How to Raise Gifted Children

Raising Gifted Children

5 Feb 2009

Many questions arise when parents realize they have a gifted child. What exactly is a gifted child? Can a child be molded into a genius? How does one maintain the balance between encouragement and pressure? Is it possible to raise a gifted child with his happiness still intact? What is the best way to raise genius children? The end of this article has several useful, hands-on ideas for parents to try.

Having been a gifted child myself, and also having several gifted children, has given me plenty of insight into the dos and don’ts of parenting intelligent youngsters. Whether some children are gifted- and others are not- depends upon our definition. What makes some children gifted is the ability to memorize things easily. What makes other children gifted is the ability to see patterns and relationships. Others easily see geometric relationships in three dimensions. Even others have the ability to readily understand language structure. Sometimes we view giftedness as having a strong talent for music or art. Maybe there are savants in some specialized area.

Too often we think of “gifted” as doing well in school and getting top grades. But there is also the ability to be intelligent in understanding human relationships, behavior motivators, and body language. Sometimes our definitions are too narrow. Genius children can seem attention-deficit or hyperactive due to boredom and a need for constant data input for their brain. They are misdiagnosed ADHD when all they need is more interesting mental stimulation!

Being gifted is a combination of genetics (nature), environment (nurture), and attitude (the child’s own viewpoint and choices). I have one son with a t-shirt that reads, “Genius by birth, slacker by choice,” which is so true for him! Attitude is everything. I have a daughter who gets top grades, but she has to put a lot of work, time, effort, and study into it. She has made herself gifted, in a sense.

If a child is genetically gifted, her parents can enhance her abilities or destroy her self-esteem by how they handle the situation. Parents can encourage a child’s natural abilities or they can ruin them with too much force. Is being smart the only area of the child worth developing? What about heart? What about compassion? Social awareness? Gratitude? Humility? A child’s love of learning can grow or wither depending on parents’ choices.

The bottom line is, yes some children learn more quickly than others due to genetic and/or environmental factors, mixed with personal motivation. If a child is not noticeably gifted, his parents can still enhance learning and give him an advantage in school.

Parents can put too much pressure on children to perform, and they can put too little pressure on them. The best way for a parent to enhance a child’s learning is to provide a stimulating learning environment without forcing a child to learn. This is the premise of my phonics books such as, “A Pretty Girl Was Alpha Bette” and “A Funny Boy Was Prince River,” which include unique phonics cards and my method for teaching them properly. One of the most important steps in The Godfrey Method is to only use the unique phonics flash cards while the child is interested. When the child is ready to stop, you stop. Never try to force the child to finish the whole alphabet in one sitting. Later, you can pick up where you left off.

Learning should be child-driven wherever possible. Children learn best by asking questions, and parents do best by following those leads and teaching what interests the child. (Home learning is important, even in conjunction with other school attendance.) Yes, it’s important to regularly introduce the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and art, but if the child is interested in tigers, then study books about tigers to introduce language arts. Go to the zoo together. A child will better remember what she wanted to know.

Children’s brains need some rest time. They need a break between school and homework. They need a break between school and tutoring. The goal is to have a child who loves learning and knowledge of all kinds. Too much pressure can backfire, causing a child to hate reading, math, or other areas. Do you want a child who can get good grades but can’t actually think or analyze for himself?

To maintain a balance between encouragement and pressure, keep your motivators positive. Give rewards for achievements, not punishments for failures. If a child is not achieving to his ability, look for the root cause. Is there quiet time provided at home for homework? Do the parents read a lot, themselves? Be a good example. Turn off the TV and the games and have quiet time (we do this at 7:00 p.m. each evening).

Understand that different children learn differently. Try new approaches. I created my phonics picture-letters and method back in 1990 for a son who couldn’t memorize letters and sounds as easily as his older siblings, nor which squiggly lines meant which sounds, exactly. It made no sense to him. My new approach was so successful that friends, relatives, and neighbors all have used it with great success!

Whatever the goal, we parents have to remain calm and not get into a power struggle with the child. This is extremely important. Don’t make learning a chore that kills the love of learning. The goal is true knowledge, not just the ability to ace a test. Maintaining a balance between encouragement and pressure requires consistency and variety simultaneously. No easy feat! Consistently work on the basics and regularly introduce a little variety for fun. Do family field trips. Point out science and art in nature around you. Teach fractions and chemistry with cooking projects. Use Cuisenaire rods (way cool) for hands-on fractions and math. But never, never call a child lazy nor link his core character to grades and homework. Never.

Sometimes success comes from practice, practice, practice, which children can hate. Some children are self-motivated to practice, especially the things they love, and some aren’t. When your child doesn’t want to practice the piano or do homework, set the kitchen timer for 15 – 30 minutes and have a race to how much she can get done. Offer a reward for focusing on the task until the timer dings. Achieving little bits here and there make a good compromise.

Another idea is to allow the child to do a pleasing activity after doing an unpleasant one. Something we have done is to have “TV bucks.” We printed fake TV dollars and laminated them. For every hour that my child reads, I give her one TV buck. Then when she wants to watch TC or play a video game, she has to pay me a TV buck for each hour’s worth. This keeps the reading time up and the TV/game time down, and links them together as a reward for good effort. (You can also keep track of reading time vs. TV time in a notebook.)

And finally, when your child fails at something, put your arm around him and say nothing negative. True self-esteem comes from accomplishment, but you don’t have to win every battle to win the war. Being gifted comes from internal motivation, so watch and see what excites your child and develop those areas, without excessive force.

As an author of children’s books, scientist, mother of 14, and grandmother of 11 so far, I have found that children take things apart to see how they work, to test the limits of natural physics properties, to exercise their muscles, to stimulate their minds, and to satisfy their insatiable curiosity for learning.

So, the best way to raise genius children is to:

Provide a stimulating learning environment.* Teach them to read before kindergarten (using The Godfrey Method books!). Home school them, if desired. Give them the freedom to make a mess while exploring science, art, etc. Put them in an accelerated class for gifted students (more challenging). Understand that some ADHD is really just gifted children being bored. Keep them busy with learning activities. Play the classical music of Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart (helps mental abilities). Allow them to solve problems on their own, without correcting or rescuing them, unless absolutely necessary. Never do for them what they can do for themselves, within reason. (I do not mean to drive them to the point of frustrated tears, nor to forget common courtesy).

*For toddlers’ stimulating environment

As a parent, you can limit the mess without limiting your child’s need to explore by providing bottom drawers in the kitchen full of accessible stuff to play with. Clear, plastic tubs can work, too. Children usually prefer real-life things over toys, and can tell the difference.

Fill bottom drawers with dry beans, cookie cutters, and measuring scoops. Children love to scoop and pour. If some beans get out of the drawer, they’re fairly easy sweep up and return to the drawer. Provide kitchen water fun by placing large bowls of water on the kitchen table or floor, strip your child down to his diaper or shorts, and give him cups to pour water back and forth, from one cup to the other. Let your child help you sort silverware from the dishwasher, which is also good for her math and reading brain development. Place clean silverware onto a clean table, and have the child sort piles of forks, spoons, and butter knives (no short knives). Then she can help put them into the proper slots in the drawer. Have play-crawling time, even with older children. Those who crawl more often do better in math and reading, as the Montessori schools found out years ago. Having play time to chase each other while crawling around the house is a great way to link the physical body’s spatial and timing relationships with the brain through hand-eye-leg coordination, thus increasing learning capability. Always read to your child every day, such as at bedtime.

It’s a good idea for parents to allow these kinds of play time at least once a week, if not every day. Children who learn spatial relations and patterns in the world around them usually do much better with the academics of reading and math. Space and time relationships are intricately linked with our brain’s ability to understand the patterns of numbers, phonics, and words.

Whether your children are gifted or not, give them every possible advantage to be their very best selves by exposing them to many wholesome experiences and, without excessive pressure, motivating them to achieve. There are many different types of intelligence that deserve recognition and expression.

Remember, being gifted is a combination of genetics, environment, and attitude. As the Serenity prayer says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference!”

Yes, it is possible to raise gifted children in a happy environment.