Prodigies and Parenting

In a recent conversation with an administrator who spent years at one of Manhattan’s most prestigious prep schools, I brought up the subject of gifted education. “I don’t know what you mean,” she responded without a trace of irony. “Every child is gifted in his or her own way.” In a culture where every parent thinks he is raising a genius, teachers and principals (particularly those whose salaries depend on tuition dollars) have been taught never to say otherwise.

But for parents who really are raising geniuses, there seems to be little in the way of support or guidance. In their 2012 book on gifted education Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett argue that we have spent so much energy trying to get lower-performing students to catch up that we have neglected those in the upper tiers. Fortunately, for kids at the very top, like those profiled in Ann Hulbert’s new book, Off the Charts, schooling may be largely irrelevant.

The children Hulbert describes—from the famous ones like Shirley Temple and Bobby Fischer to the lesser known Billy Sidis and Norbert Wiener—demonstrated extraordinary talents at young ages and it was their parents, not their schools, that were tasked with determining how best to let these capacities flourish. Hulbert approaches her subject historically, beginning with “the wonder boys of Harvard,” Wiener and Sidis. As she writes,

The milestones began with mastery of the alphabet before two and full literacy by three or four. . . . Avid reading ensued, mostly of nonfiction. The boys then speedily amassed languages (Latin, Greek, German, French, and Russian for both, and some Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian for Billy). Their intense scientific interests (anatomy and astronomy for Billy, chemistry and naturalist zeal for Norbert) inspired unusual strides before school age as well.

Their parents, though, took distinctly different approaches to the boys. Norbert went to high school at 9 and then college three years later. But rather than send him to Harvard right away, which was the obvious choice, his parents moved to be near Tufts and sent him there to keep him out of the spotlight for a bit longer. Billy, by contrast, “was on his own as he entered adolescence, and more of an outsider than ever on campus. Under suspicion . . . of being mentally unbalanced, he was prey to continued press hounding.”

And rather than protect him from such exposure, his relationship with his parents only made things worse. As a cousin observed, Billy’s parents were “not cruel” but they “had no truly paternal or maternal feeling: they could educate a child but not rear him, which is a different thing.”

This distinction between education and rearing is useful for all parents, not just those of prodigies. But for children who are particularly high achievers, it seems easy for parents to forget that their charges are still children and that their psychological development cannot be ignored in favor of the development of their talents. So many of the men and women profiled by Hulbert entered a period of major crisis in adolescence, and a surprising number seemed never to find their way out.

Billy Sidis became an eccentric, his life story shrouded in mysteries and lies. Norbert Wiener became a mathematician at MIT and the founder of the briefly influential field of cybernetics.

Henry Cowell’s parents seemed somewhat more attuned to the question of their son’s overall development and actually apologized for his early reading: “Both his father and I disapprove of beginning formal education when a child is very young, but when a baby points to a letter or word and fairly demands to be told the name of it, what’s to be done?”

For the most part, Henry, who was born in 1897 to parents of very modest means in Menlo Park, California, was given free range to pursue the subjects that he enjoyed. As his mother, who kept detailed notes on her son’s development—particularly his musical talents—wrote, “The child must be delighted with his work. . . . He must study the thing he wants while he wants to know it. . . . It is not the way of wisdom to hold Geometry before the face of a dreamer while he is at his dreams. First let him wake to the presence, if not the beauty, of angles in the world.”

Cowell, who went on to become a prominent modernist composer, was discovered at the age of 12 or so by Lewis Terman, a psychologist interested in the study of prodigies. He included Cowell in his Genetic Studies of Genius, a major longitudinal study that Hulbert dubs “the first youthful-talent search.”

With an IQ of 131, Cowell was not on the highest end of Terman’s group. But as Hulbert notes, “precocity, especially as measured on a scale like Terman’s, doesn’t turn out to be a very reliable precursor of outstanding mature performance . . . particularly of a mold-breaking variety.” Throughout Off the Charts Hulbert returns to the difficult transition from childhood prodigy to adult genius. Cowell’s life was hardly simple or neat, but Hulbert argues that, because of his upbringing, he was one of the few who made it.

Hulbert summarizes in her own words some of the findings from the Terman study’s 25-year follow-up: Within the study’s sample, “extra [IQ] points did not account for more accomplishment. What made the clearest difference [among the study’s subjects] was, not surprisingly, family background.” Cowell’s mother had helped him develop the kind of calm and self-assurance that served him well as he grew older. Cowell described how a theme might present “itself to me in a flash. . . . But it must be given in material form, and I may work long hours to get the scheme down in a form which adequately represents it.”

Indeed it is these long hours of work that seem to make difference between the child prodigy and the adult genius. As Hulbert notes, “Parents and mentors presumed that momentum would propel a young marvel onward through adolescence. They tended to gloss over the fact that immature absorption in a pursuit has to give way to newly committed, self-aware exploration.”

And this is one of the parts of Hulbert’s work that seems very much applicable to parents of average children, not just prodigies. Finding a way to move them from something with which they are briefly obsessed to having them push through some difficulties to achieve something larger is a deep challenge of modern parenting. How do you get a child who likes playing the piano when it’s easy to play to working through difficult passages for long periods of time? Whether it’s reading or math or constructing complex Lego structures, it is tempting to let children slide when things become difficult. (This is a challenge Amy Chua famously addresses in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.) As Hulbert summarizes the tenets: “Start the talent-building process very early; assume the child is sturdy and full of energy; expect feats of mastery; value family loyalty above youthful autonomy or popularity with peers.”

In a world filled with parents who hover over their children and protect them from any bad grade, poor performance, or other disappointment, there is no doubt that a dose of grit will probably help strengthen young people for their journeys to adulthood. But there is a difference between providing them with regular challenges and treating them as shorter versions of adults. As Hulbert concludes: “The last thing prodigies, or any other children, need is to feel that the clock is ticking on their talents.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat.

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