How do you raise a child prodigy?

How Do You Raise a Prodigy? asks Andrew Solomon in the New York Times Magazine.

Chloe Yu’s son, Marc, “picked out a few tunes on the piano with two fingers” when he was “almost 3.” As a preschooler, he began performing at retirement homes. By 5, he added the cello.

At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.

Marc was being home-schooled to accommodate his performance and practice schedule. At the age of a third-grader, he was taking an SAT class. . . . “In America, every kid has to be well rounded,” Chloe said. “They have 10 different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average. This is wonderful for disabled children, who get things they would never have otherwise, but it’s a disaster for gifted children. Why should Marc spend his life learning sports he’s not interested in when he has this superb gift that gives him so much joy?”

. . . Marc sat on a phone book on the piano bench so his hands would be high enough to play comfortably and launched into Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” which he imbued with a quality of nuanced yearning that seemed almost inconceivable in someone with a shelf of Cookie Monster videos. “You see?” Chloe said to me. “He’s not a normal child. Why should he have a normal childhood?”

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, a conductor and a former wunderkind, thinks the U.S. education system has little tolerance for spiky genius. “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”

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Comments

  1. The US system, with too-rare exceptions, has little interest in above-average kids at any level; above-average defined according to the average of the school and/or district. There’s a regular whine about the TJ magnet in the WaPo and it’s been joined by a whine in the NYT about NYC’s exam schools. Not only is the system, and often the community, uninterested in offering challenging work for above-average kids (let alone gifted or genius-level), there is specific animus against it. Elitist is one of the kindest terms used for any such programs, right down to the idea of grouping ES kids according to academic level.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    To raise a prodigy one should avoid all advice offered via articles in the New York Times Magazine.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    Botstein may be right about Beethoven in our modern society, but the real Beethoven had a very unhappy life due in part to his lack of social skills and extremely one sided education.

    • Maybe so George, but having taught high school; I can tell you there are plenty of very unhappy kids there right now even so. Formal school is not the only, and likely not even the best, way to get “social skills.” However, it IS the cheapest route for most child progeny.

      • George Larson says:

        Sean

        You are right about unhappy children in our schools, and Beethoven would not have been well served by our schools, but Beethoven’s inability to get along with anyone as an adult was a source of great sadness for him and a lot of his professional difficuly. Someone described him as too great for hypocritical humility and choosing honest arrogance did not work for him.

  4. It’s an issue at all levels. However, if one is clearly a prodigy, it will often be easier to get specialized help. It’s the above average middle kids that are at the biggest risk. I find it interesting that in sports, skills are king and there are many people (parents and coaches) who look for kids with high potential. The assistance may come from programs outside of the school, but these kids are recruited and opportunities appear. When it comes to academics, however, there is almost a dislike of smart kids in the lower grades. Many dismiss or don’t want to see the signs. I’ve had early grade teachers go out of their way to make sure my wife and I knew that our son was just not that smart even though we never said a word about it. I called them preemptive strikes. Differentiated instruction consisted of differentiated homework.

    Once he got into the later grades, teachers went out of their way to ignore it. One math teacher seemed to revel whenever he made a mistake. In high school, many teachers like to teach these smart-ass honors kids a lesson by giving them zeros. Our son loves math and science because it’s harder to get away with that crap.

    I don’t expect schools to be able to provide for the specialized needs of prodigies or even above average students, but I do expect them to be recognized and offered opportunities, even if they are outside of school. When my son was in fifth grade, he did well enough on a standardized test to be able to take the Johns Hopkins CTY test. The principal didn’t tell any of the parents because he didn’t want to deal with what they might expect from the school. Incredible. Actually, that reminds me of the movie “The Incredibles”.

  5. The U.S. has not exactly fared poorly on the basis of a popular desire for well-rounded kids. Let’s recall also that while there are exceptions, most prodigies don’t become top performers in their field once they reach adulthood. Sometimes becoming the ‘best prodigy’ means sacrificing a lot of other interests, social opportunities and the like – but if all that effort is going to lead you to be the 10th-best, 100th-best or 1,000th-best prodigy, there’s a case to be made for keeping life in perspective. The child who inspired the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer, comes to mind.

    Public schools on the whole do a poor job with better performing students – it’s largely assumed that better students will muddle through. Prodigies are even more complicated given that they may have skills that far exceed their teacher’s or are completely outside of the scope of what is taught in a public school. With music programs cut or eliminated in many public schools, often from a pretty minimal starting point, a music prodigy is unlikely to be nurtured in his talent within the context of school.

    Prodigies with skills that align with the content of a public school education should have an opportunity to succeed, to excel, in school. And perhaps we as a society should consider how we can nurture or foster prodigies whose talents aren’t adequately supported by schools, or aren’t supported at all. But let’s be honest – our schools are about teaching to a pretty low common denominator and, as a society, that’s all we’re presently willing to pay for.