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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Talent spotters: the thin parenting line between being supportive and being coercive

'Parents really shouldn’t force their children into doing anything. Their talents will come to the surface in any case,' says Marion Baker

Serena Williams’ parents encouraged her flair for tennis to historic effect. AFP
Serena Williams’ parents encouraged her flair for tennis to historic effect. AFP

Joe Jackson, who died earlier this year at the age of 89, was the father of 11 children, one of whom was Michael Jackson – surely the most famous pop artist the world has ever known. Joe was not known for his patience, and was reviled for being physically abusive to his children, as he shaped them into becoming his proteges, the Jackson 5.

The parents of Venus and Serena Williams, undoubtedly the greatest female tennis players in history, encouraged and nurtured their daughters’ otherworldly talents. They started lessons when they were at an age when most children are starting primary school and moved the family from Compton in Los Angeles to safer environs so they could concentrate on their form.

Prince’s father was a songwriter and musician, while his mother was a jazz singer. He and his sister developed an interest in music very early on and he wrote his first song, Funk Machine, with his father’s piano. He was 7 years old.

Lewis Hamilton, four-time Formula One world champion, was bought a radio-controlled car by his father when he was 6 and started racing it straight away, taking second place in the British Radio Car Association championship, competing against adults. His dad, aware of Lewis’s raw talent, bought him a go-kart and promised to support him develop as a racing driver as long as he did his best at school. The rest is well-documented motorsport legend.

Parents shouldn't force anything

History is littered with examples of children who have been mentored by parents or teachers who have seen something in them that others might have missed. A parent, guardian or teacher who notices a child has a natural ability, a flair for the extraordinary or an inexplicable talent will obviously do whatever they can to help bring that to the fore. After all, if a youngster excels at football, athletics, racing, singing or painting, why would you persuade them to go into retail or hotel management as a profession?

For Marion Baker, 32, who is British and lives in Dubai, it was the other way round. “Parents really shouldn’t force their children into doing anything,” she advises. “Their talents will come to the surface in any case. When my parents came to choose the secondary school I was to attend [the family was living in Hamburg, Germany, at the time], they had three options. One school was focused on mathematics, one on languages and the third one on music. They picked the last one because they knew I loved playing the violin and the piano.”

She counters that, while she did enjoy playing music, they hadn’t taken the time to sit her down and find out where her real talents lay. “They sent me for an IQ test,” she sighs. “I scored 143 with a 55 per cent focus on languages and 45 per cent on mathematics. You’re either a mathematic or creative person, and I was – am – evidently the former, yet my mother still insisted that my future was in music. Neither of them asked me what I wanted to do.”

'If a child’s heart isn’t in something, it rarely works out'

Baker decided, at the age of 14, that she’d had enough. “I applied for home schooling and paid for it all myself with savings and the money that had been put aside by my grandparents for me to help with university. I used that money to put myself through my A levels and then got part-time work to fund my degree at university.”

She believes that, especially nowadays, parents are unable to accurately plan careers for their children. “It’s different in certain social circles, though. If parents are ‘connected’, it can be fairly easy to pave a way into specific industries, but even then, if a child’s heart isn’t in something, it rarely works out how a parent had planned in their mind.”

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Read more:

Give your child time and the right education rather than hard cash

What is the best thing you can do for your children?

Nurturing their nature: the power of positive parenting

No parent is perfect, despite what you see on social media

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Parenting is an almighty responsibility, and often we will hold on to the belief that we know what is best for our children – something that the aforementioned Jackson children managed to forgive their father for. He was of a different generation and thought he was doing them a favour.

“There is no greater responsibility than being a parent,” concedes Sean Myers, a teacher in Dubai. “And the mistakes we make when our children are in their formative years can have lifelong consequences, so meaningful communication is vital – something that might sound obvious, but so many families get it badly wrong. And when it comes to a talent our kids might have, they need openings if they’re to properly develop. And you can’t do that unless you’re able to talk to them and find out what their motivations are.”

Be kind, patient and loving

He adds that praise and encouragement are hugely important in developing a child’s abilities. “If you’ve seen the film Billy Elliot,” he says, “you’ll have witnessed the damage done by a father who made fun of his son’s natural ability and enthusiasm with ballet, because he viewed it as something socially unacceptable and was more concerned about the prejudices of his friends than what his son wanted. It’s far too commonplace, this pressure to conform, and many children go on to defy their parents anyway, and make a success out of what they have chosen to do for themselves. But those family relationships can be so broken that they’re beyond repair. What a waste.”

Any talent, he points out, only merits pursuing if a child enjoys it. “I was really good at playing chess when I was a student, but I wasn’t really passionate about it. I was always more driven by research and using knowledge to help other people, but I can remember my grandfather trying to convince me that I was so skilled as a strategist that I should put my efforts into something else. Like politics. Which I look back now and think is hilarious.”

The really important thing, Myers advises, is to be kind, patient and loving towards our children, and to display flexibility. “If they’re really good at sports, join in with them at the weekend,” he suggests, “or take them to events like football or cricket matches, where they can get inspiration. If they enjoy music, take them to concerts and maybe offer to pay for music lessons, but never dictate what instrument they should play – encourage them to experiment a bit. If they love art or history, treat them to a day at Louvre Abu Dhabi or visit the galleries and studios in [Dubai’s] Al Quoz. Just don’t stifle creativity or ability, no matter what it’s in. It’s not difficult, really, and the long-term rewards can be huge.”