Researchers there have tracked super-smart kids and their accomplishments for the past 45 years. They’ve watched the brightest young minds, with the proper care, go on to become leading scientists, Fortune 500 CEOs, judges and billionaires who shape our society.
But before you get visions of your kid as the next Mark Zuckerberg, know that trying to plan your child’s career path is actually the worst thing you could do.
“I’m still shocked by the number of parents who tell their kids what to major in … what courses to take,” said psychologist David Lubinski, the project’s co-director.
“It seems they have some kind of prescription for their life.”
Lubinski’s single biggest piece of advice based on his years of research: “Be sensitive to their individuality” and foster it.
“There are many different ways to be successful.”
Here are four small tips he believes can make a big difference in a child’s life.
1. Drill home the importance of hard work
Even if a child is naturally gifted, don’t let him or her sail through school on cruise control.
“No matter how big your engine is, if you don’t have any gas in the tank you’re not going to go anywhere,” Lubinski said.
Of course it also helps tremendously to have opportunities along the road. Whatever you’re given, though, you still have to “apply yourself,” Lubinski stressed.
The greatest coaches reportedly tell their best players: “You can have an exceptional career – if you’re willing to work hard.”
Lubinksi urges parents to praise kids’ effort, rather than their ability.
WATCH: Not all kinds of praise have the desired effect
Instead of just focusing on a child getting top marks, compliment the hours of studying and time spent working on assignments.
It helps children develop a “growth mindset.”
2. Don’t let kids be afraid of failure
Encourage children to take intellectual risks. The way they’ll learn is through mistakes. It’s how they respond to them that matters.
Lubinski said a lot of talented kids will feel unsettled at the first sign of struggle, because it’s a feeling they may not be used to. They should be urged to embrace that feeling and see challenge as something positive that can make them better.
“Failure is a part of life and you just have to keep trying … Don’t run and hide.”
According to Lubinski, when Thomas Edison was inventing the light bulb, people reportedly told him that he “failed” 300 times. He said, “no, I learned 300 things that don’t work.”
3. Work with the child’s teachers
A teacher should be able to identify if a student isn’t feeling challenged enough.
If that’s the case, depending on the situation, parents could get the child a tutor to stimulate his need for advanced learning. Or, if possible, enroll the child in higher-level classes.
The Vanderbilt project began with a 13-year-old boy who was gifted enough to be able to handle undergraduate classes.
By the age of 17, he had already earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and was pursuing a doctorate. He went on to become a pioneer in artificial intelligence.
The research shows that, when a child is mature and ready, letting him or her skip a grade or two can lead to significant differences in achievement when compared with gifted children who are kept in their grade.
Girls tend to have an easier time with skipping grades, Lubinski said, which might be because they mature more quickly.
4. Offer kids experiences and opportunities
Parents should present their children with an enriching environment from a young age.
This could mean putting them in different classes and seeing what they like and thrive most in.
Summer science, math or music camps can allow them to not only grow intellectually but also emotionally, since they can interact with other kids who share their passions.
For some children, this lets them feel like they finally “belong.”
But don’t overdo it.
“Sometimes parents prescribe too much,” Lubinski said. “There’s a fear that they don’t want them to miss anything.”
“You have to have balance.”