Prodigies and the push to excel

Special to The Times

Being raised to be exceptional can cause exceptional problems; Alissa Quart should know. The 34-year-old author of a new book "Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child," Quart read at age 3 and wrote her first novel when she was 7. In her book, she argues that today's parents' need to enrich children with special classes, jammed-packed schedules and learning tools can leave a lasting legacy.

And not one the parents had in mind.

The pressures put on children, especially gifted children and prodigies, create debilitating perfectionism, performance anxiety and lifelong feelings of not being able to keep up, she writes.

"I think some of the parents right now wish they were hothouse kids," she said in a recent interview, referring to the term some have used for today's gifted kids. "They are trying to correct something from their childhoods with over-parenting, then neglect."

In her book, she takes on the pressure to excel in life early, with examples of a 4-year-old whose finger paintings sell for $300,000 to an 8-year-old professional skateboarder who already has nine corporate sponsors. She explores the world of baby "edutainment products" and visits children's intellectual competitive events, such as chess and Scrabble tournaments, as well as interviewing gifted children about their lives.

The book is "a wish for moderation and a correction of this privatization of talent. Childhood is a symbol of what is out of balance in our society, out of whack," Quart said. "What is childhood today?"

A lot of parents are wondering the same thing.

Phone lines were jammed with callers in September when Quart appeared in Pasadena for an interview on public radio station KPCC. A mother who worked at the station approached Quart and told her of the dilemma she faced in deciding how to best educate her gifted child. Quart, a slim young woman who looks younger than she is in dark jeans, gold open-toed shoes and toting a teal leather bag stained at the bottom, smiled and listened carefully.

"I'm never quite sure what to say. I'm just a reporter," she said later. "Parents come up to me all the time looking for answers, but there's not a right way or a wrong way."

Quart, a native New Yorker and a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York, is the only child of two academics who prized education and intelligence. Her father especially was "hell-bent on bettering my lot -- and by extension our family's lot -- and keep me from languishing in what he considered the Blank Generation." To achieve this, he drilled her on the names of B-movie actresses, revolutionary movements and vocabulary.

Her father, she finds in her book, was like many parents of gifted children, operating in what she dubs an "age of economic anxiety." Some parents see gifted children as some sort of insurance as they try to navigate the middle class without a safety net, Quart said. With so much competition for everything from the best summer camps to permanent jobs, children are working harder than ever to achieve and so are their parents, as they use their gifted child to attain class mobility or to ensure the family's place in the social strata, she writes.

Quart names this pressure to achieve the "Icarus Effect," after the story of Icarus, in Greek mythology. Icarus' father, Daedalus, was an inventor who supplied Icarus with artificial wings made of wax and feathers and warned his son not to fly too high or low. Of course, he flew too high, the wings melted and he fell to the sea.

While Quart never fell into the sea, she said she struggled with a "distinct feeling of failure" as she grew older, in part because of the high expectations placed on her.

But on the flip side, she says, her childhood made her the person she is today: a writer.

"In a lot of ways, I had a wonderful childhood. My father made me who I am; he was incredibly intellectually generous," she said.

"I felt special and I had a confidence in myself. It really is a blessing and a curse."

Quart believes it is important that gifted children remain in the public school system, but notes that at the same time gifted programs at public schools across the country are being cut dramatically.

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