Keeping Up With the Einsteins

Lessons from parents who overdo the lessons they give their 'hothouse kids'

A skilled reporter, Quart (author of Blended: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers) travels the country to meet with music prodigies, math and science whiz kids, teenaged evangelical preachers, and young Scrabble champs, among others, to uncover the pressures they face. While she often comes down hard on affluent parents who spend money on fancy gizmos and private lessons, she finds, in a small Midwestern city, the real need for gifted programs in public schools for children of low-income families who often can't find enrichment at home. She criticizes the No Child Left Behind Act for gutting many of these programs and emphasizing rote learning to improve scores on standardized tests.

The darkest tale in the book to demonstrate the pressures faced by a child labeled as "profoundly gifted" describes Brandenn Bremmer, a homeschooled boy who entered college at age 10 and killed himself four years later. Quart met with him and his mother the year before his death. When she asked Brandenn what he thought about being seen as gifted, he replied, "America is a society that demands perfection." His use of the word perfection in a discussion about giftedness disturbed her. Quart is reluctant to guess what caused Brandenn to take his life, but evidence in her book suggests that singling out a child as being highly intelligent often has negative effects. A study of the effects of adults' messages to children about their performance found that children praised for their intelligence were "less persistent in their tasks and less joyful" and performed at a lower level than the group of children who had been praised for effort alone.

illustration: Koren Shadmi


Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child
By Alissa Quart
The Penguin Press, 260 pp.

Fascinating to read, Hothouse Kids is wholly convincing that overscheduled children are not better off than those who are given time for free play and relaxation. As Quart smartly points out, being a later bloomer may be a good thing: Albert Einstein didn't speak until he was three years old and he did just fine.

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