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Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Childby Alissa Quart
Synopses & Reviews
Critically acclaimed author Alissa Quart breaks the news about an issue that will be of urgent concern to parents and educators as well as adult readers with gifted pasts: the dilemma of the gifted child. While studies show that children who are superior learners do benefit from enriched early education, the intensely competitive lives of America's gifted and talented kids do have risks. The pressure can have long-term effects in adult life, from debilitating perfectionism to performance anxiety and lifelong feelings of failure.
Quart traveled the country to research the many ways in which the current craze to produce gifted kids and prodigies has gone too far. Exploring the overhyped world of baby edutainment and better baby early education programs, she takes a hard look at the claims about educational toys and baby sign language. Taking readers inside the ever-more elite world of IQ testing, she reveals the proliferation of new categories of giftedness, including terrifyingly and severely gifted and examines the true value of such testing. Profiling the explosion of kid competitions — from Scrabble(tm) and chess to child preaching — she uncovers the dangers of such heated pressure to excel so early in life and exposes the prodigy hunters who search science and math fairs for teens to hire for Wall Street investment firms. Critiquing the professionalization of play, she visits with kids who've been identified as prodigies — from a four-year-old painter whose works sell for $300,000, to an eight-year-old professional skateboarder who is backed by nine corporate sponsors. Surveying expert assessments of the necessary role of unstructured play in child development, she warns about the disappearance of recess and the pitfalls of children's overstuffed schedules today. She also profiles the growing divide in opportunities for wealthy kids versus those from middle and lower income families who are losing out as gifted programs at public schools are gutted in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act.
How should parents and educators draw the line? How much enrichment is too much, and how much is too little? What are we doing to our gifted kids? Alissa Quart's penetrating in-depth examination provides a much-needed wake-up call that will spark a national debate about this urgent issue.
"Quart's follow-up to Branded shifts her focus from rapacious companies to parents, whose obsession with 'creating' or 'nurturing' giftedness, she argues, has led to a full-blown transformation of middle-class childhood into aggressive skill-set pageantry. While Quart wonderfully details the daily grinds of genuine prodigies (in everything from violin to preaching to entrepreneurship), the real force of the book is in showing how gifted childhood — relentlessly tested, totally overscheduled and joylessly competitive — is being created by striving parents of all stripes; such 'enrichment' not only doesn't necessarily work, it can be harmful. A chapter titled 'The Icarus Effect' presents child-prodigies as worn, depressed adults; 'Extreme Parenting' and 'Child Play or Child Labor?' show the bizarre (and often profit-based) forms prodigy-mongering is taking: 'Phoenix has started her own knitwear business,' one parent crows, 'and though she is only 12, she can do it.' Probing interviews (the kids are brilliant, robotic, frenetic, forlorn and every shade in between) are matched with educational and psychological data, with beautiful cultural riffs (particularly linking mathletes and Wall Street) and deep engagement: a former gifted kid herself, Quart interviews, interprets and assesses with a sympathy for her subjects and their caregivers that is emotionally profound. She turns in a remarkably evenhanded analysis and argues for 'multiple intelligences' and enrichment for 'strong learners' in public schools. Quart's second book is first-class literary journalism." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"After four years of parenthood, I have learned one thing: There are more ways to do it wrong than you can possibly imagine. Make sure your offspring are fed, bathed, clothed, read to, and still you will let them down — by, say, taking them to Kindermusik classes or forcing them to watch Baby Einstein DVDs. The only thing worse than a neglectful parent, it turns out, is an over-involved one. That's... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) confirmed by Alissa Quart, the well-meaning if not always clear-thinking author of Hothouse Kids. A self-described 'culture producer,' Quart carries bitter memories of how her father pressured her, from age 3, to be precocious, to excel, to be what we would today call gifted. She read a book a day; she wrote her first novel at 7; she won poetry competitions as a teenager. When she turned 17, she had had enough of 'great expectations that I wouldn't begin to fulfill....Having been built in the fashion I was as a child — created and then deflated — has left me with a distinct feeling of failure.' In many interviews with gifted children (and 'ex-gifted' adults) as well as those who assess, coach and study them, Quart collects damning evidence of this phenomenon, which she calls the Icarus Effect. As aficionados of Greek mythology will recall, Icarus flew too close to the sun with the wax-and-feathers wings that his father, Daedalus, made for him. The wax melted, and Icarus plunged to his death. Quart suggests this as a cautionary tale about parents who put too much pressure on their kids to be high flyers — although it was Icarus who got carried away and ignored his father's warning not to fly too high. Whatever. Quart's point is that from the time they're fetuses until they're old enough to be high-school math champions, we put pressure on our children to fly as high as they can — to be the best they can or rather the best that we think they ought to be, which is better than everybody else. So they're not just bright, they're 'gifted' or 'extremely gifted.' Everybody's kid's a genius, right? If they're not, they could be — or would be, with the right early training. Or so the 'Baby Genius Edutainment Complex,' as Quart terms it, would have us believe. We blast our developing fetuses with Mozart to give them a leg up in life. We park our 6-month-olds in front of 'Baby Einstein' and 'Brainy Baby' videos, whose bells and whistles are supposed to kick developing neurons into overdrive. We drag our toddlers to early childhood 'enrichment' classes and subject them to IQ tests as preschoolers to ensure that they get the best 'gifted' education, if we're lucky enough to live in a place that offers it or rich enough to pay for private schools and tutors. By the time they're teens, we've groomed our children to take no prisoners at Scrabble tournaments, in science competitions and at national spelling bees. These events may, if they (we) are lucky, earn them scholarships, national media exposure and maybe even a shot at Wall Street. Quart includes a chapter on math whizzes who are courted by financial firms as well as by government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. Not only does this deprive kids of the proper fun of childhood, Quart argues, it can kill the drive to master something for its own sake. Too much early pressure can jeopardize kids' ability to become successful, self-motivated adults. She offers up a number of cautionary tales, such as the one about the pianist whose father drove him so hard that he gave up the instrument by the time he was 7 years old. And then there's the sad case of Brandenn Bremmer, a 'profoundly gifted' 14-year-old who killed himself in March 2005. He apparently left no note to explain the act, but 'the earth is not a happy place for PGs,' as a mother of gifted children put it. What, exactly, does it mean to be 'profoundly gifted' or even just plain old 'gifted'? Experts disagree. So do a battery of IQ tests. Quart herself doesn't seem clear on the point, and that's one of the great weaknesses of her book; she relies on Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary to get a handle on the term, and never narrows down exactly what, or whom, she's talking about. Instead we get a grab bag of giftedness: an anecdote here, a statistic or expert's quote there. Perhaps if I were a more gifted reader I would have detected some organizing principle, but too often I felt myself adrift in a sea of acronyms (who knew that gifted children had so many groups devoted to their cultivation?), study findings and mini-reports from conferences and competitions. Instead, I wanted to hear more about the children themselves and how they feel about the whole messy enterprise. Hothouse Kids works best when Quart sticks to the stories of talented children and the parents who stand behind them ready to give them a push (and another, and another, and another). Many such stories make you vow, as a parent, to be as hands-off as possible — or, as my husband puts it, just try not to get in the way. Was it really a good idea for the parents of painting sensation Marla Olmstead, now all of 4 years old, to position their daughter as a Major Talent and sell her artwork for $15,000 a pop? That's a nice chunk of change for the college fund, but I doubt that Marla enjoys slapping paint on canvas because she earns a bundle doing it. At least I hope she doesn't. And, as Quart points out, Marla's dad was caught on videotape coaching his daughter in the studio. Quart seems to have her doubts about many of the parents she interviews and their 'extreme parenting' style, although she's careful to try to see decent motives behind the pressures they put on their children. Many have been thwarted in their own ambitions and hope to protect the next generation from life's slings and arrows. It's not wrong, after all, to want to give your kid a head start in a competitive world. And yet, as Quart and many of her experts ask, when did children's play start to look so much like adults' work? What happened to doing something because you love it, not because it's going to prove that you (or those who produced you) have the Right Stuff? Those are questions most parents could usefully ask ourselves, whether or not we're out there clacking the castanets in Kindermusik with the best of them. Jennifer Howard, a staff writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the mother of a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son." Reviewed by Jennifer Howard, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Much of her reporting is fascinating....In an effort to tackle virtually every aspect of the gifted world, Quart leaves her reader exhausted and without a clear sense of the unifying bigger picture. Still, her warning is worth heeding." Christian Science Monitor
"...Hothouse Kids is social criticism, not sideshow....Quart's message, thoughtful, often eloquent and bracingly frank, injects common sense into the overwrought rhetoric of parenting." Los Angeles Times
"[A] thoroughly reported, wide-ranging, clearly written study of the gifted child industrial complex." Denver Post
"[F]illed with sweeping generalizations based on a cursory examination of anecdotal evidence, limited personal experience, and a selected few works in the field. Parents seeking advice on how to raise their gifted...child will not find it here." Library Journal
"[O]ne-on-one interviews and insightful reports from the field give this book its sparkle....A challenging read for educators and parents alike." Kirkus Reviews
Quart provides a revelatory and provocative examination of the enormous pressures being brought to bear today on children designated as "gifted" — by both schools and parents — and how all of the special programs, classes, and competitions meant to ensure they will be highly successful can have serious "revenge effects" and troubling long-term consequences.
About the Author
Alissa Quart is the author of the acclaimed book Branded. She writes opinion pieces and book reviews for the New York Times and has written for the New York Times Magazine. A former gifted child, she started writing novels at age seven and won numerous national writing competitions. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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