Articles and Topics
Recognizing and Nourishing Giftedness
Many stories have been told about the young Mozart, clearly a musical prodigy, who was performing at 3 years and composing soon thereafter. One is that he wanted very much to participate in the impromptu musical gatherings that occurred most Sunday mornings in the Mozart home in Salzburg. One morning when he was about 5-years-old, he picked up a violin and told his father he wanted to play the second violin part. His father smiled and said, ' But, Wolferl, you can't play because you have never had violin lessons.' 'But Papa,' little Wolfgang protested, 'you don't have to have lessons to play second violin!' The story may be apochryphal, but it illustrates the reality that the giftedness in some children is so striking, no one questions its presence.

With most gifted children, however, the degree of exceptionality is not so readily perceived. When we find ourselves thinking, 'My little girl is really bright,' are we just being a proud parent or correctly identifying a child whose talents will need special nurture and care? There are a few guideposts that can help us. Essentially they involve the achievement of fairly standard developmental milestones ahead of schedule and doing them in a qualitatively different way. Here are a few guideposts:
  • Uses advanced vocabulary and expresses complex ideas and thoughts. Makes comments that surprise you; asks complicated questions and refuses to accept simplistic answers.
  • Has keen powers of observation. This skill, coupled with early language, demonstrates the understanding of relationships and time continuities. 'That tiger is just a big cat.' 'The last time you wore that dress you had on pearls.'
  • Shows curiosity about people, objects, and events. Will ask so many questions it will make your head swim. In time, general curiosity often narrows down into a few areas in which the child becomes more deeply involved.
  • Has an impressive memory. A gifted child can amaze you with a detailed memory of events that happened a long time ago and may have seemed of no particular significance.
  • Concentrates intensely on a particular activity for a long time. Even as infants, gifted children are noted to stay with activities far longer than their age mates. They may become upset if you try to terminate an activity and move them on to something else.
  • Shows an unusual talent in a specific field, such as music or painting. A musically gifted baby may crawl to the stereo when a particular tune is being played, or may 'find' Middle C repeatedly when seemingly striking piano keys at random. Drawings are likely to be complex and include many details.
  • Will play and work independently. Gifted children often like to play or work by themselves, using others mainly as resources to supply information and needed help—and sometimes are intolerant of the intrusion of other children who want to do things differently.
  • Shows an early interest in reading and writing. Gifted children will notice and comment on the fact that the letters in what you are reading are not all identical, will note the difference between lower and upper case letters, will correctly identify repeating words (the, and, but, etc.) in the text. They'll request over and over, 'Show me how to read.'
  • Displays sympathy and concern for others. Rather than being conceited and selfish, many gifted children show early and consistent concern for the feelings and needs of others.

We should not expect every gifted child to display all these characteristics. Certainly, there is much anecdotal evidence that not all are found in some of our most gifted and talented historical personages. Albert Einstein, who formulated some of the most complex ideas in the history of knowledge, is reported to have had difficulty learning to read. Winston Churchill, whose speeches helped instill hope in millions of war-weary citizens, was slow in learning to talk. In general, however, most gifted children will display something like two-thirds of these characteristics.

What Do You Do If Your Child Is Gifted?
Don't panic. You're already doing something right or your child would not display these behaviors. Giftedness is never 'just genes.' Nurture of talents is essential if they are to have the opportunity to grow and develop. Little Wolfgang Mozart was undoubtedly born with an incomparable potential for playing and composing music. But without an instrument to which the tunes in his head could be transmitted, a notation system for writing them down, and parents who did everything they could to encourage expression of his talent, the world would not have had all those glorious symphonies and concerti.

Pay careful attention to any manifestation of these indicators of developmental advance. Then do your best to support them. But don't push. Let your children's interests and needs and skills lead the way, and then do the best you can to keep the path clear for their progress.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education