Alina Adams’ 12-year-old son, Gregory, has a gift. He is passionate about computer programming and exceptionally good at it, with talents that belie his young age.
When he was 10, he was accepted into a prestigious programming course at a university, but then told he was too young to attend.
“So he got mad and he built his own website where everyone can learn how to code, whatever age they are,” said Adams, 46, who lives in New York City.
As Gregory has gotten older, funding his interest has gotten more expensive. “Some of the things he wants to develop now require hardware,” Adams said, “and that costs money.”
Then there’s the price of travel and events. Two years ago Gregory attended Young Rewired State, a conference in the UK for young “digital makers.” He applied for and received a grant that covered travel expenses for both himself and his father to attend. But the cost has prohibited him from returning. “I explained to him, ‘No grant, no trip to Europe,” Adams said.
Gregory pointed out that the UK conference had satellite events in various countries — and asked if they could have one in New York. So last summer, Adams organised a local YRS event so he and other local kids could participate. “My son had the time of his life,” Adams said in a blog on the subject. “I…came close to having a nervous breakdown.”
Meanwhile, Adams keeps things in perspective. “If money were unlimited, I would allow him to take all the classes he wanted,” Adams said. However, she also has two other children whose needs she must meet. “There’s a reasonable amount that gets put into his interest, but we’re not going to go overboard,” she said.
While there’s no real measure of how many kids are gifted, the US National Association of Gifted Children places the number of academically gifted and talented students at 6% to 10% of the total American student population. That doesn’t account for kids who shine in music, sports, or a specific subject area, like computer programming.
Of course, many parents think their children are exceptional. A quarter of parents of high school athletes hope their children will go on to play professional sports. (Reality check: Only 1% do.)
But for parents of truly gifted children, it's often a financial struggle to balance a limited budget with private lessons, pricey coaches, and travel to national and international events. Here’s how to keep your equilibrium.
What it will take: You’ll need to balance your own financial priorities against your desire to give your child what they need to excel — and resist peer pressure. “The competitiveness between parents is often as intense as it is between the child prodigies,” said Hank Mulvihill, a financial planner with Mulvihill Asset Management in Texas in the US. “You end up, as a family, making a decision to build your entire family life around supporting that effort.”
How long you need to prepare: Before throwing money at the situation, sit down with a financial planner and make sure you have all of your bases covered. “I am astonished at the financial commitments that people make,” Mulvihill said. “When people tear apart a financial plan to fund a private coach or endless travel, it’s very difficult to re-establish those savings.”
Do it now: Set a budget. Most parents want to do everything possible to help their children grow and succeed. But, be sensible about how much you can reasonably spend, Mulvilhill said. “Figure out if you can afford it. And if you can’t, don’t.”
Think about what you want. “How much do you want to put your child on the public stage as a prodigy, because that means performances,” said Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College in the US and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. “Once you make the decision to go public and have your children win competitions, there’s even more motivation to hire these kinds of special coaches and tutors.”
Cultivate on a small scale. “It is expensive to have a child prodigy,” Winner said. “You’re going to want to have a good teacher or coach, and that costs money.” But, if your budget is tight, there are other ways to nurture nascent talent. If your child is gifted at art, for example, buy her good quality art materials. Take her to museums and galleries. Keep a portfolio of her work so she can watch her own development.
There’s a difference between enabling the gift and pushing the child to become a public spectacle.
“Do everything possible to nurture and stimulate the gift, whatever the domain,” Winner said. “But there’s a difference between enabling the gift and pushing the child to become a public spectacle.”
Use your local resources. Take your child to local libraries and get to know your local universities and colleges. They may have free lectures or even early-access programs. “Find experts in the fields that your child is interested in,” said Julia Chung, a financial and estate planner with JYC Financial in Langley, British Columbia, in Canada. “Talk to them and ask them for help and support. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to help.”
Keep your own savings on track. Yes, it’s important to encourage your virtuoso to develop his violin skills. But don’t do so at the expense of your golden years. “Parents spend way too much, and don’t make [retirement] contributions as they should,” said Scot Hanson, a financial planner with EFS Advisors in Minnesota in the US. “Then I notice now, 20 years later, long after their kids have given up their sport, the parent needs to work longer and cannot retire when anticipated.”
Do it later: Look for help. “There are definitely scholarship programs and many foundations that are interested in supporting the development of talent of these students,” said Rene Islas, executive director at the US National Association for Gifted Children. “Start with your school to help you develop, and once you start not having your child’s needs met within the school environment, there are scholarship programs.” You look for resources on sites such as NSGT.org in the US and PotentialPlusUK.org in the UK.
Keep your head on your shoulders. Sure, your child is good at hockey. But, the chances of him getting rich as a professional hockey player are minuscule, so don’t ruin yourself financially in the pursuit of greatness. “People don’t make reasonable decisions in this area,” Mulvihill said. “I’ve seen people liquidate [retirement accounts] to fund these efforts.”
It’s important, too, to remember to show your child that they have value as a person, outside of being gifted.
That’s not to say that your child can’t have a rewarding experience or enjoy competing as a non-professional. At a certain level it may be possible to secure local business donations or corporate sponsors, and if your child is really good — as in, Olympics good — there can be money in medaling. (Just don’t bet your retirement on it.)
Do it smarter: Remember that your gifted child is a child. “They may be able to process a great deal of information but they’re still, physically and emotionally, children,” said Julia Chung. “They need to play. They need friends, which can be hard, because they’re so different. Seek out support and social groups for both you and your child.”
It’s important, too, to remember to show your child that they have value as a person, outside of being gifted. “They will still seek your approval,” Chung said. “Make sure it’s not just for being really smart.”
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.