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Off the Charts:

The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies

Ann Hulbert

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In 'Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies' (Knopf), Ann Hulbert seems to be taking up the opposite end of the child-rearing stick; rather than ordinary kids with ordinary parents, these are the outliers, right here in America. Yet her book shares some themes with the Europhile ones. There’s the same agonizing question of American achievement: What can we learn, in a society dedicated to high-achieving children, from children who seem 'naturally' off the charts in their achievements? How can we make our children less anxious while still making sure that they achieve? Are prodigies a race apart, or are they merely more persistent than other kids? (As Hulbert cautions, the paradox of the self-made prodigy is that persistence itself is an inborn gift, as odd as any other.) The arguments seem to echo ancient religious ones - mysterious innate grace does battle with hard-won grit, Catholics vs. Protestants in undersized clothing - which may be a giveaway that what’s at stake is ethical before it's educational.

Hulbert’s book is smart - as all her books have been, particularly the child-centric 'Raising America' - and often sad. There seems nothing more melancholy than the fate of prodigies. The book takes us from William James Sidis and Norbert Wiener, Jewish prodigies at Harvard at the beginning of the twentieth century (Sidis was the subject of a profile by James Thurber, of all people, in these pages), to their seeming successors in Silicon Valley, the heronerds who have become as much an American typology as the enfants sauvages of France ever were. Along the way, we encounter the big names in prodigy-land, among them Philippa Schuyler, the African-American child genius of the nineteen-thirties and forties (and also the subject of a New Yorker profile, by Joseph Mitchell), and Bobby Fischer, the chess-playing son of Jewish Communists, who ended up a crazed anti-Semite. That many of these kids, despite being outliers, have already been much documented suggests that we use mental prodigies the way Renaissance people used physical prodigies (the boy-wolf, the fishwoman): that is, to prove a moral point. In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s breakdown was a cautionary tale about being stuffed with too much knowledge; Louisa May Alcott included an ex-prodigy of this kind in 'Little Men' to show the danger. We watch movies about Bobby Fischer in part because his is a touching story and in part because we are secretly glad that our kids, though not prodigious, are at least not that.

Hulbert does the good work, throughout, of resisting morals or too neat generalizations; one suspects that the alliterative 'Lessons' in her subtitle was a publisher’s creation. Some prodigies are pushed; some do the pushing from within. Sidis had a bleak life after Harvard: never quite finding his footing, he self-published speculative manuscripts on the second law of thermodynamics, the crank’s specialty, and obsessively collected street-car transfers. But Norbert Wiener, who spent his career at M.I.T., became one of the most significant scientists of his era, the founder of cybernetics and a pioneer in information theory. He suffered from depression, it’s true, but was no more miserable than many other tenured professors. Philippa Schuyler had a terribly unhappy adulthood; Hulbert produces a heart-breaking letter of indictment that, in her late twenties, she wrote to her pushy, well-meaning mother. Yet Shirley Temple, her show-biz counterpart in the thirties (she was, as Hulbert points out, the first white female ever to dance with a black man onscreen, albeit in a movie where she wears a Confederate cap), went on to have a successful life as a Republican politico and diplomat.

The math prodigies are set somewhat apart from the more general-capacity prodigies, being seemingly possessed of a weird bit of wiring more than an over-all enhanced capacity for learning to do things. The math kids don’t learn math by studying math, the way the rest of us do; they learn math the way the rest of us learn language. Hulbert picks her way through the minefield of 'spectrum' or 'savant' kids and the question of whether what we call autism, with its bestowal of exceptionally close and persistent focus on some object, can be a help in the arts and sciences. There appear to be as many learning styles among prodigies as there are prodigies to express them. Bobby Fischer turns out to be, in most ways, a freak, an outlier among outliers. His incipient paranoia provided a wonderful advantage in playing a game that depends on paranoia - Is that pawn sneaking up on me from behind? It isn't threatening now, but, in four moves, I can see that knight becoming my fatal enemy!—and ruined him as a person. His wasn't a general intelligence deliberately adapted to a game; it was a game-playing octopus-eyed gift that crowded out his general intelligence.

The tricky thing, which Hulbert doesn’t oversell, is that, on the whole and with the expected exceptions, exactly the kind of hover parenting that we rightly deplore does seem to be essential to the kind of hyperachievement that we admire. The Chinese piano prodigy Lang Lang, whom Hulbert writes about at length, was driven relentlessly by his father. "Lang Lang's mother and father joined a generation of parents who, not surprisingly, focused on the futures of their 'little emperors' with an intensity that pushed traditional Confucian tenets of 'family education' to extremes," she writes. The piano was hauled into the living room, and five- and six-hour daily sessions of practice were imposed by the time Lang Lang was seven.

As Hulbert points out, our own pet prejudices would predict a boy crushed under the pressure, which seems at times to have been deep-dive-submarine intense. But Lang Lang emerged as a fine musician and about as well adjusted as any artist can hope to be. The grit theory of achievement seems justified by the results, if the results are what you’re after. We wince at the brutality of parents who ship their young kids around to perform for adults at the expense of their childhood - but, then, that was Mozart's childhood, and though by the end Mozart may have wished for less attention as a kid performer and more as a grownup composer, he never for a moment wished not to be Mozart.

For every prodigy doomed to misery by early success, we can cite another who started off strong and kept going. It’s significant that we tend not to judge prodigies in sports too harshly. Wayne Gretzky was a goal-scoring genius in hockey by the age of ten and had a true tiger father, albeit a mild Canadian kind, who trained him in the back-yard ice rink. Yet we don't usually criticize such parents, or expect their offspring to become exemplars of a life well lived, because we understand that there's a time fuse burning on athletic achievement. Nobody looks at Gretzky now and feels sorry for him, though his post-athletic life has been about as hit-or-miss as any other prodigy's. We understand instinctively that being a prodigy wasn't his platform for a lifetime's achievement; it marked the possibility of a highly specific, highly term-limited kind of performance.

The secrets of that kind of athletic achievement are the subject of Karen Crouse’s book “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence” (Simon & Schuster). Crouse, a Times sportswriter disillusioned by drug-enhanced results and joyless competitions, stumbled on Norwich in the midst of her travels with more or less the same stunned enthusiasm with which Ronald Colman, in the movie “Lost Horizon,” stumbles on Shangri-La. In Norwich, no parent presses, no bar is set, and after a kid scores two goals in a soccer game he is sat down so that some other kid has a chance to score. Yet Norwich continually sends athletes to the Olympics and other competitions in numbers ridiculously disproportionate to its size.

What we don’t get to see, in Crouse’s account, is the little town nearby, where, as must be the case, everyone coöperates and yet no one is a champion. (And there must also be, in Norwich, at least one Holden Caulfield type who thinks the whole Norwich thing is phony.) Looking at Norwich, we’re told that the non-competitive, non-pressuring approach is best because it gets us to the medal stand, or close. But what if it didn’t? If Norwich values matter, it’s because they’re good, not because they’re shortcuts to victory. The point of a non-competitive attitude can’t be that it makes us better able to compete; the value of an unpressured approach can’t be that it creates a more effective kind of pressure. In any case, one has the sense that what Crouse has found is not a “secret” but a well-known effect: unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions, whether they are in fifteenth-century Florence, in painting, or in San Pedro de Macorís, the “cradle of shortstops.” One good painter with an apprentice produces a Renaissance, just as one good coach with willing kids supplies the major leagues.

But are results what we’re after? Timed and scored competitions aside, the results are far more relative to the eye of the beholder than any account of high-pressure child rearing can quite allow. Lang Lang’s six-hour-aday training certainly produced a fast-fingered fiend, but also, to many music-critics’ ears, merely a fast-fingered fiend, more loud than lyrical. Then again, Mitsuko Uchida, a Japanese prodigy of an earlier vintage, is as sensitive a pianist as exists; prodigies are particulars first of all. With all the effort in the world, the results of cramming kids are likely to be more ambiguous than we can predict, not because the child rearing was done wrong but because all such results tend to be ambiguous.

What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement— the competition won, the reward secured. The mystery of mastery, felt in the child’s mind or muscles, is more compelling than the concreteness of achievement, the trophy pressed in her hands. What sustains us in any competition are the moments of interiority when the competition vanishes; what sustains us in any struggle are the moments when we forget the struggle. Philippe Petit didn’t walk the wire between the Twin Towers by working harder while he was up there; he worked hard to get to a state where it would never feel like work.

Lang Lang admits to the brutal pressures placed on him by his father, and, though he does it nicely, he blames his father for overstressing him. He was saved because he had, as Hulbert writes, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.” Following the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hulbert maintains that it was being caught in “the flow,” the feeling of the sudden loss of oneself in an activity, that preserved Lang Lang’s sanity: “The prize always beckoned, but Lang was finding ways to get lost in the process.” There’s a similarly lovely scene in Hulbert’s book of Shirley Temple learning to tap-dance with Bill Robinson, who told her to “get your feet attached to your ears”; the moment was bright enough to stay with her forever after. The process was not only more important than the prize morally; it was more essential than the prize existentially. By the time that Temple was an adult, most of the money she had made was gone. But the moment of learning, matching ears to feet with Bill Robinson, left her with a lifetime of confidence.

Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all. The prizes are inevitably disappointing, even when we get them (as the life of Bob Dylan, prize-getter and grump extraordinaire, suggests). It is, perhaps, necessary only that we like the process as we seek the prize. Andre Agassi, in his account of becoming an embittered prodigy, seems never to have liked tennis much, except as a vehicle for achievement. The kids who do like life inside the lines can find the flow within that green-and-white geometry.

What really helicopters over these books is what one might call the Causal Catastrophe: the belief that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is in the kinds of adults it produces. This appears, on the surface, so uncontroversial a position—what other standard would you use?—that to question it seems a little crazy. But, after all, chains of human causality are, if not infinite, very long; in every life, some bad consequence of your upbringing will eventually emerge. We disapprove of parental hovering not because it won’t pay off later—it might; it does!—but because it’s obnoxious now. Strenuously competitive parents may indeed produce high-achieving grownups, but it’s in the nature of things that high-achieving adults are likely to become frustrated and embittered old people, once the rug is pulled out from under their occupation. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then all chains are infinitely weak, since everybody ends up broken.

Childhood should not be considered a chain of causes leading to an ultimate effect: you do this so that will happen. The popular motto of stoic acceptance, “It is what it is,” should be replaced by a stronger motto, embracing existence: “What is is what is.” The reason we don’t want our kids to watch violent movies is not that doing so will turn them into psychos when they grow up; it’s that we don’t want them seeing bloody movies now. As the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen said, after the unimaginable loss of a child drowned (in words famously adapted by Tom Stoppard in “The Coast of Utopia”), “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment.... Life’s bounty is in its flow, later is too late.”

Child rearing is an art, and what makes art art is that it is doing several things at once. The trick is accepting limits while insisting on standards. Character may not be malleable, but behavior is. The same parents can raise a dreamy, reflective girl and a driven, competitive one—the job is not to nurse her nature but to help elicit the essential opposite: to help the dreamy one to be a little more driven, the competitive one to be a little more reflective. The one artisanal, teachable thing is outer conduct. You can’t restructure a genome, but, as Mr. Turveydrop, in “Bleak House,” insisted, you really can teach deportment.

A clue may be present here in the truth, which Hulbert reports, that many “spectrum” kids can be taught—with painful effort, but, still, they can be—to behave more or less normally (no scare quotes on the word; a norm is a norm even if it isn’t a virtue) through careful inculcation and rote repetition. Teaching kids to become something other than what they were born to be is probably impossible; teaching them to behave in ways that seem unnatural to them at the start is actually not that hard. As satirists have pointed out for millennia, civilized behavior is artificial and ridiculous: it means pretending to be glad to see people you aren’t glad to see, praising parties you wished you hadn’t gone to, thanking friends for presents you wish you hadn’t received. Training kids to feign a passion is the art of parenting. The passions they really have belong only to them.

Nothing works in child rearing because everything works. If kids are happy and absorbed, in the flow, that’s all we can ask of them, in Berlin or in Brooklyn. Nothing works in the long run, but the mistake lies in thinking that the long run is the one that counts. Crouse, in her annals of Norwich, tells the nice story of Mike Holland, a local ski jumper, who at one point in his career became the first ever to jump six hundred and ten feet. The record lasted less than half an hour; Matti Nykänen, a Finn and a much better ski jumper, broke it shortly afterward. But every time Holland watches video of his briefly held record jump “the hairs on his neck stand at attention.” For twenty-seven minutes, he had accomplished something wonderful. It was enough to sustain a life.

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