Milana Christensen has an exciting 2014 ahead of her. She’ll likely go on some super-fun playdates, maybe a monkey-filled trip to the local zoo. But first things first: She has a private master class planned at Drum Channel Studios with Stewart Copeland, drummer and founder of the iconic rock band The Police. Oh, and she’s only 5 years old.
Milana’s mom, Alicin, says that her daughter began showing interest in playing the drums at age 2 and started begging for her own drum set once she turned 3. “During that time she would turn over waste baskets and set them up with boxes or anything else she could find to create a makeshift kit. Typical kid stuff, I thought,” says Alicin. “But over that year, it became harder to ignore her desire to play drums.”
Milana’s story begins like many children’s: an all-consuming fascination with an activity that eventually whips parents into submission. That was certainly the case in the Christensen house where, according to Alicin, she and her husband initially erred on the side of proud and biased parents before labeling their child a prodigy. But once Mom and Dad put Milana in formal training, her talents began to truly blossom.
This is typically the best way for parents to determine whether they are, indeed, raising gifted kids, says Dr. Richard Horowitz, a parenting/family coach and author of Family Centered Parenting. “Since there is no precise definition [of prodigy], a parent being sure [that their child is one] is a difficult standard. The overriding trait is an ability beyond expectations for the child’s age and developmental level, as determined by a person knowledgeable in that activity—a teacher, coach or known expert.”
“Finding the coaches
who will not exploit the talents of their charges for their own agendas is
crucial,” Horowitz adds. “Parents need to be extremely careful in selecting teachers and
coaches who will nurture their child’s talents consistent with the values
of the family.”
Alicin found Milana’s teacher, Sherrie Senese of Salt Lake City’s Groove Drs., through a quick online search. Initially worried that no one would accept then 4-year-old Milana as a student, Alicin was excited to see that the Sherrie specialized in teaching children of all ages. “She was the right fit at the right time,” Alicin says. “Sherrie experienced a teacher refusing to teach her drum lessons until she was 6 years old, so there is a sensitivity to kids showing a desire to start at a young age.”
Alicin now advises other parents to not wait before starting lessons or tutoring for their young, gifted child. “This is a missed opportunity, especially if your child displays strong, sustained interest and seemingly early abilities in a particular area,” she explains. “Rather than children receiving aid or tutoring in weak subjects, I believe children should receive mentoring in subjects where they show interest.”
In keeping with this ideology, Alicin homeschools Milana, tailoring her lessons around daily, two-hour drum practices. And while homeschooling may not be feasible or attractive to some parents, ultimately, says Lynette Louise, an international mental health and parenting therapist, parents of gifted children should begin to consider alternatives to the traditional school environment.
“If your child is exceptional in an area — or many — they are on the fringes,” Louise explains. “They will try to fit into the group and thus be encouraged to hide their specialness. If this happens then the sign that they are not being served is that they are not stretching themselves and growing. They will thus appear to need to be pushed when, in truth, giving them a more appropriate arena to fit into, one that stretches and encourages them, is a better choice. The system is set up for the middle group and fails everyone outside that group.”
Milana has continued to thrive and develop in her lessons and individual practices. As a result, Alicin doesn’t have to force her to rehearse or meet certain goals set to push and gauge her abilities. That’s exactly the way it should be, says Louise, who believes that parents should continuously invite their children to participate in their gifts and provide the venue to keep them “on fire.” But she cautions against pushing the child, which will actually have the opposite effect. “It is never worth the physical and mental stresses caused by force and pushing,” Louise says. “Fire is put out by pushing. Keeping it alive is fueled by compliments, rewards such as time away from school while competing and the joy of being appreciated and admired.”
Though Milana doesn’t completely understand her unique talents, she is very clear about her aspirations, stating matter-of-factly that she “wants to play all over the world.” And under Alicin’s careful guidance, she appears to be headed there.
It’s all possible, says Alicin, because she had an early belief in her daughter’s talents and decided to act on it — something that parents often neglect to do. “If I listened to Milana’s pre-lesson drum playing in her room and simply stopped at her door with an ‘aww, that’s cute’ reaction, we wouldn’t have recognized her underlying talent in order to nurture it,” she explains. “Being in tune with your child and having an awareness and deep respect for your child as an individual—coupled with a willingness to invest and take action—is paramount to uncovering a special talent.”