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Prodigies’ Progress

Parents and superkids, then and now

January-February 2018

Norbert “Nubbins” Wiener, shown here in boyhood, was 14 when he matriculated at Harvard in 1909.

Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum


Norbert “Nubbins” Wiener, shown here in boyhood, was 14 when he matriculated at Harvard in 1909.

Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

William “Billy” Sidis also matriculated at Harvard in 1909, when he was 11. Press accounts often blurred the two prodigies’ backgrounds, but their upbringings—and temperaments—differed sharply.

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard University Archives


William “Billy” Sidis also matriculated at Harvard in 1909, when he was 11. Press accounts often blurred the two prodigies’ backgrounds, but their upbringings—and temperaments—differed sharply.

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

William James Sidis (in the only image of him as an adult, taken for a Harvard class album) died in 1944 at the age of 46.

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard University Archives


William James Sidis (in the only image of him as an adult, taken for a Harvard class album) died in 1944 at the age of 46.

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Norbert Wiener (in a classroom at MIT, circa 1949) became a pioneer in the field of cybernetics.

Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images


Norbert Wiener (in a classroom at MIT, circa 1949) became a pioneer in the field of cybernetics.

Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Editor’s note: In her new book, Ann Hulbert ’77 explores the fascination with child genius over the past century in America. She probes the stories of 16 exceptionally gifted young people, including two precocious students who arrived at Harvard in 1909.

Ours is an era, a popular parenting adviser has written, when Lake-Wobegon-style insistence on above-average children is “yesterday’s news,” overtaken by an anxious credo that “given half a chance, all of our children would be extraordinary.” Yet versions of today’s uneasy preoccupation with off-the-charts early achievement actually go back further than we think. Over the past century, the zeitgeist has swept different young marvels to special attention as emblems of social progress or as victims of worrisome pressures—or often both at once. Is this or that early bloomer a weirdo headed for burnout, true to popular lore? Or is the wunderkind bound for creative glory, as modern experts have hoped to prove? And what behind-the-scenes forces other than his or her genius explain precocious mastery? Such loaded questions lurk between the lines for lesser superkids, too. Prodigies exert the fascination they do precisely for that reason: they invite scrutiny as auguries for the rest of us. They are the living, breathing, superbly high-performing evidence of what feats children may be capable of—and of how adult aspirations and efforts may help or hinder youthful soaring. What prodigies themselves make of their speedy progress, and the stresses they face, is a question that has only gradually gotten the airing it deserves.

In the fall of 1909, when two wonder boys converged on Harvard—among the first, and for a time the most famous, prodigies of the modern era—their parents proudly assumed a Pygmalion role. Norbert Wiener, the nearly 15-year-old son of the university’s first professor of Slavic languages, Leo Wiener, arrived as a graduate student in (at his father’s direction) zoology. William James Sidis (namesake and godson of the renowned Harvard psychologist who had been a mentor to his father, Boris Sidis) was admitted at 11 as a “special student” after strenuous lobbying by his father.

The two superprecocious sons of two very upwardly mobile Russian immigrants, outspoken men with accents and bushy mustaches, inspired suspense. The arrival of these brilliant boys with unusual pedigrees fit the mission of Harvard’s outgoing president, Charles William Eliot, a liberal Boston Brahmin and staunch believer in equality of opportunity. He aimed to open the university’s doors to “men with much money, little money, or no money, provided that they all have brains.” And not just brains, Eliot warned complacent WASPs, who mistook “an indifferent good-for-nothing, luxurious person, idling through the precious years of college life” for an ideal gentleman or scholar. Eliot had in mind an elite with “the capacity to prove by hard work that they have also the necessary perseverance and endurance.”

Boris Sidis and his wife, Sarah, had made it their mission to jolt turn-of-the-century Americans with a thrilling, and intimidating, message: learning, if it was begun soon enough, could yield phenomenal results very early and rapidly. Russian Jews, they had fled the pogroms in Ukraine for the garment sweatshops on the United States’ East Coast in the mid-1880s. Within 10 years they had worked their way to the top of American higher education. By 1898, Sarah was a rare woman with an M.D. (from Boston University School of Medicine), and Boris had racked up a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard within four years. But inborn talent had nothing to do with their feats, or their son’s, they insisted. An as-yet-unimagined potential lay in every child, and it was time parents started cultivating it, Boris urged in an address called “Philistine and Genius,” delivered at Harvard’s summer school in 1909. The country, more than ever, needed “the individuality, the originality, the latent powers of talent and genius” too often wasted.

Leo Wiener, whose American odyssey had blended odd jobs and nature-loving idealism with fervent auto-didacticism, agreed. He had mastered 10 languages by his teens back in the old world, and en route to Cambridge discovered his calling as a teacher who scorned rote learning and inspired by impassioned example.

The prospect that anyone’s children could soar like these sons—and do so without undue strain, if parents were prompt enough and pursued the right methods—stirred great interest, but also wariness, on campus and beyond. A. Lawrence Lowell, Eliot’s far stuffier Brahmin successor, was said to worry that the “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe just didn’t mix well with the “Anglo-Saxon race,” whose ascendancy he assumed. “What will become of the wonder child?” asked a New York Times article announcing William’s debut at Harvard. The attention was tinted with suspicion: “Will he go the way commonly supposed to be that of most boy prodigies,” the Times went on, “or will he make a name for himself?”

 

When they arrived on campus in Cambridge, Norbert and William bore no physical resemblance. In a photograph that circulated in the avid newspaper coverage that fall, Norbert conveyed confidence, a bow tie setting off a sober yet open expression. William, in bangs and short pants, was still very much a child. Their backgrounds blurred, though, in the welcoming press accounts that greeted the unusual new students. That fit right in with their fathers’ overarching purpose. Which boy had accomplished what by when wasn’t the point: they were an amalgam of the wonder child hidden in every child.

Leo and Boris presented their sons and themselves as readily imitable examples, cut from a common cloth. Their boys had started out no different from other “bright” children. The fathers’ new methods were neither customized nor complicated—nor coercive. They opened “up to the human race vistas of possibilities and achievement unreached in any epoch of the history of the world.” So announced the Boston journalist and popularizer of psychology H. Addington Bruce, who claimed prime magazine space at a time when compulsory schooling laws were spreading, along with “child study” groups and new interest in early development. The young marvels in Cambridge were not to be compared with lopsided “lightning calculators” like Zerah Colburn, a Vermont farm boy born in 1804 whose father had toured him through Europe. Instead, Norbert and William thrived on cutting-edge pedagogical insights that promised to banish old-fashioned fears of debilitating precocity produced by “forcing.” Children’s “minds are built with use,” Boris taught, their brains undergoing rapid growth beginning in infancy. Seizing the window between two and three was crucial, and teaching must also appeal to their feelings.

Yet of course neither the men nor the boys—nor their families—were cut from the same cloth at all. Nor did their Harvard trajectories unfold the same way. By the time they arrived on campus, William’s and Norbert’s experiences had already been strikingly different. Life in the Wiener household was a whirlwind, despite the best efforts of Leo’s wife, the very proper former Bertha Kahn of Missouri. An insatiable learner who pored over books early, Nubbins—Norbert’s family nickname—had the freedom, and the inclination, to be as vigorous as he was intellectually curious. He had a model: Leo, a tireless scholar and farmer and mushroom hunter. As a small boy in Cambridge, Norbert eagerly sought out friends. Chunky and full of physical energy, he threw himself into neighborhood games, despite his bad eyesight and coordination—and more fearfulness than he cared to admit. Indoors, the Wieners’ “house of learning” overflowed with visitors, conversation, books, and emotional outbursts. When eight-year-old Norbert ran into math difficulties with a mean teacher in the fourth grade, Leo pulled him out of school. Norbert got home-based learning, much of it outsourced in wonderful ways—a lovely Radcliffe tutor for Latin and German, a chemistry student who helped set up a lab, and endless time in the Agassiz Museum at Harvard, not to mention roaming with friends.

Math studies, though, were another story. In public, Leo prided himself on setting store by “the blessedness of blundering.” Making children “work out problems” gave them the chance to fumble, he told journalists, and to “acquire that sense of mastery, that joy of triumph, which is of itself an incentive to further effort.” But in his memoir written in middle age, Ex-Prodigy, Norbert’s description of algebra lessons with his father reveals Leo’s habit of thundering at his son’s mistakes, letting loose with brute, ass, fool, donkey. When at eight, eye trouble for Norbert necessitated a half-year ban on reading or writing—doctor’s orders—Leo’s orders were to learn by ear. Those months spent working out algebra and geometry problems in his head introduced Norbert to a powerful ally: a highly unrote memory. In the bargain, he staked out a private inner sanctum and discovered his own unusual skill. “I relearned the world,” Norbert later told a colleague. “My mind completely opened up. I could see things I never saw before.”

After two years came another “unorthodox experiment,” as Norbert put it in Ex-Prodigy: he went to high school. There, he lucked into an ideal mentor—or more accurately, maternal protector: Miss Laura Leavitt, a classics teacher whom Wiener later described as the “brains and conscience” of the school. She eased Norbert into kid-brother status among the students, and made sure he connected with middle-schoolers who shared the building; her nephew became his best friend. Three years later, in the fall of 1906, Norbert graduated, fortified by “a sense of roots and security.” At almost 12, he became a matriculant at Tufts College, in Medford, on the theory that he would be spared the full glare of the spotlight likely to be his fate on the Harvard campus.

William’s home world was a calm idyll—certainly by comparison with the volatile Wiener scene. But his mother’s portrait of family harmony, in an account she wrote years later, obscured a more unsettling reality: a little boy off in his own orbit, and two parents too emotionally obtuse to recognize how isolated he was. Billy (as he was then called) was deemed ready for grownup pastimes by five months old, observing and listening to everything at the dinner table, learning to use a spoon by trial and error. Ever at hand, Sarah was ready to answer or help him research any question, not that her son gave much sign of wanting a collaborator. At around three, he found her old Latin trot, and excitedly revealed his mastery to his stunned father and some visitors. Boris supplied Billy with calendars to familiarize him with days and numbers. By five, the hyperfocused little boy had figured out by himself how to calculate the day on which any date fell. Rules thrilled him; deviations from routines upset him. At six, he headed off to a Brookline primary school. There he was an impatient handful for teachers, according to a later press account, covering his ears when he was bored, irrepressible when he was interested. At recess Billy was a loner, avoiding all games and “expounding the nebular hypothesis” to less-than-attentive schoolmates.

Might everything have turned out differently had the Sidises taken their cue from the Wieners’ decision to shield Norbert from the Harvard limelight? Instead, they pressed for Billy’s admission, and Harvard, overcoming its qualms about his lack of maturity, admitted him as a commuting student at 11. William, the name he now went by, gave no sign of being fazed that he didn’t fit into a world of polished young gentlemen. But mixed in with his social cluelessness was what could be taken for arrogance—and was, in his parents’ case. An impatient proselytizer, Boris not so subtly implied that those who didn’t match the Sidises’ pedagogical success (and who could?) were hidebound slackers. Under the circumstances, the plan to have William deliver a lecture on the fourth dimension to the Mathematical Club in January 1910—an event evidently facilitated by a family friend of the Sidises—courted trouble.

The substance of the talk was impressively incomprehensible: that was the gist of accounts by reporters ready to assume that what was over their heads was beyond the rest of the audience, too. (Norbert, who was there, noted that the presentation didn’t rely on others’ work, which he found quite remarkable.) It was William’s style that entertained the press. He had his professorial act down—introductory patter, gestures, arcane vocabulary, diagrams, even a closing glance at his watch. And then on January 27, 1910, a front-page article in The New York Times reported that young William had been “weakened recently by overstudy” and had been felled by a cold after his lecture. He apparently was under the weather, but a bigger press backlash was under way, reviving old-style alarm about prodigies as exploited specimens, enfeebled by ill-advised precocity. Another story inside the paper diagnosed a “breakdown” and blamed Boris.

With Boris opening a sanatorium for “nervous patients” in Portsmouth, the family moved to New Hampshire, leaving William on his own as he entered adolescence. Under suspicion now of being mentally unbalanced, he endured continued press hounding. The idea was for him to try Harvard dorm life. But he was the dupe of pranks that mostly turned on his awkward ignorance about girls; bullying soon drove him to a rooming house on Brattle Street. When William graduated cum laude at 16 in June 1914, The Boston Herald was ready with salutes to his record-breaking prowess. He was “mentally…regarded by wise men as the most remarkable youth in the world” and was on his way to becoming “the youngest college professor in the world,” with an appointment to teach math at Rice Institute. But the headline brimmed with mockery: “harvard’s boy prodigy vows never to marry Sidis Pledges Celibacy Beneath Sturdy Oak, Has 154 Rules Which Govern His Life, ‘Women Do Not Appeal to Me,’ He Says; He Is 16.” It wasn’t just romance and sex but anger that he needed to keep at bay, William told the Herald reporter. “I have a quick temper; ergo, I will not mingle a great deal with the fellows around me, then I shall not have occasion to lose my temper.”

But the anger he barely suppressed seemed to be aimed above all at his parents. William declared himself “not at all a believer in home life.” In one puzzling and poignant swipe, he all but abolished childhood: “No one should be dependent upon the good-will of others for support when too young to support himself.” He announced that he was “in a way…a Socialist,” perhaps not such a surprising allegiance for a prodigy who was feeling sabotaged by filial dependence, Harvard snobbery, and media prurience—and loneliness.

Norbert didn’t manage to forge any real connection with William on campus. He briefly tried, though, and the oddball loner seems to have inspired a fraught sense of fellowship in the young graduate student who came to Harvard newly, and intensely, haunted by predictions of failure for a “freak of nature,” or nurture, of the sort the two of them were. Norbert had spent the summer of 1909 in acute crisis after three years at Tufts. He had thrived there on the academic challenges, but four decades later in his memoir he described a teenager thrown off balance. Heading home each day to siblings and neighborhood friends, he was “wholly a child for purposes of companionship.” Meanwhile, hormones left him feeling guilty and confused. And his father’s refrain, in company and in the press, that Norbert was not just average but lazy didn’t help. Depression closed in on Norbert when he didn’t make Phi Beta Kappa and learned that the reason was “doubt as to whether the future of an infant prodigy would justify the honor.”

By the time he started at Harvard, Norbert was armed with a social awareness that William utterly lacked. He was also intensely self-conscious about his misfit status in a setting where, as he put it, “a gentlemanly indifference, a studious coldness, an intellectual imperturbability joined with the graces of society [to make] the ideal Harvard man.” Norbert went ahead and threw himself, as he always had, into more than his studies (which soon shifted to philosophy). He dared to join in pick-up basketball games in the gym basement but quickly realized his glasses couldn’t take the rough play even if he could. A commuter, he mingled happily in the library of the Harvard Union between classes, where the unclubbable sort hung out—generating murmurs of disapproval as anti-Semitism became more overt under President Lowell.

 

As a 17-year-old math teacher at Rice, William was yet again mercilessly teased by undergraduates older than he was. Enrolled after that at Harvard Law School, he dropped out in his third year, not the collector of credentials his father had been. If his growing interest in radical politics encouraged any new bonding with Boris (an erstwhile tutor of Russian serfs), a bitter break with his parents was in store after William got arrested at a Boston May Day Socialist march in 1919 that dissolved into mayhem.

By now 21, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of rioting and assaulting a police officer, though he had done neither. In William’s later version of events, he was “kidnapped” by his parents before he could appeal the initial sentence. Their idea of “protection,” he wrote, was to make him stay in the New Hampshire sanatorium for a year, after which they whisked him to California—eager to keep him not just out of court and prison but also out of touch with fellow Socialists in Boston. Upon finally escaping to New York and low-level accounting work, William was spooked, in flight from his parents’ control, as well as from press attention, his reputation (he promptly quit if officemates learned who he was), and the legal charges. Writing under pseudonyms, he pursued a wide array of topics: the collection of streetcar transfers, the contributions various Indian tribes had made to American colonists’ notions of democracy, collisions on highways, trivia about his beloved city of Boston, and more. He put his name on his most ambitious endeavor, The Animate and the Inanimate, which was published (perhaps at his own expense) in 1925 to no notice. It set forth his ideas about the possible reversibility of the second law of thermodynamics, and was later judged by some—most notably, Buckminster Fuller—to have anticipated versions of the big bang theory and black holes.

In 1937, William was dragged back into the limelight in a patronizing New Yorker profile that mercilessly mocked his still very busy mind. He broke his vow of seclusion to sue for invasion of privacy and malicious libel. The judge dismissed the case, which has become a classic in privacy law, and William, who worked on the briefs, lost the appeal. Once a public figure, always a public figure, the judge ruled, even as he lamented the ruthless intrusion. William persisted with his various causes, especially active in defense of pacifism and of limited government, alienating allies again and again with his bullheadedness. In 1944, at 46, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Norbert, who vented his outrage at the New Yorker article in his memoir, offered a stark but empathetic assessment of William (by then dead): a “defeated—and honorably defeated—combatant in the battle for existence.” Norbert himself had surged onward academically, though not exactly smoothly. He finished his Ph.D. at Harvard in June 1913, writing a dissertation on Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica, and then won a prestigious Harvard postgraduate traveling fellowship and headed off to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, with Russell. There was no chemistry between them. Russell complained that Norbert’s views were a “horrible fog.” Russell, Norbert complained in turn, was “an iceberg. His mind impresses me as a keen, cold, narrow logical machine, that cuts the universe into neat little packets, that measure, as it were, just three inches each way.” His own mind, Norbert was discovering, was more versatile in math than he had known.

He returned to the United States in 1915 to figure out what he might do next, at 21 jumping among jobs (some lined up by Leo). His stint in 1918 at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground was especially rewarding. Mood swings continued. Yet busy doing invaluable work on antiaircraft targeting with fellow mathematicians, he found the camaraderie and the independence he yearned for. Soon, in a now-flourishing postwar academic market for the brainiacs needed in a science-guided era, Norbert found his niche. At MIT, social graces and pedigrees didn’t count for much, and wartime technical experience like his did. He got hired. The latest mathematical tools were much in demand as electronic communication technology took off in the 1920s.

By then he was seeing the woman he finally married in 1926 and with whom he had two daughters. Norbert was also deep into the prescient endeavor of fathoming the endlessly elusive process at the heart of the computer age: the flow of information. Cybernetics, “or control and communication in the animal and the machine,” as Norbert summed up his new pursuit, was a notably hybrid undertaking—at once theoretical and practical, concerned with both mind and matter. That a pioneering modern prodigy had sired it seems particularly fitting. Norbert’s work helped usher in the computer, which one of his many successors, Seymour Papert, heralded as “the children’s machine” and the key to a newly youth-driven “age of learning.”

 

When Norbert Wiener and William Sidis arrived on campus, the world was in ferment, and Harvard along with it. A new century of global migration and international tensions was under way. The pace of scientific progress had picked up. The fledgling field of psychology was thriving (Freud visited the United States in 1909) and Einstein’s revolutionary papers of 1905 had stirred baffled interest. The university was reassessing its privileged student body, and President Eliot had made a point of challenging assumptions about inherited talent and championing a more egalitarian emphasis on hard work.

The basic contours of the flux are familiar. And in the face of a similarly uncertain future, Americans now, as then, worry over early promise going to waste and also about youthful talents honed too fast. Yet this time around, off-the-charts children themselves have some hope of weighing in with their views—a goal that stymied William, and that Norbert didn’t dare tackle until much later in life. A century after Leo Wiener and Boris Sidis riled their contemporaries by touting their pedagogical secrets and phenomenal sons, Yale law professor Amy Chua [’84, J.D. ’87] offered a reprise, featuring her more conventional superdaughters. In 2011, her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother left parents across the country gasping and gossiping at school gatherings and on soccer sidelines, in supermarkets and at dinner parties.

The tiger mother’s guiding tenets echoed the Russian émigré fathers’. Start the talent-building process very early; assume the child is sturdy and full of energy; expect feats of mastery; value family loyalty above youthful autonomy or popularity with peers. The twenty-first-century version of the credo dovetailed with a demanding formula for exceptional performance that became a cultural catchphrase, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s pitch for the research behind it in his best-selling Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). Starting with a study of elite violinists, the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson had surveyed pianists, chess players, athletes, and others to come up with what Gladwell coined the “10,000-hour rule.” That was the quota of “deliberate practice”—effortful work, starting early and sustained assiduously—required for outstanding accomplishment by anyone in any field. Talent, Ericsson boldly concluded, was beside the point. “The scientific formulation of the American dream,” another psychologist called the rule.

Meanwhile, Angela Duckworth [’92], a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was at work exploring the idea of grit, which she defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”in an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2007. Her focus was on its importance to long-term success rather than to precocious accomplishment. But it was never too soon, she suggested, to “encourage children to work not only with intensity but also with stamina”—whatever their gifts. “To me, the most shocking thing about grit,” Duckworth said in a TED talk in 2013, “is how little we know, how little science knows, about building it.” Her own Chinese father seemed to have hit on one tactic, not that she was about to endorse it. He repeatedly told her, she wrote in her book Grit (2016), “You know, you’re no genius!”


In her 2011 memoir, Yale law professor Amy Chua ’84, J.D. ’87, went public with the kind of exposé usually staged by prodigies themselves in adulthood.
Photograph by Tim Knox /Eyevine/Redux

Amy Chua—also, as it happened, a daughter of Chinese immigrants—had a father who goaded rather differently. When she won a history prize but not the best-all-around-student award in the eighth grade, he warned her, “Never, never disgrace me like that again.” In her tell-all account of the grit-focused music training she insisted her daughters pursue, pushing them toward virtuoso heights on the piano and violin, she hid none of the conflict that roiled their household. Chua’s husband and fellow Yale Law School professor, Jed Rubenfeld [J.D. ’86], a bemused bystander, noted tooth marks on the piano in their big New Haven house. Sophia [’15], their superconscientious pianist, vented stress more quietly than did her younger sister, a natural on the violin. Lulu [’18] shredded music and shrieked in protest against her mother’s tyrannical enforcement of “the diligent, disciplined, confidence-expanding Chinese way,” which Chua promised would produce bold strivers—not “soft, entitled” American-style dilettantes (and definitely not “weird Asian automatons”).

Shockingly honest about her tactics, Chua went public with the kind of exposé usually staged by prodigies themselves much later in life. She outed Chinese-style family pressure in pursuit of children’s high performance, “an inherently closet practice” in the United States, she noted. At the same time, she blasted the queasy hypocrisy of American-style hovering: parents who panicked over missteps and signs of stress in their kids, all the while programming them to overshoot every benchmark of success. Chua wrote as a self-mocking iconoclast, an over-the-top “music mom” in a culture of mere soccer moms—not that she actually saw her girls on their way to soloist careers. She was “huggy” and goofy with them. She also bossed and cruelly derided, and dictated grueling practice schedules and banned slumber parties. Her daughters were huggy back and also explicitly hostile (“you’re diseased”) as they sped along. Chua’s hyper regimen pulled no punches—far more openly coercive than helicopter parenting and far more openly combative than classic Asian parenting.

Chua’s pursuit of excellence wasn’t simply about stamina or grit. Somewhat paradoxically, she aimed to drum upstart drive into her girls, who’d been blessed with meritocratic credentials in their cradles. (They could all but coast into the Ivy League on their parents’ coattails, thanks to legacies at Princeton and Harvard and faculty pull at Yale.) So Chua was ready—in fact, eager—to explode the filial piety so important to her forbears. She took bold satisfaction in doing what no prodigy-promoting predecessor would have dreamed of: broadcasting a defiant child’s bitter rebellion, letting her daughters’ voices be heard. Add pugnacity to stunningly polished precocity, as well as perseverance and passion in pursuit of long-term goals: the blend, Chua suggested, just might amount to a secret sauce, for East and West.

Near the end of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, when Chua let Sophia ease up on the piano after acing her recital in a Carnegie Hall auditorium, Lulu staged her revolt. Now 13, she reamed Chua out in the middle of Red Square—“I HATE YOU….You’ve wrecked my life….You’re a terrible mother. You’re selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. What—you can’t believe how ungrateful I am? After all you’ve done for me? Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.” Lulu cut back on the violin and took up tennis instead, ordering her mother to butt out. “I don’t want you controlling my life.”

In the spirit of the parent ready, however belatedly, to acknowledge that she can’t call all the shots, Chua invited her daughters to speak up in the memoir’s “coda,” as she struggled for a way to close the book. They weren’t inclined to help, but Sophia put a key question to her: Was she after truth or a good story? To her mother’s predictable answer, Sophia was ready with a wise response. “That’s going to be hard,” she told Chua, “because the truth keeps changing.” She might have added that, for superchildren and prodigies alike, what truly matters is the cumulative sense they—not their parents—make of their accelerated quest for extraordinary achievement.

Like us, our predecessors over the course of a century have been thrilled by the thought that rapidly growing young bodies and flexible brains are primed to meet new challenges in ways that adults can’t. Like us, our predecessors have also been unnerved by upstart impulses and lopsided young lives, not to mention unknown vistas ahead. The urge to domesticate prodigious children—to anoint them as marvels whose streamlined paths promise to realize our ambitions—has proved hard for modern American strivers to resist. Yet prodigies offer reminders writ large that children, in the end, flout our best and worst intentions.

In Ex-Prodigy, Norbert Wiener lamented that the only young marvels “the public ever hears of are those who ‘point a moral or adorn a tale’”: “There is a tragedy in the failure of a promising lad which makes his fate interesting reading; and the charm of the success story is known to all of us. Per contra, the account of a moderate success following a sensationally promising childhood is an anticlimax and not worth general attention.” Expectations, he felt, needed recalibrating. When he wrote down what he considered a prodigy’s crucial entitlement, he laid out modest terms that could be applied to any childhood: the “chance to develop a reasonably thick skin against the pressures which will certainly be made on him and a confidence that somewhere in the world he has his own function which he may reasonably hope to fulfill.” 

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