Did your child walk and talk early? Does she have a brain like a sponge? Scribble magnificently? Love learning? Ask questions that leave you marveling (and scrambling to Google an answer)?
Wow, clearly she's a genius!
Or, um, maybe not.
"Gifted" has become one of the most tossed-about words in the parenting lexicon. Unfortunately -- sorry, but let's get this out of the way right up front -- it's also one of the most misused. The vast majority of children are not gifted. Only 2 to 5 percent of kids fit the bill, by various estimates. Of those, only one in 100 is considered highly gifted. Prodigies (those wunderkinds who read at 2 and go to college at 10) are rarer still -- like one to two in a million. And despite the boom in infant-stimulation techniques, educational DVDs, learning toys, and enrichment classes, those numbers haven't been increasing. You can't build giftedness; it's mostly built in.
Still, it's hard to resist scrutinizing your child for signs of greatness. (Those "signs" in the first paragraph, by the way? Not one guarantees an intellectual giant.) The growing fascination with giftedness is part natural impulse to see our offspring as special, part wanting to be sure a child's needs are met, and maybe a bit of hoping for a competitive edge in the increasingly cutthroat school-admission process -- or bragging rights. "There are no average kids anymore," notes Devra Renner, a clinical social worker and coauthor of Mommy Guilt. "The word 'good' is like the new 'bad.' Why settle for even 'smart' when you could instead call your child 'gifted'?"
True giftedness may be as rare as Einsteins and Mozarts, but the good news is that there's loads you can do to help your child reach her full potential. Even better: Whether young children are truly advanced or happily average (where they have lots of company), in the early years they need pretty much the same things. To raise a happy, emotionally healthy kid, follow these five steps to success.
1. FORGET ABOUT THE "G" WORD
There's plenty of wishful thinking about giftedness because there's no standard definition of it. Broadly speaking, a gifted child has special abilities in a particular area. The five main ones outlined in a popular 1993 U.S. Department of Education report are intellectual, academic, creative, artistic, and leadership -- none of which is normally associated with the performance of babies and toddlers.
"'Gifted' is often misunderstood," says Julia Roberts, director of the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University. "People don't always recognize a gift because they're expecting a prodigy." And parents whose kids are "highly capable" or "advanced" in one area or another may not feel satisfied until somebody official labels it "gifted."
Many parents of kids under 5 look to IQ tests for a number that will "prove" their child's ability. In truth, IQ testing doesn't tell you much before the school years, and even then is generally considered unreliable. Why? Because "giftedness" is typically concentrated in one area and doesn't refer to overall intelligence -- the focus of an IQ test. (If you're going to use it for academic placement -- as many schools do, among numerous other factors -- testing between ages 4 and 9 is optimal.)
2. START WITH THE BASICS
In the first three years of life, all children need to feel a sense of security and attachment. Being held, being loved, and having one's basic needs met are all critical for future learning.
The growing brain next needs stimulation in order to change and develop. One thing it loves: novelty. Every time your baby is exposed to new toys, words, sounds, textures, tastes, smells, faces, and places, she's learning. You don't have to work overtime to make this happen; everything in everyday life is new to a baby.
By late infancy and toddlerhood, some kids do dart way ahead on milestone charts -- and some don't. Whether your kid does or doesn't, experts say, all babies, toddlers, and preschoolers will thrive as long as they are:
- Provided a predictable life with a reasonably ordered environment
- Held and touched often
- Talked to (or sung to) often
- Read to frequently
- Exposed to interesting experiences
- Given many opportunities to learn through play.
3. PLAY'S THE THING
What even chart-busting toddlers and preschoolers don't need are special "gifted" programs or learning tools such as flash cards, educational DVDs, or brain-building computer games. There's no evidence that this "edu-tainment" does anything to boost children's intellectual ability.
Most educators believe kids don't benefit from academically oriented preschools, either. Far more important is having opportunities to explore without constraint -- and teachers and parents who know how to keep learning fun.
"When it's fun and playful, that's when it gets into your head," says Robin Schader, Ph.D., parent resource advisor for the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). Neuroscientific research confirms that pleasure is what makes our brains want to repeat and remember an activity, and it's that kind of natural repetition that fuels learning.
This helps explain why play is everything to young children. It's how they learn, experiment, tinker, express creativity, work through feelings, practice socialization, develop language and math skills, and see the world in new ways. Pre- schools should mainly be play schools, centered on this kind of discovery learning and the teaching of basic social skills. Many parents want their kids to start kindergarten being able to read Dr. Seuss, write their names, and count to 100.
But a kid who can do all that is actually going to have a harder time than his peers in school if he can't also sit still and listen, take turns, share, and follow directions. Those are the real skills teachers expect kindergartners to have.
4. TUNE IN TO YOUR KID
If, for example, your child is very verbal, "you can make your language a little more complex, use more adjectives," says Nancy Robinson, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Expand a little on where the child is."
That's what Jackie Brezinski of Apple Valley, Minnesota, did. She credits talking to 21-month-old Seth and reading to him from infancy for his big vocabulary. "I talk a lot. I tell him what we're doing, what we're eating, where we're going," she says. Now he wants to "read" the books to her.
Building on ability is known as "scaffolding." It means presenting experiences that are challenging but not overwhelming and doing it in a positive, supportive way to help the child reach the next level, higher than she could on her own, explains Schader. For example, if your child asks about a stop sign, you can describe the sign and explain its meaning. Point out the letters S-T-O-P. Later, you can point out an "S" on a store name, then ask if she can find some more.
Another idea for a curious, verbal child: Make Question Books. Scatter three or four notebooks around the house. If your child asks a question you either don't know the answer to or are too busy to answer, say, "Let's write it down." Later, you can explore the question together -- find a book, go online, visit the library or a museum.
Enrichment doesn't have to cost money. There's learning in practically everything you do with a young child.
5. BE A GUIDE, NOT A COACH
Ultimately, the relationship between a child and his parents and teachers shapes his attitude toward learning. Aim to be a gentle guide, not a high-pressure coach. "Rather than ask, 'Is this kid counting better than others?' ask, 'Am I supporting what's interesting and exciting to my child?' " says Alison Steier, Ph.D., director of clinical training at the Arizona Institute for Early Childhood Development.
Cecilia Jerkatis says her son Kyle, 3, keeps her on her toes as she looks for stimulating activities for him. Yet at the same time that the Albuquerque mom wonders whether her clever, verbal boy is gifted, she also wonders whether the label matters. "I think we're here to support their development, whatever their interests are," she says.
Just don't think you have to drive yourself (or your kid) crazy signing him up for teams and classes to find activities he loves. Simply exposing him to different experiences will spark things that "click." Build on his interests. If he likes dinosaurs, find books and movies about them, or visit a museum. You don't need to sit down and "teach" anything.
Above all, don't overfocus on cognitive abilities. "You also want your child to be resilient, empathetic, and creative," says the NAGC's Schader. And you both want to enjoy his childhood. "I do forget Kyle is three," says Jerkatis. "Then once in a while he gets a little whiny and I remember."
So relax. The best gift your child can have is the gift of time with you. Reading, singing, playing, dancing, catching fireflies -- it's all good. The rest is gravy.
Paula Spencer is the coauthor, with Jill Stamm, Ph.D., of Bright From the Start: The Simple, Science-Backed Way to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind (Gotham).