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For gifted kids, better to be hands-on or -off?

Posted at 5:12 AM, Dec 04, 2018

In recent years, I've noticed a rising -- and welcome -- resistance to helicopter parenting.

We parents have heard all the stories about how anxious American children are, how they arrive at adulthood with hefty résumés but little sense of purpose, and want to do things differently. Our daughters' and sons' childhood will not be curated, nor their days boxed in!

Of course, this hands-off approach is no less a fantasy, and a privileged one at that, than its more hands-on alternative. And the potential glitches of this laissez-faire plan are both inevitable and wide-ranging.

Children need freedom, yes, but they also need us, their ostensibly wiser guardians, to pay attention to their particular needs and help them meet them. This is clearly the case with children with physical or mental disabilities or emotional disorders. But it can be a bit harder to navigate when a child is gifted.

    Few among us want to be accused of raising a special snowflake, but sometimes, those snowflakes reveal themselves as a little special. Should we leave these children alone with their gifts and talents, allowing them to pursue their interests on their own terms? Or should we intervene?

    Gifted children have needs

    M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, said it would be a mistake for parents to let their children pursue their gifts on their own.

    "We know kids will not grow intellectually and cognitively if they are not stretched a little bit and supported with scaffolding to get there," Islas said. A high-performing child needs this just as much as her peers, he explained, and research shows that she will suffer if she doesn't receive it.

    Islas recommends a little-by-little approach when challenging gifted children and says children do best when there is someone to coach them through new ideas and concepts. For every child, there's a sweet spot or an optimal growth zone, depending on their knowledge and abilities. Push them too much or too little, and they won't learn.

    In an ideal world, school educators are able to meet the needs of all children, no matter how they perform in class. However, budget cuts and other reforms have chipped away at special education programs for gifted children in some parts of the country, making them far from a sure thing.

    But, Islas said, these trends are beginning to reverse. After a long era of public education in which teachers were encouraged to emphasize proficiency and standardized knowledge, there is now a movement toward more personalized learning strategies.

    Educators "are recognizing that people come to school at different levels, and we have an obligation to help them all achieve at their optimal levels. This means using different strategies that are sometimes above the norm for a student's age group," Islas said.

    If a school isn't able to meet a child's educational needs, Islas said, parents should seek out alternative forms of enrichment. Maybe this happens through an app, a local club or weekly chats about geometry or poetry at the kitchen table. The goal is to keep them engaged.

    Try not to look too far into the future

    Ann Hulbert, author of "Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Prodigies," advises parents to be aware of the difference between supporting gifted children to create their own story and writing their story for them.

    "The notion that they are on a path is not that helpful and to treat it as one that is in your power to script in a clear-cut way is not ideal," Hulbert said. Parents can avoid the shift into manager mode by focusing on what brings their children joy and a sense of satisfaction, rather than acclaim.

    The dominant lesson that emerges from the collection of life stories unfolded in Hulbert's book is a familiar one: life, and the people living it, can surprise us. Exceptionality might fade to proficiency; motivation might curdle into frustration or boredom; interests might lose their appeal.

    Perhaps more important, circumstances change and are largely out of our control. Success requires a lot of hard work and talent, yes, but it also requires a lot of luck. Parents of all kids, though perhaps especially those labeled as "promising," shouldn't ignore the fact that tomorrow will not necessarily look or feel like today.

    "Whether or not a child breaks milestones early is not much of an augury of anything," Hulbert said, explaining that parents should support their kids but keep expectations at a minimum -- and avoid projecting their own desires onto their kids. "The chances are great that it's all not going to work out the way you expect."

    Striking the right note of enthusiastic support with a gifted child requires parents to follow the children's lead. Hulbert said stories about parents of autistic savants are helpful in understanding how this works. These parents see their child's gifts as a way to ground their children in the world, as opposed to a way to help them rise up above it. The focus is on connection and meaning, not cultivating a walking, talking humblebrag who's never known what it is to live without one's achievements on display.

    Don't tell them they are special

    Kids can be celebrated for their passion, their grit, their dedication. But don't emphasize how unique or brilliant they are, explained Sylvia Rimm, child psychologist and author of a number of books on gifted education. Children can easily metabolize that type of praise as pressure and raise the bar on themselves. Also, they might see their ability to do a complicated math problem or play Rachmaninoff as evidence of their universal, essential exceptionality.

    "It is important for kids to realize they are not only different," Rimm said.

    Feeling like the belong with other kids won't just help their social lives, it will make it more likely that they achieve long-term success. Collaboration is key to most achievements, and the child who learns to listen to and make use of other people's ideas is more likely to have his or her ideas realized in the future.

    Also, although children may not be aware of the ways in which their race and income-level play into whether they are considered gifted and can pursue their gifts, their parents should be. Historically, white and wealthy children were far more likely to be singled out as gifted compared with children of color and from lower-income families. This performance gap is further widened by the fact that wealthy children tend to have more opportunities to sharpen their talents in the form of afterschool classes, tutors and private schools.

    Raising open-minded, not-full-of-themselves kids is a start, but parents should do more. They can support efforts to reform gifted programming and make sure it is funded in all schools.

    Islas says there is a push to make these programs more accessible through measures like universal testing and using multiple approaches to screening (as opposed to, for example, a single IQ test). On a more local level, Hulbert suggests speaking with educators at your child's school about ways you can help enrich learning for all students while helping meet your son or daughter's needs.

      Ultimately, it's just as important for the parents of gifted children to give their kids support as it is perspective.

      There's an old Jewish story about a rabbi who instructed his pupils to always have two pockets, each filled with a different message. In one, they should have a paper that reads "for my sake the world was created." And in the other, "I am but dust and ashes." A universal lesson, this is likely to especially benefit any young person who has been told that he or she is "special."