Jamie started speaking in full sentences when he was only 10 months old and was reading by the time he was 3½. Ellen showed a gift early in life for numbers and could manage addition and subtraction at the age of 4. Mimi's talent for art was readily apparent in the detailed pictures she drew of her family and her uncanny use of perspective and color at age 3.

If you're raising a child with profound intellectual, artistic, or physical skills, you already recognize the challenges, one of which is providing stimulation and support. Experts advise parents of highly gifted toddlers to give a gifted child ability-appropriate, rather than age-appropriate, experiences. If your son speaks with a complex vocabulary, then you should respond in kind. If your daughter seems to enjoy the company of older children, facilitate those kind of relationships. Or if your child wants to spend all his time reading, provide him with a range of books on various topics.

Understanding and Helping

When your child has exceptional abilities, helping him develop can be an enormous responsibility. Make sure your child is in an environment that provides the appropriate stimulation for his particular abilities and skills. Nurture and encourage questions and explorations. And remind him that the more he develops his special talents, the better he can share his special understanding of the world with others.

The gifted child can be many ages at once. While a child's intellectual or artistic talent can appear very mature, emotional development often matches that of her age peers. "Ellen can handle math a lot better than her brother who is two years older," her father says, "but if they're both squabbling about what to watch on TV, the age difference becomes really apparent and she acts just like any other whiny 6-year-old."

Many parents of gifted children were themselves gifted children and are able to empathize greatly with their children. "I was excited to see Mimi develop a love of art," says her father, a talented filmmaker himself, "but remembering my own need for independence as a child, I've tried to simply direct her passions, rather than foist upon her my own way of doing things."

Defining "Giftedness"

Gifted children are apt to see ordinary things in very different ways and to make connections between disparate ideas, or see things that others simply cannot see.

Giftedness is defined very broadly by education experts, using six general categories identified by the National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented:

  • General intellectual ability and talent—wide-ranging fund of general knowledge, excellent memory, ability for abstract reasoning, and extensive vocabulary
  • Specific intellectual ability and talent—a specific academic aptitude or talent in one area such as math or language arts
  • Creative and productive thinking—openness to experience, ability to play with ideas, a preference for complexity, and the ability to become completely involved in a task
  • Leadership ability—keen interest in problem solving, an ability to readily adapt to new situations, and a tendency to dominate social situations
  • Visual and performing arts—giftedness in music, dance, drama, photography, or other related studies
  • Kinesthetic motor skills—psychomotor ability characterized by spatial, mechanical, or physical skills (not often used as a criterion for gifted programs)

What Kind of Schooling Is Best?

The US educational system is age-structured and implicitly assumes that most children develop similar abilities at the same time. Gifted children often don't fit into what we normally think of as age-appropriate activities.

If your child is identified as gifted, you will probably want to talk with her teachers and administrators to find out what kind of special programs are available.


A child who demonstrates knowledge of certain subject matter and superior abilities can skip ahead a grade or two. This, however, can create social adjustment problems. While their cognitive or special abilities are advanced, kids who skip grades might not be in sync socially, which can cripple achievement.

An alternative is to limit acceleration to particular subjects. The child stays with her classmates, but takes advanced classes in the subjects where she shows exceptional ability. "Ellen does math with the fourth graders," reports her father, "but studies all other subjects with her regular classmates. This way she maintains her relationships with her friends, but gets to explore mathematical concepts that challenge her."

Private School

Not all public schools have the funding to provide special programs for the gifted. After a few frustrating years in the local school system, Jamie's parents moved him to a private school that specialized in gifted children. "Jamie was bored in school and as a result had many behavior problems," said his mother. "Now that he's getting more attention and is more stimulated, he seems to be a lot happier."

Home Schooling

Parents have the option of home schooling educate. To do this, you need to have the ability and patience to teach, as well as be able to afford living on one income.

Programs Outside of School

After school programs and special summer schools can also provide gifted children with engaging and stimulating experiences to help them develop their talents and realize their potential.

"We knew that elementary school couldn't give Mimi the environment in which to grow her artistic skills, so we have her in special after school programs during the week," says her father. "Then during the summer, the whole family goes with me to Maine where I teach in an art camp, and Mimi gets to sit in on classes there."

Making Friends and Socializing

Children who have a special gift often feel different and misunderstood. They may find it difficult to meet kindred spirits or feel there is no one their own age with whom to share this special part of themselves.

One way of dealing with the issue is to explain that there are different kind of friends, and that they can share different parts of themselves with more than one person. You may want to explain that although their school classes have people of the same age, it's all right to have friends that are older and younger.

"Mimi has neighborhood friends with whom she plays soccer and dolls, but when we go to art camp in the summer, her friends are often pre-teens who are three or four years older than she is," her father explains.

Ellen's parents have found that her love of numbers gets her a lot of attention with the older children, but she prefers her same age friends for many play time activities, such as sports and movies. "Ellen's best friends are still her same age friends, but she likes to compete with the older kids in math and she shares with them a love of complexity and problem-solving."

Allowing your child to take the lead here is probably the best course of action. You can jump in with a compassionate explanation if problems start to develop.