Between parents of the gifted and their therapist: On conflictual beliefs and world-views

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Prof.Dr. Hanna David 1822   -   11-07-2021

A while ago, I met a third-grade boy identified as gifted. He was not my first, but he was really exceptional. With a reach language he counted the gods in Greek mythology and compared them to those of the Roman's. He talked about the differences as well as similarities among these two lists, while bringing into the comparison other gods, from some more mythologies. When he finished his "lecture" I was too astounded even to close my mouth, he asked me not to tell his parents about this specific knowledge he had acquired. As he was learning in a state-religious school, and his parents were educators and counsellors in religious/Ultra-Orthodox communities, he was already ware of their dissatisfaction when learning about their son's large variety of interests, particularly in areas very far from the Jewish holy scripts.  

This child loved to learn Judaism, about Judaism and texts such as bible, Mishna, and Talmud, and he will probably be a great Jewish scholar. But his soul was longing to know, learn, go deeply into other, different subjects as well. He was afraid that his parents who might "discover" that their religious child was interested in "non-religious" subjects. So I assured him I was not to reveal his secret. In his case the solution to the dilemma between the child's needs and the parents' wishes was simple:  if a child asks not to tell their parents any "secret" revealed during therapy, unless this "secret" is life-endangering or might cause serious physical or mental injury, the therapist must tell the child that "your secret is safe with me". This is the only answer to be given to any patient – child, adolescent of adult, gifted or not-identified-as-gifted.

This question belongs, in my opinion, more to the ethical than to the therapeutic arena. It has to do with the issue: "who is the client", or "the child therapist as "the servant of two masters" – the child and their parents/family. The question has a lot in common with many others dealing with opinions, beliefs, worldviews and values that are not related to religion. For example: A few years ago I made a visit to the Umm al-Fahm art gallery as a personal friend of Mr. Said Abu Shakra, who initiated it, served as its manager and main curator. Upon my leaving he gave me the gallery's guidebook with his personal dedication. The book-cover was trilingual: Arabic, English and Hebrew, in order to have as large audience interested in it as possible. While at home I put it on the table of my waiting room so that parents waiting for the children to leave my clinic would be able to enjoy its uniqueness as the first Arab gallery book in Israel. But one of the parents had caught me by surprise, saying "I wouldn't allow my son to be exposed to Arabic". I had no choice but to remove the book from the table and hide it somewhere so the child would not see any Arabic letters while meeting me. I did not think then, in 2012, and I still do not think, now that there was any other way to avoid a conflict between me and the father, as the person who was to lose mostly from such a conflict – caught in-between his father and therapist – was to be the child.

Thus, the question: "what shall be done" is complicated when the therapist has a conflict between their own beliefs and those of the child's parents. As I do not consider myself as an ethical authority for anybody else, I just do my best to think only about the well-being of my patient as I perceive it. It is essential to remember, that all parents whose child sees a therapist are convinced that they send their child to the therapist and pay them for the child's well-being as well. But when the perception of "the child's well-being" is controversial, even colliding with other values, the conflict must be solved by understanding that the child is in the legal custody of their parents, and no less important – that the decisions about all moral and ethical issues in their child's life are the sole responsibility of the parents. The conclusion must thus be that everything that has to do with education is not under the therapist's responsibility. Here is an example from my clinic. 

Ultra-Orthodox gifted adolescent girls approach me from time to time when they need help in choosing school- or professional track, issues of early marriage and the problem of combining a large household with many children and materializing their educational aspirations, etc. Most of these girls had not gone through the process of identification of giftedness, which is free in Israel and includes all 2nd or 3rd grade students, as Ultra-Orthodox institutes do not participate in it. However, quite often they demonstrate a variety of high abilities, a large treasure of knowledge in many areas, knowledge they had, in most cases, acquired through self-learning, and a substantial amount of motivation for learning. Most of these girls are still minors, but even when they are over 18, and they are allowed, morally and ethically, to make their own choices, I tend to chill their enthusiasm as I know that the social, emotional and familial price they are to pay for materializing their giftedness might be high, even too high. I tell them that prospects of being a mother of a very large family – the average number of children in the Ultra-Orthodox family had been over 7 in the second decade of the 21st century, a good housewife, the bread-provider of the family – most Ultra-Orthodox men still do not work but rather keep learning the holy scripts, sometimes for decades, AND materializing their gifted in cognitive, literary, artistic or any other areas are close to null. I even present them with examples, such as the well-known Israeli writer, Yehudith Rotem, who left both Ultra-Orthodoxy and her husband after giving birth to 7 children while leaving her son in his father's custody and raising her 6 daughters on her own, prior of publishing her first book. I also mention the Rock and Pop song-singer, one of the first Indie musicians, Tova Gertner, who had to leave the Ultra-Orthodox world in order to become an artist. I focus on the losses these women had to pay – all related to disconnecting from their former world, including family and friends, in order to explain these talented but naïve girls the difficulties they are to face if they prefer advancing their talents over certainty, belonging, as well as family and emotional support. 

Every few months I get a telephone call from a mother of a girl belonging to Chabad – Lubavich Hassidim who wants to set a counselling session with me about the future of her talented daughter. I always make it clear that I would be delighted to meet her and her husband, the girl's father. Sometimes the mother says: "I'll speak with my husband". Sometimes the mother tries to insist on a setting the meeting saying something like: "my husband is very busy and has no problem if I go to the meeting by myself and report about it to him later". Quite often the mother sets a meeting and calls in the last moment, saying that her husband had to do something urgently, and was not able to make it on time for the meeting. In all "parents' meetings" with me both parents must be present. In addition, in spite of differences between the parents' views of their child's giftedness, they must come to an agreed compromise in order to overcome outside pressures, rooted in social challenges and school-related issues. When the child is an Ultra-Orthodox girl, the ONLY supports she can expect to get is from her parents. Thus, it is unlikely that a father who "cannot make it" to a single meeting with a giftedness counsellor will support his daughter along the journey she is to take. But until now, though I have met some Ultra-Orthodox men who were not too-busy for a counselling session for their gifted sons, not even one such father met me in order to learn about supporting his daughter.

One final remark: 

There is a substantial difference between being "religious" and "Ultra-Orthodox" in the context of giftedness. The comparative part of religious – or "state-religious" families who meet me for counselling is much larger than their proportion in the population. It can be concluded – by additional criteria as well – that the support religious families offer all their children, in spite of their larger-than-average birth-rate – is admirable; they invest a lot of financial and emotional resources in their sons as well as their daughters. On the other hand, the number of subjects taught in the Ultra-Orthodox school is limited, and children belonging to these communities do not participate in the Israeli programs for the gifted offered by the Ministry of Education. On top of it – there are too many "forbidden" subject matters. Indeed, subjects such as Darwinism or Christianity are a real challenge for any religious community, but in the Ultra-Orthodox education system they are not even to be mentioned. Ultra-Orthodox education objects, in most cases, to art learning, but more so to psychology. Learning such subjects is to cause social isolation, and compromise not only the girl's chances to get a good match, but also her siblings'.


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Prof.Dr. Hanna David Written by

Hanna David received her PhD, "magna cum laude", from Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München and was a college lecturer in Psychology and literature. Dr. Dav


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