On Psychology

Jewish World Review May 24, 1999 /9 Sivan, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

Recognize and Nurture Child's Gifted Abilities

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: How does a parent raise a child who seems to have exceptional abilities? Our son, who just turned one, uses over 100 different words in their proper context, correctly names his major body parts, and can identify some letters of the alphabet. This seems unusual ¾ many children that age can only say Ma-ma and Da-da; one resource book we have suggests a two year old should have a vocabulary of merely 30 to 50 words. In other developmental areas, our son seems to be on target, but verbally, he seems abnormally advanced.

Before our son was born, my wife and I agreed we would not be the kind of parents that put inordinate pressure on the child to achieve; we just figured he'd succeed in whatever endeavors he wished to pursue. Now, however, we're concerned about the possibility of failing to nurture properly his exceptional abilities.

Econophone We would appreciate any feedback or recommendations.

A: There is an overwhelming consensus among child psychologists that it is important to recognize giftedness in children early in their development. This doesn't mean they should be given a standardized IQ test at age one. What it does mean is that parents should be on the lookout for signs of giftedness as their children develop.

Some common signs of giftedness include:

The early development of a good vocabulary, including the correct use of big words and using them in their proper context;
Being able to concentrate on a single activity for longer periods of time than other children of the same age;
Developing an early interest in time -- clocks, calendars, and the concepts of yesterday and tomorrow;
Learning to read, write, count, and the names of colors at earlier ages than other children;
Loving to organize people and things, and create imaginary playmates; and

Having a precocious interest in music and drawing.

This is the good news. On the other side of the ledger, gifted children can also be impatient, argumentative, and oppositional. Many also have difficulty with peer relationships. They especially don't like to wait for other kids to catch up with them. And their tendency toward perfectionism and showing off what they know can be a turnoff for other kids.

Identifying giftedness early is important because gifted kids have a tendency to become bored. Boredom can lead to intellectual laziness. If gifted children are not challenged early, they may not develop the capacity to persist in the face of frustration and work hard to overcome challenges. Indeed, when it comes to success in life, these latter traits are much more important than IQ. That's why parents need to ensure their gifted child is adequately stimulated, both in and out of school.

In addition, given the difficulty many gifted children have with peer relationships, early identification of giftedness should also serve as reminder for parents to be on the lookout for opportunities to teach important relational skills, such as identifying the feelings of others, generating alternative solutions to problematic peer situations, and knowing the difference between helping others and showing off.

What early identification should not mean is that parents become reluctant to set limits on the behavior of their gifted child. Remember, gifted children are, well, children. The most important thing they need from their parents is for them to be, well, parents. This means giving them lots of love and attention, but also setting limits and disciplining them when they break the rules.

Unfortunately, some parents of gifted children are so afraid of stifling their children's budding giftedness, that they begin to set two sets of standards for acceptable behavior in the household. Some parents even begin to use the fact that their child is gifted as an excuse for inappropriate or ill-mannered behavior. But telling Aunt Enda she's fat is no less inappropriate for a gifted three-year-old as it is for a non-gifted three-year-old.

Parents should also be careful not to so over-focus on the accomplishments of their gifted child, that they start to overlook the accomplishments of their non-gifted children. Rather, parents should always be looking out for, and share in the joy of, the uniqueness of each of their children.

So what should these parents do?

It's a little early for a trip to the psychologist's office for a standardized IQ test. In fact, I don't recommend standardized testing of children unless there is a good reason to do it, like helping to determine appropriate educational placement. Mere curiosity is not a good enough reason. Indeed, testing a child one thinks is gifted can lead to disappointment if the test scores suggests otherwise. That's not good for the parents or the child.

What I do recommend is that if you suspect your child is gifted, simply assume he is -- at least for now. Assuming your child is gifted at this point should only serve to motivate you to provide him with lots of challenging and educational activities, something that can't hurt so long as you don't pressure him to participate.

So by all means read to him, answer his questions, and provide him with opportunities to explore his world and to learn. As he gets older, bring him to museums, cultural events, and the zoo. In other words, encourage him as you would any other child -- with as much stimulating activity as he is able to handle.

At the same time remember that he is still a little boy, and also requires what every other little boy needs at this age: healthy, dependable, and trustworthy relationships with his parents with, of course, an appropriate amount of discipline and limit setting.


JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn