Who’d want to be a child prodigy?

An American 14-year-old, who earned his first college diploma at age nine, has just released his first book explaining how other children can follow in his footsteps. REBECCA DAVIS considers whether this is a desirable route for a kid.

Moshe Kai Cavalin was eight years old when he enrolled at the East Los Angeles Community College, and nine when he graduated with his first Associate of Arts degree, finishing with a perfect grade point average of 4.0. Cavalin turned 14 this week, and this year he will graduate from the University of California Los Angeles with a degree in Maths. Along the way, he found time to write a book to encourage other children to emulate his success. It’s titled the Obama-esque We Can Do, and advises kids to keep focused and approach everything with “total commitment”, according to Associated Press this week. It also stresses that it’s not necessary to be a genius to achieve what Cavalin has: hard work, he says, is far more important.

Where did young Moshe get this fearsome work ethic from? He claims that his parents never pressured him into studying. If so, that would set him aside from the majority of child prodigies who have risen to prominence in the past. One of the best-known products of pushy parenting was the brilliant British mathematician Ruth Lawrence, admitted to Oxford aged 12 in 1983. After completing her bachelor’s degree in just two years, as opposed to the normal three, she graduated aged 13 with a first in mathematics. But Ruth was almost as well-known for her father, Harry, as for her intellect. Harry gave up his job when Ruth was five in order to home-school her, and proceeded to accompany her to Oxford, and attend all lectures and tutorials with her. They became a familiar sight, riding around the university on a tandem bicycle. The two were so close that it’s reported that Ruth would only ever talk of herself as “we”.

But in an interview in 2000, having given birth to her own child, Ruth said that she would not be inflicting the same “hothouse” educational methods on her own son. “There will not be any forcing, no attempt to try and push Yehuda faster than he wants to go,” she told the UK’s Sunday Mirror. While stressing that she was “enormously grateful” for what her father did for her, she said: “I suppose I might have liked my childhood to be different in some ways”.

As an adult Lawrence has had a stellar career as an academic and an apparently stable and happy personal life. That’s not always the case with former child prodigies. Perhaps the most infamous example in this regard was the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who was accepted to study maths at Harvard at the age of 16 and, after earning his PhD, went on to engage in a mail-bombing campaign, which lasted from 1978 to 1995, killing three people and injuring 23.

Less dramatic but more poignant was the case of Sufiah Yusof, who took up a place to read mathematics at Oxford in 1997 at the age of 13. Yusof, it later emerged, had had her maths abilities fostered by a father who ran his household like a despot. TV and pop music were banned, as they were thought to encourage shallow thinking, and Farooq Yusof kept the temperature in the house deliberately cold in order to keep the kids mentally alert. He would also reportedly wake them up in the middle of the night from time to time to punch them in the face.

When Sufiah was admitted to Oxford, father Farooq – who had himself been considered a bit of a prodigy in his time – stressed to anyone who would listen that Sufiah’s academic success was a result of his coaching rather than her brains. Unfortunately for him, his daughter developed a taste for freedom while at university. In 2000 she ran away from Oxford and refused to be reunited with her parents, saying “I’ve finally had enough of 15 years of physical and emotional abuse”. Although she eventually returned to Oxford, she did not complete her final exams, choosing to get married instead, and then divorced shortly after.

For a while Yusof faded from the public view – until 2008, when a reporter from the now dead News of the World went undercover to track her down working as a high-class prostitute, charging £130 an hour. “Genius on the game”, ran the tabloid’s headline. “For sad Sufiah, the daily equation she has to solve is simply sex equals £130”. Later that year, it was reported that Yusof had turned her back on prostitution in favour of social work. In the interim, her controlling father had been jailed for sexually abusing two 15-year old girls who he tutored. But before being locked up, he had seen his two younger children become the youngest brother and sister to simultaneously study at a UK university at the time: in 1998 Sufiah’s brother Iskander, aged 12, and sister Aisha, aged 16, started together at Warwick University.

The idea that child prodigies can be made rather than given birth to is one that has attracted some popularity in recent years. The Guardian reported in 2008 that the number of under-18s studying at UK universities had risen by over 50% over the preceding six years. This suggests that kids are getting more ambitious – or, more plausibly, that their parents are.

In 2011, Harvard law professor Amy Chua caused a stir when she published her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, describing her own draconian parenting technique aimed at instilling perfection in her children. (Chua’s own childhood was run along similar lines: as a telling indication, though her sister Cynthia has Down Syndrome, she has still won two gold medals at the Paralympics.) Chua’s book was unfairly misinterpreted as a how-to guide, thanks to a misleading excerpt published in the Wall Street Journal, when she actually intended it as a comic, self-deprecating memoir – later in the book she tells how she abandoned traditionally strict Chinese modes of parenting when her teenager daughter began to rebel.

Nonetheless, part of the reason Chua’s book resulted in so much publicity was because many people thought the “tiger mother” was on to something. Her view was straightforward: “Childhood is a training period, a time to build character and invest in the future”. Furthermore, “what Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it”. Her parenting techniques included telling her daughter that if she didn’t memorise a certain piano piece by the next day, she would donate her dollhouse to the Salvation Army. She then deprived her daughter of dinner and bathroom breaks till she perfected the piece. On another occasion, her four-year-old child Lulu gave her a homemade birthday card, which she threw back, saying “I don’t want this, I want a better one”. As a result of this kind of hardline approach, one daughter had performed at Carnegie Hall by the age of 14, while the other was preparing to enter prestigious music school Juilliard at 11. Perhaps more significantly, older daughter Sophia wrote a piece strongly defending her mother at a time when the press was lambasting her for perceived cruelty.

Might Chua have the recipe for raising a child prodigy? It seems to have worked out well for her own daughters, but as a cautionary tale, consider the case of Esmie Tseng. Tseng, 16 in 2005, was a Kansas schoolgirl who was one of the best classical pianists in the state, received the top marks at school, was beautiful and popular and a star debater. In other words, the perfect child – until she stabbed her mother to death that year in a case which stunned her community. Tseng, a Kansas newspaper wrote at the time, experienced “a struggle to find her identity in suburban America while striving to live up to the high expectations of her parents, forged by the traditions of their native China”.

A blog discovered after her 2005 arrest for the murder of her mother revealed a child with growing resentment for her mother’s insistence on perfection. In 2004 she wrote: “I’m your diary of blank pages onto which you engrave your rage and tears and heart and soul”. The same year, Esmie also posted online a note which her mother had left her with regards to her piano lessons: “Last year we made the rule that you would always practice on your own… You never kept your promise… You will enter the State and make to the top three in whatever plan you choose. If you fail this year again you are out. If there is one more argument about practising piano, you are out.”

Esmie was jailed for eight years for her mother’s murder, meaning she should be due for release soon. A Google search for recent news of her threw up an intriguing find: a 2011 article from Runner’s World, which dealt with the topic of the USA’s only all-woman prison running club, Running Free. It was an inspiring feature, describing how the inmates who belong to the club have held 17 races and raised $35,000 for local charities. Then the kicker quote: “It’s not just a way for us to do better for us,” says Esmie Tseng, the eventual marathon winner in 4:18. “It’s a way for us to do better for the community.” Apparently, the urge to win doesn’t always go away. DM

Read more:

  • Moshe Kai Cavalin, 14 Year-Old Boy Genius, Writes Book Revealing Life in College at Age 8, in the Huffington Post.

Photo: Four year-old chess wizard Stephanie Hale considers her next move in an internet chess game with chess Master Garry Kasparov, London. But being a child prodigy has both its pros and cons. REUTERS.


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