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Can you turn your child into a genius?


London (UK) – 15 January 2011 – The Times - The term pushy parent has become a modern insult, yet this child psychologist says that pressure can be good for kids

How often do we hear that talent will out, that cream will float to the top, as if by magic? After many years of studying gifted children, I can say that it definitely does not follow.

All babies are born with potential, but if they don’t have opportunities, then their talents may never develop.

Parents are the key, but in our culture they are often afraid of pushing a child and of emphasising the values of persistence and diligence that are commonplace in countries in the Far East. Amy Chua has recently written Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a controversial book about raising her daughters the Chinese way, practising piano to under threat of severe punishment to reach concert standard at 10. I certainly wouldn’t agree with her, but I think that Western middle-class parents tend to over-praise, which simply becomes meaningless if done too often and can reduce a child’s motivation.

When parents bring their gifted children to see me at my practice in London, they are often very apologetic and terrified of appearing pushy. But why should they be? I’ve rarely met a pushy parent; only interested, engaged ones. I believe that we can learn a lot from Chinese and other Far Eastern cultures, where every baby is viewed as being born with similar potential and it is hard work that counts. According to Confucian views, the key to progress in all aspects of life is diligence, persistence and practice. In the West, we tend to believe that only some children have gifted potential.

Whichever you believe, we can’t ignore that family attitudes have a considerable effect on high-level achievement. For example, researchers have found that Jews were heavily over-represented among Nobel prizewinners. Since 75 per cent of Jewish Laureates came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, it could not have been social advantage that produced that excellence, but rather the cultural influence of the family’s drive for success.

Can anyone become brilliant, simply by virtue of hard work? No, but what you can do is bring out the best in children by giving them opportunities and structure. If the expectation is there that they will do well, then generally they will.

When should I start my child reading?
There is a movement now to avoid teaching them to read until they are 7, which I think is nonsense. The people who say this should see the children I see: some are reading fluently by the age of 2. These are really gifted children, and it’s torture to keep children from reading when they are keen to learn.

It’s never too early to teach reading if they are interested: if a toddler looks at the page keenly and seems to want to learn, go for it — gently, slowly. A gifted child will often be ready to start before he or she is 2. Don’t be afraid to teach extra grammar and spelling; where the basic level of education is low there is a need to provide independently for those with the most promise.

Should they play a musical instrument?
I think that every child should learn an instrument: it’s civilising and there’s a big association between top musicians and high intelligence. I don’t think that any age is too early, as long as they can hold the instrument. You have to put in a certain number of hours to reach a certain standard, and if you don’t start early you will not reach that level. If Mozart hadn’t begun early, how would he have fared?

You’ll have to apply a little bit of pressure; after all, how many children will volunteer to practise? If you leave it entirely to them, you are not doing them any favours. Encourage them to stick at it, or perhaps to try another instrument if they’re really not getting on. But it’s not all about aptitude: if you can put in the required 10,000 hours, you will become very, very good.

What about television and computers?
Television and computer games are a huge drain on a child’s time that could otherwise be spent doing something far more stimulating. Both are a really serious problem and it’s important for parents to limit screen time. How much depends on the age of the children, though an hour a day doesn’t sound unreasonable. Make them do a little bit of bargaining for it: yes, they can watch an hour, but only after an hour of homework or piano practice.

What other hobbies should I encourage?
Chess is popular among gifted children, and no age is too young: if the child is curious to learn and is motivated, then go for it. In one famous experiment, the chess teacher László Polgár set out to prove that children could achieve exceptional things if taught very early — and his three daughters were winning chess games at the age of 4.

Painting encourages creativity, especially when done on a large scale, and allows children to express their emotions.

Don’t expect the child to come up with hobby ideas: how can the child know what’s available if the parent doesn’t suggest them?

Should we give them extra academic work?
If the desire to do extra academic work comes from the child, then fine: as parents we should encourage it. But some parents are so intent on getting their children learning that their creativity is neglected. Children become like automatons. They can produce lists of all the capitals in the world at the age of 6, but what is the point of that?

Some trips to the museum, some time spent making things or playing with Lego might be more beneficial. It’s a very good exercise to get out an old roll of wallpaper and encourage the child to paint a really big picture. Or perhaps to write some poetry. And never forget to encourage them to talk.

All these activities will promote their creativity — and, after all, no one ever made a great scientific discovery without creativity. Without it, it’s merely a repetition of other people’s ideas. If they’re keen to do after-school clubs — whether it’s extra maths, chess or art — then there’s no reason to stop them.

Research suggests that children doing organised activities actually do better at school and are not stressed by them, provided that there isn’t too much pressure put on them.

Should I always buy educational toys?
Not necessarily. So many toys billed as “educational” are no such thing: you press a button and something pops up or says something and it’s the same every time. After the child has done it once, there’s nothing more to learn. Toys that are truly educational are those that enable children to think for themselves: Lego, Meccano, a doll’s house.

Should I always talk in adult vocabulary?
The modern theory is that it’s best to talk to children in a normal, adult way and not to oversimplify things. This is fine as long as they understand it. But more important is for parents to learn to listen properly to their children; encourage them to talk.

How picky should we be about their friends?
In every classroom there’s a spectrum of ability and the likelihood of one child being way out in front of all the others is extremely small. Often parents haven’t noticed that there are others in the class of a similar ability and their children will usually find them in the end.

Professor Joan Freeman is the author of Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up (Routledge, Ł9.95) and How to Raise a Bright Child (Vermilion). See



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