This is the 2nd in a 6-part series of articles based on the public lecture conducted at the National Library on 16 April 2012 by Professor Steven Pfeiffer entitled “Raising a Successful Child”; the content herein is reproduced with permission from Professor Pfeiffer and the National Library Board.
As parents, we make decisions every day that reflect in part the balance that we show in raising our child. We have to be careful in encouraging the child academically and intellectually, but we also have to be cautious not to put undue focus and weight in their intellectual and academic development to the extent that we’re not giving enough time, appreciation, and opportunities for the non-intellectual, non-academic development that are also very important in raising a child into a successful adolescent and a successful adult.
Though Prof. Pfeiffer focuses on high-ability youngsters in his work, he notes that the notion of balance – subtle and nuanced as it is – applies to every child, in every town, in every city, across the globe. In his National Library lecture, he raises the example of Alex (not his real name), a very bright 11-year-old student and world-class swimmer who held the third fastest 100-metre freestyle time in the world, and on the fast track to become something special in the swimming arena. However, Alex’s work in school took a precipitous drop, and he was showing signs of clinical depression. His father, a physician who happened to work in the same medical centre as Prof. Pfeiffer, was very aware of clinical depression and was worried for his son, and brought Alex in to the professor’s private practice by his parents. Prof. Pfeiffer noted that Alex was indeed in trouble and he was instead on the fast track to becoming a real mess; if the parents had not intervened, Alex’s depression would have worsened and he would have turned to drugs and alcohol, would have been asked to leave the school.
Alex’s parents, though well-intentioned, loving, caring, smart and thoughtful, had been doing everything they could – through their own efforts as well as persuasion of others – to promote his swimming abilities; Alex was getting extra swimming lessons at his university, spending many extra hours in the university exercise facility training with boys 5-6 years older than he was, because that was important if he was going to stay on the trajectory of a world class swimmer.
The parents didn’t realise that Alex was suffering because the balance was awry; Alex was a very sweet, respectful youngster, and he was unwilling to tell his parents, “Mom, Dad, stop. Too much.” It was only through individual counselling that Alex shared his difficulty in communicating with his parents, and adding that he hardly gets to spend any time with his friends, and he didn’t have any “downtime”, or time to unwind and relax. Alex also said he knew his parents were well intentioned, and he wasn’t willing to tell them to stop because their heart was in it, and he knew they get such gratification from seeing him perform at swimming meets.
Counselling over a number of weeks helped Alex feel comfortable enough to actually share with his parents that he needed them to back off, that he needed some time away from swimming, time to focus on other things that were important in his life. His parents were surprised, they had no idea that this was what was lurking beneath the surface of Alex’s problematic behaviour. They were then ablke to adjust to their son’s needs – they didn’t take him out of the swimming pool, but one evening a week, they took him out of practice and participated in their church’s youth group with kids his age. Over time, Alex continued to swim for his university, but never made it into the Olympics, though he did end up getting a scholarship, and is now in medical school.
With Alex’s example, Prof. Pfeiffer wanted to show that giftedness in children may apply in areas other than scholastic achievement; it may even be in theatre, or dance, or in Alex’s case, swimming. Regardless of the talent that your child may possess in whichever area, parents must not only acknowledge their child’s giftedness, but must also recognise that their child is really going through a multi-faceted life with multi-faceted needs just like everyone else, and their experiences in other areas of development – academic, intellectual, athletic, artistic, social, or otherwise – must not be neglected.
Steven Pfeiffer, PhD, ABPP, is a Professor and Director of Clinical Training at the Florida State University, and is also currently visiting scholar at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Prof. Pfeiffer is also author of Handbook of Giftedness in Children, Springer (New York), 2008, and his upcoming book, Serving the Gifted… (Routledge, New York, 2012), will be available this coming August.