Parenting practices that promote talent development, creativity, and optimal adjustment
Olszewski-Kubilius, P.
ISBN: 1882664779
The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know?, pp. 205-212; Prufrock Press

This article by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius explores parenting strategies that seem to work best with gifted young people. It acknowledges that no child or family is the same but draws conclusions from commonalities that exist in the families of profoundly gifted young people who have been able to pursue their talents. It offers suggestions to parents such as letting the child experience some stresses in life and also letting them make their own decisions.

It is clear from the research literature on talent development and creativity that families play a very important role in the realization of promise and potential (Bloom, 1985). At the most fundamental level, parents provide the resources to support talent development, including their money for lessons, instruments, equipment, and outside-of-school educational opportunities, as well as their time spent on arranging lessons, searching out programs, driving, and monitoring practices. Some talent domains, particularly those typically not dealt with in schools, (e.g., ice skating, gymnastics, music) require a great deal of disposable parental resources of both types.

Parents espouse values conducive to talent development (Olszewski, Kulieke, & Buescher, 1987). These may include the importance of finding and developing one's abilities, achievement at the highest levels possible, independent thought and individual expression, active-recreational pursuits, and cultural and intellectual pursuits (Olszewski et al.). Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie (1979) asserted that families have systems of cognitive coding and patterns of explanations for events or circumstances that affect and determine children's values and attitudes (e.g., "get an education and find a fulfilling career to avoid poverty" versus "get a stable job and save your money").

Parents enact their values (Olszewski et al., 1987). They can demonstrate a love of work and learning. They model independent learning outside of structured or traditional activities and settings. They also model personality dispositions that are essential to talent development such as risk taking and coping with setbacks and failures. They demonstrate that success requires a great deal of hard work and sustained effort over long periods of time.

Another very important role for parents is helping their talented children build social networks that can give them emotional support for their abilities and talent development activities (Subotnik & Olszewski-Kubilius, 1997). Social networks consist of the people within a child's life and their interconnections. Size, memberships, and degree of interconnectedness among members affects the extent to which social networks are psychologically and physically supportive of an individual. The social world of the child begins with the family; but, over time, as higher levels of talent development are achieved, it expands to include teachers, coaches, mentors, and a wider scope of peers. Participation in special activities, such as competitions or after-school and summer programs, can augment and populate social networks with peers who provide specific emotional support for achievement in the talent domain. Friends and companions who are also involved in the talent field can be essential to sustaining commitment during critical times (Subotnik & Olszewski-Kubilius).

While research generally supports the positive role families can play in developing talent, the literature also suggests that different kinds of family dynamics yield different outcomes for children. Specifically, family dynamics greatly influence children's motivations to achieve or produce, and different patterns of family attitudes, behaviors, and parenting styles may engender different kinds of motivations. Creatively gifted children are found to have families that stress independence, rather than interdependence, between family members; are less child-centered; have somewhat tense family relationships (ones with "wobble"); and have more expressions of negative affect and competition between family members, resulting in motivation toward power and dominance (Albert, 1978, 1983). High scholastic achievers come from families that are cohesive and child-centered and where parent-child identification is strong, resulting in high levels of achievement motivation (Albert).

Research studies of creative eminent adults yield retrospective accounts of family environments characterized by stress, trauma, conflict, and dysfunction. Research on high-IQ individuals--most of whom do not end up being eminent, but are highly productive, competent, well-adjusted individuals--find families that are intact and happy, with normal and moderate levels of stress (Olszewski-Kubilius, 1997). What can we glean from these different profiles of families of gifted individuals? Can we reconcile the pictures of tumultuous families with relatively peaceful, connected families into an understanding of the family's role in talent development? The answer lies in the realization that the effect of the family is complex and multifaceted. Different mixtures of family variables may, in fact, yield different outcomes for children that are more or less supportive of creativity, scholastic achievement, talent development, and general mental health.

Studies suggest that an important family-environment factor is the degree to which the family creates an atmosphere where children are free to develop a unique identity and have their own individual thoughts and express them freely. Individuals who come from such families are more likely to be very creative, as well as highly competent, in their work. Such families foster creativity and intellectual risk taking. The circumstances within homes and families that create environments conducive to the development of independent identities and thought are many and varied. They include anything that results in a reduction in parent-child identification, an "emotional space" between parent and child, lower levels of parental monitoring of children, and less conventional socialization of children by parents. Circumstances cited in the literature that create this "space" include both negative ones, such as imbalanced parental or difficult family relationships, as well as more benign, typical circumstances such as parents who are less involved with children because they have interests or careers (Ochse, 1993; Olszewski-Kubilius, 1997). These conditions are thought to result in children being more independent, autonomous, and less sex-stereotyped. They also cause children to retreat from interpersonal relationships at home (if very difficult circumstances exist) or contribute to the development of a preference for time alone (if more benign circumstances exist), resulting in more time and opportunity for both practice and skill acquisition in the talent area and a rich internal fantasy life (Ochse, 1993; Simonton, 1992).

On the other hand, in families where members are emotionally close and parents are very involved in their children's lives, strong psychological identifications occur between parents and children, and children internalize parental values and expectations regarding achievement. Through this process, children can also acquire very strong motivations to achieve, both to please significant others and to enact their own acquired values.

A second family-environment factor that appears to play an important role in creating the motivation for high levels of achievement is stress or challenge. Stress is a broad concept that is difficult to define. It may be a highly individualized experience--what is very stressful or challenging for one person may be only moderately so for another. Researchers have speculated on the role of stress in engendering powerful motivations to succeed, specifically on how individuals may strive to achieve in order to acquire admiration and affection from others and compensate for unmet or unfulfilled psychological needs, to ameliorate rejection, or to prove that they are worthwhile (Ochse, 1993). "A stressful setting can become the catalyst for potentially talented individuals to meet their deficiency needs for attention, love, and approval through D (deficiency)-creative efforts providing self-expression and rewards" (Rhodes, 1997, p. 260).

Stressful family circumstances may propel a child to seek refuge in safe, controllable intellectual activities or to use a creative activity as an outlet for emotions (Ochse, 1993, Piirto, 1992), and they may force an earlier psychological maturity for the child (Albert, 1978, 1980). Childhood challenges may prepare individuals to cope with the intellectual tensions and marginal existences that are characteristic of highly creative people (Feldman, 1994; Gardner, 1994). Some individuals turn stressful or difficult childhood events into positive challenges that motivate them to "right a wrong" or solve a broader social problem through their adult work and careers (Csikszenunihalyi, 1990).

Although research on eminent individuals seems to suggest that family stress and unhappy childhoods can be major components of the process of producing a creative individual, are they necessary ingredients? Not according to Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen, (1993), who talked about a balance of support and tension within the family as conducive to high levels of talent development and good mental health. They made the point that, because researchers studying families of talented individuals have lacked a conceptual classification for families with a balance of support and tension, they have simply not looked for or studied these kinds of families. These families provide contexts for children that are both integrated (family members are connected and supportive of one another), yet also differentiated (there were high expectations from parents that individual children would develop their talents to the highest degree possible and encouragement of individual thought and expression). Such families produce autotelic personalities in children or individuals who are self-motivated and self-directed. According to Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen, an overemphasis on one of these can result in individuals who are either highly talented and creative, but not well adjusted (primacy of differentiation), or very well adjusted, but not talented or creative (primacy of integration). It may be that the development of high levels of talent requires the motivation and characteristics born from childhood tragedy, possibly at the expense of good psychological development; other levels of both talent and mental health result from a more balanced blend of tension or challenge and support.

Similarly, Therival (1999a, 1999b) also asserts that stress and tragedy are not essential elements of creative productivity. He offered a model of creativity that includes the following components: genetic endowment (G), parental or other "confidence building" assistances (A), and misfortunes (M). According to Therival, creativity can develop in individuals who experience great misfortunes as long as there are also great assistances present. He distinguished between creators who are dedicated (have high levels of genetic endowment, many assistances in youth, and no major misfortunes) and creators who are "challenged" (have high genetic endowment, some assistances, and some misfortunes). Both produce creative work, but the "challenged" personalities are more overtly driven to prove themselves and to receive recognition (Therival, 1999b). Therival also noted that psychologically abusive childhood challenges that elicit anger are less likely to result in creativity in substantive work.

Most families experience more moderate levels of stress and tensions--more aptly called challenges--and it appears that these can be positive influences for children, depending upon how they are interpreted and handled by families. It is also true that family-environment factors interact with others, such as a person's basic constitution, which may make a person more or less vulnerable to stress and more or less resilient and able to cope with challenges (Olszewski-Kubilius, 1997).

Therefore, parenting styles that help a child to find his or her own identity, rather than prescribe it, allow for open expression of ideas and independent thought; reduce parent-child identification, but not necessarily affiliation or affection; and provide support in the presence of challenges, which aids in the development of talent and creativity and good mental health. Parents need to establish and maintain bonds with children, bur also allow them autonomy, independence, and psychological and emotional space. They can be very involved in their child's achievement, directly and actively supporting it, but not overly invested in it emotionally or psychologically.

Parents also help children to succeed by allowing them to experience and cope with challenges and difficulties in their lives. Parents should not shield or try to protect children from risks or hard work. Parents also need to allow children to experience the tensions and stress that arise from challenging ideas and high expectations to live up to one's potential. They can support the development of coping strategies for stress, such as a rich internal fantasy life, use of time alone to decompress and rejuvenate, expression of emotions via creative work, active use of leisure time, and other ways that help children gain control over their circumstances.


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Contributed by: Parent on 2/26/2004
We don't want to be pushy parents, but we don't want to neglect or dismiss our kids talents. We found this article VERY HELPFUL in finding the right balance.

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