Geniuses and Better Parenting
It is a popular myth that great geniuses — the Einsteins, Picassos and Mozarts of this world — spring up out of nowhere as if touched by the finger of God. The model is Karl Friedrich Gauss, supposedly born into a family of manual workers, who grew up to become the father of modern mathematics.
A professor who studies early learning has attacked this myth, saying that when he looked into Gauss's childhood, he found that Gauss's mother had been teaching him numbers at the age of two. His father had supervised manual workers, not been one, and played calculation games with him. Furthermore, Gauss had an educated uncle who taught him sophisticated math at an early age.
It is the same story with other geniuses. Einstein's father was an electrical engineer who fascinated his son with practical displays of physics. Picasso's father was an art teacher who had young Pablo painting bowls of fruit at the age of eight. Mozart's father was a musician employed at a noble's court who was teaching his son to sing and play almost before he could walk. "In every case, when you look into the backgrounds of great people, there is this pattern of very early stimulation by a parent or teacher figure," the professor says.
But what sort of parental stimulation should it be? There is plenty of evidence that, too often, pressure from parents results in children suffering fatigue rather than becoming geniuses. One study has identified two kinds of parent style — the supportive and the stimulating.
Supportive parents were those who would go out of their way to help their children follow their favorite interests and praised whatever level of achievement resulted. Generally, such parents created a pleasant home governed by clear rules. Stimulating parents were more actively involved in what their children did, steering them towards certain fields and pushing them to work hard, often acting as a tutor.
The study followed four groups of children: one with supportive parents, one with stimulating parents, one whose parents combined both qualities and a final group who offered neither. The children were given electronic devices; when these made a sound, they had to make a note of what they were doing and assess how happy and alert they felt.
The not too surprising result was that the children whose parents were simply supportive were happier than average but were not particularly intense in their concentration when studying or working on something. The children who fared best were those whose parents were both supportive and stimulating. These children showed a reasonable level of happiness and were very alert during periods of study.
Children whose parents were stimulating without being supportive were candidates for fatigue. These children did work long hours, but their alertness and happiness during study time was far below that of children in more balanced family environments.
Another crucial factor is the need for parents to have proper conversations with their children. Through having the chance to talk with adults, children pick up not only language skills but also adult habits and styles of thought. One reason why prodigies such as Picasso and Einstein had a head start in life was that they had parents who demonstrated how to think about subjects like art or physics at a very early age.
A survey in Holland showed that a typical father spent just 11 seconds a day in conversation with his children. A more recent study in America produced a somewhat better result, but the fathers in question were still talking to their children for less than a minute a day.
It is not just the time spent that counts, but also the way in which a parent talks. A parent who only gives a brief reply to a child's questions or gives dull answers will be passing on a negative, narrow-minded style of thinking. On the other hand, parents happy to take a child step by step through an argument, encouraging him or her to explore ideas, will cultivate an open and creative thinking style.
One researcher is attempting to show this experimentally with a study in which groups of parents are taught how to have beneficial conversations with their small children. He says these children have an advantage over their peer group in language ability, intellectual ability, and even social leadership skills. While the study is not yet complete, the children appear to have been given a long-term advantage.
So what is the outlook for parents who do everything right, those who manage to be both supportive and stimulating, who are good at demonstrating thinking skills to their children and successful at cultivating a self-motivated approach to learning? Would such parents be guaranteed to have a genius as their child?
There is general agreement that genuine biological differences exist between individuals; geniuses need to be lucky in both their genes and their parents. The most significant implication would seem to be that while most people are in a good position to fulfill their biological potential — barring serious illnesses or a poor diet during childhood — it is far from certain that they will grow up in an environment where that capacity will be developed.
So although knowing more about the biology of genius is all very interesting, it is research into better parenting and educational techniques that will have lasting significance.