Monday, September 1, 2014

Parenting an artistically talented child

Most parents love to see their child's first school concert, dance performance, or watercolor. Yet, this milestone is usually seen as an enriching activity and not a path toward a future career. What happens, though, when parents realize that their child is artistically talented? How do they react to this, support their child's artistic growth, and make the best choices for their child and family?

At first, parents may be flooded with a range of feelings, both positive and negative. Some common reactions may include the following:

1. Excitement

Parents are often thrilled when they realize that their child is gifted. They may take pride in their child's abilities, and perhaps even feel amazed as they witness signs of burgeoning talent. If the child is their biological offspring, reactions may range from immodest pride ("I guess he's got some of my abilities") to bewilderment ("how did I end up with such a talented child?"). Parents who are also musicians, artists, dancers or performers may feel a special bond with their child, as they can fully appreciate their child's experience and possible future career trajectory.

2. Uncertainty

After the excitement fades, parents typically feel some uncertainty. Many wonder how to best support their child's abilities. And if they have no prior experience in the arts, entering an unfamiliar world of new terminology and expectations can be daunting. They may question whether they can find the best resources, how they should assess their child's teacher or class, and if they will be able to afford growing expenses. They may wonder what role they must play in their child's daily routine and how much to push their child. Should they be taskmasters and insist on regular practice, or allow their child to develop at his or her own pace? Have they done enough to foster their child's growth and development? Even if they follow advice from teachers and other artists, nagging doubts may remain.

3. Anxiety

Fears can arise when parents consider what lies ahead. Music study and dance practice, for example, take tremendous discipline and dedication, and the commitment often eliminates time for other extra-curricular activities or social opportunities. Some worry that their child will be ostracized because of appearing different, or will be unpopular, especially if he or she performs traditional classical music, musical theater or acting. If their child takes art classes, or performs jazz, rock or alternative forms of music, parents may worry about possible exposure to negative peer influences and drugs. And parents of dancers know that eating disorders are a risk. Long-range concerns include college planning, realistic career choices and deciding whether a career in the arts can sustain a viable income.

4. Emotional Turmoil

Parents also weather the emotional ups and downs of their child's successes and failures. Pride following a solid performance, anxiety before an audition or juried exhibition, and frustration when their child lags behind with practicing all come with the territory. Parents may be surprised by the competitive feelings they harbor toward other children at auditions. Some may feel conflicted and ambivalent; they may resent the cost of lessons, art materials, costumes or instruments, along with time spent traveling to rehearsals or competitions. Many feel saddened and angry if their talented child fails to live up to his or her potential, or gives up pursuing artistic goals completely. On the other hand, some secretly feel relieved when their child tackles a different career path.

Remaining attuned to your child's needs

Just like with most aspects of parenting, raising an artistically gifted child involves awareness of one's feelings, but ultimately remaining attuned to the child's needs. Parents support their children best by recognizing if their own wishes, dreams and fears are driving their decisions. And just as with all parenting decisions, distinguishing between one's own personal wishes and what is best for the child is critical.

As a parent, you can ask yourself the following questions:
Am I pushing my child too hard?
Am I using misguided motivational strategies, such as harsh criticism and shaming?
Am I expecting too much and setting unrealistically high standards?
Am I downplaying my child's interests due to fears about future career prospects?
Am I too worried about my child's success because of my own needs, worries and insecurities?
Am I holding my child back because of my own fears?

Self-reflection is an important first step. Parents also can benefit from the following:

  • Consultation with your child's teacher about practice guidelines, level of parental involvement, progress toward future goals, and what to expect is essential. A frank and honest discussion about your child's strengths and weaknesses, and the likelihood of future success is also necessary as he or she progresses.

  • Developing connections with parents of other gifted students can provide support when needed. Sharing concerns, questions and advice with others who understand is both informative and reassuring. Contact with parents can be developed informally while waiting at rehearsals or classes, through participation in parent groups, such as theater or band parent organizations, or even in online forums.

  • Gathering information from respected artists in your child's field of study can offer valuable information about career prospects, lifestyle, benefits and drawbacks of the work, and their path from student to successful artist. You can assess where your child stands in comparison, and what he or she may face in such a career.

  • Seeking support from a trusted friend or family member can be reassuring, challenging and enlightening. Those who know you best can provide some fresh perspective about your decisions, and help you discover blind spots that may be creating problems. Participation in therapy can be helpful in addition to the above mentioned resources, particularly if fears and doubts become overwhelming. It is also beneficial if your level of involvement or expectations create conflict with your child.

Raising an artistically talented child can be a deeply fulfilling challenge. Parents' increased awareness of their own feelings will improve their ability to support their child by reducing the tendency to respond in a counterproductive manner. Once parents are aware of their reactions, thoughts and feelings, they can more effectively encourage their child's artistic efforts.

(This blog post was modified from a recently published article: Post, G. (2014). The emotional highs and lows of parenting an artistically talented child. National Association for Gifted Children Arts Newsletter, 1, 15-17.)

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Gifted, How? To read more blogs in this hop, visit this Blog Hop at:

Some suggested reading:

Haroutounian, J. (2002). Kindling the spark. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lott, M. & Martin, J. (2013). Dance mom survival guide: Growing a great dancer without losing your mind. USA: Buzz Books.
Siteman, J. (2007). The pleasures and perils of raising young musicians: A guide for parents. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
Tofler, I. & Foy DiGeronimo, T. (2000). Keeping your kids out front without kicking them from behind: How to nurture high-achieving athletes, scholars, and performing artists. Danvers, MA: Jossey-Bass.
Whitehill, A. & Noble, W. (2003). The parents book of ballet: Answer to critical questions about the care and development of the young dancer. Hightstown, N.J.: Princeton Book Co, Publishers.

1 comment:

  1. As a parent of a musically gifted child, I have felt many of the emotions you describe. The hardest part for me has been finding other parents in similar circumstances with whom to discuss feelings and fears.