Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Prodigies?

At least once at every conference I speak at, some mom or other will start off a question with "Well, my kids aren't prodigies or anything—they're just normal kids . . . ." Most of the time I just let it go in order to get to the point of her question, which usually doesn't have anything to do with prodigies, but it always bothers me.

Partly, it's that apologetic tone, as though there's something wrong with her approach to homeschooling that she's not managed to make her kids prodigies, and partly it's the idea that prodigies are some sort of mysterious and enchanted creatures unlike everybody else. In his book, The Case Against Adolescence, Robert Epstein address just this point:

Most of the time, a prodigy is just a child with an obsession and an opportunity: an obsession say, with art of music and parents or other adults who are willing—or in some case[s]—determined—to nurture that obsession. Labels, as I've said earlier, are dangerous things, and one of many problems with the "prodigy" label is that it obscures what's really going on. It implies that the child's performance is magical—beyond the ability of normal mortals to fathom or replicate. It turns us away from a search for the factors that might allow us to understand the extraordinary behavior we're observing.

It may well be that there are those rare cases of the the profoundly gifted who are indeed not anything at all like the rest of us, but those individuals are exceedingly rare, and are hardly ever the kind of kids homeschoolers talk about when they talk about prodigies. Homeschooling/unschooling "prodigies" are exactly what Epstein describes: kids with obsessions and opportunities.

As homeschoolers, these obsessed kids are more able to explore their obsessions than most schooled kids, but it's also possible—even probable—that it's their relatively flexible days outside a structured and scheduled learning environment that even allows them to discover their obsessions at all.

Epstein says:

When we recognize that a young person is exceptional, we sometimes relax the rules.

Perhaps when we relax the rules, we make it easier for young people to become exceptional.