Is there really such a thing as 'gifted' children - or do they simply owe their talents to pushy parents? Emma Higginbotham speaks to Dr Clementine Beauvais, who’s researching the controversial issue.
Everybody loves stories about gifted children. Whether it's Mozart composing beautiful tunes at the tender age of 5, or maths superstar Ruth Lawrence getting into Oxford at just 11, there's something irresistible about the idea that freakishly talented kids can walk among us.
But Dr Clementine Beauvais isn't so sure that 'giftedness' can be measured at all. Because it seems that behind every supremely able child, there's usually a rather pushy parent.
“The problem is that we don’t really want to hear about parental involvement in gifted children,” says Clementine, a junior research fellow at Homerton College. “We don’t want to hear about practices we would identify as 'pushy', because it demystifies the giftedness.”
Clementine will be discussing the issue on Thursday as part of the Festival of Ideas. And her talk, ‘Gifted children – or pushy parents?’ will no doubt include the story of Ruth Lawrence.
Back in the 80s, the young maths whizz graduated with a starred first from Oxford (after two rather than the usual three years) aged just 13. “But her father stopped working to home-school her from when she was a tiny, tiny girl,” points out Clementine. “So here we’ve got an incredibly supportive parent doing incredibly intensive parenting.
“Of course she is extraordinary, and no-one can deny that she arrived top of 500 candidates for the entrance exam - it’s incredible. But she wasn’t just born with all that mathematical capacity.”
As for Mozart, “the completely supernaturally gifted child... Again, it’s not true. It’s not that he wasn’t talented; by all measures his life was extraordinary. But it’s been evaluated that between 3 and 6 years old, he practised his piano for 3,500 hours! This is a tiny child! It didn’t come from nowhere; when you’ve had that kind of training, something’s going to come out of it.
“Not just that, but his father was working towards a very specific aim: he wanted to tour the children around Europe. I’m not saying he was a monster, not at all, but again we have this incredibly controlling person investing himself entirely into his children.”
The idea of 'giftedness' is, says Clementine, a relatively recent construct. “People feel that it’s a measureable thing, and it’s something you possess or you don’t possess. It’s only really in the 20th century that we start having that perception, mainly through the development of IQ tests. I’m looking particularly at academic giftedness, but giftedness in music, in sports, in arts, is also considered to be something that children have or don’t have.
“And there’s a very commonly associated idea that you’re born gifted; it’s innate,” she adds. “But the nature/nurture debate is very complicated. When you talk to parents, a lot of them will say 'We could see that from an early age he was particularly talented at this or that’. But the problem is that parents are very unreliable narrators of their own child’s development!
“It’s well known that there are a number of things that parents will encourage children to do according to their socio-economic background. So if a child is born in a house full of books, is it any surprise that they’ll want to read early on? The parents may tell you ‘But she wanted to read!’, but yes of course, because she saw you reading all the time.”
This brings us on to the thorny issue that ‘gifted’ children almost always seem to come from middle class backgrounds – thanks, perhaps, to a spot of pushy parenting.
According to Clementine, the “vast majority” of kids in gifted schemes - lunch clubs, weekend activity groups for 'more able' children and the like – are middle class. “It’s very socio-economically divided,” she says.
Yet that’s not the impression we get from child prodigies in fiction. Clementine says that “classist” stories like Matilda and Billy Elliot, which portray young geniuses rising out of nowhere from their poor backgrounds, “reinforce the notion that if you are more gifted than your peers, you will always succeed, even if barely helped at all.
“But that’s just not true. When we say that, we’re avoiding the responsibility of actually helping, first of all, ALL children - not only those who exhibit some kind of precocity gained from their parental background - and secondly of trying harder to fight practices that will always advantage some children over others, regardless of their talent. For example, things that some parents can afford to give their children that others can’t, like private tutoring and extra-curricular activities.”
So what is a pushy parent? According to Clementine, this is a recent construct too. “It's a derogatory term; it’s one of those things that you don’t want to be called. No one’s ever defined it, but if I say 'pushy parent' you know exactly what I mean!
“Generally it’s a number of characteristics: you’ll have a parent who is particularly intensive or strict in their parenting practices; then you have the notion that a pushy parent will monopolise the free time of the child to give them extra-curricular activities, or tutoring, or to take them to museums; and there’s also the notion that a pushy parent will value a very competitive approach to education.”
The concept first emerged in the 1960s when a population surge - plus more women going on to degree-level education - meant there were fewer places at university.
“This led to a very growing, palpable anxiety on the part of the middle classes that their children would not get into these universities,” she explains. “So this gave rise to basically an arms race, trying to get their kid above other people. Because soon it became the case that you couldn’t just have extraordinary marks, you had to have done violin, and founded a school in Kenya… So parents were more and more engaged in preparing their child for entrance exams, and also cultivating the spirit in their children that they needed to be competitive.”
But are they pushing their children because they genuinely want them to succeed? Or because it's a reflection on them if they don't? “It’s really hard to make generalisations,” says Clementine. “When we think about pushy parents we think about narcissistic parents; parents who have not had the successes they wanted, and therefore want their children to have it.
“And in the media, they’re always portrayed as self-interested monsters who’ve sacrificed the childhoods of their children, who push them so much that they don’t care about their wellbeing.”
Yet studies have shown that however distasteful people may find it, pushy parenting seems to work. “You have mothers saying ‘I asked the head of English for three years for my kid to be put in the gifted scheme, and in the end he said ‘yes’, and I’m very conscious that it was my pushiness that got her there. Also I wouldn’t put it down to the school that she got all these A stars at GCSE'...”
What's more, adds Clementine, 'normal' parents witness this success, “so there’s a lot of resentment there.”
As for the argument about the child's wellbeing, “often these parents will say 'If we make our child less happy now [by pressuring them to succeed], we know that we’re investing in their future, and they’ll be happier later because they’ll have more resources'.
“And empirically they’re not wrong. Children identified as gifted have a higher-than-average chance of financial capital later in life – whether or not that’s a notion of happiness! Some even suggest that they will be more happy and less susceptible to mental health problems.”
So it's unfair to demonise pushy parents, then? “I don’t really want to say,” smiles Clementine. “I’m more interested in why we would demonise it. And I think it's because we cling to a very romantic conception of the naturally intelligent, naturally extraordinary child, but we hate the notion that there are people who ‘cheat the system’, so to speak, and create ‘fake’ gifted children.”
Clementine, who's 25, has done rather well herself: aside from her academic success, she's also written 13 children's books (her latest, The Royal Babysitters, was published by Bloomsbury last month). Were her parents pushy? “Er, yes,” she admits. “My mother was certainly what would be qualified as a pushy parent, the kind who is always encouraging you to read above your reading age; the kind who tells you that effort and discipline is important.
“I come from a very comfortable background and I went to good schools, so in a way I’m a very typical example of how the education system functions to give success to people who come from the right places. There is no mystery whatsoever in any success I might have had.
“It's almost too easy for some people, and there’s no reason to glorify people who arrive in a position of power when they’ve come from backgrounds that are so ready to put them into those positions of power.”
What’s really interesting is that the whole giftedness issue is very much a UK and American obsession: “In Scandinavia, for example, the education system is based on an ideal of equality - you’re trying to get everyone to a similar kind of level, and it’s discouraged to identify children as more able than others.
“But our education system constantly privileges people who are already privileged, and constantly works towards the success of children who are incredibly supported at home,” she adds. “And if you have parents who are getting their children to compete with all the other children at the top, then it widens the gap enormously towards the children who have not had that privilege.
“So that’s really what I’m interested in,” concludes Clementine. “It conceals the educational inequalities that are in-built in the system, and it makes us almost feel better, because we feel ‘Oh well, gifted children will rise to the top anyway, wherever they come from’, but actually that’s not really what happens. And we don’t want to see that, because it’s not as seductive.”
::Clementine Beauvais will discuss ‘Gifted children – or pushy parents?’ at the Faculty of Education, 184 Hills Road, CB2 8PQ on Thursday from 6pm to 7.30pm. See festivalofideas.co.uk for more information.