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.)
“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.