The Need For Struggle

The saying, “What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.” is particularly important for those we consider gifted. Parents and teachers must be vigilant in providing challenge for their cognitively advanced youngsters. While many very gifted children grow up to be productive members of society, others do not. Some will struggle as adults because they never learned to struggle as children. Others with less intellectual skills will succeed at very high levels. What contributes to these differences? Which characteristics are necessary to help children grow, and how can these traits be encouraged? What are those factors, which impede growth, and how can they be avoided? This article will identify several of these ingredients and offer way’s for parents and educators to help gifted children reach their adult potential.

Those who have achieved a high level of success as adults have several common traits. They weren’t necessarily the brightest members of their class or school, but were those who learned how to stay on task and to persist in frustrating situations. A review of high school yearbooks sound a strong majority of successful adults participated in extracurricular activities. They were involved in clubs, the school yearbook committee, sports and school government. They struggled to balance an active social life with a busy schedule of activities and academics. They were also risk-takers who may have failed several times before achieving success, like Abraham Lincoln who lost numerous elections before becoming president. Macy’s department store failed seven times before becoming a success. Thomas Edison, who was believed to be too stupid to learn, tried thousands of possibilities for his electric light bulb before finding the correct solution. Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job because he doodled. These individuals had many failing experiences before finally getting it right. They were, however, able to struggle through their frustrations, allowing them to learn from their mistakes. Sosniak’s study (1997) of successful adults recognized the support received from parents, teachers and peers who encouraged them to deal with frustrating situations while preventing them from “bailing out.”

It is rare that gifted children are sufficiently challenged educationally. They are often in classes designed for the average child. This is especially true in the early grades where most children are just starting to learn the sounds of letters and simple number concepts. During a lecture, Linda Silverman, a specialist in gifted education, outlined the stress that a gifted six year old (working on the level of a nine year old) would be facing in a regular classroom. Not only would he have to learn to explain ideas in simpler terms so that he would be understood by age peers, he would also have to wait patiently while others struggle with concepts he had learned some time ago.

Although others are challenged at levels at or just beyond their teachable level, the gifted child rarely has that opportunity. How can these children learn to emotionally deal with challenge if they are led to believe that school requires little or no effort? Because they are not challenged, learning seems effortless. Therefore, if it’s not easy for them, they may begin to question their abilities. If ones self-concept is based on being gifted, then why exert oneself and risk discovering what is most feared? Many schools, moreover, would rather not do anything different for the gifted child as this may be politically unwise. If Johnny can receive this service, why not Billy? If a child is eligible for special education, an appropriate education is mandated. However, services for gifted children are not. Schools and classroom teachers have considerable challenges in providing for students of varying abilities and disabilities. Some administrators are under the mistaken belief that providing difficult material for children will be too stressful, or that children will eventually all fall back to the average in a few years anyway. Of course if children are not appropriately exposed to material at or just beyond their level of competence they surely will stagnate. Others argue that the research supports homogenous grouping of children. These findings are misinterpreted by attributing the results to gifted children despite the fact that bright, but not necessarily gifted, children were included in the study.

Families greatly influence their child’s development of important skills, such as persistence and dedication. Children very quickly learn from the model presented by their parents. Parents who deal poorly with their own frustrations rob children of positive role models. Parents who are able to persevere in difficult situations without regression to immature or harmful behaviors present far different role models. Parents who are workaholics and rarely enjoy themselves may teach children that the rewards for working hard are limited or nonexistent. Children need to see parents reaping the benefits of hard work balanced with private time. When a child experiences success on a difficult task, the parent should ask the child to explain how he made this achievement. Hopefully he will then be able to see the connection between effort and success.

Additionally, parents need to monitor the messages they give their children about the kind of school or program they have chosen. If, for example, one parent would rather have his or her child attend a regular program and the other disaorees that child will choose the message he or she wants to hear and will lack commitment to the more challenging program. Another concern is when one or both parents attempt to rescue their children from all unpleasant situations. This often occurs when a parent had a very difficult struggle himself and is determined to prevent any and all unpleasant situations for his children. Other parents put too much emphasis on the product or grade and the child comes to believe that his or her worth is tied to the result. This is especially the case for perfectionists. Children may then “test” their parents love by purposefully failing or not turning in assignments. Parents may also become too emotionally involved in their child’s work and, in effect, own the problem instead of allowing their child to find the solution, This happens frequently when parents cheer and praise much too loudly for their child’s successes and become far too emotional and reactive when their child is not successful. Parents need to encourage effort and perseverance and use each experience as a learning tool.

Some parents of gifted children become too invested in their children’s successes and live vicariously through them. This is especially likely when parents find similarities to their own school experiences. For example, a father who was socially rejected as a youngster may anticipate social or emotional difficulties for his child and overreact in trying to prevent a similar scenario. While some preventative measures may be helpful, an overprotective response can be harmful by not allowing children to find their own solutions. These interventions also rob children of an opportunity for individual growth and ego enhancement. As a result, a child may exhibit rebellious behavior as a means of determining whether a parent’s love for them is unconditional.

Parents and educators must work together to insure an appropriate educational challenge. It is sometimes flattering to hear that your child is advanced enough to be a classroom helper. He or she may assist others in understanding their work, be sent on errands, spend time marking papers or do bulletin boards. These activities are at the expense of your child’s education. Children can’t grow and develop the inner toughness to succeed later in life if they aren’t exposed to appropriate challenges in their formative years. Conversely, if children feel too much pressure because they are fulfilling a dream their parents had for themselves, they may withdraw or rebel from these activities as a means of testing their parents real love. The challenge of parenting is striking the right balance. One must be sensitive enough to know the difference between stress and challenge. It is knowing when to provide support and encouragement and not rescuing children when just a little more effort will bring success.

Children who experience failure and then feel the resulting frustration have the opportunity for growth if they receive the appropriate emotional response from a significant adult. They can learn that while initial failure feels bad. It’s not the end of the world. This will be an important lesson later in life. They will grow with the help of encouraging adults when they are not supplied with the adult answer but helped to find their own solutions. They can also learn how to turn a negative experience into a positive one while persisting in difficult times. Succeeding on a difficult task and the process of learning how to struggle will have lasting effects on children’s ego development. This will be far more important than continued success on relatively easy tasks. ln the tradition of Albert Ellis and his theory on Rational Emotive Therapy (Ellis & Harper, 1961), it is never the event that causes us to feel good or bad but the interpretation we put on it. Moreover, what is learned from our experiences will be far more important for our children when we help them interpret their experiences in a positive and supportive manner.

Ellis, Albert and Robert Harper (1961). A Guide to Rational Living. New York: Melvin Powers.
Sosniak, Lauren A. (1997). “The Tortoise, the Hare and the Development of Talent.” Handbook of Gifted Education. G. A. David and N. Ca/angelo (Eds.). Second edition (pp. 207-217). New York: Allyn and Bacon.

April 8th, 2010

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