This post has been brewing for a long time. I’ve developed a pet peeve. Something that has just gotten under my skin and, now, every time I see a new example of it, I find myself getting more upset about it. Here it is….the promotion of child prodigies. Morning talk shows, the news media, magazines – they all seem to adore children with eye-popping talents. The younger the star, the more breathtaking the talent, the better.
You see them on Oprah. On the morning news shows. On Ellen Degeneres. On the nightly news. In People magazine and USA Today. All over the popular media, we are served a steady diet of these child geniuses. Tap dancers, pianists, mathematical whizzes, guitar players, ping pong champs, and physics problem solvers. As adults, we really seem to be drawn to them – and if they are extremely young (and made to look even younger with child-like pink dresses and miniature instruments), even more so. It seems the greater the cognitive dissonance between their age and the size of their talent the better.
I am disturbed by this trend. Disturbed by what I think it reveals about our culture. Why do we love it when children behave like adults? Why are we attracted to these impecable, amazing, miniatures of our most brilliant selves? Why do we encourage this – egg them on to greater and greater feats? You can bet that television shows and magazines feature them because audiences love to see them.
I saw this phenomenon again recently when I was watching the Ellen DeGeneres show (while working out at the gym). Not to pick on Ellen – she’s certainly not the only television show that features these acts – but she does regularly showcase them. That day, she had a 9-year old pianist on her show who performed to a cheering audience (mostly women, who, I’m sure were thinking to themselves — why can’t my 9-year old do that?). Yes, the young artist played beautifully but my stomach lurched when she played her second piece upside-down, draped over the piano bench on her back. I felt as though I was watching a trained monkey.
Where does this appetite for child prodigies come from? And where, more importantly, does it end? I am the mother of two, very wonderfully ordinary sons, both of whom I love to distraction. We have had countless conversations about how difficult it is for them to participate in just about any activity at their school – a sport, music, theater, art – because the stakes are so high. You can’t just play a little pick-up basketball, you have to be on the team, practice for hours a day, and be an expert. You can’t just play a little music with your friends in the school marching band, you have to take weekly lessons, practice for hours everyday, try out for regionals, and be a maestro.
Believe me, I don’t hold myself up as a model parent here. Far from it! When my older son took an interest in cooking and prepared a delightful chicken pot pie dinner for us, I can vividly remember saying to him, “This is delicious!! Who knows, honey, you might end up becoming a master chef!” Good lord. What was I thinking?
Stanford University social psychologist, Carol Dweck, worries about this too. Dr. Dweck is the author of a number of books, including a new one entitled Mindset, about the psychology of success. As Dweck explains it, people can be put on a continuim according to where they believe their ability comes from. On the one end, there are people who believe they are a product of in-born, innate talent and on the other, the product of hard work and perseverence. This later category Dweck refers to as the “growth” or “incremental theory”. Her research shows that people subscribing to the “growth” approach lead less stressful, happier lives because they feel they can change their performance or behavior.
Not only that, but Dweck’s research has shown that children with a “growth” mindset are much more resilient. When faced with a new challenge or a hard problem, they are more likely to attempt it, to give it a try. Whereas children with a “fixed” sense of their abilities are more likely to give up when the going gets tough. In a paper published in the Journal of Child Development, entitled “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention”, Dweck paints an illustration of that effect. Her research shows how at one New York City junior high school students’ fixed and growth theories about intelligence affected their math grades. Over two years, she said, students with a fixed mindset experienced a downward academic trend while the others moved ahead.
So it seems to me that by putting these unusual children, these rare prodigies, in the limelight – holding them up as an example to our children – we are advocating precisely the wrong approach. We are telling them (and ourselves) that innate ability is what is valued, not hard work, peseverence, and stick-to-it-ness. Of course, Ellen DeGeneres and the parents of these prodigies are not saying that their prized children don’t work hard – I’m certain that they do. But the perversely strange sight of a 9-year old playing a maestro-level piano sonata upside down or a 7-year old whiz-kid playing ping pong like an Olympian most definitely support the message that these children are brilliant, gifted, imbued with talent from the Gods.
These are extreme examples, of course, but I suspect that we’re all guilty of this tendency in the thousand little ways that we teach, coach, and parent our children. When I suggested that my 14-year old son’s chicken pot pie was potentially gourmet material, I was completely ignoring the important thing to praise – his effort! What I should have done was to acknowledge how hard he worked to get that pot pie to taste just so. Not only did I miss the point, at some level I probably made him feel inadequate because he is smart enough to know that it wasn’t cordon bleu quality and he probably didn’t want to be a master chef anyway.
I think we’d all do well by our children to praise their effort, reward persistence, and stop wishing they could appear on Ellen.