How to Spot Your Child’s Talent

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Let your children try lots of different activities until they find the talent that's right for them: there’s a difference between programming kids to do what WE love versus loving what THEY do.

My mother thought I was a great actress because I wrote, produced, directed and acted in my own shows when I was a kid. I would cast my friends, costume everyone, create the sets, create the program and tickets. I was always performing, pretending, singing, carrying on. The truth is, theater was my passion and it never let up, not even in the tumultuous teen years, in fact it heated up. I wanted more. Today, I am a New York-trained-professional-actor-turned-writer who edits professionally in Tennessee and who’s constantly looking for ways to feed my truest passion: acting. I  get that from both of my parents (Mom was a Broadway actress, Dad a journalist and author). Luckily, I don’t remember being pushed. I do remember declining the role of Gretel to Diane Keaton’s (nee Hall) Maria in the Sound of Music. I was 5 and I experienced sheer terror when the director tried to hoist me onto the stage. I do remember Mom’s disappointed face, but she didn’t push me and she continued to believe in me and my talent … which is a tough concept for parents eager to feed their young child’s abilities. Innate gifts don’t show up on schedule, and when they do, they can go unnoticed.

Stay alert, says Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code (Bantam; 2009), “greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.”

“Oh, he’s so talented!” a friend may say when looking at your preschooler’s latest drawing of something that doesn’t resemble anything. “She’s a natural!” Aunt Margie may exclaim after watching an after-dinner skit put on by your kids in the living room. Really? How does Aunt Margie know?

Simple: The activities we are drawn to when we are young provide the breadcrumbs for our loved ones.

“Your job is to expose them to lots of different things and then observe what they choose to spend their time on,” says Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, author of Early Gifts: Recognizing and Nurturing Children’s Talents (Prufrock; 2003). Letting your child lead the way in the elementary years without pressuring him to do what YOU want is a good way to go for his later success, says Coyle.

It’s best not to encourage ultra specialization when kids are little, experts say, but to let them try as many different activities as they want to, and then at some point, allow them to make the choice about what he will pursue further, hopefully in the middle school years or later.

Zeroing In

Many experts believe that personality plus opportunity play a large role in the notion of artistic talent. It’s true that aptitude for music and dance may show up early in your 1-year-old who walks steadily, but also taps his toe along with complicated rhythms and moves his arms and shoulders appropriately to the beat.

A child who sings a lot and never hits a flat note obviously has a talent for vocalizing. He may reproduce melodies he’s heard from movies and recognize different instruments when they are playing, easily mimicking the sounds the instruments make.

A future painter may show a desire for drawing early on and display detail and imagination more so than other kids. A young actor may want to dress up and, well, put on shows in your basement complete with a curtain strung wall to wall and nailed in with a hammer.

Found your child’s talent? Check out our Arts Directory.

Different Drummers

It’s not easy being a young artist because often you don’t know you are one. You can be pegged a trouble maker when you don’t fall in line at school exactly how the other kids do, but we’re not talking misbehaving … we’re talking different. For parents, it’s not easy to advocate for artistic kids, either. Teachers may call with concerns. Educators are very familiar with differences among children who indicate problems than with those that characterize potential for arts. YOU have to educate yourself about creative aptitude — where it starts, how it manifests, develops and how you can nurture it along. Don’t force your artistic child into society’s “box.”

Nurturing young artistic talent means allowing your child the chance to play and listen to simple instruments, to dance freely, to create art and skits, delving imaginatively into make believe. When your child begins to “lean into” his interest, you can help by getting him training, furthering his creative way of seeing and being around others who are like minded. You can help him gain concentration, competence, perseverance and the optimism necessary to succeed in creative pursuits.

Like my mother, you may think your child is a great artist, but remember, his journey is his own and for the best outcome, you should get comfy in the back seat. Spotting talent early on isn’t as important as spotting it somewhere along the way.

Susan Swindell Day is the editor in chief of Nashville Parent and the mom of four amazing kids.

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