Friday, October 13, 2006

Child Prodigies

I worry too much about my kids. I forget what I was like as a child -- hopeless at school and socially awkward. Yet today, although I'm no Nobel Prize winner, I get by. Ironically, I'm making my living doing precisely what I most struggled with as a student. I learned to write years later than my peers, but ended up employed for the past 20 years doing just that.

One of my favorite writers, Malcolm Gladwell , gave a speech, summarized here, that's really worth reading on the "myth of prodigy." It's a good reminder that I need to worry less if not all my children are at the top of the class. A snippet:

Gladwell cited a mid-1980s study (Genius Revisited) of adults who had attended New York City’s prestigious Hunter College Elementary School, which only admits children with an IQ of 155 or above. Hunter College was founded in the 1920s to be a training ground for the country’s future intellectual elite. Yet the fate of its child-geniuses was, well, “simply okay.” Thirty years down the road, the Hunter alums in the study were all doing pretty well, were reasonably well adjusted and happy, and most had good jobs and many had graduate degrees. But Gladwell was struck by what he called the “disappointed tone of the book”: None of the Hunter alums were superstars or Nobel- or Pulitzer-prize winners; there were no people who were nationally known in their fields. “These were genius kids but they were not genius adults.”
Now look at it the other way:

The other way to look at precocity is of course to work backward — to look at adult geniuses and see what they were like as kids. A number of studies have taken this approach, Gladwell said, and they find a similar pattern. A study of 200 highly accomplished adults found that just 34 percent had been considered in any way precocious as children. He also read a long list of historical geniuses who had been notably undistinguished as children — a list including Copernicus, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, Beethoven, Kant, and Leonardo Da Vinci (“that famous code-maker”). “None of [them] would have made it into Hunter College,” Gladwell observed.
In fact, being considered a child prodigy can be a handicap, Gladwell says. The one "poster child" for precociousness, Mozart, in fact, isn't. What he did, perhaps via a pushy father, was work his tail off.

Here in the U.K., even more so than in the U.S., the focus is on spotting talent early, and giving up on the rest quickly. You're pegged as university-bound at 11 and football-player material at 7 or 8. Students here have to make drastic choices on their future at 13 or 14, deciding whether to stick with maths and science, or give up on foreign languages. At that age, I'd be pegged as a non-achiever and relegated to stopping after high school (if I even made it that far).

My advice to my kids is to keep your options open, with basic and broad subjects, and don't get pegged. It's hard work, like swimming upstream. The schools want you to decide, or they'll decide for you. I need to send a few of those teachers a copy of Gladwell's speech.

In the meantime, though, all of my kids are more socially adjusted and doing better at school than I ever did. Their struggles are minor, not major. They'll be OK.