by Kenneth Lyen
"Musically gifted children weren't born that way; they just had pushy parents," says Oliver James in the Sunday Observer of 24 October 2004.
He cites Michael Jackson as an example of this. "He was raised in a cruel regime of beatings, emotional torture and tyranny. He was humiliated constantly by his father, who never missed an opportunity to tell Jackson: 'You're nuthin.' What set Jackson's abusive family apart is that his father used his reign of terror to train his children as musicians and dancers."
Michael Jackson had a double whammy. Not only was he the youngest child, and therefore highly vulnerable psychologically, but as lead singer of the Jackson 5, he was under intense media spotlight. To become so famous and wealthy from so young an age, and without the protection and appropriate guidance of parents, it is no wonder that he grew up with emotional problems.
However, I would take issue with Oliver James remark that children could be pushed into giftedness. I have come across a large number of very pushy parents in Singapore. Parents who want their children to excel in academic or extracurricular pursuits. Many of them wielding the cane to force their children to study better, or to practise the piano more assiduously. I have often seen the cane marks left on the childrens skin. As might be expected, the vast majority of such children with extraordinarily pushy parents, do not become gifted.
As an aside, the use of physical punishment to "encourage" children to work or play harder, was very prevalent in Chinese society as it was part of our culture, but fortunately this is becoming less common in recent years. However, public caning as a disciplinary measure is still carried out in some Singapore schools.
In the case of child prodigies, I think that first he or she must have the talent. If the environment is not conducive to develop that gift, then it may not surface until a later date. However, a child who possesses a special ability, will develop it must faster if there is someone, usually a parent or teacher, who can recognize it and give it appropriate training. The child needs to acquire the techniques, whether it is in sports, arts, or music, that will enable him or her to display the talent.
One of my classmates was a school champion swimmer. His father was also a swimmer. He got up at 5 a.m. every morning to swim umpteen lengths before going to morning school. When he returned home from school, he would swim several more hours before dinner. I asked him whether or not he hated this, because I certainly would (Im a poor swimmer). To my surprise, he said that he enjoyed his training, including getting up at 5 a.m. I was flabbergasted.
I guess it shows that some children can endure quite a lot of "pushing." Perhaps "push" is not quite the right word. But I have seen documentaries of parents getting their kids to undergo quite horrendous training or practising regimens. It seems that to cultivate a child prodigy, this brutal procedure seems to be a prerequisite.
The boundary between "strong encouragement" and "forcing" children to display their gifts, is blurred. Are the parents doing this for their own egos, or because they genuinely wish to help their child reach their maximum potential?
And are we, members of the public, partly to blame because of our obsession with child prodigies, that we place them on a godlike pedestal? In our relentless pursuit to create Olympic champions, world class musicians, or other prizewinners, we must never forget that a child, whether gifted or not, is still a child.