Let’s hear it for child geniuses and pushy parents

"You should treat every child as if they're a potential genius."


“You should treat every child as if they’re a potential genius.”

Much to his surprise, my son attends one of the best grammar schools in the country. This is a boy who was resoundingly average at primary school. The teachers accepted this as his natural position, but my husband and I didn’t.

When Oscar gloomily told his father that he was in the middle maths group, Phil replied: “No, you’re not.” He told our son that he was in the top maths group; he just had to try harder. No one believed that Oscar was capable of what he eventually achieved – except us.

I suspect that fiercely believing in our son qualifies us as pushy parents, but not all pushy parents are equal.

Regardless of a child's natural ability, can nurture alone make them exceptional?


Regardless of a child’s natural ability, can nurture alone make them exceptional?

As a breed, we aren’t popular, however, because the rest of the population often suspect we’d be willing to trample on the heads of everyone else in order to ensure that our own precious darling succeeds.

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Indeed, UK Channel 4’s Child Genius has mesmerised the nation less for the fact that these sweet little brainboxes can spell words such as polydactylous (having many digits), and quickly answer sums that stump most adults, than because of the ghastliness of some of their parents.

The winner of Child Genius 2016 was, eventually, 10-year-old Rhea, but her triumph, shown on Tuesday night, was controversial. Her mother Sonal – an obstetrician who has put her career on hold to focus on her children’s education – clearly took the competition very seriously.

With admirable composure, she objected that a question on Florence Nightingale was too general, thereby earning her daughter a crucial extra point, which placed her ahead of a contestant with whom she’d have otherwise tied, ensuring Rhea’s place in the final.

This display of naked parental ambition divided viewers. Twitter was alight with comments such as: “Well done Rhea’s mum. Swindled your daughter to the final. Your life’s work is complete.”

Instinctively, many recoil from blindly aspirational parents, who seem so hell-bent on their progeny’s victory that they don’t give a fig for small kids and their feelings. So let us distinguish between the Alpha Pushy and – as I count myself – the Beta Pushy.

Psychologist and teacher Lyn Kendall, Mensa’s gifted child consultant, who advised producers on Child Genius, says all parents – regardless of their offspring’s ability – should be aspirational on their child’s behalf. Though there is, of course, a balance to be struck. “It’s a very easy cliche, ‘pushy parent’, and there are parents at both ends of the spectrum, as we’ve seen on Child Genius,” she says. “The truth is, as a parent, you need to do something.”

Kendall – who was a gifted child and has a gifted son – has three rules for those with highly intelligent offspring (though her wisdom can be applied to all children). Her first rule – teach your children how to lose – certainly differentiates the pushy parent with perspective and emotional intelligence from the gimlet-eyed pushy parent fixated on world domination.

Gifted children, Kendall says, “cannot deal with failure. They have to be top. It’s really important, therefore, that from an early age, they learn to lose in a supportive environment. They need to know they are loved not for what they can achieve but for who they are.”

Secondly, says Kendall, all parents should help their child learn to study. So those who’ve hired a tutor for their little Einstein can hold their heads high, instead of keeping it secret. Helping your child to learn is particularly important for the very intelligent. Kendall recently gave a talk to 50 Mensa members. All, she discovered, had been to university, but fewer than half had graduated.

The problem arises because smart kids remain at the top of the class with little effort, so teachers and non-pushy parents assume they’re fine and consequently, says Kendall, “they never learn how to study. By the time they need to knuckle down and do some work, they can’t do it. Then they think, ‘I’m not as bright as I thought I was’, and as they’ve not built up resilience through childhood, they drop out.”

Kendall’s third rule for highly intelligent children is to ensure they mix with kids of equal intellect. Otherwise, she says, “they feel odd, isolated, and have more and more difficulty making friends”.

The fact that it’s necessary to stretch children for their own benefit should encourage us to judge pushy parents less harshly. And if we aren’t our children’s champions, who will be? A friend’s daughter is a talented gymnast: he argued for her to be allowed into the squad when she was refused the first time – she practised, improved, was finally admitted and is now a rising star.

He says: “You should treat every child as if they’re a potential genius. My daughter didn’t know what she was capable of. I had to have faith in her. It gives children indication of the boundlessness of their own potential.”

Regardless of a child’s natural ability, can nurture alone make them exceptional? Says the chartered psychologist Joan Freeman, who specialises in helping gifted and talented children, there has to be “a basic genetic ability”.

“You’ve got to have the wherewithal to start with,” she says. “Then you need the environment to give you the lessons, the education, to get your genetic ability working to its full potential.” But she agrees that even gifted children must work hard. “If you’re gifted, you can use less effort than non-gifted children, but on the other hand you have to put in a lot of effort to learn and use what you’ve got.”

Meanwhile, there will always be those non-empathetic parents who are unable to see that their aggressive and ceaseless pressure, academic or otherwise, is pushing their child towards a breakdown; one therapist I spoke to calls it tantamount to abuse. But, says Richard Gerver, former head teacher, educator and author of Simple Thinking, most so-called pushy parents have a sense of balance and are simply supporting their child.

“Any parent who is loving and wants their child to succeed will support their child, and that includes sometimes pushing them,” he says. “For me what defined a good parent was that they were there to support, occasionally cajole. The only caveat is that it’s really important a parent doesn’t push a child in a direction that is based on the parent’s ambition, rather than the child’s ambition.”

The art of a great parent, he adds, is to “support and drive the child towards something that becomes the child’s passion. So obviously, in the early days, it’s really important that we expose our kids to as many experiences and opportunities as we can, so that we can find the thing that they latch on to, then push them in that direction. If our child wants to become a vet, for instance, it’s important we push our child academically, as [good grades] open gateways.”

Suddenly, I feel less guilty for signing up my 11-year-old to attend the free Mandarin classes offered at his school within seconds of receiving the group email. As it turned out, Mandarin was not his forte. So I can also feel less guilty for allowing him to bail out after three sessions.

 – The Telegraph, London

First published August 5, 2016 at 03:18AM. Originally syndicated from: http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/parenting/big-kids/five-to-ten/82847097/Lets-hear-it-for-child-geniuses-and-pushy-parents