Raising Resilient, Well-Adjusted, and Successful Smart Kids

Raising Resilient, Well-Adjusted, and Successful Smart Kids

Raising Resilient, Well-Adjusted, and Successful Smart Kids

Tips on how to effectively parent based on the strengths of the heart model.

I recently was invited to author a trade book for parents on how to raise resilient, well-adjusted, optimistic, happy, and successful bright kids. What a great honor! And what an immense challenge! I wanted the book to be authoritative, based on science, not opinion. But I also wanted the book to be imminently readable and understandable to the lay public, not written for fellow academics.

Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, the publisher, was aware of my clinical and consulting work in the gifted and talented field, initially at Duke University and, more recently, at Florida State University. And the publisher was familiar with my research, writings, and talks on strengths of the heart – what I have come to view as the triple package of social-emotional “super traits.” In my strengths of the heart model, the triple package consists of emotional intelligence, character strengths, and social skills. The publisher was interested in a practical book for parents on my model of strengths of the heart; what they are, why they make a real difference in the lives of bright kids, and how parents can promote each of these three super traits. The title of the soon-to-be-published book is, Parenting from the Heart: Raising Resilient and Successful Smart Kids.

When I first proposed the idea of strengths of the heart, back in 1998, I recognized that I wasn’t offering a groundbreaking new psychological theory. Rather, I was weaving together a unified model incorporating three well-established yarns – emotional intelligence, social skills, and character strengths. My own research, feedback from literally hundreds of parents of bright kids that I have worked with over the years, and anecdotal evidence suggest that when bright kids develop savvy and age-appropriate social skills, strong emotional intelligence, and keen character strengths, they are much more likely to successfully use their head strengths in smart ways to do well in life (Pfeiffer, 2003, 2013a b; 2017).

Bright kids with well-developed heart strengths are much more likely to have positive mindsets, much more likely to be socially aware and able to take the perspective of others with different backgrounds and cultures. And much more skilled at maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships. They also are much more likely to be responsible decision-makers. This idea has guided my passion for strengths of the heart. It also guided the development of a parent gifted rating scale, the GRSô2, which measures social-emotional skills based on the strengths of the heart model (Pfeiffer & Jarosewich, 2023).

Part of my motivation – really, the fire-in-my-belly! – for focusing on heart strengths over the course of my career has been my concern over our culture’s myopic obsession with IQ test scores, grades, class rankings, academic performance, and building fat résumés for bright kids. Parents that I work with all-too-often seem preoccupied with wanting their smart kids to get into elite, prestigious colleges. As if this is their kid’s ticket to a happy and successful life. Somewhere along the way, these parents have lost sight of the importance of developing the “whole child.” Not only head strengths, but also the heart and soul of their child! The clinician in me recognized that social skills, emotional intelligence, and character strengths are essential for even the smartest kids to optimize their human abilities and grow up to be resilient, caring, compassionate, self-sufficient, optimistic, and successful.

Parenting can often feel overwhelming. Especially for parents of special needs kids – kids who have disabilities, and for smart kids who have special gifts and talents. Really, any child who is different from the norm or average presents with unique challenges. And the more different or atypical from the norm, the greater the challenge in raising the child. Let’s face it, parenting is not an easy adventure. It is full of unexpected, unanticipated, and untoward challenges. Especially for parents of kids who are different or special. In my book, which will shortly be available at bookstores, on the Routledge website www.routledge.com, and at www.amazon.com, I offer parents a number of tips on successfully raising bright kids based on my model strengths of the heart. In this brief article, I don’t talk about emotional intelligence, character strengths, or social skills – the triple package that constitutes heart strengths. Rather, I share eight tips on how to effectively parent based on the strengths of the heart model:

Accept that your child is different

It’s important to recognize that every child is unique. No two kids are the same, even siblings or twins growing up in the same family! Bright kids are different in many ways from their non-gifted peers. They have special needs that oftentimes challenge and confuse their teachers, peers, and others. You probably already realize this if you have a gifted child at home. Having a special needs child can put an added burden on you as a parent. All too often, teachers don’t understand or value your gifted child’s distinctive learning and social-emotional needs, struggles to fit in, and oftentimes asynchronous development, overexcitabilities, greater emotional reactivity, and quirky behaviors.

Become an expert on giftedness and gifted education

Reading self-help books is crucial to help you learn as much as you can about giftedness and exceptionalities. For many years, I taught a popular course entitled, The psychology of giftedness and talent development, on the campus of Florida State University. My most engaged and passionate students were parents of gifted kids! They benefited immeasurably from readings, websites, podcasts, and attending gifted conferences and parent workshops offered by organizations such as NAGC and SENG. Many of my students/parents become experts about giftedness, individual differences, ability grouping, talent development, acceleration, honors and AP classes, home schooling, specialized schools, dual enrollment at college, twice exceptionalities, and the unique social-emotional needs of exceptional students. With their new-found expertise, they became savvy advocating for their gifted child.

Learn to advocate for your child

Most parents didn’t bargain for becoming their child’s advocate when they were pregnant! But taking on the role of advocate for your child is an important, sometimes essential, and weighty responsibility. Most adults in your child’s life have very little understanding of giftedness. Far too many educators and policy makers view gifted kids as a low priority. Many view parents of the gifted as pushy. You may need to educate, inform, and correct misperceptions and myths about the gifted. Advocacy requires a tactful, calm, temperate, but self-assured and knowledgeable interactive style. Many parents of the gifted find it necessary to educate their child’s teachers and principal. Advocacy can become exhausting and uncomfortably conflictual. You need to learn when and with whom to pick your battles, when to back off, and how to compromise graciously and gracefully (Kennedy-Moore, 2019).

Encourage your child’s strengths

Every child is born with a unique profile of abilities, including gifted kids. For example, some kids display, at a very young age, uncanny ability playing chess or a musical instrument. Other gifted kids surprise us, at a very early age, with almost supernatural theatrical talent or artistic, gymnastic, mathematical, reading, problem solving, athletic, or spatial ability. The range of potential gifts is limited only by what society values (Pfeiffer, 2015). And many bright kids possess multiple gifts. Of course, it is never a simple nature vs. nurture matter. From almost birth, there’s an intimate, ongoing, and synergistic back-and-forth between God-given gifts and the availability of nurturing parents, school, and community to help foster these nascent gifts. Authorities in the talent development field agree that young, world-class achievers don’t reach the highest levels of accomplishment without parental support.

Reinforce persistence and grit

Kids thrive when they are encouraged from an early age to work hard, learn to enjoy difficult and challenging tasks, and not give up when the going gets tough. You should set realistic but reasonably high expectations for your child’s performance. Gifted kids thrive when parents focus on the effort expended, and not on the outcome or grade. This focus on the process and effort builds a positive mindset. Mistakes, failures, and disappointments should be encouraged and valued. Of course, bright kids prefer schoolwork that is appropriately challenging intellectually and personally meaningful. But gifted kids also need to learn to graciously accept that not all assignments, projects, or training regimes are fun, appealing, or consequential. As a parent, you play a key role in helping your gifted child to accept this important life lesson.

Closely related to reinforcing persistence and grit is encouraging the family value of striving for excellence. I am not suggesting an excessive focus and unrealistic expectations on obtaining the highest grades and perfect performance. That is not helpful. It can push any child over the edge between healthy striving for excellence and unhealthy perfectionism. Excessive emphasis on performance – in academics, athletics, the arts, or really any field or domain, can create debilitating anxiety, dread, and fear of failure, rather than what we are aiming for – joy, spontaneity, passion, self-discipline, creativity, and love of learning.

In my upcoming book, I write about a highly gifted young gymnast, ranked among the top female gymnasts in her age group nationally. Her parents consulted me because their gifted daughter had recently, in their words, “simply refused to practice floor and balance beam exercises.” Counseling this young athlete and her highly competitive and insistent – even aggressive, parents revealed that the implacable pressure to perform perfectly at all competitions had created a paralyzing dynamic for their daughter. Her parents’ constant pressure, unrealistic expectations, indefatigable tips, and unrelenting feedback before and after each practice reached a point where all their daughter heard was criticism and disapproval.

Parental values that encourage hard work, persistence, enjoying challenges, never giving up, and being intellectually curious and creative convey a powerful message to gifted and talented kids that establish attitudes and beliefs consistent with pursuing lofty goals and developing one’s potential (Pfeiffer, 2015).

Don’t shy away from discipline, setting family rules

Clearly stated parental expectations and family discipline are crucial for all kids, gifted kids, and not-gifted kids alike. Helping your child to understand and respect rules within the home helps them to understand and respect rules within the school and neighborhood as they grow up. It is almost impossible for a child to grow up in today’s complex, multicultural, and diverse society and become successful and resilient and not accept society’s rules. Teaching your child to understand and accept family rules and limits, and respect discipline, helps them to acquire foundational social skills on how to get along with others, maintain friendships, deal with conflict and disagreement, and control their emotions. Discipline and family rules communicate a sense of security and parental love. To my surprise, some authorities in the gifted field suggest that gifted kids need fewer constraints or limits than others. There is absolutely no research supporting this idea! It is tempting and even seductive to think that your gifted child has better judgement and is more socially mature than other kids her or his age. Not true!

Don’t be an overly competitive or pushy parent

You’ve probably heard about or even know a parent who is living through their gifted child. They are way too emotionally attached to their talented kid and absorbed by her accomplishments. This is the stereotypical “tiger mother” or “stage mom.” I observed this from the sidelines when our now adult daughter was a much-heralded young soccer player. At the age of ten, our daughter successfully competed for a spot on the highly select women’s Olympic Development Soccer Program, a feeder for the USA soccer team. As a parent, traveling with my young daughter to team practices and events, I saw a few fellow parents pathologically preoccupied and riveted by their own young daughter’s athletic prowess on the field. They had lost all perspective on social graces and what an appropriate role model as parent should be. They were over-the-top, living through their gifted child’s athletic accomplishments. Ultimately, their extreme overinvolvement created a disturbing and even traumatic toll for their daughters. This reckless behavior by overinvolved tiger parents occurs on the sidelines of playing fields, as well as on stages, at art studios, classrooms, labs, and any setting where gifted kids are developing their special talents.

Don’t neglect your child’s social-emotional needs

When gifted kids have age-appropriate, savoir-faire social skills, perceptive and confident emotional intelligence, and savvy character strengths, they are more likely to use their strong head strengths in smart ways to do well in life (Pfeiffer, 2017). They will be much more likely to have positive mindsets. They will be much more likely to be socially aware and appreciate the perspective of others with different backgrounds and cultures. They will be much more predisposed to maintain healthy and rewarding relationships. And they will be much more apt to make responsible decisions and successfully cope with life’s many challenges. These heart strengths are critical to the well-being, resilience, and life success of all kids, including bright kids!

Resources Cited

Kennedy-Moore, E. (2019). Kid confidence: Help your child make friends, build resilience, and develop real self-esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2003). Psychological considerations in raising a healthy gifted child. In P. Olszewski-Kubilius, L. Limburg-Weber, & S. I. Pfeiffer (Eds.). Early gifts: Recognizing and nurturing children’s talents (pp. 173-185). Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2013a). Lessons learned from working with high-ability students. Gifted Education International, 29, 86-97.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2013b). Serving the gifted. New York: Routledge.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2015). Essentials of gifted assessment. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Pfeiffer, S. I. (2017). Success in the classroom and in life: Focusing on strengths of the head and strengths of the heart. Gifted Education International, 33, 95-101.

Pfeiffer, S. I., & Jarosewich, T. (2023). Gifted Rating Scales™ 2. Ontario, Canada: MHS.

About the Author

Steven Pfeiffer is a popular speaker, consultant, and recognized authority on the mental health challenges unique to gifted and talented kids. Dr. Pfeiffer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University, where he served as Director of Clinical Training. Previously, he was a Professor at Duke University and served as Executive Director of Duke University’s gifted program, Duke TIP. Earlier in his career, he served as Executive Director of the Devereux Institute of Clinical Training and Research, a nationwide mental health organization with headquarters in Villanova, PA. Dr. Pfeiffer also served in the US Navy Medical Service Corps as an officer and Clinical Psychologist. He is author of over 200 monographs, book chapters, and journal articles, and twelve books, including the APA Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2018, APA Books), and The Handbook of Giftedness in Children (2018; Springer). His book, Essentials of Gifted Assessment (2015, Wiley), is considered the gold standard resource on gifted assessment. His newest book is titled, Parenting from the Heart: How to Raise Resilient and Successful Smart Kids (2023, Routledge). He is also lead author of the popular gifted rating scale, Gifted Rating Scalesô 2 (2023, MHS Assessments). An active consultant, advisor, and therapist, he has worked with over 2,000 children, youth, parents, and families in the USA and internationally.

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