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Striking a Balance: How to Raise a Well-Rounded Gifted Child

by Jodi Forschmiedt

As the mother of a gifted six-year-old boy, Cyndy Sims-Parr knows first hand how challenging it can be to draw him away from his favorite activity. "Now that Gregory is an avid reader he tends to prefer to read almost to the exclusion of everything else, including daily maintenance activities like getting dressed, taking baths, and sometimes even eating."

Enthusiastic to a fault
Gifted children are a diverse group of kids with exceptional talents. Some are particularly adept in mathematics; some have precocious language skills. Others excel in music or athletics. Whatever form their talents take, gifted children are passionate about their interests. They focus their energy on the topics that absorb them, often to the exclusion of other activities. Just as all children need to be encouraged to eat their vegetables as well as sweets, children with exceptional abilities must be guided toward a balanced diet of work and play.

Leading a horse to water
How does a parent nurture and celebrate a child's exceptional abilities while ensuring that other areas are not neglected? At the Evergreen School for Highly Capable Children in Seattle, Washington, the issue comes up frequently. Veteran teacher Eve Ingraham recommends using the child's strengths to lead them into other pursuits. For example, an artistic child who spends much of her time drawing could be asked to illustrate an event, and then write a simple story underneath it. "It doesn't do any good to ignore it, or keep them from doing it, but use their gift as an opening to newer ways of expression," says Ingraham. Children who are deeply involved in academic pursuits may need parents and teachers to help them with peer relationships. Ingraham recalls encouraging a young math prodigy who had difficulty making friends to play computer games with other children. "The computer was like a key. It opened up that door for her as a means to communicate."

Psychologist Cynthia Goins, PhD points out that well rounded doesn't mean equal amounts of everything. It is fine for kids to spend a lot of time pursuing their interests, as long as they are not isolated as a result. "Kids need to be with their peers, develop social skills, and develop emotionally, in addition to whatever area they excel in." Parents may have to play the role of social director, making sure that their kids have some time set aside for playing with friends, as well as perfecting their talents.

Perfectionism
At age five, Michael has amassed vast quantities of information about his favorite subjects; geography, flags, and music trivia, and they occupy vast quantities of his time. Michael's mom Jody broadens his horizons by taking him to swimming lessons and gym class. "We encourage him to develop his athletic abilities. When he's not automatically good at something he can tend to give up," says Jody. Perfectionism, the reluctance to attempt a task for fear of doing it poorly, is common in highly capable children, and can inhibit them from trying new things. Dr. Goins suggests addressing the issue directly with the child. A parent might ask their youngster to try a new activity for certain amount of time, and allow them to quit afterward if they are not enjoying the experience. Goins counsels "Let them know it's normal to have particular strengths, and that they don't have to be the best at everything."

Parents can be over-involved
At times it is the parent, not the child, who puts too much emphasis on a particular skill. Ingraham has found that when gifted children enter school, they often slow down their academic learning for awhile, and focus on making friends. "They've been very engaged at home because they are so excited, but when they move into a more social scene, they may plateau, because they are broadening." Parents who are proud of their child's extraordinary achievements may be distressed by the change in focus, but Ingraham says they needn't worry. "(Children) have to develop in all areas. If they have been primarily developing academically, they may even have to stop and develop in other areas to become a whole child." Often children will seek a variety of experiences, and parents have only to follow their lead.

With a little help from my friends
Peers exert influence on all kids, and exceptionally bright children are no exception. Sims-Parr has noticed that peer interaction has a positive effect on Gregory. "A few special friends clearly motivate him to explore their interests, even if he wouldn't have chosen them on his own." Sometimes the effect is dramatic. "He took a class in Fantasy and Myth this summer with a friend. Normally he's extremely biased towards reality, but his use of imagination took a noticeable jump as a result," says Sims-Parr. Just as a child's talents can help them connect with another child, a friendship can be a bridge to new interests.

Dr. Goins encourages parents to take an active role in facilitating peer interactions. She suggests arranging play dates with kids who have different hobbies, and allowing them to find common ground. "You learn a lot from your peer group. You learn how to be tolerant, make friends, fit in," notes Dr. Goins. Michael's mom Jody also sees peers in a helpful light. "When (Michael) was three and four years old, he was more narrowly focused. I think as he has grown up and figured out how to interact more with other kids, he's less interested in solitary obsessions."

Regular kids
Parents can impart valuable lessons to their gifted youngsters while helping them to achieve a balanced life. Even the most advanced child should participate fully in family life, including chores, playing with siblings, and taking part in family and community activities. "It's always good to really nurture your child's abilities. It's also good to help them stay grounded, in terms of everyday things that are expected of them," remarks Dr. Goins. Parents can lead their budding musicians, scientists, and professors away from self-absorption by teaching the value of tolerance. "Help them realize that everyone is different in some way. Help them know that they're OK, and everyone else is too," she says. Strong family and community ties, plus support for all of their endeavors equals a happy, well rounded gifted youngster.

For more information

Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, by Ellen Winner
Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom, by Susan Winebrenner
The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids, by Sally Yahnke Walker

About the author Jodi Forschmiedt is a writer, a teacher, and the mother of two in Seattle, Washington. Contact her at jodi@jodiwrites.com

© Jodi Forschmiedt 2003

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