Every child is special in some way, possessing an amalgamation of aptitudes, abilities and interests that make him or her unique from every other child. However, there are some children who demonstrate abilities outside of this normal realm of uniqueness. Maybe you’ve known a child with one of more of these aptitudes: recited every capital city at age 2, walked at 8 months, read before he could use the toilet, or played an instrument with little or no formal instruction. These types of precocious children are often a great sense of pride for their parents and a wonder to those around them. At the outset, one might be hard pressed to find any downsides to having a child who is gifted in one of these ways. There are, however, a number of pitfalls that children and parents face when the child is just too far outside the “norm.”
1. The child becomes identified by his or her gift. If she reads early, she is an academic wonder. If he can pump on the swings at 12 months old, he is athletic. If he can play the piano at 3, he is the next Bach. These labels, even though positive, become firmly attached to the child and follow him wherever he goes in life. Parents view him through this light as do extended family, friends and teachers. He may come to see his value wrapped up in what he can do, rather than who he is. This can lead to a high level of perfectionism and a high risk for depression and/or anxiety. Parents can avoid this difficulty by resisting the temptation to “show off” their child’s unique talents or abilities to those around them.
2. Parents over-focus on the area of giftedness. Once a parent discovers an area of giftedness, it is natural to want to help it grow. This focus on one area can create a lopsided child. Other enriching experiences are ignored in order to cultivate the area of giftedness. So the child listens only to piano music, takes piano lessons twice a week and is encouraged to practice during free time. Often parents do not feel that they are doing anything inappropriate because the child loves to practice his gift and there is really no pushing involved. Instead of scheduling more lessons, parents need to schedule more time playing outside on the swings. They need to focus on the whole child. In fact, for a gifted child, it can be very beneficial to participate in an activity that does not come easily to him. It can provide him with the opportunity to learn from others and takes the pressure off of him to excel at everything he does.
3. Parents develop unrealistic expectations for their child. A child who can converse intelligently about the Civil War at age 7 is often expected to behave like an older child or even an adult. This is not uncommon due to a concept called asynchronous development. Asynchronous development simply means a gifted child can present as more than one age at the same time. He may perform 13 academically, be 7 chronologically, and act 4 socially. So one minute he can be discussing the theory of relativity and the very next minute have a meltdown over his spilled milk. This rollercoaster ride of emotions is difficult for both the parents and the child. Parents who are aware of this dynamic are better equipped to hang on for the ups and downs that are inherent in raising a gifted child.
4. The child becomes externally oriented. Praise and attention around the area of giftedness is almost unavoidable. However, some children with unusual abilities find that this recognition and praise becomes like air to them – they need it to live. This develops what psychologists call an external locus of control. The child is motivated and driven by the actions and reactions of those around him rather than an internal drive based on self-sufficiency and self-motivation. The use of encouragement rather than praise can help alleviate this pitfall. Parents would be wise to recognize the effort rather than the child (for example, parents can say: “I can really tell that you spent a lot of time on that” rather than “Wow. What a great job you did. You are so talented”).
Being the parent of a gifted child provides you with unique and sometimes surprising parenting obstacles. By making yourself aware of the pitfalls in parenting a gifted child, you can equip yourself with the tools to avoid them. You will then be better able to determine for yourself the delicate balance between pride and pressure.