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Monday, January 14, 2013

Parenting Gifted Children

By Benjamin Hebebrand, QuestAcademy 

The transformation of a child’s giftedness into talents or abilities is impacted by a multitude of factors and persons. Fully or optimally developing potential is among the most researched and discussed topics in both the soft and hard sciences. Theories abound across cultures and across disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, or biology. Central in all developmental theories is the role of parenting – and while parenting is not a science, it is a topic that is much debated and critiqued and researched and tracked – and within that research is limited thought given to the idea of parenting gifted children.  

The most important realization – particularly for first-time parents – is to recognize and accept that there is no “magic” or “scientifically prescribed” approach to parenting gifted children. “The only conclusion to be drawn from studies to date is that there is not one superior type of parenting, nor one set of identifiable set of family dynamics that leads to the fulfillment of a child’s potential,” according to Robin Schader, research professor at the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut. This obviously underscores the beauty and mystery of individual differences among gifted children and their parents. As such, it is best to value both the child’s and parent’s individuality. In recent years, we have been bombarded with literature about parenting with an eye toward talent development. In my mind, two central themes have crystallized themselves in recent years – maybe these are the new “folk wisdoms” in parenting gifted children – 1) that excessive praising or rewarding a child’s achievements may actually result in thwarting a child’s potential; and 2) that actual hard work and practice is required to transform giftedness into talents and that engaging in and completing such work is most rewarding to the child (it is the “intrinsic” reward). 

But yet of course it is only natural or human for parents, particularly first-time parents, to seek information about parenting, particularly when parenting involves a child who displays giftedness traits that may not be observable in other children – and thus, makes one’s child different from other children. Such differences manifested by giftedness are not what make kids superior or inferior but rather have the potential to influence a child’s life in terms of his or her learning both on cognitive and social-emotional levels. At this point, it may be evident that a gifted child may thus have needs that are different from those of many children. 

As parents, we all want to do the best in meeting those needs. A review of thousands of parental inquiries received at the National Association for Gifted Children reveals that a little more than a third of questions revolved around the theme of how to recognize giftedness and how to enrich a gifted child. “My child is different than others her age. How can I find out if she’s gifted,” or “How can I help my child develop his exceptional abilities and assure they don’t go to waste,” is how Schader summarizes these questions. A little more than a quarter of inquiries seek information on programs or specific schools for gifted children. Thus, we can conclude that among the earliest parental decisions to be made in a young gifted child’s life is to 1) have the child assessed and confirm giftedness (please see a previous blog entry entitled “Early Identification of Giftedness”); and 2) to offer the child an educational experience that is different than what can be found in most schools. 

It is my experience that if parents have successfully undertaken these first two steps of identifying the level of giftedness and selecting an appropriate school that a child’s achievement record becomes less of an issue. Conversely, if a child’s giftedness has gone undetected and no specific gifted education programming options have been offered, a gifted child may experience learning issues such as boredom or underachievement.  

Of course, when we discuss parenting and its influence on developing potential, we often wonder about the parental home’s environment. “Within the literature, one can find both discussions of a supportive, cohesive family as an important component, as well as conclusions that a tense, challenging home is a contributor to high levels of achievement,” according to Schader. “Although parent variables such as educational attainment, economic status, parenting style, and energy devoted to talent development appear to explain achievement in some children, the results are not consistent, even within families.” 

Schader as well as other gifted education scholars believe that the topic of “parenting gifted children” is worthy of further review and research. As a parent, I personally subscribe to an approach whereby nurture, structure, and latitude are given at consistently high levels. It is the fine interplay between structure and latitude that I find particularly interesting in working with gifted children. As parents, we are surely able to have influence on a child’s learning, and, according to Schader, there is research that suggests that “parents of gifted children discuss and explain rather than direct.”