Guidelines for Parents of the Gifted
Linda Silverman, Ph.D.
Giftedness develops in a stimulating home environment. A rich family life includes shared meals, peppered with lively discussions and salted with humor; times to work and play together; exposure to cultural activities, such as museums, art exhibits, symphonies, theaters, dance recitals; family trips; shared family interests, such as singing, playing musical instruments, sports, computer programming, preparing meals together, storytelling, playing chess and word games, building models, gardening, or redecorating.
In addition to a rich family life, which is good for all children, gifted children need early opportunities to develop special talents. Some abilities need to be fostered well before school age in order for the full potential of the abilities to be actualized. Such talents include world-class skiing, skating, swimming, gymnastics, ballet, and playing musical instruments. If a child shows potential in any of these areas, superior guidance and training is needed, as well as continuous encouragement from family and friends.
It is recommended that parents expose the child to a wide variety of activities. When a child begins to show interest in an area, this is when parents can be influential by providing the next step. This may involve encouragement, materials, professional instruction, good questions, suggestions, ideas to explore to carry the interest further, role models to interact with, or just listening and appreciation so that the child can share the excitement of discovery.
Families, like gifted children, are all unique, and each has something different to offer. Therefore, no set of guidelines for parenting the gifted can be applicable to all families unless it is so general that it could be considered good common sense in rearing any children. This set has been derived in answer to the most common concerns which I have heard expressed by parents of the gifted, and from advice which parents have given to each other.
- Talk with your children in an adult manner. Their minds are like sponges, absorbing everything around them: vocabulary, language patterns, attitudes, values, interests, and tastes. But be careful not to “adultize” your children. Do not expect them to feel and act like miniature adults.
- Private times are also good to have with each child. Some families have private times each day or provide opportunities for each child to go out to dinner, a movie, or a sports event alone with a parent. This provides a time for sharing personal feelings and experiences.
- Gifted children often seem to require more attention than others and they want to be included in most things. It is important for everyone's welfare that boundaries be set for them. They must have bedtimes and be taught to respect adult needs for alone time and privacy. It must be clear who is the adult and who is the child.
- Reading to the children every night is a good habit, even after they are able to read to themselves. They should be introduced to the library while still toddlers, and given library cards as soon as they can read. It may be necessary to talk with the librarian to obtain permission for the child to take out books which were written for much older children or adults.
- Praise your children for taking risks, even little ones like trying new foods. Many gifted children dread failure or looking foolish. They need extra encouragement and protection of their privacy in the beginning stages of skating or biking or any new activity. They must learn how to fail in order to succeed.
- Reasoning with gifted children is better than setting down arbitrary rules; they can be asked to contribute their ideas to decisions that affect them. But some things are negotiable and some are not. Children should be given choices whenever they are capable of making those choices responsibly. A family council is a useful means of shared decision- making as the children get older. Some decisions, however, must be left as the prerogative of the parents.
- Discipline should be a private rather than a public matter. Gifted children are highly sensitive to criticism and easily humiliated. Avoid the use of sarcasm, even if it appears humorous to you. Adults have a great deal of psychological power over children and often forget that their teasing can leave lasting scars.
- Give the children responsibilities as early as possible, gradually increasing the size of the tasks as they are ready to assume them. Very young children can be asked to put away the silverware (a sorting activity). They can learn early in life that everyone helps. Responsibilities add to their feelings of competence and belonging. Accomplishing difficult tasks paves the way toward adult achievement.
- Gifted children are able to do many things independently much earlier than other children. Whenever possible, let them discover their own ways of doing things. Allow them to make mistakes. Avoid criticism or unnecessary corrections which might embarrass them. What they learn in the process of attempting new things is far more important than the quality of their finished products.
- Creativity is an important aspect of giftedness. Gifted children tend to be sensitive to the creativity expressed in music, art, literature, and nature. They may need music or nature for inspiration and even consolation at times. Encourage them to develop their imaginations and all means of creative expression. Invent visualization games and fantasies with them. Many gifted children have fantasy friends who will be left behind when the time comes. Let them enjoy them while they can.
- Provide opportunities for the children to interact often with other gifted children, older children, and stimulating adults. If the school does not offer a program for gifted children, find or create afterschool experiences which will facilitate these interactions.
- Help them learn social skills, such as asking questions in a socially accepted manner, not putting others down when someone disagrees with them, being careful about other people's feelings, and trying to understand others. Set an example by not disparaging others in front of them. Teach them how to get along with others without sacrificing their individuality. Don't teach them by word or example to play down their gifts to gain popularity.
- Help them have confidence in their perceptions, even when they differ from other people's. Help them to see how both sides of a conflict can be right. They are able to see other points of view clearer than most , but they will not have the ego strength to do that unless they are supported for their own viewpoints as well.
- Take time to listen to your children. If they jabber constantly, don't tune them out. Let them know when you are too busy to give them your full attention and set aside a time when your mind is free to really listen the way you would to a friend.
- Be open to their questions. Gifted children are very curious. They often have early concerns about the meaning of life, death, justice, war, sexuality. Be the person they trust to ask these questions. It is not necessary to know the answers to their questions. Instead, ask the child, “What do you think?” This gives you a better idea of their thinking processes and gives them opportunities to hypothesize and solve problems on their own rather than being dependent upon authorities for the answers.
- Some gifted children are naturally gregarious and others are naturally introverted. Rarely are attempts made to create introverts out of extraverts, but the opposite is often the case. Many gifted children have diverse interests and have difficulty setting priorities, whereas others specialize early and remain devoted to their chosen disciplines. Recognize that children differ in temperament, personality, interests, and goals. Allow your child to develop in his or her own unique manner.
- Don't expect that your child will respond the way you did to a particular school provision. Some adults regretted that they were sent to private schools or accelerated or pushed too hard by their parents, so they vowed never to make those mistakes with their children. Each child is unique and needs a provision which suits him, even if it was inappropriate for his parents.
- Don't overschedule them with activities. Give them time to think, to play, to daydream, to be children.
Linda Silverman, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and Director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver, Colorado.