If you’re the spawn of a Tiger Parent, you might not-so-fondly recall being pressured and prodded to excel and (over)achieve in all of your academic endeavors.
Thankfully I was mostly spared this kind of upbringing, but my parents did have their moments – especially when our friends and relatives’ started sending their kids off to prestigious colleges and universities.
Getting me into an Ivy League school was never an obsession for my parents (much less a realistic expectation due to my mediocre SAT scores), but I distinctly recall a couple of occasions when they gave me the classic "Why can’t you be more like ____ – (s)he’s going to study ____ at (insert prestigious institution of higher learning here)" guilt trip.
This was never a demand, however, more like a wistful request – I’m thankful that mom and dad were relatively relaxed about my studies and confident enough to let me find my own way.
All the same, there are times when I wish I had been prodded (ever-so-gently) to study a few more practical things – say, computer programming or economics – but I suppose (or like to think) my brain simply wasn’t wired this way.
Perhaps this is why child prodigies are so fascinating: when you consider your own intellectual limitations, the fact that an 13-year-old could be a genius in advanced mathematics or a 7-year-old could become a violin virtuoso is simply astounding.
China has no shortage of child geniuses, with famous pianist Lang Lang, art prodigy Yangchun Baixue and multimedia whiz Zhang Yaqin among the most famous examples (and then there’s the 12-year-old down in Wuhan known for being an "expert mechanic and driver").
More recently, a couple of other child prodigies have been making the news: In May of this year CCTV reported on Huang Yibo, a middle school student who has gained attention for his avid interest in politics – or, perhaps more accurately the bureaucratic trappings of Chinese politics.
As Ministry of Tofu describes:
Imagine a Chinese counterpart of Jonathan Krohn, who then as a 14-year-old wrote a book to define conservatism and addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009 was highlighted by media as a political wunderkind … This Chinese boy began to watch Xinwen Lianbo (prime time news on China Central Television) at the age of 2. He has been reading People’s Daily and Reference News (Cankao XiaoXi, 参考消息) every day since 7. Until today, he has published over 100 articles on influential Chinese newspapers.
Earlier this week the Star Online ran a post on Zhang Xinyang, who at the age of 10 became the youngest Chinese ever to enroll in university and at 16 is now getting a PhD in mathematics at Beihang University in Haidian District. Zhang recently sparked controversy when he stated in an interview that he had threatened his parents that he would quit school if they didn’t buy him an apartment – an action that many netizens saw as immature and emblematic of a selfish ego.
Zhang’s story is typical of many child prodigies who most often have an ambitious parent prodding them from behind. In the interview he also related how his father once stormed out of an argument with him over playing computer games (rather than studying) and walked 50km back to their home in Langfang:
“He wanted to punish me but in reality, he was actually punishing himself,” Zhang said of his father’s reaction during the incident. He said his father would certainly suffer from a more painful heartache than other parents of normal children if he failed to do well in his studies, because of the way his father had groomed him.
Indeed, it seems that for every child genius success story out there, there are tales of parental pressure and abuse, often leading to serious personal problems later in life for some prodigies (one of the most notorious cases is of Sufiah Yusof, a one-time math wunderkind who got in Oxford at the age of 13 and eventually ended up as prostitute).
There is also some controversy over the very definition of child prodigies – research suggests that society has a predilection for "seeking out natural talent" (i.e. young prodigies) which can then skew our notion of what, exactly, constitutes "talent" – in other words, the main factors influencing people’s assessment of child’s "talent" (especially when it comes to music) have as much to do with their young ages (if not more) than any objective assessment of their abilities.
All the same, there is also research that suggests the "brains of very smart children function in astonishingly different ways compared to average kids" – thus further blurring the perennial "nature vs. nurture" debate.
It’s likely that all of these factors apply to our notion of "child prodigies" and rather than trying in vain to apply a single theory to why such kids exist (and, more importantly, how this status affects their lives), it’s more important to understand how each of us is a unique product of our genetics and our environment (after all, as thestaronline points out, Darwin and Einstein were never known as child geniuses) with an unfathomable wellspring of potential within.
Read more about child prodigies on the Huffington Post.