I’m reading a book about child prodigies because I’m fascinated by the mental health risks of having that label. I was first introduced to the negative impact of being labeled special when my grandma gave me The Drama of the Gifted Child.

I worked at the family bookstore and by age twelve I had read all the books in the store which meant I was great at recommending books to both kids and parents buying books for kids.

“My daughter likes historical fiction.” (Halfway Down Paddy Lane is great.)

“I just read Number the Stars. What is another book like that?” (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit)

“Does Donald Crews have any new books?” (No, but Tana Hoban’s visuals are similar.)

Working at the bookstore was like playing Trivial Pursuit, but only with the literature questions.

Helping customers in our neighborhood bookstore also taught me that all my neighbors thought their kid was gifted.

We now know that gifted is a function of money. Rich kids test higher than other kids, and I grew up in a very rich neighborhood north of Chicago. So parents would always tell me their kid’s age, and add, “but gifted.”

I knew that The Real Thief and The Phantom Tollbooth have a very wide vocabulary but a less mature story line. “It’s important,” I would tell the parents,”that just because your child is gifted doesn’t mean they should skip stories about kids their own age.”

My grandma taught me that. She was a teacher before she was a bookstore owner and she had seen her share of gifted kids pushed way too fast. She gave me the book Drama of a Gifted Child and told me that if you tell a kid they are gifted then they never feel like what they do matters. And what they do is never good enough.

She gave me implicit permission to read below my grade level for most of my life. Even now, I prefer kids books to adult books. (Most recent kid’s book that I loved: Never Fall Down).

When I was a child, the perils of being gifted were just being discovered. Today they are well-documented. And in my son’s cello program the teachers are careful to never mention the word prodigy because it is so unhelpful to the child.

Witnessing a child prodigy is mostly just fun for adults seeing the child in action. The fun ends soon for the kid, because it’s a crapshoot how a child prodigy will fare in adult life.

Ellen Winner, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, says:

A major downside of being a prodigy is that everyone expects you will grow up to become a genius. But the skill of being a child prodigy is qualitatively different from the “skill” of being a creative genius. Child prodigies master an adult domain that has already been invented – whether it is perspective drawing, mathematics, chess, tennis or music. On the other hand, adults we classify as creative geniuses are individuals who have invented or discovered something new, something that changes their domain.

Meanwhile, the celebration of child prodigy continues, especially among homeschoolers where it is perceived as evidence that their choice to homeschool means homeschooling works.

Here’s a list of homeschoolers who are also child prodigies, as if somehow their prodigy and their homeschooling are linked. The blog Capitalism: The Liberal Revolution features ten-year-old wonder Laura Dekker as an example of someone who could have never flourished in school. And I have even toyed with the idea that homeschooling enables prodigy.

It’s so common to point to child prodigies as proof you don’t need to send kids to school, but now I’m thinking it’s proof only that people still obsess about a child being seen as a prodigy, even when it is not good for the child.

The book I’m reading is full of warning stories about child prodigies in the music world. Lorin Maazel was the youngest conductor in the 20th century. He was conducting adults by age 8. But when asked about becoming a professional so early in life, he said he wished that his parents had waited to push him into professional work.

The child prodigies who start in on professional life are are not homeschool-produced. They are simply professionals who are still school age and don’t have time for regular school. They are not evidence that homeschooling works, because the life of a child prodigy is exceptional in a way that is independent of their education—they learn in a way that, in some ways, defies teaching.

But the likelihood that you in fact have a smart, bright child who wants to try new things is high. So encourage your child to find their passion, not because you need them to be a professional, but because you want them to be happy. Homeschooling is a success if the kids have a wonderful childhood filled with self-directed, engaged learning and exploring. I want to point to kids like that as evidence that homeschooling works.

20 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    “Homeschooled kids that fail or have troubled event doesn’t mean homeschooling doesn’t work” would be a good corollary.

    Maybe we’ll know homeschooling has ‘made it’ in society when it evokes the same visceral nature/nurture, cause/effect posturing that topics like religion, gun ownership, gender equality, video-game playing, etc, do today.

  2. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    One of the women on “Stuff you missed in history class” podcast was homeschooled. Now she has a job where she has to pick a new history topic every week, dig in to the research, and produce a podcast about it. To me that seems like such a great outcome. Those women certainly have to be curious adults with a passion for history & making good radio.

  3. MBL
    MBL says:

    Have you reread The Drama of a Gifted Child as an adult? I ask because, perhaps your grandmother gave it to you as a way to cope with your abusive childhood.

    There is an excellent review on Amazon by Jana L. Perskie that clarifies the misleading title.

    “Ms. Miller, who writes an elegant and easily understandable prose, discusses here the issue of children raised by a narcissistic parent(s). She explains that this book is not about high I.Q. children, but about those who were able to survive an abusive childhood because they developed an adequate defense system. At a very early age the child intuitively apprehends the parent’s needs. Since the parent, especially the mother, is the child’s soul source of survival, the child strives to please, fearing disapproval, or abandonment. Thus, the child sublimates his needs for the parent’s. Roles reverse and the child frequently takes on the parent’s responsibility as emotional caregiver. This impedes the growth of a child’s true identity, and a “loss of self” frequently occurs. The child adapts by not “feeling” his own needs, and develops finely tuned antennae, focusing intensely on the needs of the all important other. Ms. Miller writes, “An abused child, (emotionally), does not know it is being abused, and in order to survive and avoid the unbearable pain, the mind is provided with a remarkable mechanism, the ‘gift’ of ‘repression,’ which stores these experiences in a place outside of consciousness.”

    Perhaps there was some relationship to your parents trying to live through your intelligence that also prompted your grandmother’s recommendation, but if the main issue was neglect, then that seems less likely. Regarding how it might relate to pushed prodigies, if the parent’s identity is entirely wrapped up in the child’s performance then it could apply if the child is abused in the pursuit of fame. But it doesn’t apply to the “faster/deeper learner” gifted label.

    I read part of the book several years ago, but for me it was slow going and didn’t finish it. Although I did order after returning the library copy because I thought I might make the effort at a later date.

    It might well be worth a reread for you.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      I was reading some other reviews and remember why I quit reading it. I found it impossible to read and parent without believing that every single choice I had made or would make would scar my daughter for life.

      That and it lead me to resent my parents even more than I already did!

      I just read that the first version–1981– (that PT would have read) focused on narcissistic mothers but later editions included all kinds of abuse. I have the 1997 edition but am not sure which copy I had from the library. Good times.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Wow. I’m shocked. I didn’t see it that way at all as a kid. I have to go look at it again. I’m shocked. Really. I never know what I’m going to learn in the comments section, but I always learn something….

      Penelope

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        The first book that showed me how much I had changed was The Catcher in the Rye. When I was 15 I thought they were really harsh with Holden and that he was fine. When I reread it at 24 I thought “That dude is effed up.”

        Isn’t there something about books revealing more about the reader than about the author? Books are awesome!

        • Leonie
          Leonie says:

          This is so interesting. I had the opposite reaction; I remember having to read the book in middle school and thinking that Holden seemed ridiculous. Many years later when I was in college, I picked up the book again and this time all of Holden’s angst and innocence really resonated with me. It kind of makes me want to read it a third time.

  4. Mel
    Mel says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Penelope’s comment “It’s important,” I would tell the parents,”that just because your child is gifted doesn’t mean they should skip stories about kids their own age.”

    I work in a bookstore and that has got to be one of the most obnoxious comments I hear on an almost hourly basis from parents, grandparents, and relatives who come in to buy books for kids. Seriously, I don’t care about how ‘smart’ or ‘advanced’ your kid is, I want to help you find the best book for them to relate to and enjoy. Also, if every kid I heard about was ACTUALLY as smart as I am told, wouldn’t every school have more kids in AP or gifted classes?

    Let kids be kids and let them enjoy what they read. Don’t push books on them that are not appropriate.

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      I agree. When ever I hear a parent “assign ” reading time, I know they have not found the right book. When a child has the right book they don’t need to be told to read. Do not care about the reading level; just read.

      My older son asked how to advance his reading level and I told him to learn to read a book you dont want to.

      You can’t become well read until you love to read. :)

      • Mel
        Mel says:

        This is so true, when kids come in and are excited to tell me what books they have enjoyed reading you know they will read more if they enjoy it.

        The thing I always tell kids when I hand them books is I invite them to sit at one of our tables or seating areas in the kids department, and to read a couple of pages in each book. Whatever they want to KEEP reading is the book they should pick. I also tell them they won’t hurt my feelings if they don’t like them and ask them to let me know what they think if I haven’t found something for them. Usually kids laugh when I tell them they won’t hurt my feelings. Parents always love that I ask their kids to sit and try the books. *shrug* No reason not to be excited to want to read more of a book you found at a bookstore. :)

  5. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    I agree that gifted should not be used as proof of homeschooling being successful but I don’t think gifted should be written off as just a proud to f economics. I t there can be false gifted cause by ecconomics but gifted isn’t just being smart, it is a mindset. It comes with problems that people over look when patting themselves on the back for having a smart child. You can’t teach a child to be gifted they just are. It’s really a rotten term to use because it makes it sound like just calling someone special but it’s not really. It often comes with emotional problems and asymmetry issues. Sometimes it goes hand in hand with other disabilities but it’s not just being smart or being special.

  6. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    So the prodigy label is detrimental, pushed by parents’ & societies egos, it does not necessarily translate into an adult genius. Interesting & insightful post.

    There is a lovely illustrated children’s book I read to my young kids – “The Boy Who Loved Numbers” about the prodigy-turned-genius mathematician Paul Erdos. My youngest loves it and picks out phrases like ‘He liked rules of maths but not rules of life’. I love it because it also shows the downside of genius and reminds me to be patient with my not-a-genius-but-above-average-for-maths 6 yr old who struggles to get dressed most days.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I especially like the last two paragraphs of this post. I discovered why I don’t like the labels of child prodigy and gifted child. One of the reasons is that it isn’t defined by the child. Also, there is no universally accepted definition of giftedness ( https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness ). As the article states – “Giftedness, intelligence, and talent are fluid concepts and may look different in different contexts and cultures. Even within schools you will find a range of beliefs about the word “gifted,” which has become a term with multiple meanings and much nuance.” I understand the “need” of parents and adults to address this phenomenon in some manner. I just wish they would acknowledge how messy it really is. The above link includes a link to a pdf file which lists each State’s definition of gifted and talented students. The federal government has their own definition.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I forgot to mention why the definition of a child’s giftedness is so important. The meaning will determine “which students will qualify for services, the areas of giftedness to be addressed in programming (e.g., intellectual giftedness generally, specific abilities in math), when the services will be offered, and even why they will be offered.”

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        In some states, like mine, a definition is not required, because no gifted services are provided by the state.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Mark,

      The Columbus group definition of giftedness is pretty much the standard at describing what it is, and is accepted in many countries that recognize giftedness.

      “Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally. (The Columbus Group, 1991)”

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        I disagree it’s pretty much the standard. There’s a lot of definitions out there including the link above which points to numerous States (and school districts I might add) that have their own definition and criteria. I agree, however, that The Columbus Group definition is a good one that looks at giftedness from the child’s perspective. My point is giftedness in a child is not easily or universally agreed upon by everyone who works with them in one capacity or the other. There’s an article ( https://educationaladvancement.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/5-definitions-of-giftedness/ ) titled 5 Definitions of Giftedness at the Institute for Educational Advancement where they use The Columbus Group definition. The best part of the article was the ending – “Due to the variety of definitions in the field, it is often more effective to use specific descriptions of your child’s abilities and insights. This may make it easier for others to understand your child’s needs.” And that’s where I think homeschooling has the opportunity to really shine because learning may be customized best for the individual child.

  8. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    Though I agree with a lot of what you have to say about the problems prodigies can face when dealing with parents who are too heavily invested in their performance (Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is a good place to start with reading about these issues), I am disappointed that you also promote the myth that giftedness is a social construct and a product of wealth. If you’d said testing for giftedness and therefore entry into gifted education programs in most schools is a function of wealth, I would agree with you. (For a introduction on how the two ideas get muddled, you can read this article in the Altantic ). But gifted = wealthy, well educated parents is the same type of mistake that Leo Kanner made in regards to Autism when he was observing it in the population – only the wealthy could afford to jump through all the medical hoops to get a diagnosis, therefore he assumed Autism only appeared in the families of wealthy, well educated parents. This mistake lead to the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory which caused a lot of harm to many Autistic people. Mixing up the same ideas in regard to giftedness can have the similar problems – giftedness comes with its own set of neurological pluses and minuses, including greater risk for a number of different conditions, including ADHD and Autism,(and a number of other conditions as well) which are not necessarily just a function of their parents beliefs or their environment. Just as talking to children (and adults) about how their neurological differences mean that they view and experience the world in a different way can help special needs kids understand why the world can feel so alien and difficult at times, talking to a child or adult about their giftedness and how it affects their perception and experience of the world can also help them enormously as well.

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