Monday, November 10, 2014

How (not) to praise your gifted child

I recall a debate years ago with an old friend who was in awe of a talented athlete. "He has so much natural talent - he's amazing!" My response was: "So what?" I tried to explain that you are born with talent, just like the color of your eyes, and it has nothing to do with your initiative or character. It's only what you do with your life that counts.

Of course, we went round and round about this. And yes, this talented athlete certainly logged many hours of dutiful exercise to get where he was. But the question still remains: Should we applaud people just for their gifts, talents and innate abilities? (And does this admiration eventually morph into the envy and bitterness that gets projected onto gifted children?)

A recent article in the Atlantic highlighted the problem of offering too much praise to children for their abilities. After years of self-esteem-building initiatives, trophies distributed at every soccer tournament, and rewards for essentially just showing up, experts are now suggesting that this trend has backfired. Many children, and adults, require an inordinate amount of praise, avoid taking risks, and never learn to accept failure as a character- and skill-building experience. Psychologist Carol Dweck, who is interviewed in the Atlantic article, recommends that you stop praising children for being smart. It can sap their motivation, and make them insecure.

So as a parent, how do you support and praise your gifted child without sending the wrong message?

1. Praise your child's efforts

Support any attempts to work hard, try something new, take risks. So many tasks come easily to gifted children, or are so intrinsically enjoyable, that they rarely learn to struggle with something difficult. Sticking with a difficult task may be their greatest challenge. Support this whenever possible. As Dr. Dweck noted in the Atlantic article, rather than praising a child's abilities, you can compliment the "process" your child uses to get results. This can include working hard, using a variety of strategies, learning from mistakes, staying focused, and showing improvement.

2. Encourage autonomy

Even at an early age, children benefit from learning to trust their own instincts and thinking ability. They can master this further if they understand how they make decisions. Encourage them to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, outline strategies, and ask themselves meaningful questions. If they make a mistake, ask them to review what happened, and to brainstorm alternative solutions. What is most important is not the outcome, but encouraging them to think for themselves.

3. Help your child set realistic, challenging goals

Some children are perfectionists who set unrealistically high standards for themselves. Others avoid risks and don't push themselves at all. You know your child best and can determine what he or she needs. But identifying a meaningful, challenging goal that your child can work toward and eventually achieve, will build resilience and true confidence. Set a goal together, encourage your child as he or she hits roadblocks, and praise your child's efforts.

4. Help your child identify what is praise-worthy

Most gifted children know when their efforts truly deserve recognition. Many feel uncomfortable when praised for something that came too easily or was beneath their abilities. While you can control feedback at home, you cannot account for what happens at school or out in the world at large. When your child receives recognition that seems unwarranted, you can lightheartedly discuss how both of you know it was unnecessary, even though many other accomplishments your child produces are worthwhile. Your child will appreciate your honesty and will feel understood.

5. Remind your child that abilities are an opportunity and a responsibility

Gifted children may have an easier time learning in school than the other students. Or they might be more talented athletes, musicians, artists or dancers. These talents offer gifted children more choices, but also greater responsibility to use them productively and not squander their potential. They know they are no more "special" than anyone else, and too much praise for being smart creates discomfort and unnecessary pressure. Some of the greatest challenges facing your child will not be academics, but overcoming self-doubt, fear of failure, narrowing choices from an abundance of options, and building resilience after years of easy academics.

Children know when praise is truly deserved and when it is false. Your child will welcome your loving support as you encourage his or her growth and development. Helping your child develop resilience and autonomy and learn how to make decisions can be one of the greatest "gifts" that you as a parent can provide.

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