November 15, 2006

Hothouse Kids: When Smart Kids Are Born To Dumb Parents

Let's be real about something: Einstein was a freak. Do you really want your kid to be spelling bee-winning, college-at-12-going, forgets-to-eat-for-3-days-zoning freak? No.

So put down that DVD and that womb music enhancement system--which don't work anyway--and read Alissa Quart's book, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of The Gifted Child:

Quart identifies and sympathizes with the children in her book because she was a hothouse child too. She describes her father as an "overbearing puppet master" who quizzed her on topics from modernist art to revolutionary political movements and controlled whom she could be friends with (no losers allowed). She skipped a grade, wrote a novel at the age of seven, and was told by an author that she would be the "next great American poet." While it's certain she's no slouch, not living up to her father's impossibly high expectations left her feeling like a failure.

This feeling, which often lasts a lifetime, she calls the Icarus Effect, and it's one of her strongest arguments against the creation of gifted children. Through numerous interviews with adults who were described as gifted or extremely gifted as children, she found many were "ultimately disappointed in adulthood and resentful of their early training." And once a child is associated with a specific talent, such as Marla and her finger painting, it's difficult to break free and feel successful at something new. Will Marla's parents allow her to quit their lucrative business if she suddenly finds a passion for something less glamorous, like saving the whales? Or will she spend the rest of her life struggling to maintain her status as a "gifted" painter?

Keeping Up With The Einsteins [villagevoice]
Buy Hothouse Kids on Amazon [amazon]
FYI: Marla is Marla Olmstead, a 6-yo whose parents have turned into a working artist


Also "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids" by Alexandra Robbins. As a prep-school teacher, I can testify that her observations are right on target. The book also features a chapter on competitve NYC preschool admissions. Always good for a chuckle here in the heartland.

I'm fascinated by this topic. As an ex-gifto, the special attention was a mixed bag.

On the one hand, montessori-style enrichment was an amazing thing (I actually learned to type in the 1st grade in the 80's!). The opportunities that came with being "identified" were great too.

The other hand had practical and emotional implications. Too much positive attention was given to "being smart". As a kid and a natural pleaser, I kept looking for the easy things to wow adults with and didn't build a whole lot of academic discipline. It worked out as I've managed to build a career in the arts, but it was disasterous as a 16-year-old at a university. It's hard enough for a young person not to wear identities as prison sentences - but what happens when you're "brilliant" and you lose your scholarship because you have absolutely no idea how to apply yourself? Fun times.

Emotionally, extremely intelligent kids tend to have difficulty in their peer groups. I'm certain I lagged behind a couple of years socially. Sometimes I wish more attention had been paid to developing that side of my brain than learning algebra in elementary school.

It's actually one of the bigger topics on my mind as we're expecting our first child. If she turns out to be exceptionally bright, we'll give her every opportunity in the world, but hopefully we won't over-emphasize any of it. I will put more emphasis on building social skills and raising a decent human being. And, honestly, if she hasn't taught herself to read by 2, I'll probably breathe a little sigh of relief.

[well sure, if you're kid's not reading by the time she's 2, then she's not "gifted" anyway. Better to prepare her for a life of amiable mediocrity; that's our mantra. -ed.]

Here's something for the DVD extras of Daddytypes: I built especially for the new book (she's the new wife of an old friend)

I'm of the opinion that pretty much every kid is smarter than their parents from day 1. We just make them dumber by the minute.

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