Fostering Resilience in Gifted Children

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

“Raising Successful Children”—who could resist that title? I immediately began to asses my parenting skills after I saw Madeline Levine’s opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times. According to Dr. Levine, parents spend too much time focusing on academic success and not enough time fostering “authentic success.” Authentic success comes when parents hang back and allow their children to make mistakes so that they can develop the resilience they need to handle the difficulties of life.

As I considered Dr. Levine’s advice, I was struck by two thoughts. First, what do you do if your child is the one who is overly focused on academic success? And second, when is it okay to interfere in your child’s academic experience? My husband and I faced both of these questions last year. In answering these questions, we came to a powerful conclusion: helping your gifted child develop resilience is a nasty business.

Last September, our 13-year-old son left his 17-year-old brother, 10-year-old sister, and both parents to attend an elite boarding school on the east coast. The school had classes and resources that were unavailable locally. As a boarding student, he could devote all of his free time to his studies and extracurricular activities without worrying about family commitments. He even received a scholarship to pay for the tuition. He saw an educational nirvana. We saw the end of our parental influence.

So, Madeline Levine, is this where we are supposed to hang back? We did. We let him decide. He didn’t hesitate. We were devastated.

The following months were the most difficult of our lives. Our entire family mourned his absence, but that wasn’t what caused us the greatest pain. What kept us up at night was the emotional toll that my son’s decision took on him. He was extremely unhappy. He begged to come home. After every telephone conversation with my son, alarm bells went off in my head. Something was terribly wrong in New Hampshire.

By the time our son returned for the holidays, it was clear to us that we needed to bring him home, which we did. The emotional toll it took on him, however, was not yet done. Although he was happy to be home, he was disappointed with himself for not being able to make the boarding school experience work. He worried that his return home would affect his admission to college. He hated being the new kid again at school. His return home marked a new emotional low.

Were we wrong to let him make the initial decision to go? Should we have let him fully experience the consequences of his decision to leave home and left him in New Hampshire? Were we wrong to bring him home? According to Madeline Levine, our job “…is to know [our] child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation.” Our son was not able to manage the situation. We decided to say “enough” instead of making him stick with a decision that wasn’t working out as expected. While we wanted to teach him tenacity, we also felt that if we want him to take risks, we also need to help him admit when a choice was making him unhappy.

I imagine other parents of gifted children may have the same two questions for Dr. Levine. When we hang back and let our children make mistakes that result from their devotion to academic excellence, the price they pay is the anxiety that comes from failing to live up to their own impossible expectations. The intensities that characterize gifted children only increase the cost of these mistakes. Is this the price of resiliency for gifted children? When do we say “no” to our child’s quest for academic challenge?

Strange as it might sound, my husband and I don’t believe we made a mistake by letting our son go away to school. We certainly would have faced other problems if we had denied him such a wonderful opportunity. On the other hand, we don’t yet understand the full psychological costs of his decision to go. The only thing I know for sure is that I want to strangle anyone who uses the word “resiliency” casually. I have spent the last year struggling with this difficult concept. Madeline Levine says my struggles are worth it. I sure hope she is right.

Have you struggled with when to say “no” to your child’s quest for academic challenge? Please share your experience with us in the comment section below.

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One response to “Fostering Resilience in Gifted Children

  1. I left home to go abroad to study when I was starting high school. I was under a scholarship, which if I decided to terminate and return home, would require my parents to pay back the full amount that the sponsor has spent on me. There were many times in my first year that I wanted to just quit because it was still boring in school and I told my parents I had to quit, but they steadfastedly did not allow, mainly because the payback cost is really astronomical, and they said I cannot just quit like that, I had to find a way to overcome this, and that it was I who chose to go over. The year before I had a really difficult time in my old school, where I would just refuse to go to school for days, so I see where my parents are coming from. In retrospect, I think they didn’t want me to get into the habit of just quitting at the slightest problems. After getting over being so upset, I was able to see that this was a chance to become more resilient, and persevere through all the hard times, as there is really no way out. So until now, which is 3 years later, I am still studying abroad, and I feel really proud of myself for pushing it through. I’m really thankful my parents refused to let me go home, because it was an extremely good opportunity for me to learn to manage problems and not just focus on academic success.

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