Off the Charts

Week Six, Book Six:  Off the Charts; The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies by Anne Hulbert

Much of Hulbert’s work looking at 13 different child prodigies in the fields of literature, computer programming, mathematics, and music, can be boiled down to the following insight: child prodigies are almost always the product of intensive practice as opposed to  inborn talent in a specific area.  That is to say, Hulbert’s book suggests that prodigies are remarkable in their early capacity for study and practice and focus (this is the inborn talent!), which can be channelled into any  number of pursuits, and not for their virtuosity in one particular capacity.  There are exceptions to this rule in the form of children with savant syndrome.  These are children with complex neurodevelopmental disorders who are show extraordinary ‘islands of genius’, often without any formal instruction.  For example, Hulbert documents the story of Matt Savage, a youth with pervasive developmental disorder who taught himself to read music at age six and became an accomplished jazz composer shortly thereafter.

150 pages into the 300 page book, I found myself tiring of the subject matter.  The section on computer programmers was particularly tedious.  Overall some interesting content, however the book made me want to return to a far superior book, written by Andrew Solomon, titled Far From the Tree.  In Far From the Tree, Solomon examines what he calls ‘horizontal identities’.  

According to Solomon, a vertical identity is an identity that parents share with their offspring, often of a genetic nature.  So for example, I am white and so are my mother and father.  Our whiteness constitutes a shared vertical identity.  On the other hand, a horizontal identity is one in which offspring diverge in some crucial way from their parents.  In his book Solomon examines deaf children, children with autism, children with schizophrenia, children with prodigious talents, children with sociopathic traits who go on to commit murder/mass murder, children who are the products of rape, children with Down Syndrome, transgender children, children with dwarfism.  In each of these cases, the parents do not share the aforementioned identities.   

These stories are less about the children living within these so-called vertical identities, and more about parents and offsprings who live in distinct worlds.  Parental relationships play a similarly central role in Hulbert’s book; each parent navigating genius in a different way.  There does not appear to be anything predictable about the parenting of genius.  If any lesson can be extrapolated from these stories, it is likely a cautionary one.  Many of Hulbert’s geniuses are described as social misfits, often profoundly uncomfortable in their own skin and ill-equipped to function in the world at large.  This is all the more true in the case of children with the pushy, helicopter parent-as-manager parent.  The parents who are overly-invested in nurturing their vision of prodigy, appear to exacerbate, if not help birth the aforesaid struggles.  

If you were a smart 90’s child who sometimes laments your parent’s failure to initiate you  into second-language learning or playing the piano,  you might count your blessings after reading this book.  

Three out of five pug tails!