In her latest book, Off the Charts, Ann Hulbert explores the lives of 15 brilliant child prodigies and the lessons they can provide for parents in today’s hyper-competitive world. We asked Hulbert about the pitfalls of early genius, common mistakes made while parenting prodigies and more.
Off the Charts seems to be about parents almost as much as children. What are the most common mistakes parents can make when confronted with genius?
In a nutshell: Parents are prone to butt in too much, and to forget that childhood happens only once and goes by very quickly. Remarkable talents in children usually emerge because they go hand-in-hand with unusually intense interests. A small boy notices numbers everywhere and loves doing complicated calculations in his head. A little girl is a total bookworm and gets hooked on typing, creating her own startling poems or stories. Kids who are so avid about their preoccupations, and who make such extraordinary progress, generally welcome adult interest and encouragement. They need it, too. But they also thrive with absorbing play, pursued for its own sake—not an adult specialty. What parents are all too tempted to do, especially when stunned by youthful genius and steeped in a rug-rat-race culture like ours, is to turn self-driven pursuits into a structured enterprise with milestones to meet in a hurry. When their zeal blinds them to children’s own perspective, beware.
Why is society so fascinated with child prodigies?
Seeing children do amazing, age-inappropriate feats is bound to be both thrilling and unsettling. As rarities who flout the natural order of development, prodigies have been greeted down the ages as wondrous anomalies. But they’ve also been scrutinized as auguries bearing messages—often conflicting ones—about change. Phenomenal children raise hopes that human potential may reach new heights; for example, when Harvard welcomed two very precocious boys, both great at math, in 1909, their fathers promised genius could be unleashed in others and social progress would accelerate. Seventy years later, computer prodigies challenged adult authority, stirring fears of grown-ups left in the dust—and of rising inequality in an ever faster-paced future. Excitement and apprehension greet prodigies again and again, guaranteeing lots of attention—and confusion, too. These days, as we worry over the excesses of a meritocracy that prizes early high achievement, burned-out prodigies confirm our worst fears, even as off-the-charts young marvels continue to inspire us.
Did your research shatter any preconceived notions you had about child prodigies?
I expected the trajectories of prodigies to be more streamlined than the meandering paths of ordinary children. The truth is, the lives of the children I explore—even the studiously choreographed existence of, say, Shirley Temple—contain lots of ups and downs, unforeseen obstacles, lucky breaks and unpredictable swerves. For the autistic prodigious savants I write about, that’s especially clear. But family situations and social contexts, not just the prodigies’ own rare talents, play a big part in the struggles and successes they all experience.
And so does adolescence. When I started out, I had no idea that adolescent crises would prove so important in the lives of those who perform at adult levels in childhood. You might think, as I did, that precocious accomplishment would help forge a child’s identity early. But for every prodigy in my book—from the headstrong Bobby Fischer to a dreamy young novelist named Barbara Follett—the quest for independence and autonomy turns out to be, if anything, unusually fraught. That became very obvious as I worked hard at providing what too often gets left out: the kid’s perspective.
Do brain scans offer any insight into child genius?
Brain scans haven’t yet revealed much about possible innate sources of prodigious achievement in childhood. Studies of brain abnormalities in autistic savants have seemed potentially promising, but have so far yielded only intriguing hypotheses (such as that left-brain injury may be associated with unusual musical and artistic skills). Signs that intensive nurture leaves a mark on brains hardly seem surprising. One imaging study of young musicians showed more growth in the corpus callosum (which enables communication between the brain’s hemispheres) in kids who practiced a lot over two and a half years than in kids who practiced less. So there’s neurological grist for the old how-to-get-to-Carnegie-Hall joke.
How would you describe yourself as a parent? Have the stories you’ve uncovered affected your parenting style, or made you rethink any approaches you might have used?
I routinely lamented the stress that my two kids (now young adults) experienced in their high-powered private school, once they moved on from the pretty relaxed lower school years. I also sighed over the many extracurricular advantages they had in their busy lives, feeling how unfair it was that they were so enriched and stimulated—and worrying that crammed schedules and résumé-padding could too easily kill genuine interests and commitments. And then when SAT-prep time came, I signed them up for it anyway. This close-to-home ambivalence about early super-performance was no small part of what inspired me to embark on the book.
In your opinion, what's the measure of success for a child prodigy?
I tell inspiring stories of youthful gifts that continued to thrive, and sadder stories of children who got derailed as they outgrew prodigyhood. I think Norbert Wiener, one of the Harvard boys who opens the book—who went on to become the founder of cybernetics—put it best: What every prodigy deserves to get, in the course of his inevitably unusual childhood, is the “chance to develop a reasonably thick skin against the pressures which will certainly be made on him and a confidence that somewhere in the world he has his own function which he may reasonably hope to fulfill.”
Would you like to have been a child prodigy (or perhaps you were!)? If so, what do you wish you were particularly gifted at?
I did have a brief phase of writing horse-related stories under a pen name, but I’m grateful to have been spared being a prodigy. I wish I’d learned how to play the piano well. But looking back, I’m glad that an utter lack of natural talent didn’t stop me from plugging away at the keys (for far fewer than 10,000 hours, but . . .). Among many rewards, I took real pleasure, in my teenage doldrums, from stumbling through pieces that I loved.
Do you have a favorite case history from the book? The story of Marc Yu and his “Tiger Mom” seemed to particularly fascinate you.
The bonus of spending as long as I did writing about prodigies was getting to meet Marc at age 6 and being able to keep checking in until he was on the brink of applying to college. I’d never heard such a young child play so well, or seen a mix of high spirits and unrelenting industriousness like his. I eagerly—and anxiously—followed his and his mother’s arduous quest to prepare him for a soloist’s career. And then their story converged with the storm over “Tiger Mother” tactics. I could not have predicted they would prove so articulate and so willing to talk openly about their struggles.
Piecing together the historical stories was a very different challenge, and I found myself especially curious about two remarkable girl writers of the 1920s, the poet Nathalia Crane and the novelist Barbara Follett. The idea of literary prodigies is likely to sound odd: Precocious super-achievement is most commonly found in rule-driven domains like math, chess, music and computers. The girls’ blend of innocence and mature insight entranced adults, yet also roused their suspicions: Who or where was their writing really coming from?
Did you find that the child prodigies you researched, from math and musical geniuses to writers and chess players, all had something (besides genius) in common?
They shared remarkable powers of focus, and they all worked extremely hard—and in just about every case, they were not kids who effortlessly got along with peers (or had time to spend getting better at mingling).
What’s next for you?
I’m not sure yet.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Off the Charts.
Author photo by Nina Subin.
A portion of this article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.