How Not to Squash a Prodigy

Thanks to teaching methods such as the Suzuki school, “child prodigies” are more common than ever, yet most still peak early. How can parents help kids make the most of their gifts?
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How can parents develop a child’s talent without squashing it?

David Shenk:  Yeah, big question, hard to give you a, you know, a catchall answer, obviously with sensitivity.  I can give you a couple…   I can give you a couple thoughts.  Obviously I want parents to read the book.  There is a lot of background here that I think will help inform how a parent applies this stuff to their own lives, so it doesn’t really come down to like five easy steps, but I would say that first of all monumentally important is a parent who wants their child to be great at something, absolutely cannot put love out there as kind of a reward for becoming good at something.  It actually works in the short term.  You can get a child to be really, really good and really, really motivated by saying, you know, I’m not going to show affection until you get to be really good at you know cross a certain skill level, but it’s a disaster emotionally for kids and it gets even worse as they grow up.  Parents need to help their kids understand that first of all whatever they are is okay.  Secondly, it’s not only okay to fail at stuff.  It’s actually good to fail at stuff.  You cannot learn until you fail. Every time you fail it’s if you are open to that being a learning experience, why you failed at something then that is the gateway into learning and then you combine that with persistence, with this idea that you know the people who get great at stuff it requires just pushing and pushing and never stop pushing, kind of enjoying the process and embracing the failure as I said and never being quite satisfied, you know having a certain contentment with the process, enjoying who you are and wherever you are…  wherever you’re at skill wise, but also knowing that there is more to do and that over time you will get better at stuff if you push yourself.  I know that sounds kind of mundane, but that turns out to be true.

Question: Why do some child prodigies burn out early, and how can their talent be preserved longer?

David Shenk:  Sure, so why do child prodigies fizzle out?  Well there are a couple of reasons.  One is that it’s very important to realize that when kids are immensely great at something, playing the violin or particularly good at a sport, of having some sort of what looks like a gift in another art or skill they’re never performing at an adult great level.  They’re only sticking out from what other kids can do, and the reason that’s really important to point out is that they’re great at a technical skill, and I’m not trying to take away from what they do, because obviously it is amazing to watch and when you have… particularly when you’re a parent and you’ve seen all these kids, your kids and other kids performing at a relatively average level in some way, and then you see some other kid just doing something amazing you’re blown away by it, but it’s important to realize that, you know, for example, when you look at Mozart yes, he was performing for kings and queens when he was 5, 6 years old, but his performances then were not… could not be compared to great violinist of 25 or 30 years old.  It couldn’t be then and it certainly couldn’t be now.  Another point to make is that with the Suzuki method and other methods now there are many, many, many performers now who are performing at that age, 5 and 6 years old, 7 years old as good or better than what Mozart did when he was a kid, so we tend to think of…  We tend to hold Mozart up on this pedestal as having this God-given gift and being one in a zillion in terms of his early musicality, but in actuality it’s fairly easy if you look at his life to explain where he got the skills that he got and to identify them as skills, not as some sort of supernatural power, and to see that now our culture has actually learned a lot of the trade secrets that at the time maybe only Leopold and Mozart knew and we’re applying them left and right to very young kids.

Question: Can Suzuki and similar teaching methods “create” child prodigies, and do they help kids fulfill their long-term potential?

David Shenk:  Yeah, I think the Suzuki method, the Suzuki school is really exciting as long as everything is in perspective.  You want to follow the child’s lead.  You know, you want to introduce them to great teachers and expose them to music as early as possible.  That’s a wonderful thing and leads to all sorts of other benefits in life, but you don’t want to push them unnaturally.  You want to…  You know, you want to try pushing them a little bit and see if they push back and say, “You know what?”  “I’m not ready for this.”  Or, “Yeah, this is something I really want to do.”  You want to kind of take their temperature as to what their passions are and their persistence.