Saturday 10 February 2007

“Child Genius”, Channel 4, 9pm Thursday 8th Feb 2007

This programme plans to follow ten unusually “gifted” kids through their childhoods and beyond, in a format derivative of the 7-Up study begun by Michael Apted in 1964. Since Robert Winston’s “Child of Our Time” began in 2000 with a new group of children, another series with such a similar format must have needed some kind of freakshow-factor to justify its existence. And which parents of unusual children would be most eager to get them on telly for being as weird as possible? It seems the pushy parents of “gifted” children think that a TV appearance can do them nothing but good.

To be fair, there are occasional interviews with two or three parents who consistently talk about their kids as though they are kids, rather than competition-winning machines. But they’re few and far between in this hour-and-a-half long installment, which almost entirely focusses on how unlike other children their offspring are.

So, a bunch of kids with posh accents (presumably there are no “gifted” children ever born on council estates) go around passing exams, using precocious language and reacting in various ways to the “genius” label that is the sole reason they’re supposed to be interesting. The programme doesn’t challenge this, but simply puts them all through another I.Q. test to confirm their genius and shows them doing the freaky things that genius kids do. There’s no real attempt to assess their social skills or self-esteem, and many of them are treated as mini adults and made to work every waking moment, lest they dare waste any of the precious gifts that they’re supposed to count themselves lucky to have.

The Distinctly-Odd family have five “gifted” children, and traditionally reward each child when they pass the Eleven Plus with piles of gifts and a party, saying “It’s more important than a birthday for us.” Everything has been prepared in advance before the letter is opened which will tell them the exam result, and the pressure on the youngest child when he comes to take his Eleven Plus will be staggering.

Physically isolated and socially unpopular, all the Distinctly-Odd children come across as stiff, formal and cringe-makingly polite at all times, with no sign at all of the horseplay or arguing that is surely the whole point of having brothers and sisters. Since they’re all far too odd for social workers to know what to do with, serious cracks will probably only show when either the youngest turns out not to be “gifted” after all and resorts to getting parental attention by burning the house down with them all still in it, or when the eldest finally flees the nest and discovers casual sex and class A drugs.

Many of the parents have had trouble finding suitable education for their children – not surprising if they really think it necessary for their six-year-old to learn Avogadro’s Law of gaseous molecules. But of course the official curriculum is probably the least important aspect of school life, especially for those who can already read, write and add up. What kids really learn at school is how to manipulate the system, how to make friends and keep them, the finer points of popular culture and the complex code of playground ethics that begin to form our understanding of ourselves as social beings in a wider context than that of our own family. And these kids need to learn this stuff far more than most.

If Little Miss Distinctly-Odd acheives her apparently burning ambition to become a doctor, she will be bored witless after ten minutes of interaction with her non-genius patients. Along with having to spend hours explaining food groups to fat people and expanding her vocabulary of euphemisms for diarrhoea, she’ll be socialising with collegues from one of the most stressed and alcohol addicted professions in the country. Most jobs, even those requiring the greatest qualifications, so rarely require intelligent thought that only creativity and social skills get most of us through the day. And ten ‘A’ Levels will not make anyone but your pushy parents love you, much less remove the experience of failure from your life, for which these kids are shockingly unprepared.

The fact that they agreed to take part in the programme only shows that, however intelligent, these kids are still kids and lack the ability or judgement to resist their parents’ labelling and advertising of them as freaks. From the first programme in the series my guess is that all concerned have been set up to provide us with car-crash T.V., as the mental health of these unusually articulate children deteriorates over the coming years. How many will be smart enough to opt out of taking part before the end of the project remains to be seen.


Anonymous said...

I have serious concerns regarding one of the children in this program. As he said himself its so hard to live up to being a gifted child as you are expected to be perfect in everything you do. When do they get to relax from the stress of trying to be the perfect person.
As for the family with 4 children, no wonder people shy away from them. I could not imagine how boring their household must be with 4 little geniuses around. When do they play if ever? Is their Mum blind to the fact that they could grow up to be doctors or whatever in thier own time without her controlling their every waking moment with working at being a genius ? Stop pushing so much and let the children stop to smell the roses sometimes. Let them be what they are first and foremost A CHILD .

Anonymous said...

I watched this programme with alot of interest but was actually quite disturbed by how strange some of the children were-particularly the family of four gifted children.Their mother in particular was very odd and it made me very grateful for having three children within the normal range if intelligence.