How to raise a child prodigy: nurture them, but don’t push them
Well-meaning parents can tread a fine line between supporting and pushing gifted children; allowing them to take ownership of their talent and training is key to preventing a host of problems
Parenting trends tend to swing like a pendulum, with the extremes grabbing the headlines (helicopter parents vs. free-rangers, co-sleeping vs. cry it out).
A few years ago, we had the Tiger Mum, who raised gifted musician daughters using methods that struck many readers as cruel. Perhaps in response, the headlines making the rounds on Facebook today instruct parents to back off, especially when it comes to sports. After all, your child “isn't going pro”, one admonished.
The advice is often to eschew “elite” tracks; let them play multiple recreational sports and just have fun. This advice, while sound for most children, is hard for some parents, including myself. As a competitive gymnast, my young son spends many hours a week at practice. Even if he wanted to, there’s no way he could play multiple sports and still attend school, eat and sleep.
It’s a lot for an eight-year-old. For now, though, he’s thriving in school and in his sport, and despite his early success, I’m realistic about where his talents may lead. But his experience got me thinking: Someone’s child will compete in the Olympics or play a pro sport or attend Juilliard. How can those parents best support their child as he or she develops that kind of intense talent?
“The priority has to be raising a healthy and empowered child first,” says Caroline Silby, a US sports psychologist who has worked with a number of Olympians. Here are some ways parents of high-achieving kids can ensure they are doing just that.
Follow their lead
For most of the families I spoke with, their children’s passions were clear from an early age. Although it may have been sparked initially by a parent through music lessons or enrolment in an activity, the interest quickly shifted to become child-driven.
John Yieh’s daughter, Janet, 23, who graduated from New York’s Juilliard School last year, started piano at four, then added organ to her repertoire after winning a prestigious scholarship at 11.
Janet’s parents recognised her potential and supported her increasing interest, but they also encouraged her other interests. Janet competed on her school swimming team and played the flute in her school band.
These parents found that letting their children take ownership over their talent and training was key to preventing burnout. As Yieh says: “To excel, they have to decide on their own that they want to do it, because it's tough.”
How can well-meaning parents tell the difference between supporting and pushing? Writing a chapter in How to Bring Up a Genius!, psychologist Carol Bainbridge defines the difference this way: “Basically, nurturing is child-centred while pushing is adult-centred. When we nurture we follow the child's lead, but when we push we want the child to follow us, to do what we want him or her to do.”
So when my son grumbles about getting up early for Saturday morning practice, am I pushing or nurturing when I make him go? In his excellent book Changing the Game, John O’Sullivan offers good suggestions.
Work with your child to set goals
This might be for a sports season, an upcoming recital or another set period of time. (For younger children, shorter-term goals are easier to grasp.) Then, once the goals are set, the parents’ role shifts to helping the children make sure their actions are consistent with those goals.
As they get older, give them even more control. Personal trainer Margie Weiss, whose son Michael was a two-time Olympic ice skater, urges parents to “step back and let them make decisions. Some of these [elite athletes] have never made a decision in their lives”. She had Michael handle his own endorsement deals and contracts once he was old enough to do so.
Do what works for your child
As training and practice times increase, parents of talented kids often struggle to balance family time and school with their child’s schedule.
Robert and Elizabeth Brokamp, of Alexandria, in the US state of Virginia, say that for their daughter, 11-year-old Zoe, “gymnastics doesn't feel like it was a choice. It's as essential to her as breathing”.
But as Zoe's training hours increased, the Brokamps found that it was hard to balance school and practice and that “there was no family time” with Zoe and her two older siblings.
They made the decision to home-school Zoe this year to provide her with a saner schedule: Now she trains during the day and spends evenings at home. “We are doing a lot more eating together as a family,” Elizabeth says. Zoe gets more sleep, too. What may seem to some like an extreme choice has been the best option for them.
Weiss, herself a former elite gymnast, raised not one but three star athletes – Michael's sisters Geremi and Genna were champions in skating and diving, respectively. Their lives were at times hectic, but the kids still got to be kids. “They still had slumber parties and other social things. They just had them with other elite athletes,” Weiss says.
It was unusual, sure, but, as she puts it, “You don't have to go the normal path; yes, it was unconventional, but it doesn't mean it was wrong. There's more than one way to get from Point A to Point B. My kids are all good, solid citizens as adults. They're good teachers and good parents.”
One benefit many parents mentioned was all the extra one-on-one time spent with their kids driving to and from practice and events. Instead of turning up the radio or putting on a DVD, use that time to connect with your child.
Watch for pitfalls
There are many rewarding aspects of raising a high-achieving kid, but less visible are the downsides. Perfectionism, anxiety and low self-confidence often accompany exceptional talent.
“The very qualities that contribute to the creation of success ... can leave individuals prone to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression,” Silby says. This is a common theme among families of elite athletes and other high-achievers. Many are perfectionists and have a difficult time managing emotions when things don’t go quite as they hope or expect.
“Even when you're at your best, you can't hit it every time,” says Judy Fentriss-Williams of Alexandria, whose daughter Samantha is an accomplished singer attending Stanford University.
“Children need to know their failures and successes don't affect parental support or acceptance,” Silby says. The parent who storms off the sideline when a child misses a big play or is silent on the ride home after a loss is signalling that the outcome is more important than the child.
Instead, O'Sullivan writes, “If you want a happy young athlete who performs at a high level, then become your child's number one fan and love him unconditionally, regardless of results.”
Another pitfall for parents to consider is how one child’s big dreams can affect other kids in the family. Their schedules are often dictated by their sibling’s practices and events, and their own talents can get lost in the shadows. Parents need to be sure they’re recognising each kid’s passions and valuing them equally.
No matter how far their talents take them, our children will eventually have to live in the real world, where medals and trophies and accolades aren't a measure of self-worth. “Focus on who you want your child to be in 20 years, and use this vision to guide your actions,” O’Sullivan suggests.
As Weiss points out: “They're going to be people longer than they're going to be an athlete.”
Tribune News Service