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Parenting a gifted or talented child

Little girl studying science
Credit: iStock.com/DragonImages

As parents we naturally believe our children are special and unique, but if you suspect your child may be gifted or talented it is important not to push, according to child psychologist Dr Louise Porter.

Dr Porter, author of Gifted young children: A guide for teachers and parents, says a parent’s role is to get to know their child’s interests and provide opportunities and exposure.

“The child is already advancing him or herself. You don’t push, but you follow,” Dr Porter says.

“What you should do is support and foster their growing interests.

Giftedness is like an underground stream. It’s going to find an outlet. A parent’s job is to get to know their child and supply exposure to that.
Dr Louise Porter

“If the child expresses an interest in numbers you give them activities, if they want to read you give them books that are interesting to read.

“Giftedness is like an underground stream. It’s going to find an outlet. A parent’s job is to get to know their child and supply exposure to that.”

Dr Porter reports the brain is able to make synaptic links: that is, links between brain cells. In other words, giftedness comes about because of the capacity of the brain to form a neural network.

“As a result, for gifted learners, one idea reminds them of something else and they can synthesise and analyse ideas. They process more quickly and they transfer that information across from previous experience to the current problem,” she says.

How to tell if your child is gifted or talented

Dr Porter says if your child seems to be developing quickly, you might wonder how to tell if your child is gifted or talented.

The distinction, she says is that while many children are ‘bright’ (or above average), giftedness refers to those who are developing more than one-third faster than usual.

In intellectual terms, this translates to an IQ of 130 or over. This simply means that a three-year-old is functioning like the typical four-year-old.

When attempting to identify giftedness, there are checklists of behaviours that children may display in the various developmental domains.

However, Dr Porter says parents may not be aware of the expected milestones, while those who are bright themselves might mistake advanced development for being normal – because being advanced is normal in their family.

It can also be difficult to know how much of each characteristic a child has to display in order to be called gifted, and children will not be gifted at everything. Also, gifted children might start a skill at the same time as everyone else, but then advance to the next level more quickly.

Dr Porter says that the most straightforward way to identify giftedness is with IQ tests.

“These are best delayed till the age of four, because prior to that age they test mainly for memory – and a strong memory is necessary but not sufficient for giftedness,” she says.

“Past the age of four, the tests are more reliable and better decisions about the child’s education can be based on them.”

Dr Porter has had many gifted children referred for developmental delay when in fact they are gifted.

“Some parents will have watched their child flit from activity to activity, choose not to mix with other children, or gravitate to adult company,” she says.

“Seeing these behaviours, parents begin to be concerned that the child’s skills might be delayed.  However, the children might flit from one activity to another if the activities are not challenging enough, and will seek the company of adults because other children are not meeting their intellectual needs.”

Parents need to congratulate children for their achievements, share their excitement and be proud for them… but not use the achievement to confirm the children’s worth.
Dr Louise Porter

Dr Porter notes that verbal giftedness is one of the easiest forms to notice.

“It’s easy to identify a baby who is talking early. This will be obvious and people will say, ‘Gosh they are talking early’.

“However, there is a particular risk from talking very early because peers cannot converse with them. The result is that verbally gifted children might not learn to find others relevant.

“It’s not that they don’t like other people, but they learn at such a young age that other people can’t talk to them about the things that interest them.”

Navigating the challenges of raising a gifted or talented child

Although discovering that a child is gifted may seem wonderful, it also comes with potential challenges for both the parents and the child.

Dr Porter says parents often have to grieve about their own unsatisfactory schooling experience as a gifted learner and not allow this to colour their perceptions of the current education system.

“As for the children, being a statistical rarity can lead to loneliness and isolation if there is no one of similar ability in their orbit.

“Children choose friends at their developmental level – and if there are no intellectual peers available, they may play alone or associate with adults.

“Isolation can also lead to low self-esteem, with children assuming that there is something ‘wrong’ with them because no one wants to play with them given their different interests. These children can have the sense that ‘other people don’t get me’,” Dr Porter says.

Furthermore, given that no one is gifted at everything, Dr Porter says there will be some skills at which the children excel, and others where their learning is closer to average. Detecting the difference, the children can develop low self-esteem about their lower skills.

“In terms of their self-esteem, parents need to keep the two parts of self-esteem separate. The first part is our esteem about our competence, which has to be earned by putting in some effort to gain skills; and the second part is a sense of worth that, ideally, is given,” Dr Porter says.

“When we praise children for being clever or successful, we are telling them that they are ‘good’ when they get things right, which in ‘child-speak’ means that they are ‘bad’ when they don’t.

“In other words, we are allowing what they do to define who they are. We are linking their competence to their worth, when these should not be linked.

“Therefore, parents need to congratulate children for their achievements, share their excitement and be proud for them… but not use the achievement to confirm the children’s worth.

“As for their uneven skill levels, the only way to even these up would be to lower the higher skills. Of course this is not an option.

“This is a good lesson for parents. They sometimes say ‘I want them to be well rounded’. And I say ‘Well that ship has sailed’. This child is going to be a specialist. And the world needs specialists.

“Meanwhile, the children themselves need to learn to be compassionate with themselves and patient with their lower skills.”

Dr Porter says in time the children will need to be told the reason that they seem to be out of step with others.

“Otherwise, they will assume either that there is either something wrong with them or something wrong with everyone else.

“I explain to children that their brain is learning more quickly than others, but that it is not a race to the finish line”.

Ensuring support for gifted and talented children

Dr Porter says socially, children need exposure to other bright learners with whom they can share interests and develop play skills and friendships.

Cousins or family friends can be ideal but if these are not available, Gifted Associations can be helpful.

She says more support is required for gifted children in the education system and that parents should not shy away from advocating for their children for fear of being seen to be boasting.

“It’s important that parents realise when they are approaching schools they are not asking for a better education for their child, they are asking for a developmentally appropriate one.”

Dr Porter’s advice for supporting bright, gifted and talented children:

  • Maintain their love of learning. This means not overscheduling or pushing them because they need down time to park what they learn in long term memory.
  • Supporting their passions by providing as much information and resources as they ask for.
  • Find an intellectual peer who shares their interests.
  • Chill. The children are going to excel. You don’t need to push. Parents often want their children to reach their potential. There is no hurry.
  • What you do doesn’t define who you are. Don’t praise children for being good at things, but instead congratulate them for their success and share they excitement. Don’t link their competence to their worth.