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What Can Gifted Kids Learn from American Idol?

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Updated February 17, 2010

Few people would classify the hit television show American Idol as educational programming, but it is. It can help us teach our gifted children some very important lessons in life.

Lesson 1: Talent isn’t everything
Gifted kids often think that because they are smart or talented, they will have a smooth path in life and get whatever they want. More often than not, they have gotten this idea because they have not been challenged sufficiently in school. The work they are asked to do is easy and can be done with little or no effort. They may skate through school, getting high marks without having to do much to get them. They learn things quickly and easily and often believe that will be true of everything they encountered in life.

Watching a season of American Idol from start to finish shows that talent isn’t everything. Although the initial auditions include people who don’t have much talent, they also include plenty of people who do, but who do not make it to Hollywood, the next level of competition. As the competition progresses throughout the stages, we see some very talented people who get cut, some sooner and some later. Clearly talent alone isn’t enough to make it through to the top ten. It simply isn’t enough to have a good voice.

Applying this lesson to all our gifted kids, we need to help them understand that being a good reader or being good at math or learning quickly and easily is not going to guarantee success.

Lesson 2: Effort is a key to success
When kids learn easily and are able to succeed in school without much effort, they begin to believe that they can go through life putting forth little effort and still reach the same levels of success. If the work they do requires little or no effort, they never learn the value of effort or even how to put forth that effort and yet without effort, success will be quite elusive.

American Idol brings this lesson home. When so many of the contestants clearly have talent, why do some of them make it to the final stages while others don’t? As you watch the clips from behind the scenes as the contestants prepare for that week’s show, you see how hard some of them work and how laid back some of the others are. Of course not all the contestants who work hard make it through to the end, but you won’t see anyone in the top ten who hasn’t worked hard to get there. No one skates through on raw talent alone.

Although American Idol is a singing competition, effort is important in any endeavor. Natural ability may give gifted kids an advantage, but without effort, success is not guaranteed.

Lesson 3: Listen to criticism and evaluate performance
It isn’t easy for any of us to listen to criticism, but for some highly sensitive gifted kids, it can be even more difficult. In addition, if a child is used to get praise and high marks for everything he or she does, criticism is hard to take. Children who get nothing but praise may know how to handle criticism and rather than taking in the criticism and evaluating it, they can withdraw and shut down.

Watching American Idol can help us understand the role criticism and our response to it affects our success. From the first auditions to the final performances of the last two contestants, we can see how people react to the criticism and how their reactions influence their success on the program. Some contestants in the initial auditions don’t like the criticism and respond by saying the judges don’t know what they’re talking about or can’t recognize “real” talent. Some, however, pay attention to the criticism, come back to re-audition the following year and make it through to the next round.

We see this behavior every step of the way for the contestants, and those who make it to the end are those who have listened to the critical advice they have been given and have then re-evaluated their performances. It doesn’t mean that they always do everything the judges recommend, but they show their respect for what the judges have to say and then decide how best to apply the advice to future performances.

What our kids need to understand is that unless we evaluate our work, we can’t get better. When we get criticism, even harsh criticism, the best response is to pay attention and then take another look at what we did to earn that criticism. Rather than looking at it as some kind of disaster, we should look at it as a learning experience, an opportunity to improve and grow.

Lesson 4: Take control
One thing that can hold our kids back is the refusal to accept responsibility for their success. It’s easy for them to blame others for their lack of success. Parents pushed too hard. Teachers didn’t push hard enough. Rules were unfair. However, as long as they blame others, they can’t take control of their own lives.

Successful American Idol contestants don’t blame others. When they don’t perform well, they acknowledge their responsibility. They don’t blame their background, they don’t blame the judges, and they don’t blame the band or backup singers. Every season, we’ll see some contestants play the blame game, but they are not the ones who make it to the top. It’s difficult to achieve success when the responsibility for that success rests in the hands of others or the hands of fate. The contestants who do well recognize the role they play in their own success and do all they can to gain that success.

Lesson 5: Don’t give up
Sometimes gifted kids have a tendency to give up when the going gets tough. Because so many things come so easily to gifted kids, they don’t always do well when then encounter something that isn’t easy for them. For example, a verbally gifted child may feel stupid because it takes more than thirty seconds to understand a math problem. Rather than buckling down to tackle the problem, they give up.

The successful American Idol contestants don’t give up. They often have to sing song styles they aren't comfortable with and don't do well with. But they don't give up. They try their best and come out stronger even if they don't get high marks from the judges.

By watching American Idol, gifted kids can see that success is possible, but it takes effort and it may not come quickly.
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