Thursday, September 07, 2006

When parents get pushy

Alissa Quart learned to read at three. By the time she was five, her father counted on her to offer presentations on modernist art. In elementary school, she taught her own friends to read. By seven, she had written her first novel; at 10, she was lecturing her companions on everything from film stock to astrology. She routinely read a book a day. When she was a 13-year-old high school freshman, she edited her father's writing. By 17, she had won a dozen creative-writing competitions.

A dream childhood that would handily prepare a bright youngster for the intellectual rigors of life, right? Not really, writes Quart, now 34, in her new book, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child (Penguin Press). "Having been built in the fashion I was as a child — created and then deflated — has left me with a distinct feeling of failure." Quart is unflinchingly honest about her unusual childhood experience. "My father would have bristled at the notion that he was an overbearing puppet master. If I sat absolutely quietly and wrote lyrical verse about tree-tops, I was peachy. My father was hell-bent on bettering my lot — and by extension our family's lot." But, continues Quart in Hothouse Kids, "I was far too young for the Czech films and the difficult novels I was coerced to digest. My father's plan succeeded on one level, of course. I became a hothouse kid."

From this Time article. While pondering the damage pushy parents could do to their children -- even to children who are 'gifted' -- you may go through some 'pushy parents' cartoons. Or, read this poem by Philip Larkin about parents in general.


  1. Anant said...

    Reminds me of an old definition of a
    child prodigy: normal child with
    abnormal parents

  2. Anonymous said...

    Its a very interesting dilemma - how much to push your children? what if you are not pushing them enough that they can't realise their immense hidden potential? what if you do too much? what is just right?

    I think most of it stems from the insecurity of parents.

  3. gaddeswarup said...

    May be parents should look at Judith Harris' work discussed in various books includind the recent ones of Pinker and "Freakonomics". I do not agree with some of her conclusions ( see my 'review' of freakonomics' in my blog) but on the whole I think that parents' efforts have less influence than they think. There are some interesting recent experiments on related matters discussed in (needs subscription):
    As usual, I may be completely wrong.

  4. Abi said...

    Anant, Sue, Swarup: Thanks for your comments.

    That was a nice quote, Anant!

    Sue: How much is too much? That's a hard question. Children seem so, um, resilient that it's difficult to figure out when we are stressing them too much. It's one thing to let them do (and actually, create opportunities for them to do) more of what they really like. It's quite another to expect them to 'perform'; in cases such as those of Alissa Quart and Normal Wiener, parental over-reach is quite easy to spot.

    Swarup: While I agree that parental influence is not much in many realms, I'm not at all sure that parents cannot do harm by being too pushy.

    When parents push their children into specific sets of activities (reading, music, chess, what have you), the children end up doing things in settings where other influences (peers!) are blocked. I think the danger of real, lasting damage is very real.