Keeping Up With the Einsteins

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

Like most other young children, Marla Olmstead likes to paint with her fingers, making swirling messy designs.

But what separates her from other kids (as well as from many struggling adult artists) is that by the age of four she was selling her paintings for $15,000 apiece. Her abstract art has been touted by experts and compared with Jackson Pollock's work. In the media she's been called a prodigy. If Marla were old enough to realize what a sensation she is, it would seem like a dream come true for the girl, whose favorite parts of gallery openings are the cookies and other children, according to her website. But when it was discovered via 60 Minutes II last year that her father coached her, Marla suddenly seemed a little less like a prodigy and more like a product of savvy parents carried away by America's current obsession with producing super-gifted children.

Marla is a prime example of the present trend of cultivating and even creating gifted children from an early age that author Alissa Quart explores in her provocative Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child. A part of the problem Quart found is that while some hothouse children can go on to have successful adulthoods, many develop long-term self-esteem misery because they can never live up to their parents' expectations. From Quart's visits with families who either have gifted children or fervently hope to manufacture some, she found that no adults in those families were satisfied with the average childhood anymore. Playing make-believe in the backyard or hopscotch at recess was viewed as unproductive by those parents who want to see tangible results of their child's progress. Developmental milestones have to be met on time or ahead of schedule before—the fear is—"windows of development" shut for good.

illustration: Koren Shadmi

On her visit to the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, which offers enrichment classes for babies and toddlers, Quart met a woman who said, upon arrival at the school when her son was only a year old, that "her husband cried because he felt they had 'wasted a year of our baby's life.' " The couple immediately enrolled the infant in as many classes as possible to make up for lost time, because they believed their son's ability to soak up information like a sponge would stop at the age of six.

Quart found little research to prove that helping babies reach milestones early creates adult geniuses. In fact, "smart" baby formulas, daily sessions of Baby Einsteinvideos, Baby Sign Language, or the prenatal BabyPlus Womb Songs (a speaker unit women can strap to their bellies to supposedly enhance the not-yet-born child's learning process) may be a waste of money. Quart calls this the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex," the American faith that if a child is exposed to "enough media, typically in tandem with equally stirring classes, bright children can be invented." Despite an American Academy of Pediatrics report discouraging screen time for babies under two, developmental videos and DVDs brought in $100 million in 2004.

Lured in by potent marketing strategies and influenced by what other parents are doing, today's parents pop in the Baby Einstein video simply out of fear that their children won't be able to compete in the world without it. A keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality drives parents to pack their child's schedule with music lessons, soccer practice, French tutorials, and other "enrichment" classes. According to a study of three- to 12-year-olds titled "Changes in American Children's Time, 1981–1997" by Sandra L. Hofferth and John F. Sandberg of the University of Michigan, children's participation in passive leisure declined 24 percent, from 66 to 50 percent, between 1981 and 1997, while participation in sports and art activities increased.

But aren't sports and art activities more fun and productive than lounging around on a Sunday afternoon? Quart found the answer from various psychologists and experts to be a resounding no. Overbooking children can actually hinder their chances to freely explore their own passions. While a child may have a high IQ, if she is not motivated to, say, learn the piano or do ballet, her misery at being forced to perform may turn into resentment later in life.

Quart identifies and sympathizes with the children in her book because she was a hothouse child too. She describes her father as an "overbearing puppet master" who quizzed her on topics from modernist art to revolutionary political movements and controlled whom she could be friends with (no losers allowed). She skipped a grade, wrote a novel at the age of seven, and was told by an author that she would be the "next great American poet." While it's certain she's no slouch, not living up to her father's impossibly high expectations left her feeling like a failure.

This feeling, which often lasts a lifetime, she calls the Icarus Effect, and it's one of her strongest arguments against the creation of gifted children. Through numerous interviews with adults who were described as gifted or extremely gifted as children, she found many were "ultimately disappointed in adulthood and resentful of their early training." And once a child is associated with a specific talent, such as Marla and her finger painting, it's difficult to break free and feel successful at something new. Will Marla's parents allow her to quit their lucrative business if she suddenly finds a passion for something less glamorous, like saving the whales? Or will she spend the rest of her life struggling to maintain her status as a "gifted" painter?

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.

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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