Can Discipline Transform Children Into Prodigies?

The short answer is no. But Ann Hulbert has a longer answer.

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The child prodigy, that tiny tot hunched over a piano or calculator, fingers flying over the black-and-white keys, is inevitably followed by suspicion. To what austere regime, we wonder, did this child’s parents subject him? Is this virtuosity a diamond formed with incalculable pressure? It’s tempting to assume that bitter tears serve as prelude to great performances, but that’s not inevitable. In her new book, Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies, author Ann Hulbert examines the lives of child prodigies and finds that some have preternatural focus and discipline. Not all, but more than you’d think.

In talking with prodigies and their parents, Hulbert found that there were a broad range of experiences, but also some common through lines among children who accomplished outrageous things at a young age. Great young entertainers and mathematicians are not, she makes clear, interchangeable by any means. But elements of their experiences – and their parents approach to supporting them – are in. many cases.

Hulbert spoke to Fatherly about how parents should understand the achievements of other peoples’ children and the potential of their own.

I suppose the biggest question is are prodigies made, born or somewhere in between. And what are the implications for role of discipline either way. How did you go about untangling that?
In the book, I start with the story of two boys who attended Harvard at age 11, Norbert and Billy. You would think, to listen to their fathers, that there wasn’t much in the way of strenuous work or practices required to get them to do all the amazing things they did … But Norbert’s father – for all his talk of “blessings of blunderings” – was a real task master. He would have Norbert recite lessons to him and when the lessons did not go well he would berate him for not getting answers right.

On the other hand, both Gertrude Temple and Josephine Cogdell, the mother of the piano playing prodigy Philippa Schuyler,  subscribed to the philosophy of John Broadus Watson, the reigning childhood expert of the day, who believed in discipline in the classic sense, with extremely regimented habits. He thought children bonding emotionally with parents was a problem. In the case of Gertrude, she guided Shirley a lot but Shirley herself was a very dogged child. In the case of Josephine, she turned his theories on discipline, essentially, into justification for child abuse.

Do you think the degree to which prodigies are pushed by their parents is related to the achievements they pursue? Acting, for instance, is very different than piano. You write about Marc Yu getting up in the middle of the night to practice piano. Shirley Temple probably didn’t get up in the middle of the night to practice acting. Maybe dancing though…
To master an instrument or to get really good at chess, you do have to practice a lot. There are a lot of rules and variations and history. If you’re going to be really good at it really young. you need to begin doing it physically early and you do need intense discipline. With Shirley Temple, as she herself said, she wasn’t the world’s greatest actor. Her discipline was that she was able go at it in an intensively paced way. You can’t get every kid to put up with all the stuff you have to do to get to the level Shirley did.

At the same time, even for more “conventional” prodigies like musicians, discipline takes many forms. A good example is Henry Cowell, the composer. It’s tempting to say Cowell’s mother didn’t make him do anything. When all the other kids went inside to practice piano, he writes, he would simply sit down and practice listening to sounds in his own mind.

For parents, the difficult-to-answer question is whether or not if you pushed your child enough they might turn out to be exceptional in some astounding way. Probably not, but it always seem possible. To what degree do you think intense parents are necessary to discovery prodigies?
What one generally hears about prodigies, as opposed to children who have great promise, is that there is a manifest drive that is different from what you see in your average kid. I think that’s probably true, but also probably blurrier than we like to think. The pianist Marc Yu is an example of it. I met him when he was six. He was throwing himself into the lessons. He was practicing. He was obsessed in a way most kids aren’t. On the other hand, he had a mother who organized her life around tapping into that energy in a way that most parents couldn’t or wouldn’t. Achievement often requires sacrifice from parents.

The tension is that parents want to convert the talent of their children into something. Not to capitalize on it feels like a waste. But to capitalize on it completely feels dangerous for the overall development of the child.
It’s a very hard call to make. Even when you have a very self-driven prodigy, there are moments when that self-drive is painful and difficult. As a parent, you have to decide in those moments whether to carry on. I think parents in these situations really have to examine themselves. How much of of the decision is about a loose idea of the parent’s future and how much is about the kid and what the kid can do. The key is to find a balance that allows children to do what children to do best: Be completely absorbed in something they want to do.

But in order for them to be really absorbed, they have to break through a threshold of aptitude, which can be difficult. The more you push, I feel, the more your kids resist. I call it the “You’ll Thank Me Later Problem.”
To some extent, I think that’s historically constructed. Before World War II, there was much less an emphasis on rebellion. Maybe kids did want to buck authority, but they felt too constrained.  I think – even if you have ‘normal’ children – it is important to consider the adolescent crisis. In prodigies, teenage rebellion often plays out very dramatically as they struggle to find autonomy. As a parent it is useful to think about the dramas that are going to shape how a child enters the next phase. Childhood is short. Adulthood is very long. Consider the transition.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, development, and parenting.

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