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I have a child who has a few enormous natural talents. Yet the child does not want to pursue any of these gifts and, from an adult perception standpoint, seems to take these gifts for granted. Instead, the child would rather pursue endeavors they are less talented in. How do you balance letting this child pursue their interests with letting the child know how much they are throwing away by so quickly disregarding the natural talents?

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    Welcome to the site! How old is your child? Feel free to add an approximate age tag for that, e.g. middle-childhood. What are these talents, specifically? And what are the child's specific objections to pursue these gifts? These details will help us answer the question better. Thanks! Apr 27 at 17:07
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    Counter question from a mom of a gifted child (confirmed by multiple tests): Are you sure that what they are talented in is also what makes them happy? It can be an easy misconception that those two are automatically correlated. Talent or being gifted can be a huge bonus for someone pursuing a topic out of interest and motivation, but not necessarily the other way around.
    – Stephie
    Apr 27 at 21:12
  • As a parent you want your child to excel in at least a few domains. But as a child what's in it for him or her?
    – TommyD
    Apr 28 at 16:12
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    "child would rather pursue endeavors they are less talented in" - this sounds like the makings of a well-rounded,, functioning, and personable adult. What kind of lesson would it be to proliferate the ideology of "You should do the stuff that is easy for you"
    – MonkeyZeus
    Apr 29 at 15:57

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How do you balance letting this child pursue their interests with letting the child know how much they are throwing away by so quickly disregarding the natural talents?

By recognizing two things: 1. That you cannot possibly be certain about the future, not your own or anyone else's. 2. That they have a right to the life they want, whereas you do not have a right to force them (or guilt them) into a life they do not want.

Projecting your values onto your child, when pushed too far, will likely result in a child feeling like a disappointment/failure when they don't live up to your expectations, and may lead to a lot of resentment if they do.

I am now a parent to adult children, all launched and in their mid-late 30s. Three of my children were "gifted". Only one is in a career that they wanted to be in as a child, adolescent and adult, and it's not that they were particularly gifted in that area; it's that they stubbornly refused to accept "no" as an answer, from anyone or anything. The others have taken paths which twisted and turned and two are still evolving. Only one has followed their natural talent, and they would be living in poverty if not for their spouse.

I don't feel guilt at my choices. We offered them all the opportunities we could think of. They had to (i.e. I forced them to) do certain things: learn a second language (of their choice, to fluency), take music lessons (not to proficiency), engage in sports, etc. The rest was just enrichment, exposing them to as much as possible. Their childhoods were rich with experiences of all kinds.

Really, all I wanted was for them to be good people who were, hopefully, happy and able to support themselves and/or a family.

My best friend had four children who were obligated to master two musical instruments, as well as get all As in every subject. They were expected to go to college on full scholarships. She once chided one of her children who was struggling in a college course, saying, "I don't care how hard you're trying. You need to get an A." You can imagine they had childhoods and adolescences very different from those of my children. One of their kids has a career related to their natural talent, and again, if it weren't for their second job, they would not be able to make ends meet. I cannot speak to their happiness; they seem happy enough, but the oldest is now beginning to feel that their upbringing was "really screwed up".

I believe that parenting is the most difficult job in the world if you're doing it correctly, and it's maybe the job in which the outcome is the least predictable. This answer is of doubtful reassurance to you, but it's the best I've got.

Edited to add: After reading @Timur Shtatland's excellent answer, I wanted to share how hopeless it is to try to guide a child no matter what the approach. I was having a conversation with my eldest child, and they were sharing how they don't really know if the path they've chosen, while lucrative, is one they want to stay in. I was letting them know that I would support any choice they made. I said, "[Eldest], all I ever really wanted for you was to be happy." "I know!!!, they replied. "What an unrealistic expectation! It's impossible to live up to!" I had to chuckle and think about the approach I took.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 30 at 21:24
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The best strategy I've found for this is to give kids lots of opportunities, but not force anything. Forcing things leads them to develop a dislike for what they're forced to do - that's only natural - and so even if they're amazingly good at whatever, they won't try hard and practice.

If you really want them to do what they're good at, give them the opportunity to do it when they want to. A child who wants to be good at something will practice it and learn life skills that are relevant for other things (i.e., how to improve).

My approach, which works well for my younger child and not so well for the older, is to offer opportunities, and he finds things he likes and does them. The other kid doesn't really ever want to do anything, and so I do have to enforce some structure - but I try to keep it as open as possible, along the lines of "you must do one activity, but you may choose which one".

I also recognize that my older child is very externally motivated - which is not ideal, but it's just how it is with him - so I try to give him external motivations (when you get to X level you get Y prize). My younger one doesn't need (or even want) those, so I let him go at his own pace.

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  • Note that there is a very different approach to this, and one I hope we see in another answer. This is my philosophy, and one that I think is important, but it probably isn't the philosophy chosen by many parents of successful prodigies I suspect.
    – Joe
    Apr 27 at 15:39
  • I'd like to hear a different answer, too. Mine is essentially the same (I think.)
    – anongoodnurse
    Apr 27 at 19:13
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    This is correct. I was forced to learn piano as a kid, and hated it. I later took up piano on my own as an adult, and while I didn't stick with it, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Forcing your kid to do an activity is the surest way to make them hate it, which would be a shame if they are naturally talented at it. There's nothing that says talents have to be taken full advantage of in childhood (or even at all for that matter). Some people don't discover and start to use a gift until well on into adulthood. So this is good advice.
    – bob
    Apr 28 at 15:40
  • It's the approach my parents took, and the one we use for our kids.
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 30 at 21:30
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Being gifted or talented is somewhat overrated, in my opinion, although it is something many idealise. The reality is that most if not all the hugely talented people through history have put in an enormous amount of work for a long time; Mozart famously was trained from a very early age, and his early works were not actually anything much. Who knows if he would ever have become even a moderately good musician, had his father not driven him forward with ruthless ambition.

I don't think you should worry about gifts going to waste - success and happiness are mostly the result of sustained effort over a long time, so it is much better to let a child find their own interests by exposing them to many opportunities, and then do whatever you can to encourage and nurture that interest. But keep in mind that many interests burn out after some time and allow the child the freedom to lose interest.

Frankly, I think the only real 'talent' or 'gift' is imagination; as Einstein said 'Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.' - imagination is what makes you curious and wanting to learn about things.

Finally, a word about stupidity, which isn't the same as ignorance or lack of intelligence; an ingorant or less intelligent person can still learn more and improve themselves, but a stupid person somebody who has decided not to learn. Another Einstein quote: 'The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits'. It is unfortunately quite possible to teach a child stupidity, for example by forcing them to learn something, or punishing their curiousity. And the more intelligent the child is, the better they will learn the skill of stupidity, so beware.

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I recommend to follow the middle ground between (a) encouraging the development of natural talents of the child as perceived by others and (b) the interests of the child based on the child's own desires.

  • Pay close attention to the abilities of the child.
  • Help the child develop basic proficiency in most fields required for successful functioning as adults (avoid overspecialization and deficiencies).
  • Encourage the child develop their talents as perceived by others (parents, teachers, peers).
  • Encourage the child to develop the areas related to their talents, thus broadening the scope of their education.
  • Encourage the child to explore their own interests.
  • Broaden the interests of the child by encouraging the development in related areas, thus increasing the scope of their interests.
  • Avoid early specialization.
  • Pursue education programs for the gifted in public or private schools.
  • Hire tutors (an good, enthusiastic tutor can help the child develop even in the areas where they have previously not shown any interest).

Practical examples of encouragement:

These are a few real life examples that worked for our extended family, that is, they gave lasting, positive results in child development, with effects lasting for years - or even for a lifetime, in some cases.

  • Talk to children about a broad array of subjects. Cast a wide net. Follow your and, especially, their interests. Pay attention to what they pay attention.
  • Do a wide range of activities with children. You never know what catches their interest. Each parent can make unique contributions, such as outdoor activities, other sports, board games, science projects, reading aloud and listening to music together (works for older children too), exploring arts, etc.
  • Get the best books from the library on a variety of subjects. Use interlibrary loan. See what subjects the child likes. Buy good books if you think they helpful now or in the future. Used book stores are a great source of learning without breaking the bank.
  • Find good teachers that "light their fires", either with gifted programs or schools for the gifted, or using tutors. Some of the tutors can be older school students or university students, and so do not necessarily have to be super expensive. Find extracurricular classes.
  • Whatever you do, get the feedback from the kids frequently about their preferences. Fail early (this principle from software development applies to child development too). Even if the child wanted to start a class, and you think the class in their field of talent, but the class seems to not "click" with the child, even after giving it a good try, quit the class. Try a different class, a different teacher, or in some cases change the field.

REFERENCES:

More specifically, parents are explicitly urged to engage their children in in-school and out-of-school activities using a strength-based, talent-focused approach, providing opportunities to develop students’ advanced skills and talents in their own right. A talent-focused approach entails identifying and recognizing learners’ strengths and abilities, as well as developing and maturing their passion for learning, and providing enrichment opportunities that develop and broaden possible areas of talent or interest. Therefore, talent development must be recognized as a necessary and non-negotiable part of any parenting strategy for both gifted/talented and twice-exceptional children.

Papadopoulos, Dimitrios. “Parenting the Exceptional Social-Emotional Needs of Gifted and Talented Children: What Do We Know?.” Children (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 8,11 953. 22 Oct. 2021, doi:10.3390/children8110953: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8624036/


Implications for counselors of the gifted are discussed, and it is suggested that counselors should encourage gifted students to keep their career options open well into the college years and should provide alternative career-planning role models that emphasize personal values as the foundation for making tentative career plans.

Perrone, P. (1986). Guidance needs of gifted children, adolescents, and adults. Journal of Counseling & Development, 64(9), 564–566. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.1986.tb01204.x: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1986-31367-001

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    This is a great answer, and I really hope the OP sees it. One question, though; how do you encourage a child without the possibility of guilting them into something? When is free choice free from judgement? Encourage is such a poorly defined word for this particular question... Thanks!
    – anongoodnurse
    May 5 at 15:09
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    @anongoodnurse Thank you for the suggestion! Added the section on encouragement. May 5 at 15:36
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    I do hope the OP saw this. Again, great answer!
    – anongoodnurse
    May 11 at 2:51
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    @anongoodnurse Thank you so much for the kind words and generous gift! May 11 at 3:47
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How do you balance letting this child pursue their interests with letting the child know how much they are throwing away by so quickly disregarding the natural talents?

This depends entirely on what those talents are. As an example, if your child is a math prodigy they have numerous career paths available to them with enormous monetary compensation:

  1. Wall Street quant
  2. Top notch engineer
  3. A professor at a highly prestigious university, such as MIT
  4. Founding a business developing a complex product requiring advanced STEM skills

On the other hand if their special talent is in music or sports, its extremely unlikely they will ever be rewarded by large amounts of money in the future, unless they're extremely lucky and end up beating 99.9% of other "talented" kids. There's maybe 10k people in the entire world making more than $100k/year from doing music or playing sports. The rest are languishing in obscurity and in the case of sports they often end up with debilitating injuries from training or competitions.

So your path forward should depend on the expected income of someone in the top 10% of their special talent. If that's a high number or can be reasonably expected to become a high number in the future - then by all means, push them towards this! If not, I'd let them focus on other things and not worry about "wasting" the talent.

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    Since when does money justify hijacking someone's life? If they don't like math, they shouldn't be forced into a career involving math. It doesn't matter what their talents are; it is their life to pursue as they see fit. It's fine to explain and encourage to a certain extent; then the parent needs to back off.
    – anongoodnurse
    Apr 28 at 22:03
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    @anongoodnurse up to a certain age children don't really know what they want and mostly copy their parents, their classmates, someone they've seen on TV, etc. There's nothing to "hijack", you're just directing their mimicry of others into productive avenues. Then as an adult they'll at least have the option to earn lots of money, which is always a great thing to have. Apr 28 at 22:07
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    I don't know if you have kids, and if you do, how old they are. Directed mimicry stops when they start rebelling (usually in their teens unless they're brainwashed), not when they've mastered something enough to make "lots of money". Inspiration has merit, but the adolescent needs to choose whose example they want to follow.
    – anongoodnurse
    Apr 28 at 22:14
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    @anongoodnurse if the child has talent, it will usually be apparent at a very young age - definitely before they’re 6 years old. So plenty of time between discovering the talent and growing up enough to have individual agency. I.e. for a math prodigy you’d want to send them to a special school at the age of 5 and possibly even graduate high school by the age of 12 if they’re really talented. Apr 28 at 22:19
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    @JonathanReez - 'up to a certain age children don't really know what they want and mostly copy their parents, their classmates, someone they've seen on TV'. I started regarding my father as less than infallible around about the age of 7, mainly because he was clearly convinced that he knew better than I what I 'wanted'. This feeling grew and established itself over the next ten years of my life. Apr 29 at 8:13
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As I am just beginning to start this parenting journey, I have deep beliefs on how I will address this very situation. I am prone to want my child to take paths that would lead to great wealth, success and influence and am aware of the vanity and pride that I will have to come against.

That being said, I believe I will be diligent and unmoving on teaching the areas in my child's life that will provide him success in any walk of like. Working hard, not giving up, being kind to those they come across, picking themselves up after failure.

If I can teach my child to never give up, whether they become an artist or a engineer they will greatly benefit.

I want to give them the tools to build whatever life they wish.

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    A work ethic is hard to instill. (You can lead a horse to water and all that.) But your desire to build resilience will be one of the best gifts you can give your child. Bravo!
    – anongoodnurse
    Apr 29 at 20:42

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