Commentary—Parents: Their Impact on Gifted Adolescents

March 1992 Masthead


Julie L. Sherman
Niantic, CT

David is a bright, energetic, thirteen year old adolescent. He loves soccer, basketball, movies, concerts, pizza, and Burger King. He also has an intense interest in astronomy, can speak English, Spanish, and Russian fluently, enjoys reading material commonly found on college campuses, and has a lifelong dream of attending a prestigious Ivy League school to eventually become a lawyer. These remarkable accomplishments, abilities, and aspirations coupled with age appropriate pressures and interests have proved challenging for David. Although he appears to have the best of both worlds, David and his parents have been forced to deal with common questions, pressures and concerns associated with gifted adolescents.

While many parents are exceptionally interested in learning about their adolescent’s special needs, they do not have ready access to the necessary resources. Parents are unaware of the impact they have upon their child’s ability to deal with giftedness. Therefore, through interviewing David and his mom, Mrs. S., this article will provide parents with a better understanding of gifted adolescents, and the role parents play in their development.

Research conducted by prevalent theorists in the field of gifted education has all led to one major conclusion. One of the single most recurrent traits of productive gifted students is high motivation and persistence (Franks & Dolan, 1982: Dunn & Griggs, 1985: Renzulli, 1984, 1986). The main reason that some students become successful and some do not is differences in their motivation, due in large part to family values (Terman & Oden, 1959). Albert (1975) also stressed that a crucial trait of geniuses he studied was the compulsion to be productive, the ability to work hard.

In Bloom’s (1985) study of talent development on concert pianists, sculptors, mathematicians, and neurologists, he found that all had in common some very clear messages provided by parents.

[P]arents placed a great stress on achievement and at doing one’s best at all times . . . They were models of the “work ethic” in that they were regarded as hard workers . . . To excel, to do one’s best, to work hard, and to spend one’s time constructively were emphasized over and over again.

 
Throughout David and his mother’s interviews, the existence of the traits found in gifted research was evident. David’s parental influences have proved critical in his development. His parents have been instrumental in guiding their gifted child both in and out of school. High achievement, positive attitudes, and constructive behavior are expected and reinforced by David’s parents. Therefore, these traits have become internalized by David.

JLS:
David, what does It mean to be gifted?
David:
To me to be gifted is to be naturally intelligent. You must be strongly motivated, and you must have a curiosity to learn and to discover. You always will want to do your best and achieve the highest you possibly can.
JLS:
Are you gifted?
David:
In a sense, yes. Academically I am strongly motivated, and I always have a curiosity to learn and discover. I am naturally intelligent in a way.
JLS:
How did you find out that you are gifted?
David:
I never actually found out. In the earlier grades 1 recognized that I was always achieving grades other children were not achieving. My teachers always complimented me, and my parents were always telling me to do the best I could because 1 have a special gift. I have also always enjoyed reading books. I have continuously been told that I read books above my reading level.
JLS:
Above your reading level or the reading level of other children your age?
David:
Above the reading level of other children my age.
JLS:
Mrs. S., What does It mean to be gifted?
Mrs. S.:
It means a lot. There are many ways to be gifted. I do not think it can be measured by a test, or any one particular measure. I think the children who are labeled gifted have a variety of gifts. You can be gifted intellectually. You can be gifted athletically, artistically, or musically. You can be gifted in your creativity. I think there is a sense of creativity to be gifted.
JLS:
Is your son gifted?
Mrs. S.:
Being a teacher and a parent it is fair for me to say, yes, my son is academically gifted. He has a strong motivation to do well. Sometimes I think it is linked to an overachievement. He wants to do better, therefore, he strives to try harder. But it comes very easily to him so there is not the presence of frustration other children might find.
JLS:
How did you find out your son is gifted?
Mrs. S.:
My husband and I have never had him tested as to whether or not he is gifted. It has never been important enough to either of us for him to have the label. My goal is to have all my children do the very best they can do. My husband and I are strong motivators. We provide many opportunities for him to express his giftedness, trips to the library, home projects, family travel. We believe in encouraging our children to do their best. If you are or are not labeled gifted is not important. What is important is to utilize what you were given, and that you do not waste any abilities.
JLS:
David, what have your parents said to you about being gifted?
David:
My parents have always encouraged me to do the best that 1 can. They continuously say not to waste what I have, my brain. My parents are very proud of me and are happy with my accomplishments.
JLS:
What do your parents do to get you Interested In new things?
David:
My parents always encourage me. They show me the advantages of new things. If they want me to take karate lessons, they show me the advantages of knowing. Or if they want me to take an extra hard class like algebra, calculus, or they’ll show me the advantages of being knowledgeable in that particular area.
JLS:
Mrs. S., What have you told your son about being gifted?
Mrs. S.:
It is not important if you are labeled gifted or not labeled. Although it is important to some people, I feel the important factor is making the most out of your abilities.
JLS:
Does your child have any questions or concerns about being gifted?
Mrs. S.:
Yes, he often asks why he is not labeled gifted while some of his friends are. He feels he performs equally to or better than these students.
JLS:
What do you do to get your son Interested In new things?
Mrs. S.:
Getting David motivated to do new things is not easy. You can’t just make a suggestion. You have to come up with reasons. You have to have explanations, demonstrations. He likes what he knows he can succeed at. Sometime it is very difficult to get him to try new things because of his desire not to fail.

 
Although many gifted students are typically risk-takers, this does not appear true in David’s scenario. His parents must struggle to get David involved in new subjects areas. However, he loves astronomy and languages. In these two subject areas he becomes totally immersed in his ideas and creations, literally unable to rest until his work is complete. His mom often finds him in his room for hours writing poetry in Spanish or studying the possibility of life forms on other planets.

Why then is David reluctant to try new things? One explanation may be David’s tendency to set high goals for himself. Even when involved in a new undertaking, he wants to succeed. If he does not, the natural outcome is disappointment, frustration, and feeling of incompetence. Parents are often baffled by displays of frustration and self-criticism by adolescents who are usually extraordinarily capable and talented. The frustration occurs not because the individual is comparing himself to others, but with his own high expectations. Parents must then reinforce the adolescent’s attempts, demonstrate positive attitudes, and help him to use failure constructively.

Like many gifted adolescents, David is motivated to succeed. He feels responsible for his successes and failures, but he is in control of his destiny. Because of parental support, he is often able to attribute failure to lack of effort, not to lack of ability. A failure is viewed as a momentary setback that motivates him to try harder next time. A failure is a learning experience.

JLS:
What happens when you make a mistake?
David:
I really beat myself up. I hate when I make a stupid mistake. Even if it is not a stupid mistake, I get upset because I know I could have done better. Sometimes when I make a mistake I am embarrassed. I know that I should have tried harder

 
With parental support David is able to deal with failures constructively. He is becoming more of a risk-taker. However, as he enters adolescence he is beginning to feel the effects of peer pressure. During adolescence, peer pressures become strongest and most influential. Gifted adolescents may succumb to the peer mandate that studying is not “cool.” Positive family relationships help alleviate the tendency for gifted adolescents to underachieve. David’s parents have supported his talents and have helped him confront peer pressures. They have pointed out the importance of achievement for future success. David’s excellence in sports and his ability to play down academic talents have also been instrumental in eliminating some of the stereotypes associated with giftedness.

JLS:
How are you the same as other children your age?
David:
I am a lot like other children my age because I like to hang around with my friends. I like sports. I argue with my sister.
JLS:
How are you different than other children your age?
David:
I have a very strong desire to do the best I can and get a “100” or an “A” on everything that I possibly can. I always want to do well. If I get a poor grade, I carry that through the whole day, sometimes longer. Other kids just forget about it.
JLS:
How do you feel about being smarter than some of your friends?
David:
Sometimes it is embarrassing because my friends get mad at me if they don’t get a good grade and I do. They get jealous. It is a very uncomfortable situation.
JLS:
Did you ever try to do poorly so that other children would like you more?
David:
No, I would never do that. I would always be mad at myself. I try to do the best I can.
JLS:
Did you ever try to hide the fact that you are Intelligent?
David:
Yes, it is sometimes embarrassing. Other kids will look at me and be disgusted if they get a “B”, which is not bad, and I get a “100”. They will look at me with a type of distaste. I get embarrassed.

 
Despite some uncomfortable peer interactions, David has continued to strive for his goals and dreams. This is due, in large part, to parental role models. David’s parents have encouraged him to excel. They support his efforts to work hard at all times. They believe he can and should work to attain the goals he has set for himself.

JLS:
What do you want for your son in the future?
Mrs. S.:
In the future, I want my son to be everything he wants to be. I don’t want him to be frustrated in what he does, but I also want him to work hard and to have strong goals for himself and his future.
JLS:
David, what would you like to learn about someday?
David:
I’ve always wanted to learn lots of languages. I’m taking Spanish and Russian. I would like to take more. I enjoy languages. I have an interest in astronomy. I wonder, is there life on other planets?
JLS:
What are your plans for the future?
David:
In the near future I plan to go to high school and take another language, then go to college.
JLS:
Have you thought about what college you would like to attend?
David:
It’s kind of a dream of mine, but I have always wanted to go to Harvard or Yale, maybe another very good Ivy League school. I want it to be a school that I can be proud of.
JLS:
Where do you see yourself after college?
David:
Lots of my friends continuously change their minds about future career plans. Not me. I am going to be a lawyer.
JLS:
Why a lawyer?
David:
Well, a lawyer uses his abilities to organize, reason, and think in order to help people. I think I would enjoy the hard work and dedication that is involved in becoming an outstanding lawyer.

 
David is obviously motivated. This motivation, persistence, and compulsion to be productive have been influenced by parental values. David has internalized many of his parents traits of high achievement, positive attitudes, and constructive behavior. Although he faces some concerns and pressures from himself and peers, he is able to overcome these adversities and aspire to his goals and dreams. In order for other gifted adolescents to succeed, parents must realize the significant role they play in their child’s development, and the impact they have on their child’s future success.

Reference
Albert, R. S. (1975). Toward a behavioral definition of genius. American Psychologist 30, 140-151.
Bloom, B. S. (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York, NY: Ballatine Books.
Dunn, R., & Griggs, S. (1985, November/December). Teaching and counseling gifted students with their learning styles preferences: Two case studies. G/C/T, 40-43.
Franks, B., & Dolan, L. (1982). Affective characteristics of gifted children: Educational Implications. Gifted Child Quarterly, 26, 172-178.
Renzulli, J. S. (1984). The triad-revolving door system: A research-based approach to identification and programming for the gifted and talented. Gifted Child Quarterly, 28,163-171.
Renzulli, J. S. (1986). The three-ring conception of giftedness: A developmental model for creative productivity. In R. J. Sternberg, & J. E. Davidson, Conceptions of giftedness. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Terman, L. M., & Oden, M.H . (1959). Genetic studies of genius: The gifted child grows up. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

 

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