Jackie Gingrich Cushman

As a mother, I often dwell on my role and that of my husband in influencing our children. I also think about the roles their peers and their environment play in affecting their growth.

Are our children being challenged enough? Are they being taught responsibility, gratitude and manners? Should they be focusing on one activity or many? Are they over- or under-scheduled? The list goes on and on.

Recently our 14-year-old daughter Maggie has been questioning me about her talents. Specifically, she has been wondering what those talents might be. My response most often has been to tell her that she has time to figure them out, and that, as a 47-year-old, I'm a bit behind the times. While that brings a smile to her face, I can tell she still wonders.

This line of thinking has led me to examine the roles of focus, practice and talent.

While I believe that hard work matters and that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything (Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" comes to mind), I also believe that innate talent, God-given ability, comes into play as well.

Think of the extreme: no matter how long a tone-deaf person may practice the violin, she is not going to be able to play first chair with the Washington National Symphony. On the opposite end of the spectrum, extreme hard work does matter, because a talented lug who does no work will not go far, no matter how talented he may be.

Some parents seek to identify their children's talents or interests early in an attempt to help them focus their learning and practice and get an early start on the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert. However, an article I read this week in New Statesman concludes the opposite: that children do best if exposed to a variety of learnings and activities.

"The message is a happy one: The fad for encouraging obsessive ultra-specialization among children is not only misplaced, it is actively harmful. Sampling and diversity -- not premature narrowness -- are far more likely to underpin adult success. Childhood is good for children after all," wrote Ed Smith in "If you want a child prodigy, crack the whip early. But for longer-term success, parents should back off."

Smith argues that, while a few child prodigies go on to excel in their fields as adults (Tiger Woods and Serena Williams), they are "unicorns" -- exceptions to the typical pattern of elite achievement. Many child prodigies burn out before we hear of them.

This raises the question of nature over nurture. Much of the recent political/education debate has focused on the correlation between socioeconomic status and children's educational attainment, particularly at an early age.


Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.