How should we encourage our gifted children? Should we shower them with praise? Do we tell them that they are fabulous for having such incredible brains? Do we reward them with money or prizes for bringing home straight A report cards? It's good for parents to tell kids that they're smart, isn't it?
Well, it IS a good thing for gifted kids to know how and why they are different. Smart kids will realize early on, perhaps even as young as age two, that they are different from their age mates. They perceive more, they feel more, they may have intense reactions to things that don't even register for most kids their age. They may have skills years beyond same age peers, and often try to hide their abilities in order to blend in with preschool classmates. If parents and caregivers do not give the children adequate language to understand and make sense of their uniqueness, these kids come to their own conclusions about why they are different. Their self-made labels often are negative in connotation, with kids describing themselves as alien, weird, or even stupid. I feel it is imperative that gifted children are told that they have special abilities, gifts, or talents. The particular words you use are not terribly important, as long as the message is clear. “You tend to be able to figure things out quickly, and you can do some things that are pretty challenging for most kids your age.” is a fine start. Although some people shy away from the word “gifted”, it is an acceptable term and commonly used to refer to people with intelligence in the top few percentile points. It certainly wouldn't hurt to tell your child about the word and how it is commonly used, even if you choose not to emphasize the label for your child.
Now, having said that, I don't feel it is beneficial for parents to bestow praise on children for being smart. Intelligence is a combination of nature and nurture, but I think most people will agree that people are born with a certain intelligence blueprint. This blueprint, or potential, can be slightly enhanced with proper support and depressed with a lack of love and stimulation. Children don't assemble their genes, and therefore praising what is God given or an accident of birth, depending upon your view, is akin to blaming a person for being born with a disability. Yikes! What kind of person would ever do that?
You might think I am nit picking here, but it is one thing to complement a child who has worked hard on a project and another to tell him that you are proud that he has persevered or that you are impressed with the amount of writing he did. It is quite another to shower him with affection because he got an A. Parents should ask their kids to tell them about what they learned each day, and not what grades they were issued. Here's an example from real life on a good way to offer encouragement.
Recently, my gifted and introverted daughter auditioned for a play. She had to stand on stage and recite a memorized piece, then read from a script and answer questions from the casting director and her associates. She has a wonderful memory for literature, and was easily able to memorize a poem and recall it word for word. But getting on stage and speaking in front of an audience was a really tough challenge for her. She really enjoys drama though, and said she was ready to give it a try. Although it was hard for her, my daughter walked through her fears and was able to recite her poem loud and clear, and then to read the script with great inflection. She may not get a part, but it almost doesn't matter, as she was glowing just from having done something that was truly hard for her. I told her that I was proud that she completed the audition, but mainly, I listened to her describe her own feelings about the process. She walked away with a great sense of accomplishment and confidence.
According to various experts, excessive praise can hinder self worth and achievement. Kids who are continuously rewarded for grades but not effort learn to do what it takes to get an easy A. This can obviously result in gifted kids who do not make an effort to stretch themselves or take risks with the most challenging courses. They may suffer from “impostor syndrome”, believing that somehow they are fooling everyone and are not really that bright. They may miss out on learning how to study, and panic the first time something doesn't come without effort.
For further reading on motivation, encouragement, and praise, I highly recommend “Mindset”, by Carol Dweck, and “Punished by Rewards-The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and other Bribes”, by Alfie Kohn.