Thursday, November 1, 2012


On Raising Prodigies

“He was reading textbooks this big, and they’re in class holding up a blowup M,” she said. Drew, who is now 18, said: “At first, it felt lonely. Then you accept that, yes, you’re different from everyone else, but people will be your friends anyway.” Drew’s parents moved him to a private school. They bought him a new piano, because he announced at 7 that their upright lacked dynamic contrast. “It cost more money than we’d ever paid for anything except a down payment on a house,” Sue said.

A long-read on parenting a child prodigy. (Also: "Parenting a Prodigy Is Less Fun Than It Looks.")

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Humbling moments, on the first day of a class in sophomore year college mathematics (Complex Analysis):

*We see a ten year old boy sitting and drawing on a pad of paper at the desk next to us.*

Us: "Hehe, are you gonna be taking this class too?"

Boy: "Yeah, I'm shopping it. I'm either taking this or Real Analysis."

Us: ...

The Hyperbolic Julia Set

@TheBourneApproximation Or when you find out the ages at which mathematicians published their works. Makes you feel real smart to be struggling with it at 20-something in college... (Gauss, I'm looking at you!)


(@TheBourneApproximation high fives the @The Hyperbolic Julia Set! Go team obscure STEM username!)


Very interesting subject@t


Rrrrreally glad I'm not a prodigy.


Um, just because he's a prodigy doesn't mean you have to buy him a million dollar piano. You tell that little snob to suck it up.


@Megano! But the other ones sound like cabbage! I don't even know what cabbage sounds like! I am obviously not a musical prodigy of any kind.

oh! valencia

@swirrlygrrl That sounded like an awesome Russian expression to me! I liked that part.


@Megano! Aw, come on now.


Yeah if my kid ever says we need a better piano 'cause the one I hypothetically would have at that point doesn't have enough dynamic contrast, he's getting a "You play on the one your momma waited 30 years for or you don't play at all."

I learned just fine on my mom's 40 year old upright thankyouverymuch. ALSO DYNAMIC CONTRAST?! HIT THE KEYS HARDER AND IT'LL GET LOUDER, KID.

Apparently I have pianist rage.

@Scandyhoovian Seriously, this. What does it say about your parenting skills when you can't explain to your prodigy kid that no, he doesn't get a fancy piano on a whim.

Oh, Seagull

@Scandyhoovian I feel like my pianist rage came out when I tried to imagine a five year old's hands reaching an octave (or more) while playing Beethoven sonatas at Carnegie Hall (also, Beethoven and Carnegie Hall.. Prodigies! Where is the originality?). But I'm a jerk.


@Scandyhoovian Am I the only one who doesn't think the request came on a whim? It's an all-consuming passion, literally the only thing she cared about, and at 7 years old or whatever I doubt she even had a concept of what it cost. Prodigal or no.

Plant Fire

@Scandyhoovian I just don't understand why being so amazing at the piano meant he needed an expensive one? Couldn't he have just learned to deal with the lack of dynamic contrast? I used to be very involved in music but had a terrible terrible piece of crap saxophone that all of my teachers from age 13 all through college begged me to get rid of. But my parents weren't going to spend thousands of dollars on a new instrument so I learned to work with it and deal with the quirks of my instrument and it never stopped me from doing well in auditions and playing in various competitions and honor band type things. To the point where most people didn't realize how bad my saxophone was until they looked at it up close, because I learned to work with it. And since I'm not a child prodigy or a musical genius there is no reason why someone smarter and better at music than me could do the same.

@tatianaberg@twitter Yes, sure, the kid is 7 and has no concept of cost and is all-consumed by the piano. I get that for her, it's not a whim. But for the parents, seriously? I'd like to think that if the day comes, I'll be a generous and understanding parent, but buying a piano for my child that costs as much as the house because she wants it would be unreasonable. There are alternatives, like going to your local college or university or music school or church to practice. But yeah, the parents sound outrageous.


@tatianaberg@twitter My issue isn't with the kid wanting the piano. She's a kid, she likely doesn't understand quite what it means financially to ask your parents to replace a piano. My issue is with the parents that actually did it. A piano is a piano, and you can learn just as well on one with faults as you can with one that's in pristine condition. The parents did not have to drop all that money on the piano and the fact that they did kind of smacks of "my kid is spoiled and runs the house" to me.

I don't know, maybe it's different if you have that kind of money just lying around somewhere, but I cannot see any logic or reason behind replacing a perfectly good piano because a 7-year-old, prodigy or not, says it's got something wrong with it.

@Scandyhoovian That's exactly what I thought.


@S. Elizabeth The piano didn't cost as much as a house, they said it was the second most expensive thing they'd ever bought, next to their down payment, I think? Doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world to spend your money on, if they have it, to me.

The Hyperbolic Julia Set

Hahaha, I'm no prodigy but I always a straight A student, and man his conclusion brought back so many memories of my dad ranting. He likes to call "No Child Left Behind" "Let's all just sit around and wait for your kid to catch up" followed by an exasperated sigh and his expletive of choice.


@The Hyperbolic Julia Set LOL, that is amazing. I'm totally telling my dad that.

oh! valencia

"Recent neuroscience demonstrates that the processes of creativity and psychosis map similarly in the brain"


@oh! valencia This explains so much about some(all) my exes.


Many feelings from observing acquaintances with a bonafide Boy Genius on their hands: Please I don't ever want one. They are perpetually anxious. They do not see many happy, well-adjusted grown up (or god, adolescent) geniuses out there. Also, no one really understands, and not much sympathy available even for things like, "It really costs a lot too." The piano thing? They get ten opportunities a week to spend huge sums on money on properly fostering that budding intellect.

Reginal T. Squirge

I'm actually really surprised you found a picture of an inflatable "M".


As a person who only reads the NYT through jokey links, I have no illusions about whether I will ever need this information.

Blackwatch Plaid

@themmases With the direction the quality of the NYT has taken, I think jokey links are the only way to go.


I'm no prodigy but I skipped a grade in elementary school and it took me being held back twice in middle school before I caught up socially. Needless to say I'm hugely in favour of fostering social skills over intellectual ones anytime.

@brinylon Truth. I was placed in kindergarten early. It was awful, I was a tiny 4 year old in kindergarten, which meant I was 10 in middle school, 13 in high school, and spent the entire first semester of college as a 17 year old. Why anyone in their right mind thought that would be okay is beyond me. Intellectual skills be damned, there are certain developmental differences between a 12 year old and a 14 year old, and putting them in the same classroom with the same expectations is seriously fucked up.

oh! valencia

@S. Elizabeth Thank you for this, because my 4-year-old is quite ready for kindergarten but my school district strictly Doesn't Do That, and now I understand why.
My mom told me much later that when I was in elementary they wanted to skip me ahead but she wouldn't let them because I was so small. And I was still 17 when I graduated. So, thanks, mom.

@oh! valencia Trust me, you're doing the right thing. I have a december birthday, so I was YOUNG young for my grade. It's just so shitty.

I remember trying to admit to kids in my grade that I couldn't ride a 2 wheeled bike without training wheels in the 2nd grade. Yeah, "wow a 2nd grader needs training wheels!??!?!" Yes, because I was a 6 year old girl. But when half of your class is already 8 and don't understand that you're 6 years old, it's hard.

Or when you're trying to understand why everyone else looks like a grown-up and you're a flat-chested kid. It fucked with my body image.

Or when you're 14 and there are kids in your grade who can drive.

Or when you're 16 and have a college acceptance letter in your hands. Yeah, I applied to college at 16. Major life decisions!

Plant Fire

@brinylon This. A couple times in elementary school teachers asked my mom if they could move me up a couple grades and I'm so so glad she said no (she was a november baby and so she went to college at 17 and wanted me to be in an age appropriate setting). There's no reason why you cant just involve a kid in academic extracurriculars or have them take community college classes on the side in high school or do advanced math problems after school or something that allows them to get the education they need while still being in the right grade level socially.


@S. Elizabeth I was in the exact same boat-- and finished college at 20. And then spent a glorious year on campus working a minimum wage job and hanging out at the bar with my friends who hadn't graduated yet once I turned 21.

Whether it made it worse or better, I was still in the top 5 tallest girls in my class, and developed early, so no one ever realized I was younger-- just terribly awkward and socially immature.

I'm still not sure though what would have happened if I hadn't skipped kindergarten. I was already so bored through maybe 8th grade in school that I barely paid attention. Would I have completely shut down academically if I'd stayed with my age group?


Why do they have to publish these pieces online so far ahead of time? I get the paper NYT every day and I hate reading articles online. When they do this everyone is already done talking about it by the time I read it in the paper normally, like you're supposed to. Fuck this! Also, Malcolm Gladwell already wrote a long article about the difficulties of genius.

I taught myself to read when I was three and could read the New Yorker by the time I was in kindergarten, so reading in school was always pretty boring for me. Also, I was a very sensitive kid and ALWAYS accidentally reading things that upset me. I could also read preternaturally fast. That's my only brush with genius. Anything that sets you apart from your peers that much more than the average smart kid experiences just seems sad.


@Ellie I had a similar experience-- though my parents didn't go out of their way to "foster my genius," whatever it may have been. They always put me the enrichment programs at my various public schools (my dad was military, so I attended 5 in total) and gave me plenty to read. Honestly, they used to celebrate when I got a less-than-perfect score on something, because it meant I was normal!

By high school, the professors' kids had a lot more opportunities to do things like take non-linear algebra over the summer and clone cells at science camp, so they stood out as the superstars and I settled into the middle of the smart-kid pack.

Reversion to the mean: it happens sooner for some of us than for others!


@Ellie Ditto. I read Little Women in kindergarten, and was totally overwhelmed by Beth dying...just because I could read/understand the words...


Oh weird, that happened to me when I was 5 and Im still getting over it.


@Ellie I was the same way you were - preternaturally fast reader, reading WAYYYY above my grade level, so on. But that and a knack for musical things are my only noticeably-above-average skills, which don't actually do much for you in the real adult world, strangely enough.

The hard part was getting hit in the face with THAT reality, actually. I spent most of my early years thinking I'd be a world-class musician selling billions of copies of me playing classical music. When I learned that 99.9% of musicians scrape by for a living... man. Childhood dreams, shattered.


@Ophelia I read Little House on the Prairie in kindergarten. Then I got scarlet fever in February of kindergarten. My mother has a lot of stories about trying to convince me that I was not, in fact, going to end up blind.


@Ellie I was pretty similar in terms of reading ability. I was lucky because I was homeschooled so I got to be challenged intellectually, but being more advanced than my peers really did a number on my social skills/anxiety. I really hope if I ever have kids, they are just average smart.


@Ellie YES! I found out "the truth about Santa" by reading!


@angelinha I mean, not that it was a huge surprise to anyone that I was reading at age 9, but still.


@Ellie I'm coming from a similar place, too! My dad taught me to read before I was 3, and I remember the first day of first grade and thinking it was so stupid that they were teaching every other kid to read their first two words. I almost got skipped ahead a grade that year, too, and I was pissed when they decided not to let me do it. Mom also discovered I have perfect pitch when I was 4 and started me in piano immediately. It's still easy for me to learn to play a new instrument in very little time(I can play around 7 different ones) and I was also nicknamed "the human dictionary" in school because of my spelling abilities.

Buuuut it turned out that I was also born a slacker with some authority problems, so I didn't end up being a stellar student. I'm still an excellent learner, but not much of an achiever. I wonder if it was because school was so easy for me for the first few years.


Anyone else spend their childhood disappointed that they weren't a prodigy? I don't know where I learned about them, but I distinctly remember being irritated that I would actually have to take the time to learn a new subject and it didn't just automatically come to me. I was a fairly smart kid and a advanced readers, but I generally walked around disappointed with myself for not being smarter than I was. (No parental pressure, they were just excited that I COULD read...)

fata morgana

Oof, I am always so conflicted about these sorts of articles. I'm not a prodigy, but I skipped two grades as a little kid. Started 6th grade as a 9 year old, high school at 12, and college at one of the "little Ivies" when I was 16. And... sometimes it sucked. Kids in middle school would get mad at me if teachers didn't let them bring PG-13 movies for us to watch on bus trips, I was REALLY squeamish about the idea of puberty when I was woefully childlike and my classmates were all a foot taller and sprouting hair and breasts, a lot of people (adults and kids) didn't even try to hide the fact that they expected me to fail and be held back/have a nervous breakdown, and ultimately I developed a pretty nasty superiority complex that didn't get crushed til college. It's hard to stay grounded and likable and pleasant when everyone always calls you a genius, as both a compliment and an insult, and it's hard when you realize you're not the smartest person alive. It's hard to be way shorter and shyer than everyone else. It's not a course I would recommend. The article mentions that prodigy comes from the Latin for a "monster who upsets the natural order," and I did grow up feeling a little monstrous.

But I feel like there's often a big rush to insist that these kids can never be as mature as the kids a few years older. I'm not saying I was 100% mature 100% of the time–– I was not. I am not. It's always been hard for me to deal with any kind of criticism, and I don't hide my thin skinnedness well–– but I definitely don't think I was less mature than my classmates. I was always pretty good at sitting still and listening to the teacher, at doing my homework and staying organized, at empathizing with other outcasts, and not being overly competitive.

I can't imagine how much worse my ego would have been if I hadn't skipped grades. The problem is that we really don't have a lot of options for smart kids, as a lot of you have already pointed out, and if I had been bored, I think I would have just ended up further exaggerating my perception of my own "genius." So I get frustrated when people assume overly intellectual kids really need to go outside and ride a bike.

I don't know if this is even relevant, but *~FEELINGS EXPLOSION~*. Thanks, 'Pinners!


@fata morgana I went to an elementary school that considered grade levels to be 'suggestions' and banned the word 'gifted'. As far as I know they didn't have any geniuses, just smart and not-as-smart kids but I have wondered if that system would work better or worse than the normal one with a kid like that.

@fata morgana I was a year older than you in all of those events, but I can assure you -- I understand how shitty it was. *hugs* Therapy has really helped me with this, since I have a lot of feelings about it... a lot of resentment toward my well-meaning parents, a lot of resentment toward school systems that didn't think about how awful my/our situation was, a lot about how my perceptions of myself are shaped by being younger than my "peers."

Regina Phalange

Hmm. I wasn't a prodigy, but I was a talented public speaker growing up (a talent that stopped improving when I got to college, and frankly, I think I'm regressing). My parents were completely broke and 100% unimpressed, which led to an interesting dynamic; I would do these local speech competitions with kids whose parents were super-invested in their "careers." We were pretty judgmental about those families, but I guess it comes from a place of love. I also wonder what kinds of effects that has on self-esteem; I struggle with massive impostor syndrome, and while I know a lot of people have it, the folks I know whose parents really inculcated the idea of specialness and intelligence just seem better-equipped for that fight.


I think I'm having a FeelingsExplosion about this. I was kind of an artistic prodigy as a kid, but my parents were failed musicians and also Narcissists, so they were very uncomfortable at the thought of their child excelling in a sphere that they considered "theirs" (and also that was not exactly "theirs"--since it didn't reflect their interests *exactly*--not that they wouldn't have been even more unhappy about that...it's complicated). So they did everything they could to squash and belittle my artistic inclinations. As a result, I picked a more lucrative field (academia--haha), and have massive impostor syndrome, both while doing art and while identifying as a sometime-academic. It really wasn't that they didn't want to see me fail the way they had, but that they didn't want to see me succeed the way they hadn't (they were explicit about finding the idea offensive). I'm sorry to say it, but I get really envious when I read these articles about parents buying their musical prodigies grand pianos and encouraging them, even if they take it to an extreme. It's like, "wow--people do that?!" I mean, not that I needed a grand piano, but how about art lessons? Sheesh.


"So they did everything they could to squash and belittle my artistic inclinations."
That's terrible, I'm so sorry you had to go through that. No child should ever be belittled, and having seen the look on my nephew's little face when his peers do that, I can only imagine how hard it must be when it comes from one's own parents.


@formergr Thanks--I appreciate what you said! It's OK; I'm actually not as screwed up as I might be, and I just started therapy (woohoo!), which should help with art and other Issues. Articles like this are also possibly helpful examples of how to encourage my future kids to find and develop their own interests and skills--something I'd like to do but have no experience being on the receiving end of, so to speak.

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