When people start talking about their crazy childhoods, I get a little defensive: few were as odd as mine. When I was eight years old, a national chess champion, the television cameramen invaded my bedroom. When I entered college at ten, my calculus professor spotted me in the front row and asked where my parents were. When I was a junior, my fellow students were amused that my voice was still cracking. To this day, saying “I was a child prodigy” is a sure way to intrigue someone on a first date, if not always the best way to ensure a second.
Still, I’d gone for years without thinking much about my past. That all changed when my friends started having kids, and I became a de facto consultant on genius.
“You need to come over right now,” my friend Daphna calls to tell me one afternoon. She sounds alarmed, and I ask her if everything is all right.
“Just come over,” Daphna insists.
I rush over to her place, expecting some sort of medical emergency. (For some reason, I am also the de facto consultant on rashes and head bumps.)
Instead of the scene of an accident, I find Daphna and her three-year-old, Theo, playing a game that looks like Memory. Daphna flips over one of a few dozen Pog-like cards arrayed on the floor, revealing a pair of roller skates. Without prompting, Theo turns over the matching card. They repeat the routine three or four times in a row, before Daphna turns and looks at me.
“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” she says.
This is the fourth or fifth sign of incipient genius Daphna has asked me to validate in a month. The truth is I have no clue what a three year-old is supposed to be able to do. I shrug.
“When were you able to do something like this?” Daphna asks.
“At about two weeks,” I joke.
“I don’t know why his teacher isn’t telling me about this. I think we may need to get him into a new preschool where he’ll be challenged.”
I imagine toddlers hooked up to virtual reality machines, honing their Memory skills to Rain Man levels. I know how difficult it was for Daphna and Julien to find Theo a decent preschool on their modest income. I also know Daphna will never stop wanting more for her child; few mothers do.
“What does Julien think?” I ask.
“I think it would help if you talked to him.”
“What do you mean, ‘help’?” I ask.
“Help get Theo into a better situation.”
I nod, but as far as I’m concerned, Theo’s situation is awesome. First, Daphna and Julien are some of the best parents I know. Second, Theo owns every single piece of Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise that every came out of China. I’m not sure how much better things could get.
So I’m not sure what to say. Theo does seem unusually intelligent for his age. But even if he were a prodigy, would he benefit from the unorthodox education I had?
All my life, people have assumed it could only be one or the other: that I was incredibly lucky to have parents willing to accelerate me past the misery of grades seven through twelve, or that I was the victim of stage parents.
What few understand is that being a child prodigy – or regarded as one, anyway – isn’t inherently good or bad at all. Admittedly, there are some tragic cases. My own upbringing was nothing like that of the first modern child prodigy, the ill-fated William James Sidis, who lectured the Harvard Mathematical Club at the age of eleven. Harassed all his life by the press, Sidis’ early death in a squalid boarding house confirmed the public’s disapproval of alternate forms of education. But few prodigies experience as much grief as Sidis did. Unfortunately, it’s overbearing parents like his who are most willing to expose their children to public scrutiny, and who have confirmed the stereotype of prodigies as emotionally troubled victims destined to burn out.
As the New Yorker writer and former teenage “prodigy” Malcolm Gladwell recently argued at a What few understand is that being a child prodigy – or regarded as one, anyway – isn’t inherently good or bad at all. psychology convention, there are great learners (childhood prodigies) and great doers (grown-up geniuses). But Gladwell suggested that there isn’t much evidence that the first group goes on to become the second, which isn’t entirely true. In fact, a disproportionate number of “prodigies” go on to great accomplishment. The author of Blink and The Tipping Point is himself an example.
In my case, there was neither pressure and misery nor great glory. Ironically, the worst part of being a child prodigy was having the same exchange, ad nauseam, in which strangers asked me whether or not I felt I was missing out on my childhood. For a while, I had the commonplace but false notion that childhood is finite, that the most important parts of it must someday stop. For me, it hasn’t; the university was my playground, and as a professional now re-entering academia, I feel as if I am returning to the playground for good. The difference is that this time, people no longer ask how old I am.
That is why, faced with my friend’s apprehension about her son’s future, I want to tell her to relax. Theo may turn out to be a genius, or he may not. He may end up at a new and better school, or not. His teachers may urge his parents to accelerate him, or they may not. Either way, I’m not sure how much of a difference it will make, so long as his parents continue to love and respect him. I have no firm idea about what sort of education my own kids will receive, but it will include that one important lesson: real genius is knowing just how little you know.