A review of research on parents and families of gifted children
Colangelo, N., Dettmann, D. F.
Exceptional Children
The Council for Exceptional Children
Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 20-27

This article by Nicholas Colangelo and David Dettmann discusses the importance of involved parent and family relationships in the lives of gifted children. It describes the family environments of the children in the study as well as the types of things these families do together. The article stresses that not enough research has been done in this area, and that it is important for these relationships to be strong and active.

    Abstract: This article focuses on research and issues dealing with parents and families of gifted children. Although the importance of parents is seen as a key factor in the development of all children, discussion of the role of parents with their gifted children has been superficially treated. Many articles deal only with general rules of thumb about good parenting. In order to avoid this, the present article begins with an extensive review and synthesis of research in the area of parents and families of gifted youngsters. This information is important in order to make meaningful generalizations. The discussion section includes a synthesis of the most important themes that emerged from the literature review.

In a report to Congress, Commissioner of Education Sydney P. Marland (1972) noted that the most neglected minority in American education was that group of youngsters identified as gifted. Thus, parents of gifted children face the probable situation that their child will be in an educational environment not appropriate to his or her needs. It would seem reasonable to assume that parents aware of this possibility would become apprehensive about the kind of education their gifted child will receive.

Additionally, parents of gifted children are often faced with the decision of whether or not to allow their child to participate in a special "gifted program." Whereas parents of a mentally retarded child for the most part have little choice about special programs for their child (Ross, 1964), parents of gifted children face a different situation. In virtually every program for gifted children in the country, parents make the decision of letting a son or daughter participate. Further, educators are still debating the merits of special classes for those who are gifted. Considerable disagreement remains on the issue of whether special programs help gifted youngsters or if they actually cause harm to peer relationships. In the face of this confusion, parents are asked to make decisions.

Educators in the field essentially agree on the importance of parents and family in the positive education and social development of gifted children (O'Neill, 1978), Morrow and Wilson (1964) reported that healthy parent-child interactions are important to the positive adjustment of gifted youngsters. Sanborn (1979) stated, "It probably goes without saying that parents play powerful roles in the development of their children. For better or for worse, the capacities and proclivities of the child reflect the impact of the parents" (p. 396).

Although educators emphasize the role of parents in the education of gifted children, little substantial information is given to parents in this area. Most of the responses to the needs of parents have taken the form of lists of do's and don'ts and "how-to" manuals on parenting gifted youngsters. These approaches do not take into account the complexities and individuality of gifted children. Such global approaches offer virtually nothing to an individual parent other than the impression that perfection is a good place to start as a parent.

Another problem with the information provided to parents is that it is fraught with myths and Stereotypes (Colangelo, 1979; Solano, 1977). Not surprisingly, parents are subject to a variety of misconceptions about the gifted child and hold stereotypic views that can interfere with understanding their own gifted child.

We believe that parents should have the opportunity to make decisions in planning for the education of their children. However, they cannot be expected to make sound decisions if they are not well informed in the area of the gifted. In view of this, we conducted an extensive review of the literature on parents and families of gifted youngsters in an attempt to provide synthesis and clarify knowledge in this area. On the basis of the literature review, implications are offered for both parents and educators.

Literature Review
This section is a summary of research in the area of parents and family of gifted youngsters. The review has been organized according to some main themes that emerged. These themes are family characteristics, parental attitudes and values, family problems with gifted children, achievement and underachievement, role of parents in identification, parental encouragement and enrichment activities, and parents and schools.

Family Characteristics
One of the themes that emerged in reviewing family characteristics is that parents of gifted children tend to allow their gifted child more freedom to choose his or her own friends, make decisions, and to encourage creative interests and activities outside of the home (Dewing, 1970). The classic study on families of gifted children showed that fathers of highly creative children were more permissive and were less apt to pressure children into conventional behavior (Getzels & Jackson, 1962). In self-reports by parents of gifted youngsters, Hitchfield (1973) found that working class parents viewed themselves as more affectionate whereas white middle class parents described themselves as more strict and achievement inducing.

Although there seemed to be a trend to more parental permissiveness with gifted and creative children, Gallagher (1975) and Weissberg and Springer (1961) found that families of creative children tended not to be close-knit or to have warm relationships. Sibling constellation factors were related to measures of. creativity, but family size was unrelated to ability or achievement. Birth order was unrelated for families with three or more children; otherwise the ablest child was either firstborn or an only child. In a three-or-more-child family, verbal creative ability was enhanced for siblings who were of the same sex and close in age (Circirelli, 1967). Research during the 1950's in Cleveland also showed that the gifted child is most often an oldest child or firstborn with one sibling (Barbe, 1981)

The literature indicated that parents of gifted youngsters were aware of their children's abilities and were interested in receiving help in parenting practices. Hitchfield (1973) reported that parents knew more about their gifted children than they knew of their other offspring in that they were able to mention more personality traits when describing their gifted children.

Parental Attitudes and Values
The importance of attitudes and values of parents and their gifted children has been under- scored by several writers (e.g., Gallagher, l975; Weissberg & Springer, 1961). Parker and Colangelo (1979) stated that values determine "the quality and extent of cooperation and communication between parents and their gifted children" (p. 409). This cooperation and communication is important because it affects the social adjustment and the academic achievement of the child.

In a comparison of values between parents and their gifted children, Parker and Colangelo (1979), using the Rokeach Values Survey, reported that mothers had more differences with gifted sons and daughters on the instrumental scale, whereas fathers most differed from their gifted sons and daughters on the terminal scale. Parker and Colangelo (1979) and Colangelo and Parker (1981) found gifted boys and girls comparable in both the instrumental and terminal scales of the Rokeach Values Survey. Further research is needed to determine what impact differences in values between parents and their children has on the development of high ability.

Family Problems with Gifted Children
It would be a misinterpretation of the research on gifted children to state that gifted children are typically a problem to a family. This is simply not true. However, it is also misleading to assume that gifted children do not present unique challenges and problems to a family. This section is a summary of some of those unique problems that families with a gifted child encounter.

It has been acknowledged that the presence of a gifted child can create special problems for a family (Bridges, 1973; Ross, 1964). Ross (1964) noted that the child-rearing behavior of parents is usually derived from the model of the '' normal" child. When the child does not conform to the expectations for a "normal" child, parents often have a difficult time coping with the child. For example, parents may fear that, because their child is "different," the child may become socially maladjusted (Bridges, 1973). Also, a gifted child can elicit feelings of inadequacy in parents. This may happen in two ways: Parents may feel that they are not prepared to provide the emotional support for a "different" child (Bridges, 1973), or parents may feel that they cannot provide the educational resources or intellectual stimulation needed to help the gifted child develop his or her unique abilities (Bridges, 1973; Ross, 1964). Sometimes parents have felt so threatened by the ability and uniqueness of their gifted child that they have found it easier to ignore or reject the uniqueness of that child (Laycock, 1951-52). However, Bridges (1973) also found that parents may become excited because a bright child can be a step up in socioeconomic status. This becomes a problem only when parents have inordinate expectations about their child's achievement. Ross (1964) stated that the difference between the intellectual capacity of the gifted child and other family members will determine the degree of the problem for those children and their parents. In addition, "the discrepancy between the intellectual and social-emotional development of the gifted child often creates stress for the child and parents alike" (Ross, p. 160).

As Ross further pointed out, the exceptional status of the gifted child also disrupts sibling relationships. Common problems faced by parents of gifted children are how to provide the gifted child the necessary special attention without creating resentful and jealous feelings in siblings; how to prevent an older average child from feeling frustrated and inferior if there is a younger, gifted child who surpasses the older's achievement; and how to give equal attention to all family members at such settings as the dinner table (Bridges, 1973; Peterson, 1977).

Another dilemma for parents is that they do not always communicate to one another their expectations about their gifted child. For example, one parent may emphasize effort in school work, whereas the other parent may emphasize achievement. In these situations the child can develop manipulative techniques of "divide and conquer" (Fine, 1977). It is this kind of situation that leads Khatena (1978b) to report that parents of youngsters who are creative and gifted frequently view them as more trouble than other children.

Achievement and Underachievement
In a recent book of readings on the education of gifted children, editors Gowan, Khatena, and Torrance (1979) introduced the chapter on guidance by explaining why they omitted the topic of underachievement. Their reasons for not treating the underachievement issue were that the studies on underachievement have not been fruitful, that attempts to work with underachieving children through guidance procedures hay been, by and large, unsuccessful, and that most authors "fail to distinguish guidance for the gifted from ordinary procedures" (p. 165). However, parents have continued to express concern and questions about the "parental effects" in the underachievement issue. In addition to to feelings of personal responsibility for the gifted child's success, parents also hear from the researchers and authors in the field that specializes in gifted children that, indeed, parental attitudes and relationships are very important in affecting their children's academic performance (McGilliviary, 1964). In reviewing this literature it became readily apparent that Gowan et al. (1979) were correct in their appraisal of the situation. There are no easy answers to the questions parents frequently raise: Why is my gifted child not doing well? Is it my fault? and so on. The various opinions regarding the underachievement issue are briefly summarized in what follows.

Most research looked at the relationship of underachievement and difficulties in the family system (e.g., Fine, 1977; Morrow & Wilson, 1964). The crux of this research indicated that the underachiever frequently experienced considerable parental rejection and hostility (e.g., Hurley, 1965), whereas achievers had accepting and affectionate parents (e.g., Karnes, McCoy, Zerback, Wellersheim, Clarizio, Gostin, & Stanley, 1961).

Pressure from parents to achieve has also been frequently cited as a cause of underachievement (e.g., Fine 1977; Karnes et al., 1961). In contrast, when parents had reasonably high expectations but gave their children freedom, personal autonomy, support, encouragement, and independence, these children seemed likely to develop their giftedness in a positive way (Cutts & Mosely, 1953; Fine, 1977). Among the factors that had a positive effect on a child's achievement were high levels of parental involvement with the child at home (Child Development Institute, 1976); greater parental trust and approval in contrast to restrictive and severe attitudes (Morrow & Wilson, 1964); and a family morale that fostered positive attitudes toward teachers, school, and intellectual activities (Cutts & Mosely, 1953; Morrow & Wilson, 1964).

Another general area of research related to achievement and underachievement has been the variable of self-concept or self-esteem. Low self-evaluation in relation to the family has been seen as a cause of underachievement (Coopersmith, 1967; Gallagher, 1964) whereas positive self-esteem has been related to achievement (Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Coopersmith, 1967). Low self-esteem has been related to underlying emotional problems or adjustment difficulties, Bricklin and Bricklin (1965) and Wedemeyer (1953) reported that underachievement may not only result from emotional and adjustment difficulties but may cause such difficulties as well.

Role of Parents in Identification
In a recent collection of readings about counseling the gifted, Colangelo and Zaffrann (1979) noted that perhaps the most difficult facet of education of the gifted is that of identification. Identification was once simply a function of IQ scores, but the primary or exclusive reliance on intelligence tests is no longer the accepted mode of identification. Today, the identification of gifted, talented, and creative children has broadened to include more categories of giftedness. There has been an increasing emphasis on subjective (non-test) measures, and a growing awareness of the importance that parents play in the identification process. A review of the literature on the identification of gifted children revealed two common parental concerns. First, what is the role of parents in the identification process, and is this really important to the schools? Second, how can parents know if their child is gifted—what are the signs of giftedness?

In addressing the first question, it appears that there is almost unanimous acceptance of the contribution that parents can make in the identification process. Khatena (1978b) stated this acceptance most strongly in declaring that parents are the most potent identifiers of giftedness and creativity. The school may simply be unaware of the child's nonacademic abilities, and thus, schools need any supporting evidence parents can offer (Kaufman,1976). Also, children with creative abilities may be perceived as wild, playful, silly, "off the beaten track," having a tendency to think independently, and to be nonconforming (Sisk, 1977); Information from parents can be useful to offset this image.

It seems clear that parents can be helpful in the identification process. The next question, then, becomes, how do parents know if their child is gifted? For the very simple reason that the parents don't know what to look for, they frequently overlook the characteristics of giftedness in their child (Ginsberg & Harrison, 1977). Ginsberg and Harrison stated, "There are more parents who have gifted children and don't know it than there are parents who don't have gifted children but think they do"(p. 2).

To answer the second question fully is beyond the scope of this article; however, there are several important points that can help parents recognize the signs of giftedness. First, it is important for parents to recognize that a gifted child is not necessarily gifted in all areas, nor all the time (Ginsberg & Harrison 1977; Kaufman, 1976). Second, research has indicated that parents find it difficult to judge their child as gifted due to a lack of specific identification criteria (Hitchfield, 1973). Parents need to be aware of the expanding definitions of giftedness. A number of definitions are currently used that exemplify an expanded definitional conceptualization of giftedness. In 1972, the U.S. Office of Education listed the following six areas for a proposed identification program: general intellectual ability, specific academic aptitude, creative and productive thinking, leadership ability, visual and performing arts, and psychomotor ability (Marland, 1972).

Another definition that has received considerable attention is Renzulli's (1978) three-ring conception of giftedness. According to this definition,

    Giftedness consists of an interaction among three basic clusters of human traits--these clusters being above-average general abilities, high levels of task commitment, and high levels of creativity. Gifted and talehted children are those possessing or capable of applying them to any potentially valuable area of human performance. (p. 261)

Renzulli claims that this definition integrates the major conclusions and generalizations of research on identification.

Although these definitions of gifted are by no means exhaustive, they do indicate the broadening of the concept of giftedness beyond simply intellectual-ability as measured by IQ tests. It is important that parents and educators recognize this change.

How can parents help teachers in the process of identification? Delp and Martinson (1977) described a simple three-step process that can serve as a useful guide to parents. First, parents can meet with the teacher. Parents need to understand the teacher's difficulty in discovering a child's special abilities while, at the same time, working with many other children. Parents can help by providing full information about a child. The second step involves meeting with the school's counselor and psychologist. Parental information to counselors and psychologists about a child can be very helpful in identifying areas of affective, social and leadership ability. The final step occurs when school resources have been exhausted. In these cases, Delp and Martinson recommended that parents seek community resources in helping with the identification of abilities and interests of their child' s. These resources can include college or university personnel and programs.

In summary, it is worthwhile for parents arid educators to realize that giftedness is not a nine-to-three phenomenon and that giftedness can manifest itself in a variety of environments. A sharing of information between parents and educators can enhance the identification process. Also, parents will be most effective in the identification process when educators provide them with specific criteria that can be used for identification.

Parental Encouragement and Enrichment Activities
A common concern among parents is how they can encourage and enrich the education of their gifted child. There are several books on the popular press market that acknowledge this concern. For example, How to Help Your Gifted Child (Ginsberg & Harrison, 1977), Helping Your Gifted Child (Strang, 1960), If You Think Your Child Is Gifted (Pickard, 1976), and Handbook for Parents of Gifted and Talented (Delp & Martinson, 1977) are but several from a growing list. The following discussion summarizes suggestions and research findings related to parental encouragement and enrichment of their child's abilities.

It is widely agreed that parents need to be very involved educationally with the child at home (e.g., Child Development Institute, 1976; Michael, 1968; O'Neill, 1978). The most often mentioned form of parental involvement has been the use of reading materials. Cheyney (1962) found that parents primarily used books to foster their child's abilities. The reading environment at home was seen as essential (Coffey, Ginsberg, Lockhart, McCartney, Nathan, & Wood, 1976), and parents need to provide a wide range of reading material (O'Neill, 1978). Reading should also be a way of learning to process information so that this can transfer to reading the entire environment (Gensley, 1975). Parents can add to the reading experience by taking their child on field trips to places of interest, and they can arrange for knowledgeable people to discuss the child's questions (Ginsberg & Harrison, 1977). Parents can also help by guiding the use of television, discussing topics with the child, and encouraging home hobbies (Endicott, 1961).

Parents can greatly facilitate their gifted child's development by helping him or her develop a positive attitude toward learning as well as a sense of self-confidence. This can be done by modeling an appreciation of knowledge and the value of learning (Coffey et al., l976; Ginsberg & Harrison, 1977). Parental encouragement and support are also effective means of instilling self-confidence. This is especially important with gifted children because they are frequently very critical of themselves, manifest perfectionist tendencies, and have high standards (Michael 1968; Ross, 1964). Another way to instill confidence is by helping them to cope with failure. Parents should not arrange unrealistic environments that ensure100% success (Ross, 1964).

Risk-taking was often mentioned as important in the development of gifted and creative youngsters. Parents can encourage risk-taking by rewarding good efforts as well as good accomplishments. Children need to learn to take risks whether or not they pay off (Ginsberg & Harrison, 1977). Parents should not repress their expression of creativity and giftedness (Khatena, 1978a) and should encourage free inquiry and productivity while providing a wide variety of experiences (Rice, 1970). Creativity can be facilitated by encouraging and responding to the child's questions (Gensley, l977a, 1977b). Parents also need to meet their child's needs for love and safety before the gifted child can risk anything creative (Michael, 1968). Love and safety tend to help the child be self-reliant and self-directed rather than conforming and obedient (Khatena, 1978b).

Lastly, it has been recognized that parents need to understand that there is an ebb and flow to development (Khatena, 1978b) and that the gifted child cannot be expected to be gifted in all things all of the time (Ginsberg & Harrison, 1977). One graphic example of this comes from the research of Torrance (1968) concerning the fourth-grade slump in creativity. Essentially, Torrance documented that the lowest scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking occurred during fourth grade, and thus, he argued that creative ability does not develop in a linear fashion but is probably erratic.

Parents and Schools
Bridges (l973) succinctly summarized the literature on parent-school relationships by noting that parents are confused as to what their role is with the school. Parents frequently do not have teaching experience, don't know what to expect of the schools, and may not understand various opportunities and guidelines involved in meeting the gifted child's educational needs. It is no wonder, then, that parents experience confusion.

Bridges condensed the variety of concerns and confusions expressed by parents into two basic questions asked by parents: "What is my role with the school?" and "What kind of program should my gifted child have?"

In the review of the literature, it was noted that some parents do want to help with the educational planning, especially vocational, for their gifted child (Henjum & Rothney, 1969; Kroth, 1975). Parents also indicated that they wanted more counseling about their children, as well as information on teaching methods so that they can supplement the schools {Malone, 1975). Of particular interest here is that Endicott (1961) found that parents were more helpful than counselors and teachers in determining vocational and educational plans for their children. Thus, cooperation between the school and home is very important because close cooperation between parents, peers, school, and community will foster the gifted child's talents (Freehill, 1961; Laycock; 1968), Parents can help in the guidance role by helping with time budgeting, getting a weekly report from the school, and discussing school issues regularly with the child (Endicott, 1961). A more complete summary of the relationships between parents and schools regarding appropriate educational provisions for gifted youngsters has been reported by Dettmann and Colangelo (1980).

Although the importance of parents in the social and educational development of gifted youngsters has been consistently underscored, there is a lack of experimental research providing specific direction for parental involvement. Numerous suggestions are made to parents, but these seem to be more from "common sense" than from empirical evidence.

Our review indicated that parents are interested and responsive to suggestions for more active participation in the education of their children. One of the problems has been that schools have not always provided direction for participation; when such direction has been provided, it has often not been specific enough to be fruitful.

The studies we reviewed also indicate an implied value on the importance of home environment and family relations on the later achievement of high-ability youngsters. There is still considerable confusion in terms of what the major family influences are. This is perhaps due in part to the complexity and variation within the population of gifted children. With the expanding concept of giftedness will come an expansion of variables seen as important in the family environment.

In summarizing our review we wish to make the following points:

  1. There is a great need to do more experimental research and to replicate studies concerning parent and gifted child interaction.
  2. Parents can play an important role in the identification and educational development of their gifted children.
  3. Parents, in general, are confused about their own gifted children. This confusion results from being unprepared to raise an "exceptional" child and from having insufficient knowledge on the nature of giftedness and creativity.
  4. Parents are uncertain about their role with the schools. It seems the most promising practices occurred when parents became more active partners with the school.
  5. Characteristics of achievement and creativity seem to be related to specific characteristics of parents and the home environment.
  6. Gifted children pose challenges and problems to parents that are different from those of other children. Our review indicated that educators are not always aware of these possibilities and have not provided parents specific direction for dealing with them.

It was our intention to provide a summary of research on parents and families of gifted children and to indicate what is known and what areas need to be explored. Our general conclusion is that the role of parents and families with gifted children needs much more careful attention. If parents are to benefit from new information, this information must be founded on research evidence and needs to be presented clearly. Our experience in working with parents of gifted children has been that they are generally highly motivated to contribute to the education of their gifted children. As educators, we must capitalize on this motivation. We believe that looking to research evidence for direction is necessary in capitalizing on this motivation.


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