Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hothouse Kids: Do They Exist?

Okay, I try not to do this--blog on the same subject as an email discussion on the very same day--but I've found more resources than I care to clog up people's inboxes with, so here goes, before I lose the links:

There seems to be some reigning confusion in the media about gifted vs pushed vs. high-achieving kids. Books like Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child don't help matters. Author Alissa Quart builds off her own high anxiety childhood and interviews other former prodigies to support her thesis that geniuses are made, not born, and made by parents "frantic and desperate to elevate them out of the mainstream and give them every advantage," according to Christian Science Monitor reviewer Teresa Mendez.

What bothers me is that based on Quart's book, every parent who tries to advocate for their gifted child is pushy. Some teachers are so concerned about this phenomenon, they actually feel they need to "rescue" children from their pushy parents. "Let's give him a chance to sit back and work on social skills," they say to the parent who transmits her child's plea for more rigor. "He has plenty of time to specialize when he gets older." (Yes, I'm speaking from experience.)

Are overscheduled kids in trouble and in need of help? Certainly. But not all kids who specialize early and perform beyond the level of their peers has a parent frantically pushing from behind. Some gifted kids know exactly what they want to do with their life from toddlerhood and pursue it singlemindedly, dragging their hapless parents behind them. Case in point: a recent plea on the TAGMAX list for forensic science and dissection kit resources for a five-year-old future doctor. Is that mother "pushing" her daughter when she feeds her unusual interest in medicine? Or is she only helping her daughter learn what she wants to learn?

On the other side of the debate sits the Washington Post's Jay Mathews. He argues there are Too Few Overachievers in the public schools. "What [Alexandra] Robbins [author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids] and the parents and students in such communities fail to see, however, is that they are in the uppermost 5 percent in homework, just as they are in housing square footage, money spent on vacations and stock market investments. Only about 10 percent of American high school students have Ivy League ambitions. For the vast majority, academic stress is pretty rare." (Click here for a transcript of Mathews responding to parent questions about overachievers.)

Despite my skepticism about his US News and World Report Best High Schools Rankings (surely AP test results measure rigor, not merely the number of AP tests taken), Mathews has a point. It's the same point Kareem Elnahal was trying to make in his valedictory speech: We want more. More rigor. More challenge. More relevance. Pursuing knowledge for the love of learning is not pressure. It's joy.

Sometimes the line between advocating and pushing is a thin one. I'm guilty of this, I think. At least, I sometimes wonder if I'm pushy to expect Wolfie to do ninth grade work as a nominal seventh grader. Then I remind myself that he's the one who picked high school classes, we have a safety net if they turn out to be too hard (20 day cancellation policy) and he's already met and exceeded the state standards in math and English. The kid brought Great Expectations to read on the bus to camp. He's pushing himself, and that's a good thing.


Christina said...

It is discouraging to realize that the default assumption is rigor=pushing=psyche-damaging pressure. Stiving to challenge oneself, to tackle projects and ideas that test the limits of one's ability, should be seen as the essence of growing up, and isn't that what education is supposed to be about?

Singanddance said...

We are at a crossroads in our society, and it soon will become more evident. While children who push themselves harder do need time to decompress, often the activities they choose for that decompression don't have the desired effect, i.e. TV and internet surfing, games. Sports might be good, but if they're too competitive, again, no decompression. We are figuring it out as we go along. Investigation of the success of students enrolled in Consciousness Based Education charter schools through www.tm.org should give educators some insight as to how to direct young ambitious students how to make the most of their time to destress, as efficiently as they wish to use the rest of their time.

The Princess Mom said...

On the other hand, video games can be a great source of stress relief. Klaus spent most of the day of 9/11 "killing people" on the PS2. He was angry and frightened and not quite 11 years old. I thought that was a pretty good way for him to deal with those feelings.

Granted, 9/11 is a pretty extreme case, but I think Star Wars Battlefront can be a good way to deal with school frustration, too.