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How to parent a gifted child

Laura Willard is a law school grad who has successfully avoided using her education for eight years and counting. She's a wife and an adoptive mom to two kids. Motherhood is the best job she never knew she wanted so much until she had it...

More than Mommy's little genius

Statistically, most children are not “gifted.” While they are always exceptional to us, they’re probably not exceptional to the point of being gifted. If you feel your child is well beyond advanced, however, don't ignore it. If she's truly gifted, your child will require extra attention and academic effort as she grows.

Mom talking to toddler girl

We first met our daughter in Ethiopia when she was 7 months old. Weighing just 12 pounds, she'd spent the previous six months in an orphanage. Unfortunately, an orphanage provides a less than optimum environment for a child's development.

Having already adopted internationally, we didn't expect her to be on track. Babies who have lived in orphanages typically experience developmental delays ranging from very minor to significant — many of which can be overcome with time and effort.

Our daughter was a tiny little thing and didn't have enough muscle in her legs to support her weight — she could barely sit up on her own. She seemed so little and young. She was young! So imagine my surprise when, after having been home for about six weeks, she pointed to our dog and said, clear as a bell, "Gidget!"

The first time I thought she said it, I was certain that sleep deprivation was causing me to hear the baby call the dog by name. The second time, I was sure it was just a fluke and that there was no way our baby, who until six weeks before hadn't been spoken to in English, was deliberately saying our dog's name as her first word.

As it turns out, it wasn't a fluke, nor were the words "please" and "thank you" — always used appropriately — that quickly followed. By 12 months old, she knew too many words to track and could count to 10. By 18 months old, she had a vocabulary that included words for just about everything. She spoke in full sentences, knew her colors and had developed a sense of humor.

We never worked with her. She picked everything up from overhearing conversations or her brother's favorite television programs. She turns 2 in a few days, and she speaks in complex sentences — some 15 or more words long, most grammatically correct. She is witty, sassy, hilarious as heck and too smart for my own good. Her logic is so impressive that sometimes even I have trouble arguing with it, law school education and all.

Recently, my husband and I finally accepted it: She's probably gifted. Because she's not quite 2, we don't know exactly in what ways she is gifted. Therefore, we don't know what her unique educational needs will be. One thing's for sure, though: We'll have to do a lot of extra work to keep up with her. And we're a little worried that, no matter how hard we try, "keeping up" might be a lofty goal.

Brilliant... or brilliant because she's yours?

What makes a child gifted?

Willard (no relation to the author of this article) says that a child can be gifted in various areas. He explains that we often think of a "child prodigy" as being gifted in particular subjects, such as math, music or athletics, but in fact, children can be intellectually gifted in many ways — verbally, mathematically, conceptually, visually, athletically, musically, even socially or emotionally.

Most parents are certain their children are geniuses at some point. I know I am. My son, who was our first, is quite smart. His intelligence, combined with my mommy pride, causes me to exclaim, "He is sooo smart!" more than a few times a week. I might even call him a genius on occasion. Statistically, however, very few children are truly "gifted."

Dr. Christopher Willard, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and in private practice, says that such children score in the top 2 percent, with IQs above 130. "Highly gifted" children have IQs above 145 and are in the top 1/10 of one percent of children, so it's highly unlikely that the vast majority of us have gifted children.

Signs your young child may be gifted

So your 6-month-old babbles something that sounds like "Mom." Is she the next rocket scientist? All of us moms have that thought at least once during our child's early years. The short answer: Probably not.

If you notice that your child seems advanced well beyond her chronological age, however, Willard suggests considering the following:

In an older infant/young toddler:

  • At what age did she acquire language and concepts such as colors?
  • Does she display extremely advanced skills in areas such as sorting and categorizing toys?
  • Does she have a broad vocabulary?
  • What is the quality of her grammar?
  • Does she have an unusually early understanding of cause and effect and other more grown-up concepts such as humor?
  • Does she show a desire to learn more and practice tasks such as puzzles until she masters them?
  • Does she show a preference for interacting with older, more advanced children or even adults?

In a toddler or preschooler, Willard recommends considering whether your child has strong interests and particular intellectual pursuits. He adds, "Precociousness that a child displays — not just in terms of knowledge, but the quality of the questions she asks — is something to consider." Think about the quality of the associations and connections she is able to make, her ability to take various perspectives and show flexibility of thinking and reasoning.

Up next: How to parent a gifted child >>

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