Dr. Clementine Beauvais is an “education researcher” and children’s author based in Cambridge in the UK. Recently, she was interviewed by journalist Emma Higginbotham about her latest research project in advance of a public talk which is part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Clementine’s talk is titled: “Gifted children – or pushy parents? ‘Prodigious parenting’ from Leopold Mozart to Mozart for babies”. The premise of her talk is to open discussion and dialogue on the social construct of gifted children and their (possibly) pushy parents, examining how modern literature perceives the role of parental involvement in the achievements of gifted or highly able children. In looking at how these parents and children are perceived, she suggests, we may examine our own attitudes to education and parenting issues.
As anyone with any experience of gifted education or research will recognise, putting the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘pushy parents’ together is a hot-button issue. Journalists too know that to gain attention for their work they need good headlines to pull readers in, and Ms. Higginbotham does just that. “Behind every ‘gifted’ child is a pushy parent” says Cambridge academic Dr. Clementine Beauvais”, her piece is headlined. Pithy and absolutist, it has the word gifted in quotation marks and the authoritative stamp of an Oxbridge academic, no less. The perfect storm was bound to erupt.
And it did. From experts in the field of giftedness and intelligence research to outraged parents, the commentators were quick to protest this lazy myth that they have seen trotted out so many times. Comments on the article and on Clementine’s blog were expansive and challenging. Some suggested that she should do some basic research into giftedness before using her academic position to undermine the field. Many took issue with her use of quotation marks around the term gifted, and her assertion that giftedness is merely a social construct. An interesting debate ensued on her blog, and seemed to take her a little by surprise.
Of course there are pushy parents. We have all seen them in action, making sure their child is front and centre or top of every queue until the child has internalised the message and can maneuver herself into prime position with every fresh opportunity. Ability or giftedness has nothing to do with this style of parenting, they just see the world as a competitive place where resources are scarce. Their children are not going to wait their turn for their share, they are going to go out and take it before someone else does. By pushing their children they give them what they see as the skills and confidence to do so. Parents of gifted children do not have a monopoly on this strategy, but as pushy parents often produce high achieving children, giftedness is regularly conflated with the behaviour. So, the article headline and throwaway comments notwithstanding, what is Clementine Beauvais’s angle?
Commenting on her blog, some offered scholarly advice to investigate giftedness from some reliable sources before delving any further into her research. Some berated her for what they saw as a negation of their own experience of parenting a highly able child. Most were critical and a few were dismissive. Some of her own replies shed a little more light on her focus. She explains that her research is about “representations of gifted children in literature and culture (including the discourses of scientific and educational research)”. Her first post on the subject summarizes what she sees as the current discourse on gifted children. She writes that:
“So part of my project involves looking at texts – from the scientific literature, from educational manuals, from non-fiction, from literature, from policy documents etc – which either reinforce or attempt to deconstruct these popular understandings of giftedness.”
Her second asks if adult focus on childhood happiness informs perceptions of giftedness. It also touches on the history behind modern childhood, a relatively recent development which has lengthened the time our children spend dependent on us and in education. While this is all very interesting, researching gifted children from all the angles she mentions would be an enormous task. Looking at the construct of giftedness from cultural, literary, scientific and educational perspectives? In just three years? Many eminent academics have spent entire careers researching giftedness and intelligence differences in just one of these fields. Several recent papers and books might address some of the issues Clementine would like to examine. The ones that come immediately to mind are David Yun Dai and Joseph Renzulli’s 2008 paper “Snowflakes, Living Systems and the Mystery of Giftedness” (behind paywall) as well as Dai’s book “The Nature and Nurture of Giftedness”. She might also want to take a look at Scott Barry Kaufman’s fascinating book “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined” and “Explorations in Giftedness” by Sternberg, Jarvin and Grigorenko. In fact anything by Robert Sternberg is worth reading from an academic perspective. But if Clementine is going to do her subject justice, she has a lot of reading ahead of her!
Nevertheless, examining giftedness from a sociologist’s viewpoint is a worthy endeavour. Stepping outside our own definitions and looking at what people think, as expressed in language, literature and culture is a fine research topic. Done well, it would be of great benefit to those who work (or parent) in the field of giftedness or intelligence research. Linguistic and cultural narratives tell us a lot about where we must start in designing an education system which would cater to all. We may have to take a step backward, into an examination of how we came to be perceived as pushy or gifted, in order to move forward. Clementine’s research focus may make some gifted advocates uncomfortable, but it may also serve a very pertinent purpose.
Those of us who deal every day with giftedness, gifted behaviour and intelligence differences need to be mindful of how we react to the myths and stereotypes. It goes without saying that we should challenge them but perhaps we can do so without feeding the myths on the flip side. There is plenty of rigorous, peer-reviewed academic research which supports what we experience in our everyday lives. By placing our lived experiences of these issues in the context of research we could have a more powerful answer to the types of lazy journalism we encountered this week.
But I can’t shake the feeling that we have all walked ourselves into being part of Clementine’s big laboratory!
Dai, D. Y. (2010). The Nature and Nurture of Giftedness: A New Framework for Understanding Gifted Education. Education & Psychology of the Gifted Series. Teachers College Press. 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027.
Dai, D. Y., & Renzulli, J. S. (2008). Snowflakes, living systems, and the mystery of giftedness. Gifted Child Quarterly, 52(2), 114-130.
Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Ungifted: intelligence redefined. Perseus Books Group.
Sternberg, R. J., Jarvin, L., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2010). Explorations in giftedness. Cambridge University Press.