Why Precocious Kids are in Trouble

pre·co·cious

adjective
1. (of a child) having developed certain abilities or proclivities at an earlier age than usual.

Aristotle is a precocious child and he knows it. It bothers me because of the way he behaves knowing this. I worry about what may happen to him in future if this behaviour remains unchecked – not that I haven’t tried to keep it in check.

I was watching Monsters University with the boys recently and there was a perfect example of the trouble that precocious children can get into. Here’s the background for those of you who may not be familiar with this movie…

Two monsters James Sullivan and Mike Wazowski enter Monsters University so they can learn to become scarers. It is evident from the start that Sullivan has “in born” scare talent. Without even trying, he impresses everyone with his “scare abilities”. With his illustrious family history of scarers, it appears that nothing can go wrong for this would-be scarer. Mike Wazowski, on the other hand, has little talent of scaring. He has to study really hard to practice his scaring.

Believing that the scare is something you either have or you don’t, Sullivan doesn’t think he has to study at all to do well. Naturally, he is surprised when he realises that he might actually fail the scare exams because he hasn’t bothered to study all year.

Whereas, Wazowski, who has been hard at the books all year, has become the dark horse rising up to surprise everyone with his scare knowledge.

James Sullivan Mike Wazowski

Sort of like Sullivan, a lot of precocious kids fall easily into that trap of thinking they never have to work for it because they’re just naturally smart.

I’ve written a lot about Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets and the importance of teaching our children that it is “effort” that matters. We’ve covered the need to develop growth mindsets in children. Today, I want to focus on the precocious kids because more than other children, they are probably at the highest risk of developing a fixed mindset. From an early age, they have been fed a steady diet of praise. It takes a lot more work to undo this damage in these children who already think they are “naturally blessed” and shouldn’t have to do anything.

In some ways, I feel that it is almost better not to be “blessed” with all this ability because it keeps you on your toes and teaches you that you have to work a lot harder than everybody else if you want to be better than them. And when I write this, I think of Muhammad Ali, who was described as lacking the boxer’s physique, and Michael Jordan, who didn’t make it onto his school basketball team because he wasn’t good enough. I am reminded of myself when I used to rock climb. I was one of the weakest climber’s in the group but I dare say I trained harder than any of the others. I did this because I knew I was weak. I never let up on the training because I was afraid to even lose an inch of the gains I had worked so hard for. And this is the attitude I want my boys to have. It is the attitude Michael Jordan had even when he was considered one of the best.

When you start with humble beginnings, you are more aware than anybody else just how easily you can fall if you don’t keep working at it. You know that every achievement came with hard work – lots of it. You don’t need to be reminded because the moment you take your foot off the pedal, you can feel yourself decelerating. You automatically learn this because you’ve had to give it everything you’ve got, all the time. So how do you teach this to a child who finds everything easy? How do you help them understand that one day, it won’t always be easy?

When I was younger, my mother told me a story about a woman – I think it was supposed to be a true story. This lady had everything. She was smart, she was beautiful, she had an amazing career – her life was perfect. I don’t think anything had ever seriously gone wrong for her. Then she got married and she had a baby. It was her first baby and it was born with a deformity. My mother never went into the specifics of the deformity. She only said that there was something wrong with the baby. After having everything so perfect, the woman was unable to accept this one “imperfect” part of her life and she committed suicide.

The story has a terrible end to what seemed like a fairy tale but I think it illustrates very well what happens when our children never quite learn to handle obstacles in their lives.

I know this is obvious parenting 101 – at some point in our children’s lives, we need to slowly step back and let them handle more things on their own. We need to resist the urge to step in and rescue them because we want them to be happy or we don’t want them to feel frustrated. But I seriously think that the younger they are when we let them experience their first “failures”, the better able they are to bounced back and learn from it. This is especially because we are still around to support them – not rescue! Being supportive is something completely different.

And when your child is precocious, I think it is even more important to offer them challenges that they will find difficult and where the possibility of failure exists.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

3 thoughts on “Why Precocious Kids are in Trouble

  1. I offer my girl maths n piano, both needs practice, a lot of practice to make it perfect and I am very stingy with my praises, I reckon that is the best activity thus far to teach how her to manage failures, how to look at effort in another perspective…I do exactly what is in Carol Dweck’s “Mindset”, that is to only compliment a child for her effort, never her giftedness and I Actually observe this rule seriously….there are too many of kids like this type around, mine is one…

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  2. Yup, agree with piano practice. Even though DS1 is better at this than me, he still needs to practise a lot to internalize the new songs. However, he’s only interested in practising what he likes. So I’m always cracking my head on how to encourage him to practise what he doesn’t really like.

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