Saturday, September 23, 2006

"Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child"

I just finished an excellent book, "Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child" by Alissa Quart (sidenote: I feel so sorry for Ms. Quart, that her amazing and thoroughly researched book came out at the same time as "The Overachievers: The Secret Life of Driven Kids" by the irrepressible and bestselling Alexandra Robbins. I plan to read Ms. Robbins' book one of these days, as well). I can't recommend this book highly enough to involved parents or to any energetic people who are thinking of procreating. Adults who were labeled as "gifted" or adults who are peevish about not being labeled as "gifted" should grab a copy as well.

Ms. Quart shows us the lives of all sorts of driven children, examines various philosophies, looks at competitions and schools for the young overachiever, and shows the good and the bad out there. I am more and more determined not to label my very bright daughter as "gifted" and not to push her in any way. I have felt conflicted about this: Iris is clearly a bright and funny child with a natural love for mathematics and music. Sometimes I have felt loserish that I haven't done more to encourage her (for example, I considered starting her very early with the violin or another instrument on the Suzuki method, but there was a combination of me changing my mind after talking to various people about it and me being naturally lazy, and we ended up not doing anything more challenging than some "Kindermusik" classes, which were quite enjoyable in a playful, non-demanding way). I think that a different parent could have turned Iris into a prodigy, either mathematical or musical.

And, after reading "Hothouse Kids", I'm more and more sure that I don't want to be that parent. Ages ago, I knew a friend-of-a-friend who was hellbound on getting her kid adjudged "gifted", starting from when he was just a run-of-the-mill baby in diapers. We laughed about this behind her back, cattily enough, but it was funny. The mother ended up getting her child admitted to a preschool/elementary school for gifted children only, but there was never anything noticeably different about her child other than the mother's drive to have the child be gifted. When we were staying at Camp Mather, I ended up standing in line behind a mother who told me her children were enrolled at that very same school for gifted children. The mother harangued her daughter, who was about 7 or 8, to memorize the name of the dining hall, because the mother intended to give the girl a test the next day. The girl asked helplessly why the mother was going to test her, and the mother said, "There's no reason why when we're on vacation that you can stop learning and trying. You need to keep excelling and learning all the time!" The girl looked frankly like she wanted to trade parents with any other child in the line, and she slumped and looked depressed. The mother looked smug. I decided not to socialize with that woman any further. (My own child focused during our camp stay on learning how to ride a bicycle without training wheels and on following glamorous older girls around, and that was educational enough for our family).

Many grown-ups who were pushed and prodded and diagnosed as "gifted" end up depressed and unhappy as adults. They have had it ingrained from childhood in them that they must excel and be better than everyone at everything they do, and when they don't grow up to be phenomenally wealthy and successful, they feel like failures. Even being above average is failing for them.

Ms. Quart points out the many ways in which American childraising has done away with the idea of leisure and play as a fundamental part of childhood. We are forcing Baby Einstein products down our little infants' throats (and Ms. Quart points out how ridiculous it is indeed to name products supposed to turn babies into baby prodigies after a man who was, if anything, developmentally delayed as a baby and toddler, coming into his genius much later, as a grown-up). We are pushing our children into academic preschools and demanding excellence of them at an early age. The "we" of which I am speaking here consists of the middle and upper-class parents who are extremely involved in their children's development, perhaps over-involved. Many schools have even done away with recess... giving the children no time to relax, to chill, and to work on their social skills.

While Ms. Quart finds fault, in her very objective and highly-researched way, with overly pushy parents and educators who are obsessed with their idealized charges, she also has issues with schools which don't challenge the students enough. Fascinatingly, Ms. Quart has marshaled evidence to show that a huge percentage of disadvantaged children can, if taught and inspired well enough, go on to unthought of heights of achievement in literature and math. If our schools were better at identifying and nurturing the talent in our children, we'd have a happier, more productive society. As it is, Ms. Quart notes that programs for gifted children have been slashed in the public schools. Cynically, this could be viewed as part of the campaign to allow vouchers -- to make the public schools so awful that the electorate will reject them. Ms Quart notes that about 20% of gifted children end up dropping out of school ("gifted" in that context being defined as children who, in any given academic year, already know 50% of the material or more being taught). That mind-numbing boredom is something I experienced in school, and I considered dropping out. Why didn't I? Because I lived in the sticks, and I didn't have anywhere to run away to, and I didn't have any realistic alternative other than staying in school. If I'd lived in a city of any size, I may well have dropped out.

There is a resentment of the "gifted", that money shouldn't be spent on them when it could be used for the benefit of the less smart kids, and that they are just lucky genetically. However, our schools are happy to lavish money on athletically gifted kids, who are similarly just winners of the genetic roll of the dice. (This point is mine, not Ms. Quart's. As a high school student, I complained that so much money was spent on athletics and that our school idolized jocks, while the academic achievers were ignored). The tactic used by most parents of the intellectual kids in school is to have them skip a year, because that is the one thing which can be done for children without costing any money or effort or in any way affecting the other children.

Anyhow, there was much food for thought in this book, and I have issued a demand to the Sober Husband that he read it forthwith. I have similarly issued a mandate to my friend Joyce (mother of a toddler whom I personally view as unusually smart and stubborn) that she read it. From this book, I have gained one idea which I love: the idea of "curriculum compression." If a child can demonstrate mastery of a skill, she should not be required to do a lot of problems aimed at developing that skill. For her, it would just be boring busy-work. I am afraid that Iris, a child with a huge love of math, will lose interest in it and come to view it as boring if she has to do endless, endless worksheets of simple addition and subtraction. "Curriculum compression" could spare her this. But please, let's avoid the word "gifted."


chichimama said...

Great post. And now I have to run out and get the book. Because I've been feeling like a loser parent since I seem to be the only one I know who doesn't yet have my four year old enrolled in Score and 75 billion other enriching activities. The only thing we push is swimming because, well, he has to know how to swim.

Love your blog!

the Drunken Housewife said...

Thanks for your note, Chichimama! I completely agree with you about swimming: it's a safety thing. No one ever died because they didn't know ballet or how to play the violin.

Anonymous said...

Oh no? I've heard there are often roving bands of angry cellists on the streets, as of late. Best to learn violin along with the swimming, if only out of self-defense.

Just kidding. Loved your post. I was seeking others who'd read Quart's book. Drunken or not.

Anonymous said...

And...I would add that by not signing her up for Suzuki, no big deal. Better if they get the passion and desire for an instrument - my kid started private lessons on her chosen instrument at six after much prodding on her part, and she just learned it very, very quickly. It doesn't matter whether it's at three or six or ten, when they want to learn, they'll let you know.

Anonymous said...

It's a long road, as we all know, and academic success is no guarantee of a successful, happy life. Nevertheless, as a parent, the guilt factor inevitably kicks in. It's hard to be completely objective about your children and their abilities because you want the best for them and don't want to let them down by making the wrong decision. Inevitably, some parents are living out their own fantasies via their children but I just worry about letting them down in some way and not trying hard enough on their behalf. I don't believe that there is any "right way" to educate or bring up children because they are all different and unique. Beyond a certain age, their view about what they want has to be taken into account. Let's face it, we are a different generation and times have changed for better or for worse. The bottom line is that nothing guarantees "success" or happiness but ensuring your child has a positive self-image and a point of view that is recognised is not rocket-science. Where children are concerned, playing "keep up with the Jones's" is a big mistake. Of course, my children are absolutely perfect in every way, so I don't have to worry about that!

Anonymous said...

My children are gifted and are in a wonderful school system where they are enrolled in the exclusive gifted program. I am thankful that the school offers such a program for the gifted children. You make the word gifted sound like a dirty word falling to the way of being politically correct. I think it is alright to let our children know they have a better handle on various subjects than their peers.
I do think it is important to let our children know that there is no limit on their ability. I tell my children there is a possibility they can find the cure for cancer one day but I don't expect that of them. I am in the process of reading Hothouse Kids and I am seeing that it all comes down to parenting. I will encourage my children to reach for the sky without pressuring them.