If We Want To Raise Creative, Free-Thinking Kids, We Need To Back Off Now

by Wendy Wisner
RichVintage / iStock

When my son was 4 years old and already reading fluently, multiplying, dividing, and manipulating fractions, I figured I ought to get him tested for the gifted program in our school district. We live in New York City where the gifted programs are steeply competitive and where families actually pay thousands of dollars to tutoring companies to prepare their kids for the gifted exam (yes, really).

I decided I didn’t want to do all that; either my son would do well on the test based on his intelligence, or we would just enroll him in the local kindergarten and be done with it. Well, my son actually ended up getting the highest possible score on the exam, which meant that he could enter any of the city’s most esteemed programs for gifted children.

What followed was a million phone calls, applications, school tours, and even a few more tests. I will admit that the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. The gifted programs felt snotty and ridiculously competitive to me, and the amount of homework that the small kids were given seemed out of hand.

When would our son get the chance to just be a kid? Would he still be able to climb trees and run around with his friends once school was done for the day? He was already a bookworm and a science and math nerd — much of it self-taught. When would he get a chance to laze around at home pursing his interests?

When we discussed all the options with our son, he expressed a desire to go to kindergarten with his pre-K friends, at the small, quiet school next door. That school did not have a gifted program, but had a creative and open-minded principal, highly involved parents, small class sizes, and a reasonable amount of homework.

And we went with it. We decided to trust our instincts — and our son’s choice.

Some people didn’t get it. Why would we not pursue the most academically challenging and prestigious options for our precocious son? Isn’t more the way to go to feed the interests and creativity of our kids? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to ensure our kids have all the training and opportunities out there, even at the earliest ages?

Our son is in fourth grade now, and I can say without a doubt that this choice was the right one for him. The “less is more” approach to schooling has paid off tenfold for him. He hasn’t “lost” any of his giftedness, and he is generally a pretty happy, super-engaged, smart-as-a-whip kid.

I know that for some gifted children, additional challenges and assignments are important, but for our son, school is mostly about socialization and learning routines and organizational skills. His teachers give him extra work when he’s done with his work early (which is often), and he still gets to geek out at much as he wants once school is over.

My son likes to pursue his nerdy interests at home, on his own time, in his own way, and almost never wants us to sign him up for extracurricular activities, even when they are aligned with his interests. He’s taught himself computer coding by watching tutorials online (his coding teacher at school is amazed and says he codes like a college student). He’s also teaching himself how to play piano by watching YouTube tutorials. And he’s still an avid bookworm (he was recently tested at school and reads at an adult level).

I am not saying that I have the whole parenting-of-a-gifted-kid thing figured out, but I recently came across a New York Times article about raising precocious kids called “How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off” which validated the mostly hands-off approach I’ve taken with my son.

In the article, the author, Adam Grant, looks at several research studies about highly creative children and child prodigies. What he finds is the opposite of what you might assume: Our most innovative thinkers didn’t have parents who shoved their interests down their throats or helicoptered them through their schooling. Instead, they allowed their kids to think for themselves, and then supported and nurtured their interests as they came up.

For example, Grant cites a study that looked at the most creative 5% of kids in a particular school district. The study found that the families of the most creative kids actually had the fewest rules in place, like rules for homework and bedtime schedules (an average of one rule per family, as opposed to six rules per family for the less creative kids).

Grant also presents the work of the psychologist Benjamin Bloom, and his study on the early motivations of successful artists, athletes, musicians, and scientists. Bloom found that the parents of these success stories did not try to raise superstars. Instead, they “responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children,” as Grant describes it. “When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them,” he explains.

Now, I’m not advocating that we don’t nudge our kids here and there when it comes to achievements and pursuits. And god knows I’m not about to abandon a bedtime routine or throw all rules out the window. But I do think there is something to be said for stepping back as much as possible and letting our kids take the reins when it comes to their interests and passions.

Whether we are raising brainy geeks like my son, the next Tiger Woods, Beyoncé, or Steve Jobs — or just another good, hard-working, decent human being — we could all take a moment to let go and stop trying to control our kids’ successes. The truth is, each of our kids is born with a gift to give to the world, but if we want it to be revealed, we need to get out of the spotlight ourselves and give our kids a chance to shine on their own.