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When Does Nurturing a Gifted Child Become Pushing?

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Updated March 04, 2007


Parents are rightfully proud of their child's abilities and talents. They are also right to provide opportunities that will nurture those abilities and talents. But when does nurturing become pushing?

A simple way to answer that question is to consider the difference between nurturing and pushing. Basically, nurturing is child-centered, while pushing is adult-centered. When we nurture we follow the child's lead, but when we push, we want the child to follow us, to do what we want him or her to do. If the difference is so simple, why do so many parents continue to wonder whether they are pushing their children?

To understand why is is hard to distinguish between the nurturing and pushing, consider the following situation:

A mother takes Jimmy, her two-year-old, to visit a friend, who has a piano in the living room. As toddlers do, Jimmy explores the room and eventually finds the piano, touching the keys and noticing that touching different keys results in different sounds. He can't seem to get enough of the piano.

From that day on, whenever Jimmy visits a home with a piano, he makes a bee line for it and begins to play with the keys. If he sees keyboards in a toy store, he wants to go up to them and play them. Jimmy clearly has an unusual interest in pianos; most children don't behave this way. Because Jimmy's mother wants to nurture his interests, she buys him a keyboard. By the time Jimmy is four years old, his mother has decided he should have piano lessons since he plays with his keyboard frequently and can play some simple songs and even tries to make up some songs.

Is buying a keyboard for a two-year-old pushing?
Is arranging lessons for a four-year-old pushing?

Most of us would probably say, "no." In neither case is Jimmy's mom pushing him. Jimmy is clearly interested and his mother is trying to provide opportunities to foster that interest.

Now go one step farther. Once Jimmy has piano lessons, he doesn't always want to practice scales. He still enjoys playing his keyboard, but he doesn't want to practice the scales or the songs his teacher has assigned, songs that will help him develop his skills. Jimmy's mother insists that Jimmy practice the required thirty minutes a day and will sometimes take away some of Jimmy's privileges because he won't practice.

Is insisting on thirty minutes practice every day pushing?

Some parents will say, "no," because practicing scales is not especially interesting, but it is necessary. Other parents will say, "yes," it is pushing because now the piano playing is adult-centered, not child-centered. It is Jimmy's mother who insists that Jimmy practice that leads to Jimmy practicing. Jimmy is no longer playing on his own.

Take yet another step in the story of Jimmy and his interest in piano playing. Imagine now that Jimmy's mother notices that after practicing thirty minutes almost every day, Jimmy's piano playing has increased tremendously. In fact, his teacher has commented that she has never seen a child so young with so much talent. Now Jimmy's mother insists that Jimmy practice an hour every day, but soon that becomes two hours every day. Jimmy is not allowed to play ball games for fear that he will hurt his fingers. Jimmy has other interests, but his mother insists that he focus on piano playing. She envisions Jimmy as a famous piano prodigy or at least a famous pianist as an adult. Is this pushing?

With the latest move, Jimmy's mother has moved from nurturing to pushing Jimmy. Insisting that Jimmy practice scales and songs he's not interested in for a recommended thirty minutes a day is not pushing. Gifted children resist what they consider boring activities, even in areas of their interest. Jimmy's mother knows, however, that unless Jimmy learns the scales, he won't develop the skills he needs to play the piano the way he seems to want to.

However, thirty minutes a day is not excessive and it doesn't interfere with his other interests and activities. When Jimmy's mother insists he practice two hours a day and prevents him from engaging in other activities, she is pushing him. She has also gotten caught up in her son's potential future as a pianist and is letting that, rather than her son's interest, guide her. That is clearly pushing.

What about other abilities? When does nurturing become pushing?
The same basic principle applies regardless of the skill or ability a gifted child exhibits. A parent who notices that his or her child is showing early signs of reading may want to "test" the child. For example, a preschooler may see a word in a book or on a billboard and say the word. Did the child really "read" that word? It's natural for a parent to test that. The parent might show the child another word and ask what the word is.

This kind of testing is not pushing. If the child seems to enjoy the guessing game, a parent might go a step farther and buy flash cards. If a child is not interested, and a parent buys flashcards and insists that the child work with them because the parent believes the child's future will be brighter if the child learns to read early, then the parent is pushing. However, as long as the child enjoys the activity, it is not pushing.

Parents of gifted children often find that they cannot provide enough information, cannot teach their children enough. In fact, many parents of gifted children scoff at the idea that they are pushing their children. They complain that their children are dragging them along.

The Boundary Between Nurturing and Pushing
These examples help illustrate the difference between nurturing and pushing, between child-centered and adult-centered learning. All parents know that there will be times their children will not want to do what they are supposed to do, to learn what they are supposed to learn. Gifted children may be smart, but they are still children and don't always know what is best for them. Little Jimmy knew he wanted to play the piano, but he didn't understand the need to practice what he considered boring scales.

Certainly, then, times will arise when parents do have to nudge their children, but when the parents' interests rather than the child's interests determine what is learned, then it becomes pushing.
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