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Raising Gifted Children Right

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #82, 2008.

Seven top tips help parents avoid major mistakes with their gifted kids.
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Jeannette Webb

Gifted children can grow up to bless the world - or to become obnoxious show-offs. Here's how to raise our gifted children as blessings.

Every so often a child comes along that captures the imagination of those outside his or her immediate family. Whether a gifted athlete or an academic genius, this child is recognized as something special and people begin to talk.

However, too often giftedness is not handled well and instead of being an asset to propel our child toward great things, it becomes a millstone that threatens to drown their very soul.

Scary Examples

Examples abound: the math prodigy who started studying differential equations at age 10 and then flunks out of his dream college in his late teens because he's too busy playing video games; the daughter of a professor (who ironically taught college classes on giftedness) with an off-the-charts IQ who wasted her young adulthood meditating in Tibet in a vain attempt to find the meaning of life; the all-star athlete who had it all and lost it to drugs and immorality; the inspired actor who gets disoriented in the shallowness of the Hollywood scene. So much promise. Such a huge waste.

Parenting in the Twilight Zone

Parenting a gifted child will require everything we have to give and sometimes even more. It will necessitate a dependence on our heavenly Father for guidance when the way is no longer clear. While our child's gift will probably surpass our ability in one particular area, we have the advantage of life experience and wisdom that they do not possess. Never forget that. As homeschoolers, we have a unique 24/7 opportunity to mentor gifted children so they do not stumble in the limelight. It's not easy, but here are some foundations upon which to build.

Control Your Tongue

Don't ever talk about your child's gifts/IQ in their presence. EVER! I am amazed at the parents who ramble on and on about their child's exceptional gifts in front of them. I get an earful of how brilliant, how wonderful, how talented... while the tiny child is there absorbing the fact that their parents idolize them. At an early age, they and their parents already are on dangerous ground. Take a minute to re-read Exodus 20. We must admit that idolatry is sin.

It is an easy trap to fall into. (After all, it proves that our homeschooling is successful. Right? Perhaps they are gifted because we homeschool?) We are so enraptured that we have special kids that we bore others and endanger our children.

When children are old enough to figure out for themselves that they are special, they are old enough to understand the responsibilities involved. My son was 15 when a friend spoke aloud for the first time of his giftedness, taking him by surprise. When he approached me for validation, we had a wonderful discussion about the fact that much would be expected of him because God had entrusted him with much. It was a humbling experience rather than a detrimental inflating of his ego.

For this reason, I am very hesitant about the proliferation of talent searches and gifted ID programs. Many of these are money-makers and I'm not convinced it is helpful to have the information (or the label) they provide. I have found that labels are seldom beneficial whether they tell us that a child is gifted, normal, ADD, or learning disabled.

Neither should we talk about our own inabilities in front of our children. During one difficult season, I was feeling totally inadequate with this homeschool thing. I made a comment to my father (in front of my young children) that I was not smart enough to do this. Normally slow to share his opinions, my father promptly took me to another room and gave me a "talking to." He told me that my children would not submit to my teaching or my leadership if I caused them to lose confidence in me. I was the adult and I needed to start acting like one. Ouch!

There does come a time when our teens have the maturity that allows us to share more openly about our struggles, but that comes much later.

Seek Service

Service is a fundamental part of the Christian lifestyle. May I suggest that it is absolutely essential for gifted children. They need to be routinely called outside themselves for the benefit of someone else. They need to figure out that life is about serving others, not about them.

I am not talking about service in the area of their giftedness. A musician does not grow in grace from performing at a charity event - that just provides a bigger audience to praise her. A socially inept computer whiz learns nothing from spending time alone programming the church computer. While it goes without saying that our children should use their talents to serve others, we must also include sacrificial service outside their natural gifting that costs them something and keeps them humble.

It is vital that we pursue service opportunities as a family. We need to be involved with our kids. This is where real learning takes place. If you are a member of a huge, feel-good church where everything is provided for you (i.e. multitudes of youth pastors to cater to young teens' every whim), don't expect your kid to learn what it means to be a servant leader. This common scenario will teach them the opposite - that it's all about them. It doesn't take long at all for them to develop the attitude that life owes them entertainment and Starbucks coffee.

Pious lip service will only turn intelligent kids into cynics. They need to see the real thing, over and over, in the lives of people they love. My son was blessed beyond measure in that he had the daily example of a father with a servant's heart. Austin also saw it in his mentor, a brilliant chemist and elder at our church who rolls up his sleeves to work with the rest of us. Knowing that this highly successful man takes his turn at church scrubbing toilets and vacuuming carpet gave my son a perspective on what it means to wash others' feet that nothing else could.

Find Something Difficult

Because most things are so effortless for the gifted child, they are often totally unprepared to deal with something difficult. They are not used to having to wrestle with a concept or sweat to learn proper procedures. We need to be diligent to place things in their path that challenge them. Why? Gifted kids need to learn humility. They also need to learn how to learn in areas that don't come naturally to them.

Good parents naturally make huge sacrifices to push the envelope of their child's giftedness. It is fun and rewarding to watch a special child develop. It is a pleasure to open doors and make sacrifices because others see and applaud our efforts.

But too many parents stop there. We must also make the enormous sacrifice to help them develop in the areas that are weak.

This will be infinitely harder. We will often encounter an intense struggle and our efforts may not be rewarded for many years.

Perhaps the athlete needs tough academics that will really test him. Maybe our talented musician needs to enter the new and strange waters of rigorous speech and debate. Some kids may need hard, sweaty physical labor that makes for aching muscles. Some kids need stretching leadership or an emotionally challenging volunteer responsibility.

Perhaps our student is weak socially and covers for it with an intellectual arrogance. We found the answer for this in an masculine peer group that didn't care at all about his intelligence. Boy Scouts taught our son valuable life lessons that his homeschooled Christian friends were too nice to dish out. Team sports could have been another avenue.

We must understand that when a child (or adult) is allowed to live solely within the bubble of their strength, it is easy to become arrogant toward lesser mortals. They rule their tiny kingdom and become tyrants. If, however, we pop the bubble and require them to live in places outside their strong suit, they quickly learn that others have talents they do not. They become more realistic, kinder. They learn how to appreciate the strengths of others and how to get along with the rest of the world. They develop skills that come hard, but make them whole.

Beware of Lopsided Development

Perhaps another way of looking at this is a concept called four-fold development. Explained in the old-fashioned little volume I Dare You! by William H. Danforth of Ralston Purina fame, this framework sought a balanced approach to life. Using Luke 2: 52 as a foundation ("And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man"), Danforth concluded that we should strive to grow in all four areas. He labeled them: mental, physical, religious, and social. Keeping a balance between these areas allows for healthy growth and development.

It is foolish for parents (and potentially devastating for our child) to rely on one-dimensional development. I have too often heard an adult tell their student "We'll just count on a sports scholarship. We don't need to worry about your SAT scores." I expect this type of limited thinking in teens, but am appalled to find it in so many adults.

What happens when we allow a child to function in only one area? If our child receives his self-worth from being the smartest person around, who is he when he finds himself outpaced by those of greater abilities? If "athlete" is how our child defines himself, who is he when injury or illness permanently forces him to the sidelines?

Teach Them that Gifts are Fragile

We must understand that gifts are fragile things. A head injury, even a moderate one, can permanently hamstring mathematical ability. A finger injury can capsize a musician. A torn ACL can end an athletic career. As adults, we should have the maturity to see the big picture throughout a lifetime and help our students understand this concept. When our children learn to see things in this light, they become better stewards of their gift. They learn it must be handled with care and held loosely. They become grateful that God entrusted them with it and learn to use it wisely.

This is one more reason that we must help our children develop skills outside their area of strength. Not only are they better prepared for life, but they are also able to sidestep into something else should their gift and passion suddenly be taken from them.

Teach Them to Function in the Adult World

Intellectually gifted children naturally outdistance other kids in their peer group. They know more than the others and have a quicker wit. They are often bored with the usual "teen" interests. This can lead to either underachievement or egotism.

We decided to help our children keep life in perspective by having them spend most of their time in the adult world. One example of this is their attendance in adult Sunday School.

Instead of being in class with teen dramas, cliques, crushes, and self-centered prayer requests, they were with intelligent adults studying hard things. Their class of treasured older friends contained the brilliant university provost as well as a line-worker at the local factory. They gained from both perspectives. Learning by example to truly search out scripture during hardship kept my kids grounded.

My children are in constant fellowship with these adult friends. Along with the joys our adult friends share from their lives, we have faced together job loss, death, cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Huntington's Disease, and teenagers gone astray. Because my children watched these adults daily living out their faith in a pain-filled world, friendship evangelism was an easy step in college. My children's faith is not based on emotion or dependent on hordes of friends backing them up during a planned "outreach" event. They are comfortable walking alone for Christ.

I'm convinced that we lose so many Christian kids in college because we send them off with a weak, emotion-based, borrowed faith that has never been tested by fire. We have made life too comfortable and easy for them. They don't know how to wrestle with scripture or with hard things. Worse yet, we often just expect a carbon copy of what we profess. We give them lists of rules. We do not tolerate a different opinion. Tough questions are viewed as rebellion. Only when they parrot back the right verbiage do we consider our job well done.

Be forewarned that this style of parenting will backfire. If your children do not own their faith, college will make short work of them.

The unnerving thing about parenting gifted children is their ability to see past our pretense. If we would bring them outside themselves to help them lead a balanced, complete life, we must be willing to go first: to be uncomfortable, to fail, to recognize our own weakness, and have the courage to confront it.

More than anything else in the homeschool lifestyle, this issue of spiritual maturity requires first that we be mature as parents. We must live with a transparency that gives our children insight into how to overcome their own personal and spiritual struggles. They can't learn this from their youth pastor or their coach or their peers. It can only come as you journey along the Deuteronomy road together: when you sit, when you walk, when you lie down, when you rise up. We cannot talk at our kids (especially gifted kids). We must roll up our sleeves and do life together. There must be a constant dialog with them, learning together, working together, suffering together, and crying together. If we offer them anything less, we deserve their cynicism.

This side-by-side lifestyle allows me to hold up my gifted child when he stumbles. But the miracle is that it also allows him to catch me when I falter and thus develop his own muscles. Rather than fostering contempt, it creates a deep respect and tenderness in my almost adult child. It gives him the courage to face hard things. After all, he has seen me do it time and time again.

Walk the Talk

God entrusted us with much when He gave us a gifted child. The responsibility is incredible. Just think of the temporal and eternal implications of parenting an exceptional child well. This child could use their gifts to literally change the world: finding the cure for cancer, building an organization to relieve world poverty, or writing a concerto that touches our hearts.

They say children don't come with an instruction book, but I beg to disagree. It's all right there in the Gospels: how to teach, how to lead, how to parent. Jesus did not hand his disciples a papyrus scroll and expect them to learn by memorizing it. He did not send them to youth group meetings at the synagogue. He walked in front of them sometimes and beside them sometimes, constantly talking, teaching, saying...

Watch me.
Do as I do.
Let me explain.
Here is the secret of what you do not understand.

And then, he washed their feet.

Christ did life together with this rag tag group of immature young men and then turned them loose to change the world.

So there you have it - a method so very simple and yet so challenging. This paradox requires us to lose our lives in order that our children find Life.

If we pour our lives into helping our children become fruitful, the results will ripple throughout eternity - whether or not our children are gifted in any obvious way.

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