How To Nurture Gifted Children Without Pushing

Mother Teaching Young Daughter
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Parents of gifted children often feel an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility after learning their child is gifted. They want to be sure they are doing everything they should be doing to nurture and support their children, yet they worry that they might be pushing their children. Gifted children are eager to learn and sometimes can't seem to get enough information. However, when their parents try to feed that need to learn, they are often told that they need to let their children be children, that they shouldn't push their children.

Adding to the confusion -- and frustration -- parents are told that the first three years of life are critical in a child's development and so they must be sure to nurture their child's abilities or those abilities might not be fully developed.

To eliminate some of the confusion, parents should understand the true significance of the importance of the first three years of life in child development and ways to distinguish between nurturing and pushing a child.


In the 1990s, the general public became familiar with research on early brain development. We learned that early childhood experiences were crucial in brain development and that key experiences had to take place within critical windows of opportunity or deficits of functioning could occur.

People came to believe that unless a child was exposed to these key experiences within the first three years of life, when the windows of opportunity supposedly closed, the child would not be able to reach his or her full potential.

In fact, many people today believe that they can create a smart child by providing the "correct" experiences when their children are young. Consequently, they play Mozart for their infants and teach their toddlers French. They may also use flashcards or other visual cues with their infants and teach their toddlers to read.

The truth is a bit different. First, genetics plays a major role in intelligence. We are all born with differences in abilities that can be developed only so far no matter what our experiences. Not every child will become a Tiger Woods regardless of how young training in golf begins or how much instruction is provided.

Second, while the first three years are important in a brain development, a child is not doomed to mediocrity and failure if certain experiences don't occur. The brain continues to develop through adolescence and some research indicates it continues throughout adulthood as well. In addition, windows of opportunity are wider than most people think, except in a very few instances such as language development and visual perception. Children not exposed to language in their first year will be unable to use language correctly and children not exposed to patterned visual information in their first years of life will not develop normal depth perception.

Understanding brain research should help relieve some of the pressure parents feel and help them better understand the difference between nurturing and pushing.


Nurturing a child starts with the child and the child’s interests and abilities. Parents then provide opportunities for the child to develop those interests and abilities. For example, if a child loves music, parents should provide opportunities for that child to learn and work with music. This does not necessarily mean Suzuki violin lessons at age three. It can be something as simple as singing in the church or community choir or participating in community theater musicals.

However, a musical child should be exposed to other options, including lessons with an instrument.

The important idea in nurturing is that a child be given opportunities to develop his or her interests and abilities, whatever they may be. However, children can be interested only in what they are aware of. That means that to nurture a child, parents must also provide exposure to other areas. For example, a child who is exceptionally good in math may also have musical talent and may turn out to be interested in playing an instrument, but unless that child has been given a chance to learn to play an instrument, that talent may remain untapped and hidden.

While children should be given opportunities to try new things, they should be encouraged rather than forced to try them. However, even though children should not be forced to participate in activities they don’t enjoy, they shouldn’t be allowed to quit before giving the activity a chance.

For example, a child who is not especially physical might be encouraged to try soccer or baseball. He or she might resist and want to quit after a week, but children also need to learn to make a commitment. That means that parents and their child should come to an agreement on what a reasonable amount of time would be for giving the activity a fair chance, one soccer season for example.


While nurturing begins with a child’s interests and abilities, pushing usually begins with the interests of the parents. Parents who push usually decide what would be good for their child to know and then make arrangements for their child to learn it. For example, some parents believe that learning to play the violin at age three will make their child smarter and so they insist that their child take violin lessons, whether the child has any musical interests and abilities or not.

Parents who push may also believe that learning to read early will not only make their children smarter, but will give them advantages in school and help them excel academically. Parents also push when they look for schools for their children based on the school’s reputation rather than on whether it is a good match for their child. Children may also be pushed to play a sport, not for the physical exercise, team work, or other such benefits, but because playing a sport looks good on college applications.

Although many “pushy” parents are parents of average or bright children and want to make their children smart, it is also possible for parents of gifted children to be pushy parents. For example, pushy parents may see that their child is a gifted pianist and so insist that the child take lessons and practice for hours every day. These parents may not allow their child to play football for fear the child will hurt his fingers. They may even decide where their child should go to college and what career they should pursue.

Where It Stands

One of the most important early experiences that will stimulate a child's brain development is sensitive and nurturing care. Children, all children, need to know they are loved for who they are and not for their abilities. This is especially important for gifted children, whose abilities are exceptional, because parents often feel it is essential for those abilities to be maximized, often regardless of the children's feelings and desires.

Children who are pushed and pressured are at risk for emotional problems, such as depression, which can lead to serious consequences like suicide.

Advice to parents is relatively simple: provide nurturing experiences for your child, but don't allow your desires for a brilliant and successful offspring to determine your decisions.

Source: Thompson, R.A., & Nelson, C.A. (2001). Developmental science and the media: Early brain development. American Psychologist, 56(1), 5-15.

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