Crime, Punishment, and the Gifted Child

One aspect of gifted parenting that I’m sure we are getting wrong as much as we are getting right is disciple and consequences. Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children operate at levels high above what is typical for their age in both their performance, and their ability to analyze situations. They also can be exceptionally volatile, extremely sensitive (especially if they are low on fuel or sleep), and typically they have asynchronous development.

From a parenting perspective this means that an older elementary school child may expect to be treated as an adult (or at least like the much older students who are his or her intellectual peers), may feel the deep moral injustices of the world (especially his or her world), may be able to negotiate and argue on the level of an average adult, and yet still throws temper tantrums that would put the average two-year-old to shame.

One of our chief jobs as parents is to prepare our children emotionally, intellectually, and morally to thrive in the world as adults. We need to guide them in learning good habits and help them understand that negative behaviors have unpleasant consequences. We also need them to realize that these consequences aren’t the end of the world. That throughout life, they will, at times, screw up and they will have to face the music. They need to learn to bounce back. Resilience and maintaining a positive attitude, despite things not working out the way you had hoped, are important for both career success and overall happiness.

Children who never have to deal with consequences for their actions, miss out on learning how to move forward after a setback. This is one of the tragedies of helicopter parenting. When we swoop in to save our kids, we cheat them out of learning how to survive and thrive in a world which is not always supportive and forgiving.

On the other end of the spectrum, if they feel a punishment is too severe, they can enter into an over-stressed catastrophizing mode where not only do they not learn the behavioral lesson you are trying to teach, they may fight more, shut down, or become depressed.

The tricky part from the parenting perspective is how to gauge what is an appropriate consequence for a highly sensitive child who is misbehaving. Especially if that child has intellectual ability and emotional control with a multi-year developmental difference. Do you punish them as you would a 3-year-old who exhibits the same behavior or like the 22-year-old who can understand the societal and moral reasons why their behavior is inappropriate?

As parents we rarely get it right. We vacillate from consequences that are so minor the kids fail to learn and change their future behavior to consequences that unexpectedly cause an over-the-top, crippling, emotional reaction. When either one of these happen we, as parents, have to learn and adjust. Consequences that were too weak are increased on the next infraction. Consequences that were too sever demand that we spend extra time working with our children — talking with them, one-on-one to help them put the consequences in context and develop resilience so they can move on. We sometimes need to help them understand that although their superior debating abilities will not make their parents change their minds (at least not most of the time), tomorrow is another day.

 

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