Having a prodigy in the family is usually thought of as a divine blessing. Teachers and coaches compete over them. Other kids envy them. Parents look at them wishfully, thinking: If only my kid could be like that.
From a distance, it looks simple: you turn the kid loose and watch their talent rocket them through life. Up close, it’s anything but. The truth is, raising a prodigy is an immensely complicated and consuming endeavor.
We get a moving glimpse of this in Andrew Solomon’s terrific new book, Far From the Tree. He writes about the complicated emotional landscape parents have to navigate to balance the child’s abilities with the rest of their development. (I should point out that Solomon focuses not just on high performers, but on true prodigies, those rare children who display bewilderingly high levels of ability and desire at a young age, most often in math and music.)
The types of challenges range from the emotional (how do we balance “normal” childhood development with adult levels of talent?) to the developmental (how do we deal with early midlife crisis when the prodigies reach the end of their early successes?) to the relational (how do we disentangle natural parental ego and involvement so that the child can stand on their own?).
In addition, some talents arrive shadowed by autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other neurological conditions that make for their own challenges, not the least of which is the parent’s difficulty accepting them. Underlying all of that is the reality that despite hopes and appearances, the vast majority of child prodigies do not go on to become top adult performers.
Here’s Solomon’s conclusion:
Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.