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Tiger Mothers Will Disagree, but You Can’t Manufacture a Prodigy

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner 2012)

by Ed Smith

We have prodigies all wrong. We fool ourselves that the secrets of exuberant ability can be observed and then replicated elsewhere to achieve the same results. But the truth could not be more different. The more we learn about high performers, the clearer it becomes that there is only one universal characteristic: they are all different. Nurturing greatness cannot be decoded into a pretend science. It hovers somewhere between an art and a mystery.

It has been a bad month for “tiger mothers”; the first of many bad months, one hopes. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed explores the huge dangers that follow from the sharp-elbowed obsession with high grades, whatever the human cost. And Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s new study on prodigies, punctures the fantasy that elite talent can be coached by a single prescriptive method.

Solomon’s previous book, The Noonday Demon, was a deeply intelligent study on depression. The same mixture of thorough reporting, humanity and erudition informs Far From the Tree. “While it is true that parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns,” Solomon writes, “others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed.”

(To read the full article, please visit the New Statesman.)