Monday, November 12, 2007

Parenting a prodigy?

Saturday morning last I was feeling a bit under the weather. Heard on BBC Radio 4 Today programme that a seven-year-old from Singapore is looking for a place at university to study chemistry.

When I felt well enough to look up this news item I followed links to read his dad's blog and his comments, answers and responses to other blogs.
Here are my thoughts:

  1. Poor seven-year-old. I feel sorry for him.
  2. Poor parents. The more vocal dad, as a proud father of a very gifted child -- and why not?, sadly seems to be somewhat deluded.
  3. A combination of "I used to be gifted but no one recognized that" and "here's a chance that my child might be extremely gifted" is a dangerous combination indeed, an almost-certain recipe for disaster.
  4. While the father writes profusely about how advanced his children are in their physical and intellectual development and in particular how advanced his eldest son is in his knowledge of chemistry, I am mystified that nothing is said about this little boy's friends (if any) ... and the games he plays (if any) ....
  5. The father's blog empasizes how bored he is with school, etc, but no mention of tears or tantrums. One gets the impression that this boy is very ordinary, very well-behaved, except that he is extremely clever in the area of chemistry.
  6. He is so clever in chemistry that he sat his O Levels recently and came away with a 'C'. He is now being prepared for his 'A' Level chemistry, and that is why his parents are looking for a university where he could have lab facilities to carry on with his chemistry education. In The Times, a reader commented: Hello! This genius only got a 'C'! Implying that he is not that much of a genius really. Clearly this child has an exceptional memory, so I imagine he would do well in organic chemistry, as all you have to do at A levels is memorize about a hundred equations.
  7. In a blog entry the father recounts his shock when prodigy son asked, "What do you get if you collide Calcium and Californium in a cyclotron?". The answer was apparently "Ununoctium". The father of prodigy has entitled this post "Socratic questions of a genius". Really? If you did a google search on these key terms you will find that just before this posting, this was the hottest news in the scientific world. Scientists believe that they have at last found element 118. It was so new that they had given it a temporary name "Ununoctium". If my son were to give me similar information, I would first ask, "Where did you read that? Show me," instead of delaring to the world that he asks "Socratic questions".
  8. Father of prodigy mumbles about MENSA not being interested in his son. (MENSA does not test children under the age of 10-and-a-half, according to their website.) Then he writes several blog posts about how IQ is a con, and that it does not actually show one's intelligence. However, he also goes on about the genius of Rembrandt, and out of somewhere (source not quoted), tells us that Rembrandt, so clearly a genius, only had an IQ of 110. Well, elsewhere someone worked out that Rembrandt had an IQ of 155. Honestly, how these people managed to test or speculate the IQs of dead people is quite beyond me. I believe this child has never had his IQ assessed.
  9. The prodigy is supposed have "written books" on science. Many children staple papers together to make 'books', and write their ideas, some original, some not, down and draw pictures to illustrate. It does not make these six-year-olds authors. My son also started on 'The Book of Everything", how wonderful was that? A book, booklet, leaflet, essay, is more than writing random thoughts down on pieces of paper.
  10. In The Times article which first alerted the BBC to this genius, father of prodigy took offence at a comment by Joan Freeman (probably reported out of context, who knows?) that “to send a child to university at 7 is like you are not regarding him as a human being, but as a performing monkey”. He responded by saying that she had no right to comment unless she herself is a parent of a prodigy. Yeah, except that she happens to be a an expert on gifted children. And by his reasoning a psychiatrist cannot pronounce a diagnosis of schizophrenia (eg) on patients unless the psychiatrist himself had experienced schizophrenia. Just to give a flavour of the hysteria here.
I am a parent of a very gifted child, so I hope that gives me the right to comment. Two weeks ago my child was comprehensively tested by an educational psychologist. Despite scoring comparatively lower on 'social comprehension', he has an IQ in the 140s. In some areas he has the ability of a 16-year-old.

Anyone who reads "About my boy" will be familiar with the real struggles that he faces, the fears and anxieties, the need to be perfect, etc. It comes with the territory of being gifted.

It is precisely because we do not want to be in the position of: he's finished his A Levels at eight years old, what now? that we took pains to keep his interest in maths and science and a lot else in as broad a manner as possible without having to keep completing curricula for 'O' and 'A' Level exams. We believe there is more to life than sitting exams and going to university. (What good is university if you can't enjoy the social life? Come on!)

When your child is clever, you know he or she is clever. There is no need to prove to the world that he has Os and As under his belt at age seven, eight or nine.

The difficulty is -- and we sympathize with father of prodigy -- such children get very bored at class. Maintaining interest is a challenge.

But there are also areas that our gifted child is weak in. He knows that. He acknowledges some of these weaknesses, not all, and we are working on these. Football and penmanship are two. But bless his heart, in the last few months, he has been trying so hard to be better in these areas, without going overboard with feelings of underachievement.

Friends used to say, "Wow! He could say these words," or "Wow! He's already doing this." My reply was always, "Yeah, but your child will soon be catching up." And THEY HAVE in all the important areas that matter.

"I used to be gifted once."

I must have been. I got bored in class, but I was not disruptive. Then I got to the best school in Singapore on the basis of an EXAM. Then, as the girls have been recently recounting (gleefully) in our forum 30 years after we left that school, we started getting red marks, failing exams, realized we were not that bright after all.

Being gifted at aged eight does not guarantee that one will remain gifted for the rest of one's life. When in this top Singapore school I often thought "I must have peaked at 12." My school results never got better than when I was 12.

The rest of my academic career was rather lack-lustre. Not till after I finished my Bachelor's degree did I find it in me to move ahead academically. I have found my forte in research: designing research, formulating hypotheses, gathering information, writing up results, etc.

So in between supporting my parents financially, becoming a full-time Christian worker/missionary/minister of religion, and various other roles in between, I finally got to the PhD I really wanted.

People assume that I am clever because I have a PhD. Am I? The more I know, the more I know I don't know. That is the truth.

My son thinks he is very clever, because he is obviously very clever in some areas. But I am glad that I am able to tell him that it does not matter if he becomes ordinary again. In fact, part of me hopes and prays that he would not be off the scale in his progress in Maths, Science and French.

The advances he has made in his music is striking too. How anyone could practise maybe 5 minutes a day and still get a merit in his piano exam just ten months after his first ever lesson is beyond me. His teacher has another student, slightly younger, who also got a merit. This boy spends more than an hour every day practising the piano, and missed a distinction by three marks.

If my son were to practise an hour every day would he have got a distinction? I fear not, because repetition bores him, and he gets worse instead of better. But the exam curricula give him the skills to compose and improvise which give him (and us) much joy and pleasure.

I don't think we would ever be able to stop our son being interested in Maths, Science, French and music composition. But we encourage him in every way to study AROUND the subjects: history of maths, philosophy of science, different types of music, eg, instead of progressing him simply in the direction of school exams.

When he asks questions on trigonometry, we try to give him some answers, not brush him off. Then he is allowed to explore for himself. (So he goes and draws a 'sine wave'.) He was very keen to learn about quadratic equations, but when we talked about it, he realized that ah, he needs to learn algebra first, and he's not really into that at the moment. We (gladly) let the subject drop.

On the advice of the psychologist we are not going to push him in academia at all. We practise no spellings or times tables. Instead we are working on his social skills.

And no, the last thing we want is for him to finish his 'A' levels in two years' time. What good is an 18-year-old mind trapped in a 9-year-old body?

What a refreshing change to read this: The Downside of Being a Child Prodigy

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