Parenting a Prodigy

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Earlier this month, I heard the NPR story “Don’t Call This 12-Year-Old Concert Pianist A Prodigy” on my drive to work. The subject of the story, the pianist Emily Bear, meets every definition I’ve heard of a child prodigy. This 12-year-old’s musical gifts, which were obvious at a year old, are undeniable and inexplicable.

Parenting a Prodigy from
Photo Credit: Nick-K (Nikos Koutoulas)

What struck me the most in the story wasn’t Emily’s genius. It was her mother’s love and pragmatism. “I have a husband,” she said, “and a marriage and three children, not one. And just keeping the balance of all this… Keeping it healthy and happy… The 60 year plan.”

Emily’s mom is a parent after my heart. She sees her whole child, not just the genius. She sees her whole family, not just the brightest star.

My 7-year-old daughters are smart, crazy smart, but they’re no genuises. M sees mathematics in the world around her and thinks that calculating the Fibonacci sequence to 4 digits is fun, but she’s not doing calculus. J’s literary analysis is very advanced, but she’s analyzing Laura Ingalls Wilder, not Nietzsche.

Even though my daughters are merely very intelligent, I feel like I understand in some small measure Emily Bear’s mother’s predicament. I have been entrusted with the care of two exceptional minds. I do what I can to encourage them and give them opportunities to explore and test their limits. At the same time, it is incredibly important that I nurture all the aspects of their personalities, not just their intellectual gifts. I want them be successful not only in school, but in life.

It’s not enough to be smart. My girls also need to be kind, patient, disciplined and generous. I am very fortunate that their current teacher adopts a role encouraging responsible behaviour, and cares about more than just classroom and test performance. J and M have had a tendency to coast on their smarts, but Mrs. H doesn’t allow it.

On Monday, I sent a text message to the girls’ teacher. “Be it known,” said my text, “that I’m not a deadbeat mom. I didn’t exactly fail to check the girls’ Friday journals. I reminded them each once and they never presented them for review.”

J told me later than Mrs. H had told her that she understood her forgetfulness, but that she was disappointed. Then she sheepishly presented me with her journal for review.

My favourite parenting book of all time is Nurtureshock. The first chapter of the book is titled “The Inverse Power of Praise.” The authors argue, based on solid research, that children who are constantly praised for their performance don’t learn the value of effort or how to recover from mistakes. I’m so proud of my daughters that it’s hard to keep myself from praising them, but I do my best to praise their effort. “You got 100%,” I’ll tell M, “but did you do your very best?” The other side is, “I know you didn’t make any goals this season in soccer, but did you do your very best? I don’t care about the goal count. I care about how hard you worked.”

Whether Emily Bear’s mother has read the book, I don’t know, but I have a feeling that she’s well on the way to raising a confident well-rounded young lady who just happens to also be a genius.

Are you tempted to emphasize your children’s gifts? How do you keep the whole child in mind in your parenting?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at and Multicultural Mothering.

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Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 10-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. They live in the Austin, TX suburbs, where Sadia works full time in information technology. She contributes to a number of parenting websites and magazines and also runs The Mommy Blogging Guide, where she answers mommy bloggers' technical questions.

7 thoughts on “Parenting a Prodigy”

  1. I do a lot of reinforcement of values through “family mottos”. I tell the kids “We’re Esqs – we try” or “We Esqs respect our teachers and classmates” or “that’s not what we Esqs do”. Husband made me change the motto to “we try and we succeed” but I tend to focus on the “try” more. I’ll have to add “did you do your best, we Esqs do our best”. I also try to give them examples. When Penny struggled for reading I told her that sometimes when I review and markup a contract it is really hard but I keep going.

    1. I think it’s so great that you give them examples of your own perseverance. Although it’s tempting to gloss over my own mistakes, I make a point of apologizing from my own errors and letting my girls know what steps I’m taking to correct them in the future. Not only does it show them that mistakes are okay, it keeps me honest in my constant effort of self-improvement.

  2. I agree that it’s extremely important to encourage children to do well in multiple areas of their lives- like sportsmanship, and ethics, and creativity- not just the grade. I was always an A++ type student, but that caused problems for me because a slightly lower grade meant a concerned talk with my parents. I think the emphasis should be on trying your best and honing your strengths rather than going crazy over grades- which in the end, don’t tell a single thing about a person, it’s just a number.

    1. I agree Jenny, but I’d argue that mitigating your weaknesses is as important as honing your strengths. I totally know what you mean about the concerned talk, though. I had to explain to my Dad what percentiles were when he was very concerned about where the extra percent was on my SAT score percentile. :)

  3. I just got my copy of Nurtureshock in the mail today. :) I remembered you’re recommended it ages ago, but it got lost on the to-do list. I am looking forward to digging in!

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