Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Nissan 5760 - May 3, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
The Precocious Child
by Rochel Gill

George Smith walks towards the university campus in Virginia every morning, amongst dozens of other students. He is conspicuous in the crowd because of his height. Although George is full of self confidence and is as serious as all the other students, he is only ten years old, and that fact is obvious. He finished his primary school education within two years, and completed his further education at the same speed, leaving behind his peers and their childish games and pursuits, which no longer interested him. From there he graduated to university, to become the youngest student on record in Virginia.

Even as a toddler, instead of playing "Daddies and Mommies" or digging in the sand, George used to converse like an adult on various subjects, including science and technology, in which he showed amazing erudition. But although George seems content enough, he may have to pay for his lost childhood, which was used exclusively to develop his mental ability. Experts nowadays warn about the irreversible damage caused to children by this one-sided slant.

Naturally, all parents want clever children and are prepared to invest much time and money in them. But they do not always realize that they may be pressurizing the child and that his mental development progresses at the expense of his social and emotional skills, which are just as important.

In Japan, there is enormous competition amongst parents for their small children to break records in education. Each year Japanese parents pay astronomical sums of money to enroll thousands of toddlers at high schools, so that they can outpace their peers in mathematics, and other subjects, to ensure them a place at the most prestigious universities.

Babies of a year old are taught how to swim, how to use an abacus [math skills] and how to interpret words and pictures. Parents pay $10,000 for two years' tuition without batting an eyelash to the expensive kindergartens which their offspring attend. Then children of five and six are sent to learn how to solve equations and to learn foreign languages. The trouble in Japan is that they are breeding human robots with a very high intellectual capacity but with neglected emotional maturity.

How does all this affect the tender child, who remains a child in spite of all efforts to turn him into a serious professor? Children do not always understand why everyone is dancing attendance on them, and in the short term, may not even feel the pressure which is brought to bear on them. But in the long run, the child may pay the price of an immature adult who did not play enough in his childhood, or an adult who breaks when faced with emotional problems.

Michael Kirney, a ten-year-old from Honolulu, has an I.Q. of over 200, and his academic prowess has astounded the world. He began to speak at the age of four months, and was already reading at eight months. At six, he had gained his graduation diploma. At ten, having completed college, he began a journalistic career with one of the major broadcasting companies in the United States. At fourteen, he gained his Masters degree in chemistry. In short, he bypassed the important developmental milestones of a child, as he turned into an adult inside the body of a child. When he was asked by reporters about his attitude towards his impressive history, Michael replied, "I am very happy. Everybody sends me money, and I love that." This proves that he still thinks in an immature, superficial way and has not quite come to terms with the rapid changes which have taken place in his mental development.

Should we encourage exceptional intellectual ability or suppress it? Should we encourage creativity in all children, or particularly in gifted children? Even when dealing with a particularly gifted child, we have to remember that he is a child, first and foremost, and not just a small-scale adult. We have to allow gifted children to play, and to spend time with children their own age, says psychologist Edna Katzenelson.

She claims that parents may feel that if the child is filled with so much knowledge, he does not need them any more. They may not realize that the child is still in need of a guiding hand. A child needs guidelines in social niceties. He needs to be taught how to interact with other people without the full stress being put on his intellectual achievements. Katzenelson cautions against indoctrinating the child with the notion that only intellectual achievement is important. In the end, a child remains a child and should be allowed to develop as one.

In many families, the gifted child receives preferrential treatment. Conversation centers around him and around his future. He is always introduced to strangers before the other children. This may have quite a negative effects on his siblings, including jealousy and anger at the extra privileges he receives and feelings of aggression towards him.

Families with a gifted child should not hold him up as an example to the family; For example, "Look how he always manages to know all the right answers." They should not discuss him or his achievements in front of his siblings at all. They should not make the siblings feel second best; in the end this gifted child will suffer from the extra attention and the feelings of animosity it provokes in his siblings. Healthy emotions are just as important as intellectual excellence.

NEXT WEEK: A. Ross analyzes the above article, translated from Bayit Ne'eman, with different conclusions.


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