Having raised three daughters, I can testify as an expert witness that child-rearing is even harder than marriage. But a lot of parents make it a lot harder than they need to. They’re all worried and busied about doing a lot of things they think will improve the chances of their kid “turning out” all right.
All the while they ignore or slight the most important things, which to my mind boil down to four things: helping their child arrive at adulthood with a relatively healthy emotional life (feeling like they belong, that they matter, that they’re loved, that they can trust); having some sort of meaningful relationship with God; having a decent education; and having a good grasp of their core strengths—their giftedness—in order to make a contribution to the world and earn a living. If parents only gave their child those four things, that child would have most of what they need to thrive as an adult.
While I care deeply about all four of those projects, my work focuses on the fourth one—helping people understand their core strengths. What can you do as a parent to help your child appreciate their giftedness?
Wait and watch
So when should you start trying to identify your child’s giftedness? The moment they’re born. You won’t be able to see much. So don’t get ahead of the child. Just assume it’s there and welcome it by letting that little person know how delighted you are about their arrival.
Then you wait and watch. Because there won’t be a lot to see at first, you may be tempted to lose interest, especially if you’re the father. Mothers are blessed with maternal instincts about their children, so they tend to see the signs of personhood a lot sooner.
The key to observing the giftedness of your child is to pay attention to their energy. Where do they put their energy? What activities cause them to come alive, to get really interested, to focus on the task? What holds their attention? What activities do they willingly engage in for long periods of time (besides passive activities like watching TV)? Which ones do they want to keep coming back to? Energy in a child is a telltale sign that something is activating their giftedness.
You can’t immediately know what that something is. So whatever you do, for about the first 12 years of your child’s life, stick with observations of their behavior and stay away from interpretations of it.
Just because your 6-year-old begs to start piano lessons doesn’t mean they have visions of becoming a concert pianist. Their motivation may be to do something their friends are doing. Likewise, when your eighth-grader gives a speech and gets elected class president, that doesn’t mean she’s predestined for a life in politics. Her giftedness may be about forming relationships, and so she got elected because she was the only nominee that everyone at her school knew.
Honoring the gift
Never push your child into a path. Rather, see what path seems to be emerging for them. Observe what appears to give them energy, and then feed that energy. I call that honoring the gift. You try to work with your child’s giftedness, not block it or frustrate it.
That can be hard to do, especially when their giftedness diverges significantly from your own. I see that quite often with a father who is quite successful and whose giftedness exhibits power. He’s a goal-oriented, results-driven guy who knows how to set a plan, execute it, and win. Meanwhile, he’s got a son who lives in the world of concepts. Today the boy is really into fractals. But a few months later he’s spending all his time exploring the acoustics of musical instruments. However, that peters out when he discovers chess. And so it goes. Whatever the boy does, he does so with a passion. But his passions keep changing.
Now you can imagine how frustrated his father must be. He keeps urging his son to set goals. “You’re never going to get anywhere without a goal and a plan,” he tells him. But guess what? The young man is not trying to “get” anywhere! That’s not in his motivational makeup. He’s on an intellectual odyssey, exploring what to him seems like an endlessly fascinating world. There is no destination. There’s only the journey. The father will only ruin him if he tries to force him to get his act together and conform to the father’s idea of what matters in life (which is driven by the father’s giftedness).
When it comes to spotting giftedness, everything is evidence
So what if no apparent “path” seems to be emerging for your child?
Then as the parent, expand the universe of possibilities. Give your child exposure to as many different kinds of activities, experiences, and circumstances as possible.
As they go through those moments, pay attention to their energy. Just see how they respond. Even situations that you think are inconsequential (like your family picking up your spouse at the airport), or routine (like making dinner), or even terrible (like the death of a family member), may reveal important clues about your child’s giftedness. Indeed, giftedness is especially revealed in the mundane, and also in what your child does when they get to choose the activity. As my colleagues and I like to say: When it comes to spotting giftedness, everything is evidence.
One way to capture your observations is to keep a simple journal on your child. You can write an entry whenever you notice something interesting, along the line of “Today my child participated in a play at school and totally loved it. She said she especially liked it when everyone laughed after she presented her line.” Or, “Today my child had a flute recital. She didn’t practice for it the way she was supposed to, but when it came time to perform, she knocked it out of the park. I was simply amazed.” Or, “I can’t get my child to put down the book he started reading yesterday on the Civil War. He’s just absorbed in it!”
If you collect those kinds of entries over several years, you’ll end up with a considerable body of data from which to start drawing some conclusions about your child’s giftedness. You’ll start to see some themes and patterns repeating themselves. Then you’ll be in a better position to help your child start becoming aware of and owning their strengths and interests.
You can also keep a portfolio of your child’s accomplishments, especially the ones that they, by their own admission, really enjoyed and are really proud of. That collection could include things they’ve made, stories or papers they’ve written, mementos of various adventures they’ve had or achievements they treasure, and especially photos, videos, and/or audio recordings of them doing their “thing” or describing some event they found especially exciting.
Train up a child
To be honest, I’m not sure that helping your child wake up to their giftedness takes a whole lot more than that. It’s about observing first, then over time beginning to recognize some recurring themes and behaviors, then pointing out those themes to your child and affirming them as valuable assets, and then celebrating your child’s accomplishments when they feel they’ve done well. (By the way, it does no good—in fact, it’s harmful—to tell your child that everything they do is amazing, fantastic, the best ever. Let them tell you what they find meaningful and satisfying.)
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child up a child in the way he should go … Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The words “train up” derive from the idea of stimulating a palate for, creating a taste for, developing a desire for. The words “in the way he should go” refer to the God-given bent of the child, their natural disposition, the “way” God has made them.
In short, this proverb commands parents to pay attention to their child’s giftedness and help them embrace it, own it, and become a master at using it. I can’t imagine a higher privilege—to receive a tiny little person who is actually a gift of God to the world, and then to slowly, carefully, but very intentionally supervise the unwrapping of that gift so that they can carry out the “good works” that have been prepared from eternity for them to do.
Adapted with permission from The Person Called You, by Bill Hendricks. Copyright © 2014 Bill Hendricks. Published by Moody Publishers.