It's not easy being gifted

A cautionary tale about the adult pressure that can create – and deflate – young prodigies.

There's a mother whose household seems modeled after the bohemian brownstone that turned out a brood of child prodigies in the movie "The Royal Tenenbaums." She says she's raising her three children to be "supreme humans.".

Another insists "her son's whole career has been his idea" – he's 8-years-old and a professional skateboarder, competing in a world of adults.

And there's a father who sees his son's performance in a competition for teen preachers as the culmination of Bible work that began "the day he was brought home from the hospital."

These are the new hothouse kids.

They are children whose parents, frantic and desperate to elevate them out of the mainstream and give them every advantage, have come to believe genius is not only born but can be created.

No ability or activity is safe. Today prodigy is cultivated in realms both typical – math and music – as well as the more unconventional – skateboarding and scrabble.

Written by a former childhood prodigy, who penned her first novel at seven, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child is a cautionary tale. A few of the geniuses Alissa Quart interviewed for her book manage to blossom and flourish in later life, mostly by carving their own paths independent of parental expectation or direction.

But just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, Quart worries that child prodigies risk being "undone by the failure to accept human limits."

She herself experienced the fall that she calls the "Icarus Effect."

"Having been built in the fashion I was as a child – created and then deflated – has left me with a distinct feeling of failure," she writes. "Because I did not live up to my precocity I experience it to be like a cross between a has-been and a never-was."

After all her research and reporting, at the end of her book, Quart concludes that "there are actually very few deeply 'gifted' kids with transcendent cognitive or artistic abilities." But this hasn't stopped many parents from imagining otherwise. What sociologist John Sutton wrote of Victorian England seems to describe many contemporary parents just as accurately: "The child had become a hothouse plant, and the parent a careful horticulturalist."

Like any parent who wants only the best for a child, those Quart meets are well-intentioned. But extreme.

They are driven by a society in which claustrophobic competition can take hold at a startlingly young age. Parental ambitions are further fueled by an industry that preys on their overwhelming anxieties: from Baby Einstein DVDs and infant enrichment classes to evaluators who act as gatekeepers, bestowing the prized numerical scores that lead to coveted labels like "profoundly gifted" (IQ 175 and above).

Quart extends her critical eye beyond parents, making our cultural fascination with child prodigies seem sinister, derived from the same gawking interest that fed freakshows. (She actually calls the character in the novel "Frankenstein," dreamed up by a teenage Mary Shelley, "the ultimate hothouse child: half genius, half monster, created to meet the needs of his 'father.' ")

In particular, Quart singles out the obsession with child performers as "ghoulish." She perceives their appeal to be based on an "almost carny lure." As everything from spelling bees to scrabble becomes a televised competition, it is Quart's belief that "the perpetually mediocre adult audience continues to want to watch the young competitor fail." She sees it as the worst possible kind of schadenfreude – trained on the most vulnerable.

In this sweeping book, Quart touches on just about every aspect of giftedness – from birth through adulthood, glancing everything from public schools and the No Child Left Behind law to the private programs available for the gifted.

Much of her reporting is fascinating. She finds families whose ambitions are tragically grandiose. She's at her best when telling their stories, and any one of these threads would have formed a captivating book by itself.

But the transitions among chapters – and even between paragraphs – are labored and confusing. Her insertion of theory by philosophers, psychoanalysts, and literary critics is tangential at best.

In an effort to tackle virtually every aspect of the gifted world, Quart leaves her reader exhausted and without a clear sense of the unifying bigger picture. Still, her warning is worth heeding. In the hothouse, children are categorized from what one educator calls "garden variety gifted" all the way through to the "terminally gifted."

But even the "garden variety" label, especially when imagined or imposed by a parent, can come as a liability.

Teresa Méndez is a Monitor staff writer.

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