The Dilemma of the Gifted Child
By Alissa Quart
Penguin Press. 260 pp. $24.95
After four years of parenthood, I have learned one thing: There are more ways to do it wrong than you can possibly imagine. Make sure your offspring are fed, bathed, clothed, read to, and still you will let them down -- by, say, taking them to Kindermusik classes or forcing them to watch Baby Einstein DVDs. The only thing worse than a neglectful parent, it turns out, is an over-involved one.
That's confirmed by Alissa Quart, the well-meaning if not always clear-thinking author of Hothouse Kids . A self-described "culture producer," Quart carries bitter memories of how her father pressured her, from age 3, to be precocious, to excel, to be what we would today call gifted . She read a book a day; she wrote her first novel at 7; she won poetry competitions as a teenager. When she turned 17, she had had enough of "great expectations that I wouldn't begin to fulfill. . . . Having been built in the fashion I was as a child -- created and then deflated -- has left me with a distinct feeling of failure." In many interviews with gifted children (and "ex-gifted" adults) as well as those who assess, coach and study them, Quart collects damning evidence of this phenomenon, which she calls the Icarus Effect. As aficionados of Greek mythology will recall, Icarus flew too close to the sun with the wax-and-feathers wings that his father, Daedalus, made for him. The wax melted, and Icarus plunged to his death. Quart suggests this as a cautionary tale about parents who put too much pressure on their kids to be high flyers -- although it was Icarus who got carried away and ignored his father's warning not to fly too high.
Whatever. Quart's point is that from the time they're fetuses until they're old enough to be high-school math champions, we put pressure on our children to fly as high as they can -- to be the best they can or rather the best that we think they ought to be, which is better than everybody else. So they're not just bright, they're "gifted" or "extremely gifted." Everybody's kid's a genius, right? If they're not, they could be -- or would be, with the right early training. Or so the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex," as Quart terms it, would have us believe.
We blast our developing fetuses with Mozart to give them a leg up in life. We park our 6-month-olds in front of "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" videos, whose bells and whistles are supposed to kick developing neurons into overdrive. We drag our toddlers to early-childhood "enrichment" classes and subject them to IQ tests as preschoolers to ensure that they get the best "gifted" education, if we're lucky enough to live in a place that offers it or rich enough to pay for private schools and tutors.
By the time they're teens, we've groomed our children to take no prisoners at Scrabble tournaments, in science competitions and at national spelling bees. These events may, if they (we) are lucky, earn them scholarships, national media exposure and maybe even a shot at Wall Street. Quart includes a chapter on math whizzes who are courted by financial firms as well as by government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.
Not only does this deprive kids of the proper fun of childhood, Quart argues, it can kill the drive to master something for its own sake. Too much early pressure can jeopardize kids' ability to become successful, self-motivated adults. She offers up a number of cautionary tales, such as the one about the pianist whose father drove him so hard that he gave up the instrument by the time he was 7 years old. And then there's the sad case of Brandenn Bremmer, a "profoundly gifted" 14-year-old who killed himself in March 2005. He apparently left no note to explain the act, but "the earth is not a happy place for PGs," as a mother of gifted children put it.
What, exactly, does it mean to be "profoundly gifted" or even just plain old "gifted"? Experts disagree. So do a battery of IQ tests. Quart herself doesn't seem clear on the point, and that's one of the great weaknesses of her book; she relies on Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary to get a handle on the term, and never narrows down exactly what, or whom, she's talking about. Instead we get a grab bag of giftedness: an anecdote here, a statistic or expert's quote there. Perhaps if I were a more gifted reader I would have detected some organizing principle, but too often I felt myself adrift in a sea of acronyms (who knew that gifted children had so many groups devoted to their cultivation?), study findings and mini-reports from conferences and competitions.
Instead, I wanted to hear more about the children themselves and how they feel about the whole messy enterprise. Hothouse Kids works best when Quart sticks to the stories of talented children and the parents who stand behind them ready to give them a push (and another, and another, and another). Many such stories make you vow, as a parent, to be as hands-off as possible -- or, as my husband puts it, just try not to get in the way. Was it really a good idea for the parents of painting sensation Marla Olmstead, now all of 4 years old, to position their daughter as a Major Talent and sell her artwork for $15,000 a pop? That's a nice chunk of change for the college fund, but I doubt that Marla enjoys slapping paint on canvas because she earns a bundle doing it. At least I hope she doesn't. And, as Quart points out, Marla's dad was caught on videotape coaching his daughter in the studio.
Quart seems to have her doubts about many of the parents she interviews and their "extreme parenting" style, although she's careful to try to see decent motives behind the pressures they put on their children. Many have been thwarted in their own ambitions and hope to protect the next generation from life's slings and arrows. It's not wrong, after all, to want to give your kid a head start in a competitive world.
And yet, as Quart and many of her experts ask, when did children's play start to look so much like adults' work? What happened to doing something because you love it, not because it's going to prove that you (or those who produced you) have the Right Stuff? Those are questions most parents could usefully ask ourselves, whether or not we're out there clacking the castanets in Kindermusik with the best of them. ·
Jennifer Howard, a staff writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the mother of a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.