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Parental Attribution of Artistic Ability in Talented Children

Perceptrial and Motor Skills, 2000,91, 1134-1114. O Perceptual and Motor Skills 2000
Departmerrt of Physical Edzrcation
Wesfern Illirrois University
talent is a powerful construct that can have important
consequences for the lives of children. Parents and schools often provide special programs to support talented children, and attributed talent can influence chiltlren's
behavior. The purpose of this study was to examine how the parents of children in a
program for gifted and talented students explain the artistic capabilities of their children. Analysis indicated parents attributed the artistic capabilities of the children
primarily to innate talent and intrinsic motivation. However, estimates of accumulated
hours of involvement in art showed that the children had similar patterns of involvement in art as did individuals with strong records of achievement in other domains.
Alternative explanations for achievement, including deliberate practice theory, are discussed.
In an article about the Me of the artist Vincent van Gogh, Swerdlow
(1997) described how van Gogh became an important artist, "In van Gogh's
case it was a combination of inherited slull, w h g n e s s to challenge accepted
truths, and an intuitive grasp of color relationships" (p. 116). Granted, this
account reflects Swerdlow's opinion and is not a scientific assessment of van
Gogh's abhties, but his comments dustrate the point that exceptional
achievements are commonly attributed to innate talents. To many people,
talent implies a unique skill, with which few are born, and that does not
require a lot of effort to master. Yet Swerdlow acknowledged that v'm Gogh
trained extensively and actively worked to improve his craft:
Wherever Vincent lived, he studied a r t . . . Vincent developed according to classical academic
training: drawing, charcoal, anatomy, wood engraving, perspective, composition, tonc, and color (p. 111). H e developed a rigorous system, based on the 'laws of simultaneous contrast and
complementary colors' described by Michel-Eugene Chevreul, a 19th century French chemist
(p. 112). In his pocket, Vincent carried red and blue chalk, drawing on walls when describing
the latest theories. To better understand color combinations, he studied balls of colored yarn,
which he kept in a lacquered box (p. 116).
Although Swerdlow's account points to talent and training, it is usually
difficult to evaluate how high achievers actually become exceptional because
accurate historical information is limited. Fortunately, in a few cases detailed
first-hand accounts are available: Vincent van Gogh, for one, left such a record.
'Address enquiries to R. Hyllegard, Department of Physical Education, Western lllinois University, Macomb, IL 61455 or e-mail (Randy~Hyllegard@ccmail.wiu.edu).
Van Gogh provided an unusually detailed account of his life through
his extensive letter writing. The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh
(1959, v. 1-3) includes over 600 letters written from 1872 to 1890, mostly to
his brother Theo. In these letters, van Gogh described his training and experiences as an artist in great detail. The quotes cited here show that van
Gogh did not necessarily consider himself artistically talented. Rather, they
show he became an artist chrough many years of study, work, and training.
The first two quotations are from letters written to his brother in 1882
and show some of the challenges and self doubts that faced van Gogh early
in his training:
Though Mauve tells me that if I s c l i ~ ~ g on
l e for a few more months and then come back to
him, say in March, I should then m ~ k ed a b l e drawings. I'm still in a very difficult period (v.
1, p. 282). I always try my best to put all my energy into my work, for my greatest desire is to
make beautiful things. But making beautiEu1 things cosrs trouble and disappointment and perseverance (v. 1, pp. 451-452).
H e wrote of his understanding of the importance of being able to draw well:
And I really believe one must learn to draw in such a way that it becomes as easy as writing,
and that one must know the proportions well, and learn to see so accurately that one can
reproduce whatever one sees on a larger or smaller scale (v. 1, p. 458). I do not think I am
mistaken in beheving that being and remaining productive depends on the studies one has and
continues to make. The more variety there is in them, the more one drudges on them, the more
easily one works later when it comes to making real pictures or drawings. In short, I reckon
the studies to be the seed, and the more one sows, the more one may hope to reap (v. 1, p.
As Swerdlow discussed, van Gogh was very interested in color and deliberately worked to increase his knowledge.
If you come across some good book on color theories, mind you send it to me, for I too am far
from knowing everything about it, and am searching for more everyday (v. 2, p. 426). It is a
fact that by studying the laws of the colors one can go from an instinctive belief in the great
masters to the analysis of why one admires-what one admires (v. 2, p. 426). I am completely
absorbed in the laws of colors. If only they had taught us them in our youth (v. 2, p. 429).
Van Gogh described his motivation to paint as follows:
What I like about painting is that with the same amounr of trouble which one takes over drawing, one brings home something [hat conveys the impressions much better and is more pleasant
to look at-and ar the same time, more correct too. In a word, it is more gratdying than drawing (v. l, p. 443).
Because only the few are regarded as talented, the belief that innate talents actually exist is widespread (Freeman, 1998; Rowe, 1998). Yet when the
lives of exceptional achievers in diverse domains are examined, many years
of purposeful activity are often found (e.g., Chambliss, 1989; Ericsson,
Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993; Schneider, 1993; Charness, Krampe, &
Mayr, 1996; Helsen, Starkes, & Hodges, 1998; Lehmann, 1998; Lehmann &
Ericsson, 1998; Weisberg, 1998). Howe, Davidson, and Sloboda (1998) reviewed the evidence for innate talents and concluded that knowledge of the
experiences, preferences, opportunities, practice, training, and habits of high
achievers better explain achievements than do implied talents. Their conclusions were based on their proposed definition of the term "talent" that assumes these are genetic in origin and relatively rare.
(1) It originates in genetically transmitted structures and hence is at least partly innate. (2) Its
full effects may not be evident at an early stage, but there will be some advance indications,
allowing trained people to idenufy the presence of talent before exceptional levels of mature
performance have been demonsrraced. (3) These early indications of talent provide a basis for
predicting who is likely to excel. (4) Only a minority are talented, for iF all children were, h e r e
would be no way to predict or explain daerential success. Finally, (5) talents are relatively
domain-specLfic (p. 399).
Others have criticized this definition of talent (Freeman, 1998; GagnC, 1998)
and their conclusions about the role of talent in achievement (Detterman,
Gabriel, & Ruthsatz, 1998; Sternberg, 1998).
Deliberate practice theory (Ericsson, et a/., 1993) also questions the influence of innate talents on achievement. The theory explains high achievement by pointing toward acquired characteristics that are a direct result of
extended deliberate practice. The theory limits the role of innate factors to a
small number of attributes such as height in some sports or general levels of
activity and emotionality (Ericsson, 1998). Evidence supporting deliberate
practice theory has been found in studies of achievement by musicians (Ericsson, et a/., 1993; Krampe & Ericsson, 1996), soccer and field hockey players (Helsen, et a/., 1998), and wrestlers (Hodges & Starkes, 1996). Although
the theory has fostered new research into achievement, there is also criticism
(Detterman, et a/., 1998; Freeman, 1998; Schneider, 1998). Most criticism
has centered on the very limited influence attributed to innate factors in the
theory (Feldman & Katzir, 1998). Others have contended more generally
that in much of the research on achievement practice effects has been confounded with amount of expertise (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1998; Singer &
Janelle, 1999).
Deliberate practice theory initially addressed issues such as creativity,
imagination, and style. Sirnonton (1999) suggested that there is a fundamental difference between creative achievements and other types of achievements
such as athletic
However, Ericsson (1999) suggested that deliberate practice theory can account for creative achievements. He argued that
individuals who create unique works actively pursue the production of creative works during many years of sustained intentional effort. Van Gogh's artistic style and imagination, for which he is widely acclaimed, was uniquely
his own. However, his letters indicate that his abihty to draw, paint, and
create unique works was carefully nurtured through years of training and
practice as deliberate practice theory predicts.
In the present study, the parents of children enrolled in an art program
for gifted and talented students responded to questions about the children.
The purpose was to learn how the parents attribute the artistic capabilities
of the children and to examine some factors which may have contributed to
artistic development of the children.
A questionnaire was administered to the parents of children enrolled in
the Art for Gifted and Talented Students program at Western Illu-iois University. The children in Grades 4 through 8 were required to meet at least
one of two criteria for admission into the program. (a) Each child must have
been enrolled in or quahfied for the gifted art program in their respective
school systems, or (b) they must have demonstrated marked abhty in art as
judged by the faculty in the art department.
Questionnaires were included in a packet given to both parents. It included a covering letter that explained the purpose of the study, a statement
assuring the anonymity of the respondents and their children, and a description of how the findings would be disseminated. Completed questionnaires
were returned by m d .
The questionnaire contained six questions.
Item 1.-Both parents indicated their background in art among four
choices: (a) no background in art, (b) hobby artists (recreational artist with
no formal training, (c) amateur artists (recreational artists with some training
and possibly teaching or displaying works of art), or (d) professional artist
(part or full-time occupational artist with formal training and possibly teaching or displaying works of art). This question was asked to test the hypothesis that the parents would have backgrounds in art.
Item 2.-Parents rated their child on five domains in comparison to
other children of the same age, including (a) art skills, (b) music slulls, (c)
general cognitive abihty, (d) general affective abdity, and (e) general psychomotor ability. Ratings were anchored by 1: very low and 9: very high. This
question was asked to test the hypothesis that the parents would rank the
artistic ability of the children higher than the other skills or abilities.
Item 3.-Parents rated the importance of four factors in the child's artistic development, including (a) intrinsic motivation (the child's instinctive
desire to become a better artist), (b) extrinsic motivation (motivation originating from parents, teachers, friends, etc.), (c) effort (the child's instinctive
h g n e s s to practice and work to improve), and (d) resources (financial
and other means of support available to support the child's pursuits in art).
Ratings were anchored by 1: very low and 9: very high. This question was
asked to test the hypothesis that the parents would rank intrinsic motivation
higher than the other choices.
Item 4.-Parents rated their child's understanding of three factors that
affect artistic development, including (a) amount of practice (the extent to
which the child realizes how practice affects improvement, (b) effort (the extent to which the child is w i h g to overcome artistic challenges), and (c)
practice activities (the extent to which child reahzes that practice activities
should be modified as skLLls increase). Ratings were anchored by I: very low
and 9: very high. This question was asked to test the hypothesis that the
parents would rank effort higher than the other choices.
Item 5.-Parents assigned scores to three factors responsible for the
child's artistic development from among (a) family members' influence, (b)
teachers' influence, and (c) innate artistic ability, such that the sum of the
three items equaled 100. The higher the score, the more important the factor. This question was asked to test the hypothesis that the parents would
rank innate talent higher than the other choices.
Item 6.-Parents estimated the child's weekly participation in art activities at home or taking lessons and art in school, from age 5 to 15 years.
Weekly estimates for practice hours at home were converted into yearly
amounts by multiplying weekly estimates by 52. In school, hours were computed by multiplying by 45, reflecting the length of the typical school year.
Total art was the sum of the home and school hours. This question was
based on methods used by Ericsson, et al. (1993) and Helsen, et al. (1998)
to estimate hours of involvement by the subjects in their respective domains
of expertise.
Eighty questionnaires were distributed to parents, of which 51 were returned and 45 of those were analyzed (six incomplete questionnaires were
e h i n a t e d ) . Twenty-eight of the children enrolled in the program were girls
and 17 were boys. The mean age of all the children was 12.5 yr.
Item 1.-Date for 89 of the 90 parents were analyzed (one parent was
not the biological father). Fifty-three parents reported no background in art
(60%), 25 were hobby artists (28%), 7 were amateur artists (8%), and 4
professional artists (5%). To test the hypothesis that more parents would
have backgrounds in art than no background, a chi-square goodness of fit
was calculated. For the purpose of the test, the parents were divided into
two groups, those with at least one parent who reported a hobby or better
background in art (27 of the famhes) and those who reported no background in art by either parent (18 of the famhes). The test was conducted
this way because many of the families reported that one parent had a background in art. Expected frequencies for the chi-square were 15.21 (33.8%)
for parents with a background in art and 29.79 (66.2%) for parents with no
background. The expected values were based on statistics reported in Simmons' Study of Media and Markets: Sports and Leisure (1994) where 33.8%
of parents in the United States were estimated to be involved in painting,
drawing, and sculpting. The chi-square showed that more parents in this
study had backgrounds in art than expected
13.81, p<.Ol). In Table 1
are the numbers of parents reporting art background and the mean age and
SD for the children separately for boys and girls enrolled in the art program.
Background in Art of the Parents
Background in Art for O n e or Both Parents
Neither parent
O n e or both parents
Sex and Mean Age of Child Artists
n = 17
12 yr., 5 mo., SD= 1 yr., 4 mo.
12 yr., 5 mo.,
SD= 1 yr., 6 mo.
Item 2.-The parents rated how high on a 9-point scale they considered
the art, music, general cognitive, general affective, and psychomotor skLUs of
their child. Mean ratings and standard deviations for the five domains were
for (a) art 8.0 f 1.0, (b) general cognitive response 7.6 f 1.4, (c) general affective 7.0 f 1.6, (d) music 6.9 f 1.9, and (e) psychomotor=6.6 f 1.7. Multivariate analysis of variance, used to test for ddferences among the five attributes, indicated a significant dfference among the mean ratings (Wdks
A,,,, = 11.04, p < .01). Scheffk post hoc analysis indicated that the mean ratings
for the art abhty were significantly higher than the ratings for music ability,
general affect, and general psychomotor skill ( p < .05). The ratings for art
and general cognitive ability were not different.
Item 3 . P a r e n t s rated the influence of four factors for the child's artistic development. Means (+ standard deviations) for ratings were for (a) intrin-
sic motivation 7.9 f 1.19, (b) effort 7.3 f 1.4, (c) extrinsic motivation 7.0 f
1.7, and (dl resources 6.6 f 1.8. To test the hypothesis that parents would
rank intrinsic motivation higher than the other factors, a multivariate analysis of variance was computed for means on the factors. The analysis indicated a significant mean difference (Wilks h,++,=7.76,p<.01). Scheffk post
hoc analysis indicated that the mean rating for intrinsic motivation was significantly higher than those for extrinsic motivation and resources ( p < .05).
The difference between intrinsic motivation and effort was not significant.
Item 4.-Parents rated their child's understanding on three factors that
affect artistic development. Mean ratings (f standard deviation) for the three
factors were for (a) effort 7.2 f 1.4, (b) practice 6.5 f 2.0, and (c) practice
activities 6.3 f 1.9. Data were analyzed with multivariate analysis of variance
to test for differences among the means which were significant (W&s
7.46, p < .01). Scheffi: post hoc analysis indicated that rated effort was significantly greater than mean rating for practice and practice activity ( p < .05).
Item 5.-Parents assigned scores to three factors in the child's artistic
abhties such that the sum of the scores equaled 100. Mean ratings (+ standard deviations) were for (a) innate talent 48.9 f 15.9, (b) teachers' influence
27.6 f 12.4, and (c) family members' influence 23.5 f 12.5. To test the hypothesis that parents would rank innate talent higher than the other factors
a multivariate analysis of variance was computed and indicated a significant
difference among the scores ( W A S &,4,=22.07, p < .01). Scheffi: post hoc
analysis indicated that the mean innate talent rating was significantly greater
than means for family and for teachers' influence (p .:.Ol). To test for ddferences in attribution between parents with a background in art versus those
with no background, two-way repeated analyses of variance were computed
for the three mean ratings. Although there was no main effect for the two
groups of parents, it was interesting to note the mean rating for family members' influence by the parents with a background in art (25.9) was 6.2 points
higher than for the parents with no background (19.7), while the innate talent rating was 7.4 points lower for the parents with a background in art
(45.9) than for the parents with no background (53.3).
Item 6.-Parents estimated the number of hours per week that the
child spent in art-related activity each year since the age of five. Consistently
increased time showed a total of approximately 400 hours at age 5 and 3,800
hours by age 14. Fig. 1 shows parents' estimated hours of art at home or
taking lessons, art at school, and total art.
Other researchers reported estimated accumulated hours of practice in
music and in sports using similar procedures. Ericsson, et al. (1993) reported estimated accumulated practice hours for three groups of young violinists, while Helsen, et a/. (1998) reported accumulated practice hours for three
groups of soccer players and three groups of field hockey players. Fig. 2
Age of Artists (yr.)
FIG. 1. Estimared accumulated involvement in art (on [he basis of estimares of weekly
ractice) as a function of age for the children in the art program [Art H o m e ( o 1, Art School
), Total Art ( )I
shows the findings from the present study and those for the best musician
group from Ericsson, et al., the international soccer players, and the international field hockey players from Helsen, et al.
Attributed talent is undoubtedly real, even if domain specific innate talents are not and can have important consequences for those considered to
be talented (Tesch-Romer, 1998). Parents often commit family resources,
and many schools provide special programs to support children who are
thought to be talented (E(lrk, Carlson, O'Connor, Burke, Davis, & Glover,
1997; CBtt, 1999). Attributed talent can also influence behavior of the individual by providing support for sustained practice or by providing an excuse
for not practicing, depending on how the individual responds to the attribution. The abhty to sustain practice and effort over extended periods is a key
element since at least 10 years of dedicated involvement seems to be necessary for high achievement (Ericsson, et al., 1993).
Although the parents in this study primarily attributed the artistic abihties of the children to talent, the children were involved in art both at home
and in school, and most famihes had at least one parent with an interest in
art. There is no way to measure directly innate artistic talent; however, it is
possible to estimate past activity and to examine the current learning or performance environment. The estimated hours of involvement suggest that
Age of Artists and Athletes (yr.)
FIG. 2. Estimated accumulated involvement in art: a ( o ), music: b ( ), soccer: c (01,
and field hockey: d ( a ) as a Function of age: (a) present stud (b) Ericsson, Krampe, and
Tesch-Rdrner (1993): best violin group, (c) Helsen, Sterkes, a n B k o d g e s (1998): international
soccer @layers,and (d) Helsen, Starkes, and Hedges (1998): international field hockey @layers
these children have accumulated experience consistent with that of high
achievers in other domains (Ericsson, et al., 1993; Helsen, et al., 1998).
Yet even with an extensive background in art, both the family members' and teachers' influence ratings were both lower than the talent rating.
Ericsson (1996) contended that the family environment affects achievement
more than talent. Bloom (1985) discussed the importance of family members' influence for achievement in a wide variety of domains including the
arts. Parental involvement was divided into three phases: the early years during which parents supported their child's interests without imposing too
many demands to practice or focus on one activity. This was followed by a
period of more focused commitment during which parents became more actively involved in supporting the child. In the third phase, the role of the
parents became more limited, m a d y providLng the financial support needed
to support a full time commitment by the child. Based on the ages of these
children and their accumulative involvement in art, they appear to be in the
second stage of Bloom's model. Although the parents attributed the artistic
abhties of these children to talent, by participating in special art programs
and by having at least one parent with an interest in art, the history of the
children appears to support Howe, et al.'s (1998) and Ericsson, et al.'s
(1993) accounts of achievement.
The parents also indicated that the children were intrinsically motivated
and that they understood effort was needed to become better artists, which
supports the deliberate practice model. Motivational, effort, and resource
constraints all influence the qu&ty and quantity of practice. Maintaining intrinsic motivation is particularly important because deliberate practice is not
inherently enjoyable and calls for a long-term commitment by the learner.
The attribution of achievement to talent may be, at least in part, influenced by cultural background (Eisenberger, 1998). The penchant in Western
cultures to attribute achievement to innate talent may originate from the influence of Galton (1869/1979) and his writings on inherited "natural ability," while effort or experience receives greater credit in other cultures. For
example, Hess, Chang, and McDevitt (1987) reported that both parents and
the children of Chinese immigrant families in the USA tended to attribute
academic failure more to lack of effort than to lack of innate ability. Ln contrast, however, parents and children native to the USA tended to do the opposite. Caplan, Choy, and Whitmore (1992) found that the family-oriented
study habits and hours devoted to study best explained the high academic
achievements by Indochinese immigrant children. The families expected the
children to invest considerable time and effort into schoolwork, and they
did not believe that natural ability would suffice.
Attributed talent is an important social construct which is often used to
account for the mechanism underlying differential achievement. Although
the concept of talent provides a superficially acceptable explanation for high
achievement, for some it also provides a socially acceptable excuse for lower
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Accepted December I, 2000.