The Downside of Being a Child Prodigy

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Alissa Quart learned to read at three. By the time she was five, her father counted on her to offer presentations on modernist art. In elementary school, she taught her own friends to read. By seven, she had written her first novel; at 10, she was lecturing her companions on everything from film stock to astrology. She routinely read a book a day. When she was a 13-year-old high school freshman, she edited her father's writing. By 17, she had won a dozen creative-writing competitions.

A dream childhood that would handily prepare a bright youngster for the intellectual rigors of life, right? Not really, writes Quart, now 34, in her new book, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child (Penguin Press). "Having been built in the fashion I was as a child — created and then deflated — has left me with a distinct feeling of failure." Quart is unflinchingly honest about her unusual childhood experience. "My father would have bristled at the notion that he was an overbearing puppet master. If I sat absolutely quietly and wrote lyrical verse about tree-tops, I was peachy. My father was hell-bent on bettering my lot — and by extension our family's lot." But, continues Quart in Hothouse Kids, "I was far too young for the Czech films and the difficult novels I was coerced to digest. My father's plan succeeded on one level, of course. I became a hothouse kid."

In her book, Quart explores the pressures that are brought to bear on those children designated gifted or prodigies. True prodigies are very rare, says Quart. Her definition of prodigy: "a child with a skill set or an ability that is incredibly accomplished, far beyond their years." They tend to be in chess, music and math, more in quantitative fields and less in qualitative disciplines, where "kids are gifted in ways that are hard to measure." But then there is Marla Olmstead, a four-year-old artist whom Quart visited, whose dozens of brightly colored abstract oil paintings have brought in $300,000, as well as calls from Oprah and David Letterman. Some prodigies make successful transitions to adult accomplishment, but others flounder as they get older. Gifted children, an intellectual step down from prodigyhood, tend to be identified with high IQ scores. (Quart is quick to say that she herself was not a prodigy.)

In a culture of ambitious parenting that has yielded prenatal child enrichment products (e.g., BabyPlus Womb Songs) and high-concept teaching devices (Baby Einstein DVDs), parents feel an increasing amount of anxiety about helping their offspring keep up with the neighbors' kids. But such measures don't necessarily work, writes Quart, and may even backfire. "Designating children as gifted, especially extremely gifted, and cultivating that giftedness may be not only a waste of money, but positively harmful," she writes. "The overcultivated can develop self-esteem problems and performance anxiety." An extreme example was Brandenn Bremmer, a teenager with an IQ over 160, who made national news when he entered college at age 10. He told Quart in an interview, "America is a society that demands perfection."In March 2005, at the age of 14, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

These issues are not abstractions to Quart, who told TIME that she is still struggling with them. "I just got married, and I'm trying to figure that out how to parent. Children who are told that they're gifted, talented or special may well not perform or feel as good as a child who's merely told, you've done a job nicely, you did it well, I'm so glad you did it like that, you're doing great." Her advice to others? "Emphasize the work in itself, the process itself, the activity. The kids are trying, they're doing a good job, they're learning how to do something. Each thing they do is discrete; it's not part of a larger identity of being spectacular."

Quart sought out former prodigies and gifted kids while researching her book, as well as the parents of high-achieving children. Her hard work has paid off: her book has garnered praise from such publications as Publishers Weekly: "Quart's second book is first-class literary journalism." Mary Pipher, the best-selling author of Reviving Ophelia, is also a fan: "[Quart's] conclusions manage to be both commonsensical and profound. In the end, she makes a scholarly argument for the benefits of sandboxes, recess and goofing off. I love this woman." And many parents might too, if they can benefit from Quart's hard-earned wisdom about how to nurture talent gently, without crushing it.