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Special Talents

For Julia Kurtz, the first hint came in the shape of a bug. She was ironing one day while her daughter, Naomi, was sitting quietly at a nearby table, playing with paper and markers. Then she glanced at Naomi's work.

Sketched in orange, the bug was seven inches long, and had a clearly defined head, thorax, and abdomen, as well as wings and nine legs. A simple drawing. But extraordinary in one respect: Naomi was 2 years old.

Kurtz was stunned. Until then, she'd hardly paid attention to Naomi's pictures, thinking they were just scribbles. "There must be some mistake," the Evanston, IL, mom remembers thinking.

But Naomi kept drawing, again, and again, and again. So Julia and her husband, Frank, alerted to Naomi's ability, provided her with plenty of art supplies  -- paper, crayons, markers, paints  -- and gave her ample praise.

Once Naomi started first grade, though, and her passion for drawing continued unabated  -- and an art teacher commented on it  -- the Kurtzes wondered what they should do. It's a dilemma that confronts many parents, even if their child doesn't display a precocious ability but has a powerful interest at some point, whether in art, music, or a particular sport. Would her passion be best served by lessons or simple encouragement? Gentle pushing, or hands-off detachment? Experts say it's important to strike a balance among all of those things. To find out how, it's helpful to look at how extremely gifted adults got to be that way.

Frank Clancy, an award-winning writer, is a frequent contributor to USA Weekend.

THE SECRETS OF SUCCESS

About 20 years ago, the late Benjamin Bloom, Ph.D., a professor of education at Northwestern University, and his colleagues set out to research the lives of unusually talented people. They identified roughly 150 men and women in six disciplines (swimmers and tennis players; math and neurology researchers; pianists and sculptors), most of whom had reached the pinnacle of their field by age 35. Then they interviewed them and their parents, teachers, and coaches.

The researchers found that the people's lives had followed a similar pattern: As children, they'd greatly enjoyed the activity in which they later excelled, and set the pace at which they learned. As their ability increased, they studied with more knowledgeable and demanding teachers. They willingly devoted vast amounts of time to study and practice. And their families provided them with emotional support.

Talent wasn't the determining factor: "It's not always the most able youngster who goes on to be a world-class pianist  -- it's the one with the most passion," says Barbara Clark, a professor of special education at California State University, in Los Angeles. Good news for kids who aren't prodigies but just love what they do.

And, says Clark, it's too early to tell in the preschool and elementary years whether a child's special talent will blossom into a lifelong passion. (Even Bloom's research found that only 10 percent of world-class athletes, artists, and scientists showed evidence of extraordinary talent before age 12.)

However, if you offer encouragement and provide the right tools, your child is more likely to make the most of his natural abilities.

SPARKING A PASSION

The first step in nurturing a child's special talent or interest is actually to discover that he has one. So as you introduce your child to an array of experiences  -- plays, concerts, even baseball games  -- keep your eyes and ears open to see what gets him really jazzed up.

Sparking a passion also involves a little luck. When her son, Jimmy, was 6, Teri Broberg happened to borrow the audiocassette Peter Ustinov Reads the Orchestra from a local library.

"Jimmy never showed any musical talent, but I thought it would be fun to introduce him to classical pieces," his mother says. "He was immediately transfixed by the music."

So Broberg took Jimmy to some outdoor concerts near their home, and when he continued to express interest, she read him a biography of Mozart. "Like most kids his age, he was prone to passing fads, so I thought he might grow tired of this one within a month," Jimmy's mother says. But to her surprise, he didn't. After a few months, she enrolled him in a class at a private music school near their Minneapolis home.

He loved it. Before he had learned to play a single instrument, Jimmy came home from class one day and announced that he wanted to be a composer. He started tinkering on the family piano (a wedding gift that hadn't been touched in years), and pretended to be Mozart. Using letters and simple words, he devised his own musical notation system, and began to compose pieces.

The Brobergs decided to sign him up for private music lessons, finding a teacher through his school. A month later, Jimmy was learning to write music and play the piano.

THE STRUCTURE OF SKILL

Jimmy Broberg, now 10, admits that initially he didn't like to practice. "It was kind of boring," he says. Adds his mom, "He was a normal little kid." Yet developing a talent involves work. Hard work.

"There will always be a period when you have to toil to make it to the next stage, no matter how much natural ability you have," says Carolyn Callahan, director of the National Research Center for Gifted and Talented at the University of Virginia. "Kids who work through this are more likely to maximize their talents." So how can you keep your child psyched about his newfound interest?

Find the right teacher. Kids are more likely to make it through plateaus if they're learning from someone they like, notes Callahan. Plus, when taught properly, kids develop patience, self-discipline, and self-reliance. Seek a teacher who's worked with kids before, and have him provide other parents as references. Ask those parents if the teacher's students performed well in competition  -- without suffering undue stress. More important, ask if the kids "loved the work."

Set some ground rules. Avoid conflicts by agreeing in advance on the amount of time your child will have to devote to his hobby. For instance, you might say, "If we sign up for soccer and buy those new sneakers, you'll have to go to every practice." And hold him to it. "That's not applying pressure, it's fostering a sense of responsibility," says Joan Franklin Smutny, coauthor of Your Gifted Child. And it helps kids get through the natural dips in their interest level. But be willing to renegotiate this arrangement after a few months if your child's interest continues to wane.

Give him goals. When Jimmy Broberg's dislike for practicing the piano increased, his mom and teacher were concerned. They knew he loved to compose and perform, so to counter his ambivalence, they let him spend more time composing and fewer hours practicing each week. They also scheduled more frequent performances  -- at a nearby nursing home, for example. And eventually, his mom had to find Jimmy a more challenging teacher.

Keep your expectations realistic. We've all seen the stereotypes: The mother who pushes her daughter onto the stage, the father who berates his son on the baseball field. Unfortunately, those extremes exist. "I've seen parents run alongside the pool, screaming at their children," says Callahan. "You wouldn't talk to your dog that way." Some parents who try to force their kids to excel may be trying to live through them, experts say, especially if their child displays passion in an area in which they failed to achieve their own goal.

So when conflicts arise (he won't practice for as long as you think he should, for instance), first examine your own motives. And remember, it's not all about preparing for a concert or a sports competition  -- there's inherent value in learning a new sonata or soccer move.

Praise small steps. Passionate kids have a tendency to aim for perfection. Julia Kurtz, for example, has noticed that Naomi, now 10, will sometimes start a picture over several times before she's satisfied or will continue to work on it. But you don't want your child to start stressing out. (Warning signs: crying in frustration, growing more and more furious with each mistake, rejecting praise, and blaming others for failure.) To prevent this, reward small improvements so you emphasize the learning process. And let her know that you make mistakes too.

Look into special programs and camps. "Like anyone else, children with an intense talent or interest feel the need to be accepted, to be liked by their peers," says Clark. Some will even tone down their natural abilities so they don't seem "weird." But at special schools, camps, and enrichment programs, they can interact with peers who have similar passions and skills. (For a list of camps and programs, visit the National Association for Gifted Children's website, at www.nagc.org.)

Don't be afraid to let your child quit. If your child no longer cares about what she once loved, it may be time to let go. First try to figure out why there's been a drop in interest. For instance, after enrolling Naomi in a class for kids her age at a local art center, the Kurtzes found that she didn't like to stand out in a group, so they hired a tutor, who has come to their house for the past two summers to work with her one-on-one.

But sometimes there's no quick fix. When Grace Robinson Leo, then 6, came home from daycare and said that she wanted to learn to play chess (she'd visited a chess class that day), her parents, Nancy Robinson and Vince Leo, of Minneapolis, spoke to her teacher. On the teacher's advice, they bought Grace a chessboard and arranged for her to take lessons. She did well with them for two years, but then hit a wall. "She enjoyed the lessons, the one-on-one attention, and mastering the game," Robinson says. "But she didn't like the intense competition of tournament play." Although it was difficult, they let Grace give up the game. "We had to remind ourselves that it wasn't a wasted two years  -- it was an investment in our daughter," says Robinson.

Let kids be kids. This is probably the most important guideline of all. "Sometimes it's like being in a time warp  -- like having a child who's several ages at once," says Kurtz. "We have to keep in mind that although Naomi's artistic abilities exceed many adults', she's still a little girl." Expecting grown-up behavior from a child is bound to result in frustration on both sides. Bedtime resistance and even temper tantrums in candy stores are par for the course  -- even for prodigies.

AN END IN ITSELF

Will Jimmy Broberg be the next Leonard Bernstein? Will Naomi Kurtz have art hanging in the Museum of Modern Art someday? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that they both have particular interests that their parents are allowing them to pursue in their own ways. Naomi continues to draw animals  -- especially cows. And Jimmy still takes composition and piano lessons, and performs for others. Of course, they could wind up being investment bankers or engineers who paint or play music in their spare time. But for now, at least, their passion is its own reward. As Naomi says, "I don't know why I like to draw so much. It just makes me feel good."

(BOX)

Preventing Jealousy
When you have a child whose interests demand large investments of family time, how can you make sure that siblings don't feel left out? Three ways to help quell rivalry:

  1. Encourage siblings to develop special interests and skills of their own.

  2. Spend time alone with each child. It could be as simple as running errands together or going out for an ice-cream cone. The message you're sending: Love, affection, and attention aren't earned in competitions or with skills.

  3. Include the whole family in a child's success. If the family goes out to celebrate a successful dance recital, toast the loved ones for being supportive or for being willing to perform extra chores at home during the days leading up to the event.

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