those who are considered gifted kids. Do you want to be a teacher because your parents were, or are you really in love with being a teacher? If a brilliant child wanted to become a teacher, we wouldn’t not support them. In fact, we would encourage them, but they would have to come to the idea of being a teacher on their own. 

The opinion of the gifted kid is the only one that matters. Don’t set expectations of being a doctor or lawyer or another highly esteemed and hard-achieved occupation to gifted kids. Gifted kids will fixate on these goals because of their very nature. These expectations for gifted kids is toxic and harmful. 

In reality, some will become doctors and lawyers, and they will be happy with it. For the rest, it may be a battle to find something they love and feel like it’s the perfect fit because, in an indirect way, they were told being a doctor and lawyer is the bar. 

To the gifted kids: You don’t have to be a doctor someday. You have to be someone you are in love with and proud of. That’s the only expectation you should set for yourself.