There’s no shortage of advice on raising successful kids or how to coach kids. Or even how to be a kid, for that matter. But when findings from a 47-year study from noted experts on child development surface, I pay extra attention.
Researchers Camilla P. Benbow and David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University are carrying on a study that was started in 1971 by Julian Stanley at Johns Hopkins University. It’s called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which is a misnomer, as it also takes into account a child’s verbal skills and spatial skills (the capacity to understand and remember spatial relationships between objects–key in engineering, architecture, and surgery).
The study has been following the career progress of 5,000 intellectually talented children with the intent to understand the best way to develop and support such a child.
To practice what he was discovering, Stanley started the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth in the 1980s. Admission was open to young adolescents who scored in the top percent on university entrance exams. The school was filled with pioneering mathematicians and scientists, including some you may recognize: Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and musician Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga).
Take heart here on behalf of your child; this isn’t an elitist ecosystem manual. The study’s findings offer a seven-part guide on how to encourage achievement in all children. They resonate a lot with me as a leader, entrepreneur, and parent:
1. Give your child exposure to a diversity of experiences.
When you broaden horizons, you narrow inhibitions. Seeing more makes you interested in more, helps you understand more, makes you fear less.
As an entrepreneur, I have more flexibility in my life to provide new experiences for my daughter (in partnership with my wife): longer overseas vacations, new adventures in the middle of the day, or more consistently going to museums and movies on weekends.
2. Encourage intellectual risk-taking and an openness to learning from failure.
Re-frame the fear of failure for your child. Encourage them to try out for that team or audition for that big scary part.
You can do it in the same way I teach leaders and entrepreneurs how to do it: Remind them that there are only three ways you can actually fail–when you quit, don’t improve, or never try. Remind them that failure is never a person, it’s an event.
Tell them the uneasiness they feel in their stomach isn’t there to scare them–it’s to tell them that something must be worth it (or they’d feel nothing). Failure doesn’t happen to them. It happens for them.
3. Praise effort, not ability.
This is the single most important thing I keep telling myself over and over with my own daughter. I don’t know where she gets it from, but she’s really bright. I’m constantly reminding myself to reinforce the quality and depth of effort, versus reinforcing a label of ability.
The same applies as an entrepreneur. You aren’t born with the ability to do all the things a successful entrepreneur must do. I sometimes revel in how hard I’m working on something, and have faith that the corresponding ability will develop soon enough.
4. Think growth, not gifted.
“Gifted” is a label. It shouldn’t define what children are made of–or put pressure on them to live up to it.
Don’t keep reminding your child that they’re brilliant. Focus instead on helping them grow into the best version of themselves, a constantly changing version that can’t hold any one label for long.
5. Pull on that thread of interest.
When your child shows they’re interested in or good at something, give them opportunities to develop that interest or skill. Chances to explore and practice build confidence and competency, something that erodes as kids get older.
It’s far too easy to not be intentional about providing opportunities to do this. I’ve built out my business model as an entrepreneur by experimenting with multiple revenue streams and then pulling on threads that interested me, weaving them together into integrated ways to make a good living.
You can do the same.
6. Don’t assume smart children will just find a way to excel.
We all need guidance and nurturing, both intellectually and emotionally. Overinvest here without helicoptering. You already know from entrepreneurial experience that you can’t go it alone, so seek out guidance and nurturing in the form of mentors or a network of supporters.
7. Partner with your child’s teacher to tailor a plan.
Maybe your child’s teacher can assign them extra-challenging work, extra attention, or earlier access to what older kids already have.
Every child deserves to be treated as if they had fantastic abilities. Find their gifts and give them the gift of helping to develop them.
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