Natural Nurturing: Parenting Prodigies

Prodigies are born, not made! Parents of prodigies have a very demanding role to play if their prodigious off springs are to make it big in life. Children who make dramatic entries disappear fast, as parents do precious little to handle their greatness. Pressure to perform and perform consistently, high expectations of an overambitious society can mar the greatness of the prodigies. They need to keep their feet firmly grounded. This article aims at analysing the role of parents from identifying prodigies to guiding their brilliant children towards higher achievements. This article elicits a select set of prodigies particularly from India to analyse the role of their parents in grooming them.

 Introduction

A child, usually lesser than 10 who shows the ability to perform at very high levels in the mode of a well trained adult in a field deemed extremely difficult and under very demanding circumstances is considered to be a prodigy. Prodigies are generally spotted in well structured disciplines that extract superior mental abilities like music and mathematics.

But that could also be the conventional view of identifying child prodigies. Nowadays, even in fields hitherto unheard of, we can identify them as in the field of sports – where the criterion or the definition for ascertaining a prodigy is not necessarily by age (within 10 years) but by performance that include the level and the opposition at a relatively young age. 

Somehow researchers have never been interested in a study of the prodigies. Dr Feldman and his colleagues attempted one in 1991, but not with much success. All that they could find was that child prodigies are more likely to belong to fields with concrete and established  rules such as music, math and  chess. Creative arts like painting, writing are comparatively rare perhaps because they demand greater experience.  There are however a few exceptions.

Alissa Quart deemed a prodigy herself, claims that prodigies are predictable in quantitative fields while in qualitative ones hey are not just hard to come by but are even difficult to assess if they are prodigies or merely gifted children.  Converse to accepted view, a child wih outstandingly high IQ cannot be automatically regarded a prodigy, while it is equally true that not all prodigies are endowed with a high IQ, because they seldom fare well in a standardized set of learning.

Sports prodigies are judged by a completely different parameter. A certain physical growth is required to show abilities and flair for the sport. This means we may not see prodigies under 10 years, but perhaps about 15 years. Most prodigies are identified in their early teens.

Role of parents in the success of a child prodigy

Research on the brain functioning of a prodigy reveals that not only are they amazing but very different as well in comparison to normal children.  It is still not clear whether it is in their nature or is it that they are nurtured to carry out such astonishing feats.

Much of course depends on the parents. It is quite necessity that parents create an environment conducive to honing their talent. The environment stimulates the child’s overwhelming potential. Very often, the child’s field of interest would be the same as that of at least one of the parents. Facts from the past vindicate this point. Picasso’s father was a painter; Mozart’s father was a renowned musician and so on. But Psychologists claim that there is no compulsion to this rule.  There are children with immense potential in a field completely different from those of the parents. Shakuntala Devi, the mathematical genius’s father was employed as a human cannon-ball in a circus company in Bangalore while her mother was a very shy homemeaker.

Irrespective of the child’s field of interest, the parents ought to stimulate the child’s fascination for the subject. There is a thin line that demarcates stimulation or motivation and pressurizing. When parents push the child for more, rather than allow the child to decide its limits, then motivation turns out to be stressful. This is an area that parents have to be cautious. Ainan Cawley, is born to a British father and Singaporean mother. He is a chemistry prodigy, who has taken an Ó’level in chemistry at the age of 6.At seven, his parents were pushing him for a University degree and were actually looking for sponsors. This would make him appear  a puppet in their hands and not the scientific genius that he ought to be. Ainan’s father, Valentine, refuses to allow his son’s abilities to stagnate.  “Imagine you are the strongest man in the world and someone says to you, try lifting something small like a banana. It’s like asking him to deny his true nature. Well, it’s the same with a child prodigy.”

If pressurizing the child to perform is one grave error, stipulating the child to meet their expectations is ever more precarious. Most American child prodigies vanish into thin air after a brief virtuoso in their respective fields. Itzhak Perlman a violin genius blamed it on all parents who have a self designed agenda for their children. He claims that some parents’ schema is suspect, as they want to achieve fame through their child.

Americans, in particular never seem to know to handle prodigies. The American society always demands perfection. Driven by these wrought beliefs, the parents of prodigies expect their child to behave well in public, dress up smart and generally present themselves in a manner that would conform to the part of the world they belong. Non conformists are generally pronounced a misfit however brilliant they are otherwise. Here is a classic example :

Alissa Quart claims that  “the over-cultivated can develop self-esteem problems and performance anxiety.” She cites, Brandenn  Bremmer as a living or perhaps a dead example of how societal and therefore parental demands of conformity can ruin a prodigy. Bremmer  entered college at an incredible age of just10.  Four years later, in 2005, he shot himself in the head. He had told Quart in an interview: “America is a society that demands perfection.”[4]

Jennifer Capriati is another case of withered prodigy. She became the youngest Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1991 at a tender age of 15. She followed it up with the coveted Olympic gold the next year. Just two later, in 1994 she was caught for possessing a prohibited drug called marijuana. Her attempt to revive her tennis passion after a short rehabilitation was amply rewarded when she became world No 1 in WTA rankings, but is plagued with a spate of injuries and has since disappeared from the scene.

The independent and flamboyant lifestyle of hers is said to be responsible for these activities. The Great American independent culture, imprisoning parents to question their child’s ways disabled the Tennis star’s home front reining her in. Hers is perhaps one of those that have surfaced. Several American genius dissolve into thin air through these juvenile distractions. Particularly when parents exercise no control over them.

Eccentricity comes hand in hand with prodigies. Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein are two remowned luminaries who worked themselves into distinguishable scientists par excellence and indifferent personalities. What is astonishing about them is that no one cared to take a second glance at them in their formative days. That Einstein was a school dropout is well known. This certainly adds to the already pressurized parents. The need to conform or belong rides heavily on them until they prove that they have traversed beyond these simple fastidiousness. But then not everyone can be an Einstein.

It is not really fortunate that we live in a world which produces amazing children to overriding ambitious parents, if the prenatal womb bound foetus enrichment products like BabyPlus Womb Songs and the high-concept teaching devices like Baby Einstein DVDs are any indication. Parents are anxious to help  their children  remain competitive. Such measures backfire as the child ‘s inherent limitations are summoned to respond.  “Designating children as gifted, especially extremely gifted, and cultivating that giftedness may be not only a waste of money, but positively harmful,” Alissa adds.

However, it is quite heartening to note that Indian parents in general have shown equanimity is guiding prodigies. S. Chandra Sekhar, strove   all by himself without any unnecessary push from his parents to emerge as  the youngest to pass the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer tests at age 10 in the year  2000 is a case in point.  In 2003, he is believed to have joined an elite group of scientists to work on the hacker-proof security systems for India’s major computer networks.

Apart from Chandra Sekhar, there have been many prodigies who have made it remarkable big. The culture and the family systems lend themselves to guiding children along to realize their full potential at the right time and not prematurely blossom to wither away into obscurity. Of course there has been a lot of pressure on the parents to ensure off spring success. Particularly with nuclear family and both parents working, the pressure is really high. Going by the success rate of prodigies in India, it can be assured that parenting in India continues to retain the glories of the age old tradition. Given below is a short list of prodigious children who have made it big, and have attributed their success to their parents.

Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi, Mathematical prodigy since the pre independence era, exhibited her penchant for number calculations when she was just 3. She used to play card tricks regularly with ther father who worked as a human canon ball in a circus company. Her versatile abilities at numerical calculations got recognized when she demonstrated them in the University of Mysore at the age of 6 and Annnamalai Univsrsity at the age of 8. Unlike other mathematical genius like Truman Henry Safford who lost their calculating felicities during adulthood, she retains her skill even at the age of 60 in 1977 when she extracted the 23rd root of a 201 digit number faster than a computer/ calculator. This is easily the most amazing feat of any genius in any field. In  June 1980, she  multiplied a 13 digit number by another 13 digit number in 28 seconds. The Computer Department of Imperial College London, had earlier made a random selection of the digits in these numbers.  The multiplication problem of a 26 digit number  in just 28 seconds engraved  her name in the  Guinness Book of World Records in 1995.  Considering the time taken for dictating the number, that must have left even less time for the calculation, this is simply astounding. There is also an instance when she had proved the machine wrong.

But much of these were achieved not just because she was a prodigy. She was born in a well-known orthodox family of Brahmin priests in Bangalore. Her grandfather gave her early lessons in mathematics. The extended family set up  in which she lived in her formative years, channeled the young whiz kid’s natural felicity with numbers. She was identified as a child prodigy when she was just 5. Since then her parents , especially her father, ensured that she was not over exposed, her education in the normal sense of the term was given top priority. Today she has grown up to be  renowned writer, speaker holding  a doctoral degree from the University of Rajasthan. The fact that she was able to balance fame and her personal life is ample testimony to the fact her parents stood firmly rooted on the ground, never attempted to attain artificial fame either for her or for their own selves.  Genius from the age of three, a soul stirring speaker, a fine writer, a living marvel, an internationally celebrated mathematician SHAKUNTALA DEVI, an inspirational role model for the youth.

Mandolin Srinivas.

“Some of you have heard or read about exceptionally gifted children, our own Mandolin Shrinivas, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Beethoven, Sir Isaac Newton, Picasso, Madam Curie, the list is endless” That is where he belongs…

At the tender age of six U. Srinivas picked up his father Satyanarayana’s mandolin. It is normal for the father to gently chide his son, quietly remove the expensive, rare instrument from his hands and in the process safe guarded both the instrument and the boy. The world would have lost the prodigy then and there.

Sathnarayana was not to be the commonplace, unexciting father. Upon recognizing the flair for music in general and the instrument in particular in his son, his father became his first Guru. He began in a very humble fashion and started teaching him the basics of whatever Carnatic music he knew. But Srinivas thirsted for more. The genius in him craved higher forms and he is supposed to have reproduced whatever was just spoken. Thgis prompted the father to rethink on tutoruing young Srinivas. He met his guru, Rudraraju Subbaraju, who realized the potential of U. Srinivas and began his classes with him. Rudraraju Subbaraju was an expert singer but had no clue of the instrument. So he would sing and Srinivas would reproduce the music in the instrument. 

Mandolin was Srinivas’ first love. As a child he had never tired of playing on the instrument. His father was quick to realize his potential and recognized the prodigy in him. He devoted his efforts and energy in giving all possible support to nourish his talent. That he hailed form a not so well to do family did not deter either the father or the son from enhancing hid latent skills. Srinivas first shot into the limelight in Gudivada a little known village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, during the Sri Thyagaraja Aradhana festival. He was just around nine years young. This took the entire Carnatic world by storm. His father would not just accompany him to the concerts but would actually be on the Tampura a stringed instrument essential to set and maintain the pitch.

When his recognition spread far and wide, he shifted bases to Chennai and his parents moved along. His father turned out to be his manager as well initially managing his engagements and concert schedules. He saw to it that the young genius is neither over loaded not over stressed. He spaced out his concerts in such a way that he got his fare share in terms of number of concerts at the same time enough gap between each of them for  a well deserved rest.

His connections wtith the Western Classical musicians speak volumes about his undersanding of music in general. He has given several joint concerts with the greatest of them too. 

Laurels, accolades and awards followed him wherever he went. But he remained unfazed by the newly earned riches or encomiums. Despite his active schedule, that included several foreign trips, he continued to learn and enhance his knowledge of music. This also meant that he had no time for formal education. His father was there to ensure that his son had at least minimal education, principally through private coaching.

The public adulation for the charming urbane smiling little boy continues till today, as a young man and would continue in the future too. So much for his popularly that it was generally felt if music is God’s greatest gift to human kind, then U.Srinivas is God’s choicest gift to world music

SachinTendulkar

 “Sachin Tendulkar is an important person of our country. He is our country’s wealth and we will protect him,” said Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police, MN Singh following kidnap threats he received from militant groups. This was the level of adulation he receives from every Indian.

One of the very few genius to transform ‘’stones thrown at them into milestones, Sachin Tendulkar is prodigy par excellence. One of the greatest batsmen of all times, he holds as many as 75 records in cricket. This in itself is a record, as no other sports legend holds as many.

Is Sachin a one day wonder? Yes and no. He is the world’s greatest one day batsman, but a genius of all time. That succinctly explains the equation. The following describes his entry into international cricket at a tender age of 16. A record straight away at that point in time – the youngest to make international debut in cricket.

He made his debut in the year 1989, in Pakistan. Sachin, under aged for a driving licence, nevertheless was facing the most dreaded bowlers of the times.  Pakistani crowds taunted the young lad, with  placards roaring “ Dudh Pita Bhachcha ..ghar jaake dhoodh pee”, (hey kid, go home and drink milk). But Sachin was undeterred. He  sent the leg spinner Mustaq Ahmed virtually absconding having  hit him for two sixes in one over. This demoralized mentor the legendary Abdul Qadir. All the same, walked in and  challenged Sachin ” Bachchon ko kyon mar rahe ho? Hamein bhi maar dikhao ` (`Why are you hitting kids? Try and hit me.`)

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Sachin was silent, decided to let his bat reply. He obliged Quadir’s simple request by hitting  4 sixes in the over, humbling him for cover. making the spinner look the kid in the contest. The over read 6, 0, 4, 6 6 6, Sure, David destroyed Goliath … and a cricketing marvel was born.

 A short peep into  his boyhood days reveals much about his familial relationship. He was born into a middle class family and not with a silver spoon.

He becomes emotional while talking about his family. His own words  sums it all.

I won’t be where I am without the support of all my family members, my coach Ramakant Achrekar who used to drag me from my home to practice at nets and all my friends who have stood by me all these years”.Tendulkar said.

Sachin got his first bat, a wooden block that is used on those days for washing clothes from his Grandmother. And he still has that wooden thing as a remembrance. A total family man, he was groomed to be firmly grounded despite the name and fame he has achieved. His father Ramesh Tendulkar was a Marathi poet of renown.  Realising his son’s potential in the game he was willing to change the school Sachin was studying to enable him to get more practice and exposure to the game. This change was instrumental in the record of 664 runs which he made along with his friend and fellow India player Vinod Kambli. They were in class 9 then.

Cricket was and is a rich game. But most cricketers even during those times would have a back up to their source of income. But Sachin’s father was more than just willing to let his youngest son take to cricket as fish would to water. Never compelled him about the importance of academics or even complete his schooling. He was convinced that his son could make it big in the sport of his choice and passion. The father allowed that liberty to his son.

His major influence on Sachin is the importance on commitment to his work that he inculcated in the young mind. This was evident when in the 1999 World Cup in England, he returned within three days to resume work after his father’s sudden demise. That was the commitment to his profession his father taught him. He did not stop there. He came back and scored a century in the next match and dedicated it to his father.

The imprint of the father that we cannot miss  in Sachin Tendulkar is the humility even in the best of times. Never has anyone heard or seen Sachin brag about his abilities though he has proved them time and again. Honesty is Sachin’s watchword. He would never resort to unlawful means to move as much as an inch forward in his career. He would accept defeat with grace. In all these, we can notice the stamp of Ramesh Tendulkar.

Even today he is a supreme role model and an inspiration to many youngsters. A lesson about him is included in the high school English text book for the learners  to learn the art of achieving greatness by reinstating high moral and ethical values when sledging rules the roost in international cricket.

Mumbai’s most valuable son has left no cricketing stone untouched and touched nothing that he did not adorn. 

The recent prodigy:

Nine-year old girl M. Lavinashree, is youngest to become Microsoft Certified Professional unsettling the record held by a Pakistani girl . The wonder kid already holds a long list of records in her short life that includes the recitation of all the 1330 Thirukkural couplets. All these at the age of three when mort children would not have even learnt to speak fluently.

 It will be interesting watch this gifted genius grow full strength to achive greatness in her life. Of course much depends on her parents and their parenting ways. With the full glare of media attention and public curiosity, the parents indeed are in an unenviable position to guide her appropriately. They face the greatest challenge of their times so that the child grows to achieve immensely in her life.

Conclusion

Parenting plays a very crucial role in guiding child prodigies in the right direction. Not all prodigies tend to make the news, but do go about their lives maintaining a low profile, quietly and successfully without inviting attention. They are known better after their time as is the case of Ramanujam  or a Shelley. On the other hand, not all geniuses who make a dramatic entry in this world go on to become great. Much of their destiny is directed by the parents and their attitude, ambition and aspirations.

A great poet Thomas Gray, said

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene

            The dark unfathomed caves of the ocean bear

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen

            And waste its sweetness on the desert air”.

The world is scattered with a Shakuntala or a Srinivas or a Sachin or perhaps a hundred Lavinashrees. It is the prime duty of the parents not just to identify and reveal them to the world but steer them to accomplish the mission providence had sent them for.

Geniuses are born not made!

 References

 The Times November 10, 2007

 Alexandra Frean, Education Editor 10 June, 2002, UK

 Laura June, India Today, Dec 23rd 2008

THE HINDU, Sunday, May 3, 1992

Sumathi Shivakumar has over 10 years of teaching experience at collegiate level. She has her masters and MPhil in English and a Masters in Applied Psychology. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Educatiuonal Psychology. She can be contacted at meghsiv@gmail.com, sumathi.shivakumar@gmail.com
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