Ten Pieces of Advice for Parents of Gifted Children
Written by the late, great
James T. Webb, Ph.D.
for The Knox School of Santa Barbara
Parenting is the most important factor in the long-term outcome of gifted children, but with an intense, intellectually curious, high-spirited, often strong-willed, gifted child, parenting can be quite challenging.
Why are parents so important? They have the longest history and the most interactions; they guide a child’s development from infant to toddler to preschool years, then from elementary school to the pre-teen and teen years. Parents are with their children more years than teachers and are simply more influential in shaping their children’s attitudes, values, motivation, and behaviors in learning, relationships with others, and other important areas. It can be tempting to simply turn these challenging children over to educators, but don’t underestimate your importance!
Here are ten pieces of advice that I think are the most important.
#1. Educate yourself about characteristics and issues that are common for gifted children. Not every gifted child is like yours. These children vary in degree of ability, areas of aptitude, amount of asynchronous development, and temperament. All of these influence how you approach parenting as well as educational planning. Talk to other parents, read books about parenting and educating gifted children, attend conferences, download Internet articles, and participate in online chat groups. Yes, you will be told that you are a “pushy parent,” but remember that if you are the parent of an exceptional child (of any kind), you will need to knowledgeably advocate for your child.
#2. Most children identified as gifted are first borns. If you have more than one child in the family, check to see whether the younger ones are likewise gifted, but overlooked. Too often, when one child in a family is identified as gifted, the other children somehow assume they are not, and they seek out other roles, such as the socialite, athlete, comedian, etc.
Advice #3. Sibling relationships can be intense, and rivalry often develops when children compete for attention, recognition, or power. Wise parents address these issues by spending special time with each child, avoiding comparisons, refusing to take sides in arguments, and teaching children appropriate problem solving. Fair means treating each child uniquely based on his or her individual needs, rather than giving identical items or resources to all the children. Just because one child needs braces on her teeth, are you going to put braces on each child’s teeth regardless of the need? Equal treatment is not necessarily fair or appropriate. Families who work together encourage sibling cooperation.
#4. Understand that the very characteristics that are strengths for your gifted children are also likely to be behaviors that they are criticized for—both at home and at school. “Why do you ask so many questions?” or “Do you have to be creative with everything?” or “You are far too sensitive and intense!”
#5. Just because a child is advanced in one area, such as math or language, he may not be so advanced or even somewhat “behind” in other areas, and in particular, the child’s judgment will lag behind the child’s intellect. Being “out of sync,” not only with others but also within one’s own abilities, can cause difficulties. It may be difficult to find friends, to let teachers know the work is too easy, or to understand why it’s easy to do math but not be as skilled in other subjects.
#6. All children, gifted or not, need limits, but parents should allow choices within those limits. (You must wear shoes to play outside, but you may choose which ones to wear). The goal is to help the child learn to make appropriate choices in the future and to develop self-discipline. House rules must be consistent, enforceable, and allow logical consequences. Expectations should be clear, conveying a trust that the child will act appropriately. Four questions parents should ask themselves are: “How effective is this discipline in the long run? Is it working? What is the effect on the child’s self-esteem? How will it affect my personal relationship with the child?” This advice is good for parenting all children. However, because gifted children are so intense and sensitive, it is easy to drift into a power struggle, which can severely damage our relationship as well as their self-esteem.
# 7. Relating to peers is a challenge because interests and behaviors differ from those of age mates; often they need different peers to meet various intellectual, emotional, or athletic needs. Help them learn “basic business-friendly skills,” but also to find one “soul mate” with whom they can interact, rather than many superficial friends or acquaintances. Children who understand themselves, know their interests and strengths, and can reach out to others like themselves, are more likely to feel connected and less likely to succumb to peer pressure.
#8. Gifted children, particularly those who are creative, challenge traditions and values in ways that make teachers and parents uncomfortable. Help them understand the cost-benefit ratio of their actions. One the one hand it is good to challenge nonsensical traditions even though it makes others uncomfortable; on the other hand, traditions offer connectivity, comfort, and support. All family members can participate in identifying traditions, examining which ones they wish to keep, and then decide how to create new traditions.
#9. Idealism, unhappiness, and depression occur among many gifted children. Idealism can lead to cynicism, and spark feelings of existential isolation and aloneness when others don’t seem to share the same thoughts or feelings. Adults can help them gain perspective and coping strategies. If they feel helpless and despondent, a referral to a mental health professional is appropriate. Most important is to maintain your relationship with your child and communication about their feelings and thoughts.
#10. Modern parenting is complex! The pace of life and the consequent pressures upon parents are greater than in previous generations. The easy daily access to social media exposes our bright, intense, sensitive, children to disturbing images and events, and the barrage of information is overwhelming. Because so many opportunities are available to children, parents must establish family priorities and not let electronic media interfere with communication and relationships. Remember, too, that parents are role models of how to fulfill emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual needs.
Where Can Parents Get More Information?
Parenting a gifted child is often a lonely experience filled with questions. Many books and Internet sites, such as those shown below, can provide information.