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Teaching Smart Kids to Manage Fear and Failure and Achieve Great Things

Many people think that parenting bright children is a breeze. "They're smart; they'll do well," is a common refrain.

Let's just get one thing straight. Parenting ANY kid is tough, and parenting gifted kids is no exception. The issues parents of gifted children face might be different, but they are no less challenging. Parents need information to do their job well. A support system is always vital, too.

Being smart comes with its own set of unique stressors and challenges. With every level of high achievement comes more competition, complexity and responsibility. Those things are difficult to navigate, regardless of age or ability. Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Center for Talent Development (CTD) director, says, "What often thwarts kids along the path toward high achievement is not their ability, but their fear."

To overcome that fear, advocates for a new view of giftedness. "The view that has dominated is that kids are born gifted, that it's a result of genetics and that our job is just to find out who is gifted," says. "What I think is more helpful to all of us—educators, parents and students alike—is a view of giftedness that develops over time. Kids are born with potential. Our job is to activate that potential. That means we should expect children to have ups and downs, to have varying interests, to stumble at times. It's all part of the process."

But how can parents help children navigate the highs and lows? How do we temper arrogance when things are going well, and prevent burnout and defeat when they're not? How do we allow children to fail, and how do we teach them to get back up again?

According to Olszewski-Kubilius, this is all part of cultivating a child's psycho-social development, and, she says, "It's one of the most important jobs of parenting." That's not to say it's easy.

"Even parents who are highly educated themselves and really in tune with their kids often feel at sea when they're trying to teach their children to be high achievers," she adds.

"The key, especially as kids get older," Olszewski-Kubilius says, "is students' willingness to persevere and commit to doing the work involved. To encourage that, parents need to give kids the right messages about their abilities and about what giftedness is. We also need to teach kids that work, study and effort matter."

Three Things Parents Can Do, Starting Now

  1. "Be your kids' emotional coach," says Olszewski-Kubilius. This can start with labeling feelings, even when kids are really young. Once kids start acknowledging fear, sadness or frustration, validate their feelings.  When a kid says, "I don't want to do that because I'm afraid I'll look stupid," don't say, "That's ridiculous." Instead, say, "Let's talk a little more about that." Children need to realize they don't have to be perfect in everything. They need to know they can fail. "That's important," says Olszewski-Kubilius. "The home has to be a really safe place where kids can express their feelings and where parents listen and try to help."
  2. Face your own fears. Model risk-taking outside your comfort zone. Take dance lessons, a writing course, or a finance seminar. Spend an afternoon playing a video game or pretend with your child. "Whatever you do, talk candidly about feeling intimidated or being worried about what other people will say, and share how you cope with that," Olszewski-Kubilius says.
  3. Connect your kids with mentors and role models. "As kids get older, they don't want to stand out. They're afraid to be different," says Olszewski-Kubilius. "As a parent, you can talk with kids about being unique, having courage and taking risks," she adds. "Introduce them to books and movies in which characters do their own thing, with or without support from their peers. Even better, find actual mentors and role models." 

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