What do you learn about raising geniuses if you track 5,000 super high-performing young people for 45 years? First off, if you want your kid to fulfill their potential, you really, really shouldn't try to raise a genius.
"Setting out to raise a genius is the last thing we'd advise any parent to do," says Camilla Benbow of Vanderbilt University, summing up current research on the subject. Focusing on genius, she says, "can lead to all sorts of social and emotional problems."
So what should you do instead if you suspect your child is intellectually gifted?
How to help your little genius change the world.
According to a fascinating recent Nature article by Tom Clynes, science has been hard at work trying to figure out the answer to that question for more than four decades with the the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. Recruiting kids through summer enrichment programs at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, the SMPY has tracked 5,000 mathematically gifted students through their education and subsequent careers. Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Lady Gaga all passed through the study.
Clynes's in-depth article is well worth a read in full, but the essential takeaway of this research seems to be twofold. First, innate ability does matter greatly to life outcomes (contradicting the 10,000-hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell).
"Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society,"Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, tells Clyne. "The kids who test in the top one percent tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires."
Second, the brightest kids really do benefit from special opportunities. They do not, as some educators and parents think, just take care of themselves. While the piece digs into the ethical concerns of putting too much emphasis on tests or prematurely labeling kids, it also lays out a few research-backed suggestions for those wondering how best to support their talented kids. Here they are in Clynes's words:
- Expose children to diverse experiences.
- When a child exhibits strong talents, provide opportunities to develop them.
- Support both intellectual and emotional needs. But don't worry that pursuing advanced work will have negative emotional or social effects. "Many educators and parents continue to believe that acceleration is bad for children -- that it will hurt them socially, push them out of childhood or create knowledge gaps. But education researchers generally agree that acceleration benefits the vast majority of gifted children socially and emotionally, as well as academically and professionally," Clyne reassures parents.
- Help children to develop a 'growth mindset' by praising effort, not ability. "[Developmental psychologist Donna] Matthews contends that when children who are near the high and low extremes of early achievement feel assessed in terms of future success, it can damage their motivation to learn and can contribute to what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. It's far better, Dweck says, to encourage a growth mindset, in which children believe that brains and talent are merely a starting point," explains Clyne. (Here's advice on instilling a growth mindset in kids.)
- Encourage children to take intellectual risks and to be open to failures.
- Beware of labels: being identified as gifted can be an emotional burden.
- Work with teachers to meet your child's needs. Smart students often need more-challenging material, extra support or the freedom to learn at their own pace.
- Have your child's abilities tested. This can support a parent's arguments for more-advanced work, and can reveal issues such as dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or social and emotional challenges.
Do any grown up geniuses out there want to offer advice on nurturing gifted kids?