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Documentaries about Gifted Children

On several occasions I have watched part of a TV documentary on gifted children, but I have never been able to watch one completely because every one that I have seen has been offensively wrong.

One thing that they always seem to do is say that gifted children have special needs and often claim that they have problems socialising. This sounds quite reasonable, but if that’s the case then why would you make such children perform tricks on TV? Putting the children on TV is a very poor example of journalism and often of parenting – the parents’ desire to boast about their children’s performance (and implicitly their own parenting skills) is apparently more important than protecting the children. I think that the only situation in which gifted children should have their talents demonstrated on TV is if their skill is related to the performing arts. Not that TV coverage is necessarily good for children who have abilities related to performing (a casual scan of the news regarding adults in Hollywood shows the problems that people have dealing with fame), but it’s something that they will be driven to anyway.

Also if they are going to demonstrate the intelligence of a child on TV then they really should make sure that they don’t demonstrate a lack of intelligence (on the part of the child as well as the producers). Asking a child to provide a definition of a word is often used as an example of intelligence (when it’s really an example of vocabulary). In one documentary a child defined a philanthropist as “someone who has a lot of money” (according to dict on my system it is “Love to mankind; benevolence toward the whole human family; universal good will; desire and readiness to do good to all men“). In another a child defined a genius as “someone who knows a lot“, while the definition of genius is not clear and there is some disagreement about what it is, most people agree that it’s about ability not knowledge. Being able to recognise when you don’t know something and admit would surely be correlated with intelligence…

Telling a child that they are a genius or telling them their IQ seems like a bad idea at the best of times, and doing so in front of a documentary camera crew isn’t the best of times. Children are able to determine how their skills compare to others, there are more than enough attitude problems in schools related to skill comparisons without encouragement from adults. When I was in high school a friend who studied a martial art refused to tell me which belt he wore – he had been taught that such things shouldn’t be discussed outside the dojo to avoid creating a hierarchy based on belt rating in the community. I think that the same thing could be applied to IQ ratings.

The term genius is grossly overused generally, I believe that showing greater than average ability in one area is not enough to qualify. I think that the minimum criteria would be to produce dramatic new developments/inventions in one area of research (EG Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking) or to advance multiple fields of science or art (EG Leonardo da Vinci) would be the minimum criteria. I had people call me a genius when I was young because I won prizes in maths competitions, was good at programming computers, playing chess, etc. The main criteria for achieving such things is to avoid wasting time on sport – in a school run by idiots with a focus on sport this was more a tribute to being stubborn than being smart!

The TV documentaries mention many things that gifted children supposedly require, but strangely I don’t recall any of them mentioning the need to meet adults who are significantly smarter than average! You might think that this is the most obvious thing. The Big Brother and Big Sister programs of mentoring children who are at risk of crime and drugs apparently provide significant benefits, something similar for gifted children might do some good, probably more based on meetings of a few intelligent adults with a small group of intelligent children instead of the BB-BS model of one-on-one meetings. Washingtonienne seems like a good example of the need for this.

There are some useful print articles however, this article in The Age makes some good points, it’s particularly interesting to note that some schools lie about special programs to support gifted children to attract students (someone should name the schools that do this).

But then you get awful ones like this, naming the child in such a situation is irresponsible journalism. The girl in question may be forced to change her name to escape google when she’s older. It’s strange that it’s illegal to name a child who is involved in a court case but it’s not illegal to name them in such an article (let’s hope that the journalist used pseudonyms). Also you might expect an organisation such as Mensa to have someone smart enough to realise that bringing such attention on a 2yo is not in the child’s best interests.

Does anyone know of a good TV documentary about gifted children? I guess that it would be extremely difficult to make one without showing the children on TV so that would restrict the film maker to children who’s abilities are related to the performing arts.

3 comments to Documentaries about Gifted Children

  • Pffft

    The article about the two year old is silly. I know of many advanced young children who can do much more than the child in the article at a much younger age, yet their parents would certainly not a) exploit their child this way or b) let them know they’re a ‘genius’. The parents don’t even believe their child is a genius to begin with.

    Telling a child they are a genius is a bad idea. Telling them on a tv documentary is both tacky and disturbing.

  • Martin Orr

    As a teenager I competed several times in the International Maths Olympiad, and we had a succession of TV documentary makers attending our training camps. The nature of the programmes they were making varied, and the majority never reached the TV screen, but some focussed on a particular individual, and one had a title of “Genius”. The driving force behind these was always the programme-makers rather than the parents or the team leadership, and they were tolerated as a mild nuisance who gave a bit of publicity (something the Maths Olympiad rarely had).

    I never quite saw the point of these programmes, but this was probably a relatively good environment to be part of them in – there were a group of similarly talented youngsters in it together, so not everyone had to have a heavy role in filming. And any question of being told you are a “genius” doesn’t really apply: having been chosen for the Olympiad squad already lets people know they are somewhat special. But probably most importantly, there was an organisational structure to run the team who (at least after the first programme) had experience in dealing with programme makers and setting rules for them. I suspect that in most of the programmes you refer to, whoever initiated them, once they had begun the parents had little control over what happened.