How to Raise a Prodigy (and How Not To)

seedlingWe love whiz kids. We love pint-size Michelangelos and Michael Jordans who can pull off fast, sophisticated feats of agility and speed at an impossibly young age.

But here’s a surprising little secret : when you take a hard look at the science, the majority of super-talented whiz kids do not become world-class adult performers. Check here and here for some of the evidence – or consider the mediocre record of those “experts” who evaluate talent for the NFL, MLB, and NBA draft – and whose multimillion dollar bets on the Next Big Thing so often come up empty.

All this adds up to a profound mystery: why don’t prodigies succeed more often? Why don’t kids who are the world’s best at  age 10 or 15 end up being the world’s best at age 25 or 30? Because logically speaking, prodigies should succeed at a reasonably high rate. After all, they have a heck of a head start. But they don’t. It’s like they hit a Prodigy Wall.

Conventional thinking places most of the responsibility on the prodigy – they burn out, they lose their passion. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. To be blunt, I think it’s mostly the parents’ fault. The modern parental response to having a prodigy — which is well-meaning — has an unfortunate side-effect: it cuts the prodigies off from the humble, stepwise, self-motivated process that grew their skill in the first place.

When a prodigy appears, modern parents have three powerful instincts:

  • To celebrate – to show the prodigy (and everybody else) how marvelous their skill is.
  • To elevate – to place the prodigy on a different plane. They are not like others. They are different and special.
  • To accelerate – to expose the prodigy to new levels of competition, usually involving other prodigies.

The parental urge to celebrate, elevate, and accelerate is powerful and nearly irresistible, particularly given the many institutions that excel in identifying prodigies and funneling them like so many Dickensian orphans into a grid of specialized, often far-off opportunities.

So yes, those instincts are powerful. But are they the right thing to do?

A nice case study is found in the story of Debbie Phelps and her three kids – Michael (yes, that Michael Phelps) and his older sisters, Whitney and Hilary.

Growing up in suburban Baltimore, Whitney and Hilary were prodigial swimmers. Whitney was a national champion at 14. According to one of their coaches, Whitney and Hilary possessed more talent than Michael ever had. Debbie was the very image of an involved sports mom – celebrating each of Whitney and Hilary’s successes with great enthusiasm.

Then, as happens with so many, Whitney and Hilary hit the Prodigy Wall. They got really good, but couldn’t get any better. They couldn’t crack through.

Michael comes along. He’s really good — nearly as talented as his sisters. And when Michael was 15, he set a new American record at an out-of-town meet. As Michael traveled back to Baltimore, Mother Debbie did the instinctive thing – she festooned the house with balloons, streamers, and yard signs commemorating his remarkable feat.

But then something unusual happened. A few hours before Michael arrived, Michael’s coach, Bob Bowman, came to the house and removed all the streamers. He popped the balloons. He pulled down the signs. And he threw it all into the trash.

When Debbie Phelps saw what Bowman had done, she was understandably upset – why was he doing this? Didn’t he understand that this was a big moment, a time to celebrate?

Bowman let her protest. Then he told her, “This is a journey of a thousand steps. If we celebrate now, like this, that leaves us nowhere to go.”

Today, Bowman sees that day as a vital turning point in Michael’s development. Debbie remained incredibly supportive, but she gave her son and his coach ownership of the journey in a way she hadn’t done with the older girls.

When it comes to prodigies, I think we should take a cue from Bowman and employ the Opposite George theory. (Random reference alert: do you remember that episode of Seinfeld where George – realizing that every instinct he’s ever had has been wrong, decides to do the opposite? Real George is a complete failure – Opposite George is a raging success.)

The Opposite George Theory of Prodigy Parenting goes like this:

  • Instead of celebrating a prodigy’s victories, let the rewards speak for themselves The true reward of winning is in the act of winning itself. (Let’s be honest – yard signs are not really for the kid, are they?) This gives a kid rightful ownership over the process.
  • Instead of elevating and isolating a prodigy, emphasize the connections to others. Remind a kid that they might be better right now, but in the long run, they have a lot in common with everybody else. This makes the ups and downs of the journey (which are inevitable) easier to endure.
  • Instead of accelerating to ever-new and exotic levels of outside competition, find innovative ways to increase the internal level of competition in the practice routine. This keeps the focus inward, on the controllable internal process of stretching and reaching toward a goal, and not on the uncontrollables of a scoreboard or an opponent.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for cold, uncaring, balloon-popping parenting – it’s fun having a prodigy in the family, and it should bring happiness and pride. But I am arguing for boundaries and clarity. Because I think it’s easy to forget a basic fact about being a kid: it’s pretty scary. Being a prodigy is triple scary, and isolation only adds to that feeling. Prodigies don’t need to be set apart – rather, they need to remain connected to the people and forces that help them grow.