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
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
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
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
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
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).