'Gifted Child Industry' Preys on Parents' Insecurities

Of all the myriad people I’ve met through my children, there is still one type I’m waiting to encounter: The parent of an average child. Kids are all special these days, it seems, needing enrichment toys as infants, music classes as toddlers and intensive academics when they are in school. How did we get to this pass?

Alissa Quart takes us on a journey to the dark heart of the parenting meritocracy in her new book, "Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child." In her view, an increased emphasis on the early years of childhood by sociologists and educators coalesced with parental fears of failing schools and a faltering economy sometime in the mid- to late 1990s. Stir in some astute marketing by firms such as the Baby Einstein Co. and you have the makings of modern American childhood, a period marked by an increased emphasis on study and structured activity and less on play. Or at least it’s that way for upper-middle-class progeny, the ones with parents who have the extra money to buy their kids extra attention and services.

As the rich are getting richer, their children are gaining the opportunity to get smarter. States are gutting funding for gifted education in the public schools even as well-to-do parents fight for appointments with specialized intelligence evaluators who charge a thousand dollars or more per child. What Quart dubs the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex” has resulted in a world where extra services for kids are increasingly available only to those who can pay for outside tutoring, extracurricular activities or the high tax rates of elite suburban school districts. Call it the privatization of giftedness, where all too many children are being left behind.

Quart is hardly the first to make these points. Sociologist Annette Lareau’s landmark book Unequal Childhoods pointed to the calendar as the new center of middle class family life, the date book having replaced the dining room table as the center of all household doings. Moreover, within the past year several new books, including "The Kindergarten Wars," by Alan Eisenstock, and "The Overachievers," by Alexandra Robbins, have examined the high-pressure world of upper-income American children. What makes Quart’s book unique is its systemic look at the world of these children and their families, from the Mozart tapes their parents play to them in utero to the conventions held for gifted children and their parents. She spends times with both the true prodigies -- those with unique skills manifested at an early age -- and those with just extra high IQs or other talents that are less than extraordinary but still special.

Of course, child prodigies and their pushy parents have always been with us. The Victorians had the hothouse environments of bourgeoisie homes, where children such as future philosopher John Stuart Mill were tutored as toddlers. More recently, there were the Quiz Kids in the 1940s, those champion knowledge-busters who knew more than the adults asking them questions. What’s new is the mass appeal of the concept, the idea that this is something all parents should aspire to, not just a few particularly achievement-oriented moms and dads.

Yet, are these parents doing their kids any favors? In the end, Quart is unable to decide. A former gifted child herself, she notes that many now-adult prodigies and gifted children grow up with a profound fear of failure, with a sense they will never fulfill they promise of their early childhood talent, despite their more mature accomplishments. However, she also believes she might well have not become a writer without her father’s insistence that she read, write and study when many of her friends were out at play.

I read this book with sadness and a touch of wistfulness. After seven years of parenting, I am all too aware of how little I know about my children’s futures. I am almost in awe of those optimistic souls who believe a bit of enriched formula, mixed with the right infant gym class, followed by the appropriate after-school activities can create a successful, healthy and wealthy adult. As if.

I sat down with Quart recently in New York.

Helaine Olen: How is the world of gifted children different than when you were a child?

Alissa Quart: These products for small children didn’t exist. The seeds of the baby genius edutainment complex were sewn in the mid-'90s. The first Baby Einstein videos were made in 1997. By 2003, almost one-third of infants have a Baby Einstein video. Sales of all educational toys increased 19 percent between 2003 and 2004. Now one looks around sees these products everywhere and hears from parents about the pressure to buy them or not to buy them.

Olen: How did all this develop?

Quart: I see it as a piece of marketing to kids in general, which really did take off in the same period of the mid-1990s. It’s niche marketing. The infants are now a special-interest group, an untapped market that’s been discovered. That’s one factor. Another is science and social welfare programs. There was a Clinton program emphasizing the first three years, often in an interventionist social welfare fashion. But it slid over to the middle class and became a marketing stratagem.

Then there are more college students; there is more competition to get into universities. Competition is sharpening in a young adult’s life, and it has trickled down into infancy as an early breeding ground to let people get leverage as young as possible.

Olen: And do you think business is fanning the flames of anxiety to parents, too?

Quart: I do, actually. My favorite is the theme song of one of the products: "Do your best, never less." Then there is a line of products -- Baby Genius. It’s literally called "Baby Genius." In a way you can see it as relatively innocuous, and in a way it really is. I mean, moms tell me they use it when they take a shower. I don’t think it's evil, but cumulatively, product by product, it changes the complex of childhood. It’s the mindset they are goading. It’s an aspirational framework. Once you start to see it, you see it everywhere. There are karate classes claiming to provide mastery for their child. That catalog is claiming toys that will make a child test even better. This tutoring class is claiming higher scores.

Olen: How do you feel about having been labeled a gifted child?

Quart: There were a lot of benefits. Part of why I became a writer is because of this background. I wrote all the time when I was a child, and studies say 10,000 hours of practice will make for mastery. It’s hard to say all that practice at an early age doesn’t result in an ability, a competence. So it made me a working writer. I read a lot of books really early, as well.

Olen: What were the downsides?

Quart: It was the great expectations thing. Kids internalize stuff, and once you think you are really smart or good at something, you don’t always learn; you are afraid to learn, because you are afraid you will fail. And that had a big effect on me, I think.

Quart: It’s such a complicated thing. From what I understood, it is everything from wanting to be connected to something special -- getting a special or sublime state through one’s children -- to insurance that somehow their kids won't fall through the cracks. There are a lot understandable reasons that aren’t so nice, like what are their children going to do in the future? There won’t be Social Security, and they better be insulated against the dangers of the world and its insecurities.

Olen: Yet when studies are conducted on our children compared to international norms, we don’t come off looking too hot. So then is some of the desire for the gifted label simply parents trying to get a leg up for their children?

Quart: I think some of these numbers are what they are because we are such a heterogeneous society. They aren’t measuring how the kids at the top are doing. They aren’t measuring what I call the social hydraulics of giftedness, which is the rich are becoming overenriched and those with less money can’t get into a reasonably enriched public school with enriched curricula. These numbers fans the flames of anxiety.

Olen: You use the phrase in the book “the privatization of talent.” What do you mean?

Quart: It’s the appropriation of social welfare notions from the '60s, such as Head Start and Early Intervention that has sort of migrated into the world of toddler education in families that don’t particularly need it, where the enrichment isn’t a counter to the absence of learning during the day.

Olen: What’s the difference between giftedness and a prodigy?

Quart: There are technical definitions. A prodigy is a child who, in a domain like music or math or chess, has extraordinary abilities. They are like expert adult abilities in childhood. Whereas a gifted child can just be a 125 IQ, a child who is just really good at something. It is a more ordinary talented kid.

Olen: Can gifted just be another word for middle class?

Quart: Yes and no. I visited a program for gifted kids in Illinois. It was incredibly moving and sad. Four years ago, Illinois’ gifted program received $19 million in state funds. Now they get none. It really is a "have and have not" situation. In most public schools, they are trying get help for these kids. It’s not crazed parents. But the terms of the giftedness often become weighted with class. One education professor said to me that having a high IQ is just having middle-class social behaviors. If a child has middle-class social behaviors, they probably will be an easier fit in professional situations, but to always call them gifted is a problem.

Olen: Why do we want to label children so much?

Quart: Well, we want to label ourselves as adults too early. Childhood used to be an empty category and unnamed and that was a problem, too. But perhaps it has gone too far. Obviously, if they are bipolar, working with them based on that, it is good. But if they become the gifted kid or the ADHD kid, that becomes a problem. There is now a tendency for everyone to have some sort of name starting in childhood.

Olen: How do we stop the craziness?

Quart: It is really hard to give parents directives. But first it is important to not name, not to label. Don’t say “you are gifted,” say “job well done.” Instead of saying "you are a karate master," say "you did that kick really well." Instead emphasize the individual acts in failure or success so it is not a fixed identity.

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