Are Gifted Children Born or Made?
How much influence do we have over the development of the abilities of our children? To what extent can we attribute giftedness to natural-born ability, exposure, encouragement, socio-economic status, or ethnicity? What would have happened to the first violinist if she had never been exposed to an instrument? What would have happened to the professional golfer if he had never been exposed to the game? Would that talent manifest itself in some other form or would it be lost forever?
Because a young person shows a strong ability, does that mean she will always retain that ability? When a young person seems quite average, does that mean that no real strength will ever surface? We say that we want to give students the chance to realize their full potential. What does that mean?
It seems to me that there are more questions than answers.
When my youngest son was three, my mother sent us the piano I had played while growing up. Todd immediately took an interest in it and asked me to teach him how to play. I told him he was too young and to wait a few years. “No, Mommy, no. I promise I’ll practice. I want you to teach me how to play.” He begged and he begged and finally I began teaching him. Once he started, there was no stopping him. He couldn’t seem to walk past the piano without sitting down to play. If he didn’t play a piece perfectly, he would try and try again. As he struggled with this, he would sit at the piano bench, close his eyes, and draw his hand down over his face over and over again, convinced that this would stop the tears from coming—that he wouldn’t make a mistake the next time. I worried about him. He seemed to be such a perfectionist. Todd got his first real piano teacher at age five and just kept practicing. He used to be afraid to go on vacation because there might not be a piano available. Through the years, I never asked him to practice. I never needed to because he loved the piano so much. When it was time for college, he chose to be a piano major. I often wondered how his life would have been different had my mother never shipped that piano to us.
When my oldest son was in third grade we got our first Apple IIe computer. He was not the least bit interested in reading any books about computers or attending any computer classes. Somehow or another, though, he figured out how to break into the listings of programs to see the language the programmer had entered. And somehow he figured out what parts of the listing caused which functions in the program. Then he memorized what he learned and put the parts together in new ways to create his own programs. Sometimes he would sit at the computer doing this for an entire day. I questioned my ability as a parent. Should I have limited the time he was allowed to sit in front of the computer screen? Now, as an adult, he builds and maintains computer systems for companies. I often wonder how his life would have been different if we hadn’t purchased that first Apple IIe.
Whether we are talking about prodigies or gifted students, many of the same questions arise. Are these students born or made? What correlation is there between the performance of the student and his parents’ socio/economic status? What role does exposure play? Are very bright students gifted by accident or are they just mentally more efficient? Can the management of mental resources be developed? Scientists aren’t sure.
In Child Prodigies
, by Joanna Schaffhausen, the author reports that being born with a high IQ or amazing piano ability is no guarantee of later success, and parents who push too hard are likely to set their child up for a fall. Some very bright students have a difficult time when other children manage to "catch up" by high school.
On the other hand, parents of seemingly "ordinary" children should not despair; many of the world's most significant contributions have been made by people who struggled as youngsters. Mozart was a child prodigy; Beethoven was not. The world still marvels at them both.