Monday, June 22, 2015

Tune in to your gifted child's needs

Anyone who has raised children from birth knows how unique each little being is right out of the gate. They emerge with their own personality, needs, quirks, and impulses. We can help nurture and shape them, but ultimately, they are who they are. We stumble along as parents and make the best choices we can, but our wishes, fears, and personal history affect how we raise them.

And most of us question whether we are making the right decisions.

Our culture and the latest trends in parenting also affect our choices.While debates about helicopter parents, tiger moms and free-ranging kids fill magazine and social media pages, most of these articles descend into all-or-nothing arguments about right or wrong, good or bad. From sound bites to dire warnings, recipes for supposedly perfect parenting strategies are just a mouse click away.

But most of these child-raising formulas and dictates overlook that central task of parenting: tuning in to your child's specific needs. Sorting out who your child really is, what inspires him, what motivates her. Recognizing your child's true talents and realistic limitations, and knowing when to encourage and when to sit back and wait. Separating your personal needs and wishes from what is best for your child.

As parents, you regularly face the following tasks:
  • Sorting through the wealth of child-raising messages and theories 
  • Identifying which methods are best suited to your child's temperament and behavior
  • Recognizing if your decisions are based on your child's needs or your own desires and anxiety 
  • Determining when to offer appropriate and necessary parental support/encouragement/involvement and when to allow them to struggle on their own

Parents of gifted children face unique challenges, since there are few roadmaps to guide them. Young gifted children often present exasperating intensities and overexcitabilities that can be draining for many parents. Highly sensitive, reactive to sensory stimulation, and intensely curious, they can stress even the most patient families. Parents may notice their exceptional abilities, but these children often are not identified as gifted until they are much older. And even if an astute preschool teacher or pediatrician recognizes their abilities, there are few guidelines to help parents manage their needs.

So what can you do?

1. Notice what truly inspires your child. What does he gravitate toward? What interests and energizes her? Allow your child to delve into his interests as much as possible. Gifted children may become highly focused on certain interests and explore them with exceptional depth and complexity. Tap in to this and encourage their natural level of exploration.

2. Introduce new activities to see what sparks joy and creativity. Your child will let you know if you are on the right track. But avoid forcing continued participation in activities that are meaningless, boring, pointlessly difficult or create excessive anxiety. Unless it is a required class subject or a necessary skill she must learn, there is no reason to demand participation in unnecessary activities that only breed resentment and distress.

3. Show interest in what interests your child. Ask open-ended questions and offer comments, such as:
  • Tell me more about that. 
  • How did you come up with that idea?
  • Tell me about the character in the story you wrote
  • What is happening in that picture?
  • What do you think about what happened in the book?
  • What did you like about your lesson/practice/class today?

4. Let you child know that you understand. Not necessarily that you agree with her viewpoint, but understand how she feels. Don't interpret, overexplain, or tell him why he should or should not have certain feelings; just let him know that you get it. It can help younger children when you connect words to their feelings (e.g., "You must have felt sad when Billy wouldn't play with you"). Older children benefit from less elaborate comments ("Well, that's a drag!"), but sometimes need more detailed conversation ("I went through something like that too, and I felt really awful, but eventually I got past it"). And understanding also applies to positive feelings. A knowing glance, a loving gaze, a shared joke all communicate that you deeply understand your child.

5. Notice when anxiety and insecurity interfere. Look for the signs of anxiety, and recognize when to encourage your child to try harder/stick with it/tough it out, or when to allow him to pull back. Help him understand that fears and worries are normal, that there are tools for overcoming them, and that you will help him through it. If insecurity depletes your child's motivation, you will have to decide whether to challenge her lack of drive, or allow her to find her own path. Counseling is sometimes necessary when anxiety and low self-esteem become entrenched patterns.

6. Recognize your own wishes, desires and fears, and notice when they conflict with what is best for your child.  Avoid channeling your child in a particular direction just because it fulfills your dreams or expectations. Regardless of how many baseball practices or violin lessons you schedule, if your child lacks the interest, it may be time to let it go. Even if your gifted child demonstrates tremendous potential in a particular field of study, he may ultimately choose an unrelated career path. While you may need time to grieve over this disappointment, your sadness is best shared with your partner and trusted friends or family, rather than burdening your child with it.

7. Most of all, have fun with your child. Engage in activities that are fun for both of you, will enhance your closeness, and will remind your child that you adore being with her. What is fun for a three-year-old is obviously different for a child of 12 or 17, but remaining attuned to what your child enjoys will be rewarding for both of you. 

Years ago, Winnicott coined the term "good enough parent." Perhaps we can all strive to be the "best" good-enough parent by keeping our own anxiety and aspirations in check and paying attention to our child's true nature.


Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: A study of the first no-me possession. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34, 89-97.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The gift of free time: Reclaiming the preschool years

Back when I was scouting out preschools, I stumbled across circle time at a highly recommended school. I watched as the teacher skillfully corralled a group of 2-year-olds into sitting patiently and singing, clapping their hands and listening to instructions. There was one boy, though, who got up, sat aside and started to play with a train. The teacher quickly and firmly instructed him to get back into the circle. His "disobedience" was not to be tolerated.

I think back to this experience as a reminder of how "free time" is often discouraged, even at such a young age. This is not to say that chaos should reign supreme at preschools and that teachers don't have their hands full. A level of order and cooperation is necessary, not just for keeping the classroom functional, but to help children develop important self-regulatory skills. But the expectation that a 2-year-old boy must sit through circle time rather than explore the joys of that enticing toy nearby seemed excessive.

It is hard to recall an era when children spent their free time exploring the outdoors and relying on their imagination, when scheduled activities, electronics, and structured learning didn't compete for their attention. Fort-building, tea parties and swashbuckling battles with sticks filled their time. But now, exploration is steeped with expectations that it will lead to further achievement and success. Even preschoolers have less free time, as they juggle pre-reading and pre-math with other formative "readiness" activities.

Yet, research is highlighting the importance of free time and unstructured play for all children, especially for preschool children. Why is free time so essential to a young child's development? Here are some recent findings:

1. Play "wires kids' brains for social and academic success." It contributes to changes in the prefontal cortex during childhood. These changes affect executive functioning and the ability to regulate emotions and solve problems. According to researcher Sergio Pellis, "plenty of so-called free play" is essential to this aspect of brain development.

2.  Preschools may not be providing enough opportunity for physical activity, as seen in a recent study where children were most sedentary during teacher-led activities. "Based on their findings, the study authors recommend child-care centers allow for more child-initiated activities, either  indoors or outdoors, along with an increase in outdoor time."

3. Studies cited by David Kohn demonstrate the problems associated with forcing young children to sit through academic instruction. In one study, children who had received teacher-led instruction during preschool performed worse academically when they reached fourth grade than those students who were allowed to engage in free play during preschool. Rather than helping, teacher-led instruction "may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress, and perhaps even souring kids' desire to learn." A blog post by Gwen Dewar also sums up additional research related to free play and child development, and points to the importance of recess, unstructured play, and time outdoors.

4. The importance of play in early childhood programs is also highlighted by Polakow-Suransky and NagerThey point out the misguided rush to engage in academic instruction, and the importance of free time. They recommend that preschool teachers remain involved by encouraging creative exploration, and by asking questions to enhance the children's work and help develop new thinking skills.
"As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum."
While all children benefit from the "gift of free time," gifted children, in particular, thrive when they can freely engage in creative and unstructured activities. In a previous post, the importance of play was addressed, along with how it benefits gifted children. They hunger to learn, but forced instruction, especially at the preschool level, may be even less effective than for most children. Their advanced learning skills, heightened sensitivities, and often uneven social/emotional development may affect their adjustment to a traditional preschool setting. Boredom, impatience, distractibility, emotional reactivity and difficulty relating to peers are all warning signs of adjustment problems. Parents may need to advocate with their child's preschool, and additionally ensure that their child has plenty of opportunity for free-time, creative expression and exploration outside of school.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Free Time. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: