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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.

Now that you know, what do you do?

Little girl studying

Unlike the stereotypical "proud parents," my husband and I weren't exactly bouncing off the walls with excitement over our daughter's apparent giftedness when we finally accepted it. In fact, we realized that we are out of our element.

It's amazing to watch her little — or not so little, depending on how you look at it — brain work and even more amazing to hear her speak and share her thoughts. At the same time, the idea of meeting her educational and intellectual needs is a lot to digest. We both have advanced degrees and are smart people, but we're often left scratching our heads. We had so many questions: Do we begin academic work on our own before preschool? Do we enroll her in special programs in kindergarten? Willard says that how you approach this remains controversial and depends a lot on your family's values and resources.

As far as beginning work early, Willard advises, "Working with kids before preschool is generally something to be cautious about unless you are working closely with experts in learning, or collaborating with your child's school or preschool on what enrichment activities make sense." He explains that horizontal enrichment — enriching with depth of a subject and varying perspectives and understandings — is superior to vertical enrichment, which is simply moving on to the next subject.

Willard also suggests that, regardless of whether you advance your child academically, you should consider keeping her involved with children her age in social activities such as music, sports and arts. He feels that a balance of both social and intellectual peers is important.

Furthermore, and of utmost importance, Willard reminds parents, "Be careful about your own hopes and expectations for your child. Don't put any more pressure on him because of his gifts, but do offer opportunities to engage and enrich his learning." Equally important, he notes that, if you have other children who are not technically gifted, you must acknowledge and celebrate their intelligence and strengths, as well.

Giftedness and formal education

Obviously, if your child is gifted, she's going to be far more advanced than her same-age peers in school in at least one subject. How do you approach your child's education, particularly in the public school system?

Susan Goodkin, author, lecturer and executive director of the California Learning Strategies Center, which advises parents of gifted students, is also the mother of two gifted children. She emphasizes that parents of gifted children can't just send their children off to school and assume that they'll be challenged enough. Instead, Goodkin says that parents need to take an active role in overseeing their child's education.

If your child is bored in the classroom, Goodkin suggests asking your child's teacher if you can send her to school with additional work for her to complete during task time — for example, when everyone is working on math worksheets. If necessary, go so far as to offer to grade the work yourself. Keep in mind that, with budget cuts and growing classroom sizes, additional work can be burdensome to your child's teacher. She may be unwilling to accommodate your requests, but if you're able to take some of the responsibility, Goodkin says teachers are more willing to be flexible.

Additionally, Goodkin says that acceleration — moving your child up a grade or two — works very well when done for certain subjects. For example, your child would remain in her second-grade class, but join the fourth grade class for math if that's an area in which she is very advanced.

Outside of school, Goodkin says that additional activities such as math circles can provide your child with extra educational stimulation. Several online resources have truly enhanced gifted children's learning experiences, too. In the past, parents had to either teach their children themselves or hire a tutor, but advances in online supplemental education allow you to make progress in challenging your child. Finally, Goodkin recommends that you join a support group for parents of gifted children, in which you'll be able to relate and learn from other parents' triumphs and struggles as well as share ideas.

The (little) challenges

Giftedness doesn't always limit itself to a crazy big vocabulary and a mastery of the ABCs. When my daughter was about 20 months old, she and her brother were each lobbying for their favorite programs. I decided we would watch Wonder Pets first and her selection, Yo Gaba Gaba, second. She announced (or maybe it was yelled), "I am not watching this. I'm going to my room!" She then stormed down the hallway, slammed her door, and would not come out for more than 20 minutes.

All I could think was, "If this is 20 months, what's 12 going to be like? Or, even worse, 16?" Her version of a 2-year-old temper tantrum isn't exactly standard. I have a feeling this is what Willard meant when he said, "Get ready for a potential roller coaster."

While I have no idea how the teen years are going to look, I'm reminded by both Goodkin and Willard to treat giftedness as an additional need, to advocate for her at school and to make sure she's academically stimulated. One very practical piece of advice from Willard sticks with me: "Remember to praise children not just for their smarts but for their hard work. Gifted children who become successful adults are those who are both smart and hard workers, and have good social skills. Don't skimp on any of these."

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