When you first start to realize that your child is brighter than their peers – whether it’s hitting developmental milestones early, or reaching for toys and games that you wouldn’t yet expect them to understand – it can feel like you’ve won the lottery of parenthood.
But of course, it’s not so straightforward. Raising a gifted child can feel like a lot of responsibility; supporting them, and ensuring that they reach their full potential, can be harder when they have a lot more potential than most children reach! Other challenges might include them becoming bored more easily than their peers, and fast outgrowing your resources to support them in their learning. Additionally, a lot of resources for parents of gifted children focus on the early learning stages and don’t provide much help in continuing to support them as older children and teenagers.
In this article, we take a look at what you can do to ensure that your gifted child is
1. Encourage them to do things they’re bad at
This is probably the advice given most frequently to parents of gifted children, and yet, it can be among the hardest tips to follow. It doesn’t come naturally to us – especially if we have other children who are less gifted – to encourage our children to do things they’re bad at. In general, as a society, we unconsciously categorize activities into those it’s OK to be bad at, and those it’s not. No one would ever question the idea that someone might enjoy a game of football at the weekends even if they’re never going to be a professional-standard player, but there’s something unusual about a person who writes endless novels that they know will never be good enough to be published.
This approach can spill over into the way we approach people’s hobbies, and children especially. After a certain age, you naturally encourage them towards the things they’re good at, and away from the things they’re not, and that’s perfectly fine for most people. But gifted children – especially those who are not only academically talented, but also skilled in another area, such as music or sport – need activities in which they are under less pressure to succeed, and where they might experience failure.
For one thing, if they don’t have these opportunities when they do eventually encounter other things in life where they can’t succeed easily (when they go to university is often the time when this kicks in), they will find it much more disheartening. For another, few people’s enjoyments in life come solely from the activities that they are outstanding at; it’s good to know that you can have fun at something even if you’ll never be the best at it, and this can be a message that gifted children miss out on.
2. Give them the tools they need to succeed
This is something that you would do for any child, regardless of their level of ability, but for gifted children, it can take a bit more thought. In many cases, it can simply mean a bit more independence, such as a library card and the freedom to read whatever they like (and if that means twenty books on the same niche subject in a row, so be it). It may mean peace and quiet to get on with their studies or to take a break from working hard. It may mean the museum visits or talks that you would consider to encourage any child’s interests, but at a higher intellectual level than you might naturally choose.
It could also be a bit more complicated or expensive than this. It might mean hiring a tutor to provide them with lessons that stretch them more than those they are given at school, or to teach them subjects that they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to study. It might mean sending them to a summer school course in order that they can not only receive lessons pitched nearer to the level of their abilities but also socialize with peers at a similar level to them. Membership in groups such as Young Mensa may also be worth considering.
3. Get help if you need it
Remember that being gifted is in many countries considered a ‘special education need’, just as being autistic or having learning difficulties might be. Having a gifted child is usually easier than most other special educational needs but as we discussed above, that’s not to say that it’s easy. However lucky you feel, you might still find yourself struggling – and under those circumstances, it’s OK to see where you can get help. If you are employing a tutor or sending your child to a summer school, they might well have additional ideas. Your child’s school might also be able to provide you with support.
But it’s not just about finding the right support for your child; it’s also about having a good support network available for yourself. That might mean looking at joining forums with other parents of gifted children, where you can share ideas and vent frustrations. Alternatively, if you’re in a big city, there might even be an in-person meet-up group for parents of gifted children. Simply knowing that other people have encountered the same difficulties as you have can be very reassuring, especially if your friends who are parents wish that they were lucky enough to have these kinds of problems.
4. Don’t assume they’ll always be gifted
It’s natural to think that once a genius, always a genius, and it is the case that many gifted children grow into gifted teenagers who become gifted adults. But being gifted can be a bit like being tall. A tall five-year-old with tall parents is more likely to become a tall adult than their shorter peers, but it could also simply be that they got a growth spurt earlier than their friends, and they’ll all end up at roughly the same height in a few years’ time. Your child could simply be having an intellectual growth spurt that won’t necessarily mean they will be academically outstanding for the rest of their lives.
This means that if your child starts to show signs of being gifted – especially if it’s at a relatively late stage in their school career – you shouldn’t start to make assumptions about what this will mean for them in the future. You also shouldn’t encourage them to make assumptions either. Even if their academic performance has remained consistently high for some time, it’s worth remembering that standing out in school doesn’t necessarily translate to standing out at the kind of university they might now be aiming for. On a practical level, this can also mean making university plans with a good backup option available; giving themselves options if they don’t quite make the grades they thought they would.
5. Provide intellectual challenges
Gifted children can be prone to coasting, which makes complete sense. After all, even if their teacher is unusually good at providing work for all ability levels, they have probably had to put less effort in than their peers to produce good work. This naturally leads to complacency, even if it’s only recently become clear that they’re gifted (knowing that they don’t need to work hard is not much different from knowing that they don’t need to work as hard anymore). You can help by providing them with intellectual challenges; not just work that is harder, but also with things to do that are intellectually stimulating in different ways. This could be something like learning a language that isn’t taught at school.
Having said that, there’s a tendency among parents of gifted children to schedule lots and lots of hours of additional lessons, and that’s to be avoided too. You don’t want to ruin your child’s joy in learning by leaving them with no free time to do anything else. Where you draw the line between the two is hard to say, but it’s important to make sure that your child can also learn independently, rather than just when they have been pushed to do so by things that you have planned for them.
6. Avoid comparisons where possible
It’s natural to compare yourself to others, no matter your age, and children are especially prone to doing this in unsubtle ways when they’re younger. If your child is gifted, they’re naturally going to be aware of being brighter than their peers and they might try to get you to help them figure out the ways in which they are different. While you shouldn’t lie to them, it’s best to try to discourage this sort of approach where you can, and certainly don’t encourage it by making comparisons yourself. They might be inclined to pigeonhole themselves as the smart one, in comparison with their friend the pretty one, and their other friend the sporty one, but this kind of thinking is limiting (and often insulting to the friends who might not enjoy being categorized in this way).
Similarly, don’t invite comparisons with yourself or other family members, especially siblings who might not be as bright. It’s a rapid way to cause your other children to feel inferior and your gifted child possibly to develop feelings of superiority that aren’t warranted.
7. Be open-minded about their choice of friends
One of the things that can be most difficult about growing up gifted is being isolated from your peers. You might notice that your child finds it hard to relate to the other children in their class, whether that’s in terms of the hobbies they’re interested in or simply what they prefer to talk about. The end result is that they might find it hard to make friends, and when they do, you might not be delighted about who those friends are. In particular, you might find that they make friends with older people more easily than people of the same age as themselves; possibly they might feel that they have more in common with them. That can be quite alarming, especially if you’re well aware that your child’s emotional maturity is more in line with their age than their intellect is.
Try to be open-minded about this if you can, as your child might not encounter all that many people to who they can relate. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be wary, as older friends might try to take advantage of your child, gifted or not – and it’s particularly important to be cautious if your child is at an age when these friendships might turn into relationships. However, don’t let reasonable caution get in the way of your child having a healthy social life with friends to whom they can relate.
8. Be honest with them about their abilities
Some parents of gifted children endeavor to keep a full understanding of their abilities from them, such as withholding the results of an IQ test, in case it leads to big-headedness. But it’s likely that your child already knows that they are unusual; putting a number on it and being open with them will not do any harm.
It’s just as important, though, to let them know the limits of what being gifted means; that no one has ever got a job solely on the basis of being gifted at school, and that they will have to work hard if they want to make the most of their abilities, just like anyone else. Coming to realize that charm, charisma, business acumen, and various other talents unrelated to intelligence can contribute as much or more to someone’s success as their raw intelligence is hugely important, not just for your child’s own development but also for their appreciation of the skills and value of others. You don’t want it to come as a shock the first time they’re passed over for a job or other opportunity in favor of someone less intelligent but more skilled in other areas. Combining confidence with humility can be challenging for anyone, especially those who have grown up gifted, but with your support, your child can and will become a happy, fully-rounded adult.