Prodigies have problems too

Special to The Times

THE child prodigy is the polite version of the carny freak. Gawking at the dog-faced boy in the sideshow is exploitative, but gawking at the 6-year-old concert pianist on the “Today” show is somehow OK, even inspiring, demonstrating just how high human potential can soar. But what combination of nature and nurture produced that whiz kid, and what will become of him? Will he be happy? Is he now?

In “Hothouse Kids,” Alissa Quart confronts the many-headed question of giftedness -- the public school enrichment classes and IQ tests, the Baby Einstein videos and the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

How do you support a child’s gifts without robbing him of childhood? Does growing a bright kid in a hothouse environment produce a more beautiful bloom or a plant that can’t survive in weather? And is such enrichment increasingly the province of the wealthy?


Quart, herself a former prodigy force-fed art history and film theory by an “overbearing puppet master” of a father, begins with what she calls the Icarus effect, after the classical myth of the boy who flew too close to the sun on his waxen wings and plunged to his death. Modern parents, Quart believes, are increasingly like Daedalus, the boy’s inventor father, strapping artificial wings to their children’s shoulders; the children, like Icarus, are “undone by a failure to accept human limits.” If you are celebrated as a child prodigy, simply growing up can feel like a fall from glory.

There are two basic issues here: how to support exceptionally bright kids, and how to manage exceptionally ambitious parents who blur the line between a child’s will and their own. Quart starts with the second one, describing what she calls the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex -- the conviction among some parents that enough stimulating media and enrichment classes can endow their young offspring with genius. Quart lays it all out, from the prenatal BabyPlus system (a speaker strapped to the pregnant belly) to toddler soccer, French and baby sign language. Her bias is clear. “As long as you don’t put a child in a closet, nutritionally deprive him, or cause trauma to his developing brain, he will naturally learn,” she writes.

Quart firmly believes that exceptionally bright kids need attention. So what is best for the child who is bored to tears by the public school curriculum, the child whose parents can’t afford enrichment programs? Here, Quart declares, is the true dilemma of giftedness, “an American knot, where impassioned ideals of individual excellence and exclusiveness are tied up with our pride in egalitarianism.” Gifted classrooms in public schools are a paradox, simultaneously meritocratic and elitist. The label of giftedness draws resentment from many quarters, whether social, racial or class-based. Compounding the problem, the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act has gutted public enrichment budgets, leading to what Quart calls a “privatization of talent,” in which “increasingly, only affluent families can afford the sobriquet ‘gifted.’ ”

Quart enlivens her argument with plenty of vivid characters -- Scrabble champions, Math Olympians, 4-year-old artists, teenage preachers -- but “Hothouse Kids” is social criticism, not sideshow. She calls for expanded access to and funding for public school gifted programs, with more teacher training and more school psychologists to evaluate talent. Flexible curricula should encourage creativity and risk-taking, enhancing the quality of academic work, not just assigning more of it.

Most of all, Quart advocates a new definition of giftedness. Those former prodigies who grow into successful adults share elusive qualities no video can teach: “intrinsic motivation, resiliency, and mental independence.” And plenty of children are prodigiously strong outside the mediagenic fields of music, math and spelling. She points to Harvard education professor Howard Gardner’s theories of “multiple intelligences,” moving beyond numbers and letters to spatial relations, observation skills and leadership. “Children who can integrate information will be best prepared to be life learners with flexible minds,” Quart concludes. “This sort of flexibility depends, in part, on children not tying learning to obligation -- rather, learning how to learn with a certain lightness and adaptability.”

In other words: Back off, parents. Encourage your child’s interests and leave them time to play. Be willing to follow where they lead. And above all, “exercise restraint.” If we could stop obsessing about future potential, “maybe childhood as it is classically imagined would come back into style: more play, more messing about, more experience of emotion, more obliviousness to time’s passage, more nondirected activity, more living in the present tense.” Quart’s message, thoughtful, often eloquent and bracingly frank, injects common sense into the overwrought rhetoric of parenting.



Janice P. Nimura’s reviews have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.