How to Raise a Prodigy (and How Not To)

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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.


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13 Responses to “How to Raise a Prodigy (and How Not To)”

  1. Brian says:

    Once again Mr. Coyle, great great post. Keep them coming! I look forward to each new one…

  2. HP says:

    I think Michelle Wie is a great example of this too. I hated what her parents did to her. They nearly destroyed her career, which luckily, seems to be on the rebound now.

  3. Robert Guthrie says:

    Have you seen this TED talk?

    http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html

    It compliments your story quite well, in the sense that “celebrating” is similar to “announcing your goals”. I don’t know that the two ideas are really linked very strongly, but it feels like they are.

  4. Paul Clarke says:

    Hi Dan, another great article. Just a couple of thoughts. For me, the key person in the prodigy’s life (and in Phelp’s story) is the coach. Without somebody that 1. understands talent and 2. knows how to develop that talent holistically, the talent more often than not is not going to reach true potential. Not to say that parents aren’t important, but they will struggle to see/find the athletes “glass ceiling”; that is the natural level that talent will take them to before the real hard work begins of getting to where their talent deserves to be. Only a really good coach/teacher (same thing really) with an eye not just on the athletic and technical development but also their emotional and mental development of the athlete/player will truly facilitate their young talent on their road to optimising their talents by helping them break through their “glass ceiling” and assisting them in seeing not only what they want but how they will get there. Keep up the good work!!

  5. djcoyle says:

    Great point, Paul. The coach is the catalyst here, no question. And I’m regularly amazed by how much time coaches (at all levels, from Olympic on down) spend dealing/thinking/strategizing about how to deal with parents. Getting through to the parent is, in the big picture, just as important as getting through to the kid. I think that’s because there’s a large gap between what parents understand and what coaches understand. Many coaches “get it” like Bowman does — and many parents don’t.

  6. djcoyle says:

    Thanks for the tip — watching now. (Very cool.)

  7. parklane says:

    To have a prodigy child seems to be every parent’s dream but then it takes time to determine who end up a success in a professional career as this is different from success in life God’s willing. A case study is that of Fred Epstein, the late American Paediatric Neuro-Surgeon,who had to struggle through is academic life right from the elemntary stage upto the end of his tertiary education but then came the professional practice time and he excelled because he never feared failure as a Surgeon and perseverd.

  8. Coach Dawn says:

    I’ve seen the TED talk that Robert’s talking about…and I immediately told my team that we’re keeping our goals to ourselves, lol! I don’t want their brains fooling them into thinking they’ve accomplished things before we have.

  9. Thanks for the post Daniel – fascinating reading, as always. One of the many things I’ve grown to love about the Netherlands, the country I’ve called home for the past 18 years, is their ‘tough love’ approach to sporting triumph. As an excitable American, a professional coach, and the father of two athletic boys, I’m often tempted to shout from the rooftops when my boys make a putt or score a goal (although I’ve never contemplated putting a sign in the front garden – do people really do that?) It’s comforting to know that the reserved celebrations and call for normalcy most Dutch parents demand of their children actually promotes longterm athletic success. I thought they were just being party poopers, but now I realize they’re on to something. I’ll still congratulate my kids, most likely more vocally than my Dutch neighbors, but I’ll do it with the 1000 mile journey in mind. Baby steps. Keep up the great work!

  10. djcoyle says:

    Thanks for your kind note — I could use a little bit more Dutch in myself too!

  11. Scottie98 says:

    After reading your book i have a question. If an adult and child were both handed a guitar and given 8 hours to practice every day with the same coach, do you think the adult would come out top in skill? Keep in mind, the child has not read your book and most kids know nothing about metacognition.

  12. djcoyle says:

    I love that question. It sounds like it’d make a great experiment.
    Here’s my take: all things being equal, the the kid would have the advantage. The young brain will stash the experiences more efficiently, and be able to construct circuitry faster. But here’s the catch — things are never equal, esp when it come to motivation and identity. So if the adult identifies more with this craft — with the idea of becoming a guitar player — and obsesses about it, thinks about it all the time, while the kid is indifferent, then the adult will learn faster. (Funny — my latest blog entry is sort of about this question of passion.)

  13. Lisa Cohn says:

    This is a fascinating article–and it makes so much sense. Just look at how parents so often (unwittingly) undermine their kids’ experience in youth sports today. I love your blog posts–keep ‘em coming!

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