The hothouse effect

The author of a new book about gifted children talks about the big business of "enrichment" and the joys of just being average.

Published August 31, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Never before has raising a talented kid seemed such an exhaustive, expensive undertaking. IQ-enhancing baby formulas. "Brainy-baby" toys in stimulating shapes and scientifically approved colors. Infant DVDs designed to inspire mini van Goghs and mold budding Olympic champs -- and imprint children with crucial skills while their brains and bodies are still soft. If the shelves of Babies R Us are any evidence, it is these props -- not blankets and bottles -- that are the new necessities for devoted parents. Whether such extreme parenting is the byproduct of swollen middle-class egos or a genuine anxiety about the demands of an increasingly competitive world, the result remains the same. Across America, for those who can afford it, childhood has begun to look a lot less like a summer camp and a lot more like a training camp.

In her new book, "Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child," author Alissa Quart dubs this conflation of childhood, competition and commerce the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex." While careful not to vilify parents who want the best for their kids, Quart -- who was herself a gifted youngster who discussed modernist painting at age 5 and entered national writing competitions at 13 -- turns a skeptical eye on the growing genius-building business and paints a bittersweet picture of what the life of a child prodigy really looks like. Along with the social isolation that comes with odd obsessive interests (who can a 6-year-old carnivorous plant expert talk shop with?), the hothouse kid is burdened by a premature emphasis on maturity and professionalism. And unfortunately, as Quart discovers, for every well-adjusted child math ace who sails smoothly into life as a financial service wiz, there are two prodigies whose adult lives never live up to their fantasies. Echoing the sentiments of many of her subjects, Quart herself admits that despite her family's pride, as she grew, even her own relatively tame talents started to seem like an albatross around her neck -- one that "deform[ed] the rest of my life, giving me great expectations that I wouldn't be able to fulfill, and suffusing all of my actual accomplishments with the scent of failure."

It might be tempting to roll one's eyes at the sufferings of kids who are showered with language tutors or ushered into concert piano careers before they're even 9. Indeed, though bemoaning the "overburdened" lives of kids has of late become a familiar refrain in magazines and newspapers, it's a credit to Quart's work that she confronts the fact that students who are stressed out by too many extracurricular gigs remain a tiny, privileged minority in a country where gifted programs are being gutted from public schools, and the bare-bones mandates of No Child Left Behind have driven the divide between the haves and the have-nots even wider.

What can our schools be doing better, to help discover and nurture giftedness, whether a child lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., or Bedford-Stuyvesant, in New York? In the end, Quart's book leaves educators and parents with more questions than easy answers. Is genius born, or can it be taught? Is there an age when it is too late to learn? How much is enrichment a blessing, and how much is it a curse? That is the dilemma of giftedness.

Salon spoke with Quart in New York to talk about boredom, the allure of the wild-child artist -- and why there's nothing wrong with being average.

You begin the book talking about your own memories of being a gifted child. How much of your interest in this subject was born out of your own experiences?

I was in no way a prodigy -- not like many of the kids in my book. I want to make that clear. I was just a bright, driven kid. But having grown up like that, and around a lot of people who were also that way, I'm interested in what a mixed blessing that was. Giftedness gives you this amazing tool kit for handling self-discipline, and gives you an area of knowledge, but then it also gives you this weird set of aspirations. Everyone I spoke to had that feeling that they had these fantasies about who they would grow up to be that really exceeded the ordinary. And those grand expectations had a real effect on them.

Is that one of the problems gifted kids face? That they are forced to confront the question of who they are at a much earlier age than most people?

Yes, though another way of looking at it is that they are not just forced to think of that question, but that they actually are something at an earlier age than most people. But the other model of childhood, which I would argue is not so great either, is the one in which the child is nothing -- the child is a cipher.

Right now what I find interesting is that besides giftedness there are all these other supposed markers of "specialness" to contend with as well, like learning disabilities and ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder]. Every child is special in a certain way in contemporary culture. Every child was always special, but there's a particular focus on naming that now.

What does "gifted" actually mean? And is the amorphousness of the term part of the problem people have when talking about giftedness?

Yes, I do think the term has gotten amorphous. Also, a parent has to be able to say their kids are gifted and then they are gifted. So that's a class marker -- you may as well just say I have a middle-class child. In fact, one education professor said to me, and this is arguable, but that IQ is just a test of middle-class social behaviors. So it is a predictor of how well a child will perform, but just not for the reasons we might think.

The class issue seems really thorny, because not only does one need money to pay for extracurricular classes, but if you want your child to qualify for a gifted program, you not only have to know about those programs in the first place, you also have to be able to afford the proper qualifying tests.

Yes, and doing the reporting for this book I saw clearly how much parental access was a factor. It's about cultural capital. Once you can confidently assert a child's capabilities and needs, then it's much easier to get services. But that takes a lot of confidence as well as money. While working on the book, I went to one program called the Oliver Program, which is sort of like a Prep for Prep program, which matches kids of color with independent schools, and when I heard parents there speak, almost all their stories and questions were practical or about access -- like whether they could visit a private school. And that's really not just an economic issue, it's a confidence issue. So my bromide on this subject is that the enriched kid is now likely to be overenriched while the deprived kid is likely to not have access. It's as though another achievement gap is opening up around giftedness.

But selling the promise of "giftedness" to parents is big business.

Yes, definitely. It's everywhere. To me the idea of "smart" baby formula was a real revelation. I don't know what the numbers are now, but while I was researching, something like 50 percent of the formula market purported itself as "smart-making." All this just happened within the past three or four years and there are now vitamins that are meant to be taken prenatally that are supposedly intelligence producing -- all of which is just a funny packaging trick. But it tells us a lot about ourselves. The assumption that we can do these concrete things to make our kids smarter is just really appealing to us.

So much of what you deem the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex" is predicated on the idea that parents have a limited amount of time to "imprint" their kids with skills when they are young. Do you think that ticking clock is at the root of a lot of the intense parenting we see today?

Yes, there is definitely anxiety there, but I don't want to belittle it because it is anxiety based on legitimate concerns. And training your kids to be experts at a young age may produce some emotional vulnerability but it also kind of works. I don't want my book to be a how-to book, but the facts are there. There was one expert who said you can achieve "expert" status after 10,000 hours of practice; well, when else are you going to get that time in?

We seem especially seduced by the idea of young creative geniuses, like Marla Olmstead, the painter you profile, or even Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard student who was accused of plagiarizing a novel earlier this year. But do you think that young people are even capable of being creative geniuses in the same way they are able to excel in math?

Well, it's harder to measure. I interviewed two child painters and one of them I thought was brilliant, and the other one not so much. And in fact, with the one who was more professional, Marla Olmstead, there has since been a whole scandal around her work. The other girl, a cartoonist, was childlike -- and to appreciate her work you would have to have an eye for that, to be able to judge her work as that of a brilliant child rather than one who paints like an adult, which I think has more been the more traditional measure of an art prodigy.

In literature, I think poetry lends itself more to children, and historically there have been more child poets than novelists. But so often, even in the creative arts, with kids you see a genius for imitation and technical proficiency -- and being able to do a performance of something that seems adult level is one of the measures of prodigy.

It was a little shocking to read about parents and teachers of gifted kids referring to boredom as a child's ultimate enemy. That seems ironic given that one of the things about growing up that adults like to lament about is no longer having time to fritter away doing nothing in particular.

Oh yes, you hear that everywhere -- "He gets bored," "It's boring." But actually some of the education scholars I spoke with did say that we have to make peace with boredom, because it's not a bad thing, and our fear of it is overstated. A lot of the things that bore adults don't bore children, and people forget that. In some ways, boredom is a projection of adults because we can't remember what childhood was like.

That said, when it comes to baby education products, a lot of my friends who have kids say, "They're great, we use them when we need to take a shower!" And actually I think that's wonderful; I don't want to sound like some old curmudgeon. I'm not one of these anti-TV people. It's the attendant expectation that becomes the problem -- the marketing idea that there is a strict cause-and-effect relationship between watching these videos and making a bright kid. But if you're just putting your kid in front of "Baby Einstein" because it's better than "Law and Order" for a newborn, then there are much worse things you could be doing.

Your title refers to the idea that we shouldn't lock gifted kids away from the rest of the world like they are hothouse plants. Do you think schools should be focusing on more integrative models of education?

We've got to give gifted kids more offerings. We've had flexible curricula, or models where different groups work in the same classroom, or ones that try to put the best students and those in the most need of help together in the same room, but without anyone knowing. There are models where kids teach other kids. I don't want to offer some pat solution, but I like those combinatory classes, where some mass of kids can work together.

Of course parents are going to push for acceleration, but that's what the people I spoke with found problematic, and that's what seemed to cause developmental issues. But unfortunately, what's being advocated in this country right now is a one-size-fits-all education model, and so dealing with the exceptions is not at the top of people's lists. In fact, it's almost an anti-priority.

But don't you see how some people might say why worry about the top 2 percent of students when we really still haven't addressed the bottom 50 percent?

I can see that case. I went to New Orleans to this writer's program where non-gifted students were taken in and given the attention of gifted students. And the result was that they were producing gifted-level work.

I think private classes and serious after-school programs really can help. And one of the ironies about all the talk about the way kids' lives have become overscheduled is that for kids who really need classes there aren't enough. Instead we have too many for kids in the middle class who can afford them. It's a trend I call the "privatization of talent."

It's ironic that so much of the pressure that ends up on kids seems to start with parents being hard on themselves -- like really wanting to reassure themselves that they have done everything they can for their children.

It's true that it starts with the parent. I've been talking to a bunch of people about the book, and one of them said to me, "I feel like I need to give my kid a tutor. Everybody has a tutor." This is again part of the economic aspect of this industry. Somebody else said, "I was raised as this hothouse kid and I think I'll do that to my child. I can't help myself." It's as though they couldn't bear to have a kid that wasn't special. I understand that, it's very human, it's an existential impulse almost -- but perhaps one that should be considered or ruminated upon.

You close the book by saying that all your research made you realize how rare true giftedness really is. Was that the biggest insight you came away with?

One of the main problems with growing up that way is not being gifted but being called gifted and being grouped under the name. Any kind of frozen identity is problematic in general; it's not helpful. Once you're gifted you have to always be gifted and it's hard to admit to the ignorance that it takes to learn things.

True giftedness is rare, and I think that's a great thing for parents to hear. In a way it's reassuring. If your kid's truly gifted you're in for hell in the public schools. If your kid's just a smart kid, it's easier. It's better than good enough, it's preferable.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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