It seems like a nice problem to have; a gifted child with a seemingly promising future. But when -- and how much -- should a parent get involved? And when should they get out of the way?
This was the dilemma facing the parents of a 12-year-old boy who came to me for advice. Considered a 'football phenom' in the town where they lived, their son (who I'll call Ethan) was being encouraged by his coaches to attend a sports academy in Florida, rather than his local high school. His mom and dad were ambivalent about it, saying, "We know our son has talent, but we're not sure if letting him focus on football is being supportive or will put too much pressure on him. We're afraid of messing him up." Unlike many parents today, they seemed genuinely concerned for Ethan's long-term happiness and less on his more immediate athletic success.
How to raise a happy child -- rather than simply a successful one -- is a question all parents should ask themselves. When it comes to youths who show early and unusual talent, it's especially challenging. I was thinking about Ethan as I listened to the acceptance speech by the latest Heisman trophy winner, Johnny Manziel -- the first Freshman ever to receive this award. He seemed humble, grounded and very appreciative of his mother and father. Then, my mind turned to two other young athletes in the news; Kansas City Chief linebacker Jovan Belcher and Dallas Cowboy Josh Brent -- the former allegedly involved in a murder/suicide, the latter accused of intoxicated manslaughter and the death of his teammate. All talented young men, handling success in such different ways.
Ethan's parents told me he had always been precocious both physically and emotionally, something I often hear about kids who excel early. At 12, he was 6 feet tall and 155 lbs, which gave him an advantage over many of his peers. Not only was he bigger and stronger, but he was more agile and a fast learner. His parents described him as a determined kid, even as a toddler, able to stick to challenging tasks until he mastered them. Sports were his passion. He loved both playing and watching. His room was filled with football paraphernalia, with posters of the Manning brothers hanging at each side of of his bed. After school, on weekends and during vacations, he was on the field with anyone who would play with him. Since neither parent was especailly athletic, Ethan's interest truly seemed to come from some organic place. He's "obsessed," his parents said, "he's just happiest on the football field."
With two younger siblings who were more artsy than athletic, Ethan's parents dragged him to the theater, concerts and museums. They felt it was important to encourage him to do more than just sports and to remain close to his family even if their interests were different. Ethan himself had researched IMG, the sports academy in Florida, and asked permission to arrange a visit. He said he wanted to spend more time focused on what he loved to do and have the advantages other sports-minded kids were given. His parents felt at a crossroads; should they follow their son's lead to a specialized school or find a way to support his passion right here at home?
I told them I understood their quandary. Having danced professionally, I had first-hand experience of what it is like to be single-minded about a skill and develop it into a career. I left home as a teen, went on tour with a ballet company and finished my education later. Now, with a Ph.D. and a psychotherapy practice, I work with young adults and their families with similar backgrounds -- not only ballet dancers, but aspiring (and former) Olympians, ranked junior athletes, pro ball players, models and child actors.
Sadly, by the time these young superstars come to see me, they are often in trouble, not with the law, but in dealing with their families and life. Sometimes, their aspirations end abruptly, often due to injury. Others simply age out of their career -- puberty has a way of changing the course of many a child prodigy -- and most are scared of what comes next. These are kids with few friends or other interests, having rarely stepped outside the tight circle that surrounding them and their talent.
Worst of all, they dread coming down from the intoxication of early success. Almost all of these phenoms describe memorable moments resulting from childhood achievements, highs that will unlikely recur in their adult life. Even so, there are some who just seem to have had a change of heart about their future. They are tired of the tedious workouts, training, tryouts and even the trophies. They question what it's all for. Not all parents are as broadminded or thoughtful as Ethan's -- not while their child is on the way up toward success, nor on the way down. Many are just too invested in the outcome, unwilling to give up the highs they experience through their child's success.
I was also treating the family of a 14-year-old tennis player, thought by many to have professional potential. The parents brought Wendy (not her real name) to see me because they felt she was "wasting" her talent. They said, "we have spent a lot of money and time chauffeuring our daughter to tournaments and she isn't giving it her all. She could be in the top 10, if only she tried." When I talked to Wendy alone, she told me that she was, in fact, a nationally ranked player, but that she didn't really enjoy competing. Every match was torture. "I don't take losing well," she said, "but my parents are even worse about it."
She described their car rides home from tournaments: Slumped in the back seat, exhausted, she'd blast music in her ears to drown out her parents heated discussions as they strategize and planned for her next match. When she lost, they were convinced she 'let' her opponents beat her and suggested she try playing mind games with them. She was appalled by the idea -- having been a victim of players who made bad line calls or mixed up the scores purposely -- to do anything just to win. Admittedly, Wendy told me, she didn't have the killer instinct needed to be a top ranked player. She wanted to spend more time with her school friends and just be a normal kid. I was reminded of Andre Agassi, a great tennis player who revealed in his autobiography, Open, how he virtually hated every minute of his ride to the top.
Then there was the child actor (I'll call him Scott) who came to see me with his mom. His parents had been fighting about a lot of issues, but one was over where their son would pursue his budding career. His mom thought it was important for him to remain in New York to be raised with his three siblings and continue his education in regular school. Scott's dad, a teacher, wanted to home school him and bring him to LA, where he could take advantage of more opportunities. A natural ham, Scott loved to be in front of a camera, worked on and off throughout elementary school and now, at age 10, had just been cast in a TV pilot. He was thrilled by the prospect of being on a network show, but upset when he learned that the series, if picked up, would shoot in LA. It meant leaving his friends, his Little League team and his family. Both parents had been supportive of his acting while in New York, but mom felt relocating was a major disruption in Scott's life and for everyone else in the family. She told me, "Scott is too young to make this decision" and "I worry about what happens to child actors... look at Lindsay Lohan!" I thought of Angus Jones recent experience on Two and Half Men -- maybe less dramatic than Lohan, but it still made me wonder about young kids growing up on TV series and Scott's future.
Children who show unusual skills early in life clearly draw more attention than typical kids. To nurture talent, parents often have to provide extra support, sometimes at the expense of their own needs and those of other family members. Teachers and coaches get excited as well, going far out of their way to support these kids if parents can't. I've yet to meet a talented youngster achieve long-term success without a supportive figure of some kind. The issue is finding the proper balance between providing what children need to bring out their best, while keeping them grounded and preparing them for their futures. Most important, it's about not expecting something in return.
If a talented child is among the relatively few whose early success continues at that level, they will need support in navigating the transition from amateur to professional. More likely, they will need help in becoming mature and well-rounded adults. I've heard my young patients say, "being a kid with talent is great -- until it isn't." And whichever way it goes, it's what parents do along the way that makes for happy endings.
What advice would you give parents of an especially talented child?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.