Bilingual Brains – Smarter and Faster

Psychology Today

Published on November 22, 2012 by Dr. Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. in Radical Teaching

By Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

A Gift Parents Can Give Children that Money Can’t Buy

Recent studies of children who grow up in bilingual settings reveal advantages over single language children, including both increased attentive focus and cognition. The findings correlate with prefrontal cortex brain activity networks, which direct the highest levels of thinking and awareness.

 

Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had had five to ten years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated neuroimaging (fMRI scans) of these children revealed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex networks directing these and other executive functions. (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007).

 

This increased executive function activation in the brains of children in bilingual settings extends beyond the translation of language intake and output. The powerful implications of the new research are about brainpower enhanced by growing up bilingual.

The Brain’s CEO is a Late Bloomer

 

The networks that appear more active in the brains of bilingual children are part of the brain’s CEO networks, called executive functions. These are a constellation of cognitive abilities that support goal-oriented behavior including directing attentive focus, prioritizing, planning, self-monitoring, inhibitory control, judgment, working memory (maintenance and manipulation of information), and analysis.

 

It is not during the first months or even years of life that the brain undergoes its greatest changes with regard to cognition. These neural networks of executive functions are the last regions of the brain to “mature” as recognized by the pruning of unused circuits and the myelination of the most active networks that as they become stronger and more efficient.

Executive functions such as selective attentive focus and the ability to block out distraction are typically minimally developed in childhood. These functions gradually become stronger throughout the years of prefrontal cortex maturation into the mid twenties. It is with regard to these executive functions that research about the “bilingual brain” is particularly exciting.

What is Happening in the Brains in Bilingual Settings?

 

This aspect of bilingual research has focused on bilingual upbringing with one language spoken at home that is not the same as the dominant language of the country. The interpretations of researchers, such as Ellen Bialystok who compared responses of 6-year olds from bilingual and monolingual homes, suggest the bilingual brain is highly engaged in the cognitive challenge of evaluating between the two competing language systems. This requires executive function attention selecting and focusing on the language being used while intentionally inhibiting the activity of the competing language system.

 

When bilingual brains evaluate language, control and storage networks of both their languages are active and available. This ongoing processing, that seems instantaneous, is not reflexive or unconscious. It requires deliberate focus of attention on specific input and withholding of focus from simultaneous distracting input to analyze the language being used. Their brains need to evaluate and determine not only the meaning of words, but also which patterns of sentence structure and grammar apply and recognize nuances of pronunciation unique to the language of focus.

 

Bialystok describes this massive activity as exercising the executive functions early in bilinguals at work to decipher these multiple codes within each language. These control networks make choices, such as which memory storage circuits are the language-correct ones to activate from which to select the correct word, syntax, and pronunciation. The choices are demanding of a CEO that can simultaneously direct where ongoing new input is sent for successful evaluation and activate the correct language storage banks to use for response. These executive functions simultaneously coordinate the evaluation of the content of the messages and direct the response to that information.

Implications for Brighter Starts

 

One of the most significant implications of the bilingual research is the recognition that even very young children’s executive functions appear responsive to exercise which strengthens them for future use. An example from the research is these children’s higher scores on cognitive testing.

 

This incoming research supports encouraging parents to retain use of their native language in the home, but too often, social pressures and mistaken beliefs often limit children benefiting from the bilingual brain booster.

 

One problem is parents concern that exposure to one language is less confusing for children. When I taught fifth grade in a school where most of the students’ primary language was Spanish, I recall recently immigrated parents of my students telling me that although they were just learning English, they tried to only speak English at home with their children. They felt that would help their children learn English more successfully and believed that exposure to two languages would be confusing and make the transition to their new schools more difficult.

 

Another issue limiting the bilingual experiences was children’s desire to fit in. As my students’ English fluency improved, they would sometimes be asked by their parents to translate from English to Spanish during school conferences or meetings. When they did so, such as during “Back to School Night”, many were clearly embarrassed that their parents didn’t speak English and even tried to avoid having classmates hear them speak Spanish to their parents. When I would ask them about their reluctance, some would tell me that it made their parents seem “ignorant” when they did not speak English. My urging of parents to sustain the bilingual experience by speaking Spanish with their children in the home was thus resisted as children began to develop this bias against their native language.

 

The mistaken parental beliefs about confusing the brain with two languages and the response to their children’s negative responses to their native language cause these children to miss out on a unique and powerful opportunity to strengthen their highest cognitive brain potentials. One intervention educators and others in the community can do to avoid loss of the bilingual boost is to explain to new immigrants about the research and the strong impact they can have on their children’s academic success by retaining their native language in the home.

 

The other intervention is to lay to rest the mistaken assumption that the brain has limitations that are overwhelmed with duel language exposure. The more we learn about neuroplasticity, the more it appears the reverse is true. Experiences with new domains of challenge in general seem to strengthen the brain’s executive functions and cognition. This is evident on neuroimaging as well as in performance on the cognitive testing, reading comprehension, and success learning subsequent new languages. New challenges that include the use of judgment, analysis, deduction, translation, prioritizing, attention focusing, inhibitory control, delayed gratification, and pursuit of long-term goals are associated with increasing the number, strength, and efficiency of the executive function networks.

 

Just like our muscles become stronger with physical workouts, the developing brains of children in bilingual environments appear to build strength, speed, and efficiency in their executive function networks. This is the “neurons that fire together, wire together” phenomenon that in response to the electrical activations of messages traveling through them when used, executive function networks develop stronger connections – dendrites, synapses, and myelinated axons.

For now, it appears that when families have another language that can be spoken in the home where children are being raised it could be an opportunity to both enrich their language skills and also provide a cognitive boost for their highest brain networks of executive functions.

The implications of the bilingual research raise considerations of what other early exposures before and during school years can be designed to promote these executive function activations in all children. What are the implications regarding introducing second languages to young children from monolingual homes? Perhaps grandparents, nannies, friendships with families who speak another language could spend time with the children, or parents could participate in parent-child language classes suitable for youngsters such as learning and singing songs with movements in another language.

 

Does the bilingual benefit on cognition also work on older children and adults who learn second languages to the point of fluency? I’ll address some of these questions in my next blog, including the relationship of executive function activation and building new networks of learning with reduction in the manifestations of cognitive degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

No Makeup Day

Read below for information on a Wisconsin high school’s “no makeup day” to celebrate the natural beauty of girls.  Thankfully, everyday in the Middle School at Sacred Heart is a “no makeup day!”  In addition, our Turn Beauty Inside Out Club is a great resource for our 7th and 8th graders to better appreciate their true beauty and understand how girls and women are portrayed in the media.

By Jacki at Babytalk

Middle and high school can be tough years for teenage girls and their developing self-confidence.

Photo: Courtesy Fox 11 NewsThree girls from New London High School in Wisconsin recently started a campaign to boost the spirits of their peers and get them to embrace themselves. Created by juniors Caitlin Schmidt, Cambria Fitzgerald, and Jenna Mytton the True Beauty Campaign began as an assignment for their enterprise marketing class and developed into much more.

More from Parenting: 9 unique holiday traditions

Their mission: to make all girls love their natural beauty instead of striving to chase some impossible standard of beauty. True Beauty’s most recent function was “No makeup day,” held at school on Nov. 15. Some 300 girls at New London pledged not to wear makeup for the entire day and 100 boys pledged to support their efforts.

It was a school-wide event, inspiring girls of all grades to let their natural beauty shine through. Girls were given stickers that said “Bare-Faced and Beautiful” and the boys were given stickers that said “I Dig Confidence.” They even sold t-shirts and bracelets to raise money for future events.

These girls have figured out what it truly means to be beautiful. Now their confidence is inspiring the rest of the New London teenage community.

How do you teach your children to embrace their natural beauty?

Original article

Mature-Rated Video Games May Lead Teens to Reckless Behavior

Risk-Glorifying Video Games May Lead Teens to Drive Recklessly, New Research Shows

Certain games may increase rebelliousness, sensation seeking among adolescents, study finds

September 11, 2012

WASHINGTON—Teens who play mature-rated, risk-glorifying video games may be more likely than those who don’t to become reckless drivers who experience increases in automobile accidents, police stops and willingness to drink and drive, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

“Most parents would probably be disturbed to learn that we observed that this type of game play was more strongly associated with teen drivers being pulled over by the police than their parenting practices,” said study lead author Jay G. Hull, PhD, of Dartmouth College. “With motor vehicle accidents the No. 1 cause of adolescent deaths, popular games that increase reckless driving may constitute even more of a public health issue than the widely touted association of video games and aggression.”

Researchers conducted a longitudinal study involving more than 5,000 U.S. teenagers who answered a series of questions over four years in four waves of telephone interviews. The findings were published online in APA’s journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture®.

Fifty percent of the teens reported in the first interview that their parents allowed them to play mature-rated games and among those, 32 percent said they had played Spiderman II, 12 percent had played Manhunt and 58 percent had played Grand Theft Auto III. Playing video games such as Grand Theft Auto III, Manhunt and Spiderman II was associated with increases in sensation seeking, rebelliousness and self-reported risky driving, the study said. Higher rankings in sensation seeking and rebelliousness were directly linked to risky driving habits, automobile accidents, being stopped by police and a willingness to drink and drive, according to the analysis.

Between the second and third interviews, teens who said they had been pulled over by the police increased from 11 percent to 21 percent; those who said they had a car accident went from 8 percent to 14 percent. In the third interview, when the teens were about 16 years old, 25 percent said “yes” when asked if they engaged in any unsafe driving habits. In the final interview when the teens were about 18, 90 percent said “yes” to at least one of the same risky driving habits: 78 percent admitted to speeding; 26 percent to tailgating; 23 percent to failure to yield; 25 percent to weaving in and out of traffic; 20 percent to running red lights; 19 percent to ignoring stop signs; 13 percent to crossing a double line; 71 percent to speeding through yellow lights; and 27 percent to not using a seatbelt.

The researchers determined the teens’ levels of sensation seeking and rebelliousness by asking them to rate themselves on a four-point scale following questions such as “I like to do dangerous things” and “I get in trouble at school.” The study controlled for variables such as gender, age, race, parent income and education and parenting styles described as warm and responsive or demanding.

“Playing these kinds of video games could also result in these adolescents developing personalities that reflect the risk-taking, rebellious characters they enact in the games and that could have broader consequences that apply to other risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking,” Hull said.

The initial sample was 49 percent female, 11 percent black, 62 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 6 percent multiple ethnicity. The surveys began when the average age of the participants was about 14; at the second survey, they were about 15; at the third, 16; and at the fourth, 18. Eight months separated the first and second interviews; one-and-a-half years separated the second and third interviews; and two years separated the third and fourth interviews. As is typical in longitudinal surveys, some participants dropped out. The number completing the questions for this study totaled 4,575 for the second interview, 3,653 for the third and 2,718 for the fourth.

The information regarding the teens’ driving habits was based on their own reports during the interviews, and therefore interpretation of the causes of their driving habits was speculative, the authors noted. “At the same time, because the study began when the participants were playing video games but were too young to drive, it is clear that the videogame exposure preceded the risky driving,” Hull said.

Article: “A Longitudinal Study of Risk-Glorifying Video Games and Reckless Driving;” Jay G. Hull, PhD, and Ana M. Draghici, BA, Dartmouth College; James D. Sargent, MD, Dartmouth Medical School, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Vol. 1, No. 4.

Jay G. Hull, PhDcan be contacted byemail or by phone at (603) 646-2098.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 137,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

Original article

Struggling to Talk to Your Teenager? The Greatest Lesson I Ever Learned.

Struggling to Talk to Your Teenager? The Greatest Lesson I Ever Learned.

 

By Andy Braner, President/CEO of KIVU

So many of my friends with teenagers complain about the one-word answers they get when they attempt to communicate. They find it incredibly difficult to cultivate meaningful conversations with the very people who live under their roofs. I’ve heard hundreds of parent/teen conversations that sound something like this:

“Hey Honey, How was school?”
“Fine.”
“Did you have a chance to do your homework?”
“Yea.”
“What did you think about the movie you went to last night?”
“Good.”

And those of us with teenagers understand how complex it is to crack open a conversation with our teens. It seems like just yesterday they were running through the house longing for our attention, and then one day they woke up and turned into the one-word Zombie clan. I know several parents who ask themselves, “Why should I even try?”

Not long ago, I learned a valuable lesson about talking with my kids. I have to approach their world where they are.

So often, I counsel frustrated parents who feel “Well, he should do this,” or “she should do that.” We all quickly forget that NOBODY wants to have someone tell them what to do. Why should our teenagers feel any different?

A long-time mentor friend of mine said once, “if you want to talk to your kids, you have to meet them where they are.”

So… I started to work this out in real time.

When my youngest son was growing through elementary school, I noticed he had a gift for engineering. He loved building things. Blocks, Forts and especially LEGOS were his passion. He loved doing math, following instructions and watching his creation emerge from the box of 1,000 pieces.

Can you imagine?

What do you do when you have a 5-year-old who can sit for hours on the kitchen floor putting together the Death Star Lego set with 5,000 pieces? If you have a kid like this, let me be an encourager for a minute and say you have a kid with a gift.

I remember hearing my mentor’s words echo in the stillness of my own desire to connect with my son: “If you want to talk to your kids, you have to meet them where they are.”

Now, for a little background, I graduated with a degree in Theater Performance. I’m an artist. One thing you must know about artists — we don’t do Legos! Our brain functions differently. Sitting down to count the number of nipples on a block to make sure it fits in another is the farthest thing from what I think is a good time. But for the sake of my son, I started sitting amongst his piles of Legos with him.

For years, I forced myself to sit and learn to be interested in what he was interested in, and guess what? Today we have an incredible friendship. All those hours I spent meeting my son where he was and trying to be interested in the things he found valuable are paying off now. Sure, we have our fights. I have to correct, mentor and parent him. But for the most part, we’re good friends. He knows I love him and value his opinion. I know better how his mind functions and what makes him tick. He knows I’m in his corner and am his biggest cheerleader and I know he respects what I think. This is the bottom line of what it means to develop meaningful connections in families, with friends and certainly with people we work with.

If you’re having trouble connecting with your teen today, step back, take a deep breath, begin to notice the things they find valuable and start to engage.

You’re never going to understand the heart of your student by just letting them “figure life out.” After all, we’re parents, right? It’s our job, our duty and our incredible responsibility to teach, to train and to mentor our teens so they can go on to have long-term healthy relationships. If you can model for your teen what it means to connect, they will take this lesson with them wherever life unfolds.

Be encouraged today.

There are answers to helping parents connect with their kids, even when it seems like you don’t.

Follow Andy Braner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/braner

 

28 Days of Gratitude (With Kids) This Thanksgiving

28 Days of Gratitude (With Kids) This Thanksgiving

Posted: 11/21/2012 12:36 pm
By: , Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer of Books, Kids and Family, National Geographic

I am on a Gratitude Jihad.

For years, Oprah has been extolling the virtues of her Gratitude Journal. I knew I should do this, but the truth was I didn’t want to add one more thing to my To Do list.

Then, two weeks ago, I felt really down. There was no particular reason; I was probably just tired and overwhelmed with responsibility. I picked up a pen, and on the back of a bill, I found myself scribbling down five things I’m grateful for. This is not generic “Health, Kids, Family,” stuff. I’m keeping myself real. Here’s a sample list.

1. I’m grateful I didn’t lose my temper once today with my kids. No Mean Mommy, a personal if invisible victory.

2. I’m grateful for my bedroom, (I recently painted half of it peach), and the fact that I’m in my bed.

3. I’m grateful to my ex-husband for all that he does to support our family. Most married couples don’t get along as well as we do, despite the fact we’ve been divorced for three years.

4. I’m grateful for my friend Rebecca, who prevented me from adopting an irresistible pooch from a rescue site. “An untrained 60-lb dog that makes poops the size of Dachshunds is not what your family needs right now,” she said bluntly. She’s right.

5. I’m grateful that I don’t have to walk a dog in the morning.

Writing down my gratitude is part of the 28-day gratitude course in Rhonda Byrne’s The Magic. I have been doing this daily for two weeks and can honestly say it is working. I mean, I just found half a million dollars. Seriously! I refinanced my house, and that will be my debt reduction. And I got a parking spot right in front of North Face when I had to return a jacket.

In Byrne’s sequel to The Secret, she reminds us that all the major religions have gratitude at their core. Maybe this is why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday — because gratitude is such a universal theme, something everyone can embrace. The only gift it requires is being present — and grateful.

This Thanksgiving, I’m taking her advice and helping my kids participate by expressing their gratitude for the things that make their lives special. Magic for minis. Every night, I lie in bed with each kid and ask them to be thankful for something, anything. It is also a good reminder for me to pause and be present with my own children after a long, tiring day.

Last night, I was lying in bed with my 6-year-old daughter Mackenzie. When I asked her what she was most grateful for, she thought for a long time. Finally she said “Parmigiano cheese.”

I tried not to let her see me cracking up.

But she’s right, it always comes down to the simple things.

So this Thanksgiving we’re keeping it simple, and we’re remembering what Thanksgiving is about – being grateful.

One of the projects we’re really looking forward to is decorating the table. Mackenzie is an artist at heart and is looking forward to designing Thanksgiving placemats — the National Geographic Kids site even shows you how to make awesome hand-print turkeys — for each guest. With twelve guests coming this year, that is a lot of turkeys to draw. Her real task, though, is to write or draw why she is thankful for each guest. This exercise not only gives her a LOT of practice with her turkey decorating technique, it also helps her focus on her relationships with her relatives, some of whom she only sees a few times a year. And talk about something that will melt the hearts of each guest when they sit down!

The ability to acknowledge and express gratitude is a gift. In my 28-day practice, I can honestly say that that when you look at your cup half full, it always is.

If You’ve Got the Skills, She’s Got the Job

The New York Times, OP-ED COLUMNIST

If You’ve Got the Skills, She’s Got the Job

By 
Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

TRACI TAPANI is not your usual C.E.O. For the last 19 years, she and her sister have been co-presidents of Wyoming Machine, a sheet metal company they inherited from their father in Stacy, Minn. I met Tapani at a meeting convened by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to discuss one of its biggest challenges today: finding the skilled workers that employers need to run local businesses. I’ll let Tapani take it from here:

“About 2009,” she explained, “when the economy was collapsing and there was a lot of unemployment, we were working with a company that got a contract to armor Humvees,” so her 55-person company “had to hire a lot of people. I was in the market looking for 10 welders. I had lots and lots of applicants, but they did not have enough skill to meet the standard for armoring Humvees. Many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level. They did not know the science behind welding,” so could not meet the new standards of the U.S. military and aerospace industry.

“They could make beautiful welds,” she said, “but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques” and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperatures had to be combined. Moreover, in small manufacturing businesses like hers, explained Tapani, “unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, we do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, and each one has its own design drawings. So a welder has to be able to read and understand five different design drawings in a single day.”

Tapani eventually found a welder from another firm who had passed the American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector exam, the industry’s gold standard, and he trained her welders — some of whom took several tries to pass the exam — so she could finish the job. Since then, Tapani trained a woman from Stacy, who had originally learned welding to make ends meet as a single mom. She took on the challenge of becoming a certified welding inspector, passed the exam and Tapani made her the company’s own in-house instructor, no longer relying on the local schools.

“She knows how to read a weld code. She can write work instructions and make sure that the people on the floor can weld to that instruction,” so “we solved the problem by training our own people,” said Tapani, adding that while schools are trying hard, training your own workers is often the only way for many employers to adapt to “the quick response time” demanded for “changing skills.” But even getting the right raw recruits is not easy. Welding “is a $20-an-hour job with health care, paid vacations and full benefits,” said Tapani, but “you have to have science and math. I can’t think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.”

Who knew? Welding is now a STEM job — that is, a job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.

Employers across America will tell you similar stories. It’s one reason we have three million open jobs around the country but 8 percent unemployment. We’re in the midst of a perfect storm: a Great Recession that has caused a sharp increase in unemployment and a Great Inflection — a merger of the information technology revolution and globalization that is simultaneously wiping out many decent-wage, middle-skilled jobs, which were the foundation of our middle class, and replacing them with decent-wage, high-skilled jobs. Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren’t ready. This problem awaits us after the “fiscal cliff.”

“We need to be honest; there is a big case for Keynesian-style stimulus today, but that is not going to solve all our problems,” said the Harvard University labor economist Lawrence Katz. “The main reason the unemployment rate is higher today than it was in 2007, before the Great Recession, is because we have an ongoing cyclical unemployment problem — a lack of aggregate demand for labor — initiated by the financial crisis and persisting with continued housing market problems, consumers still deleveraging, the early cessation of fiscal stimulus compounded by cutbacks by state and local governments.” This is the main reason we went from around 5 percent to 8 percent unemployment.

But what is also true, says Katz, was that even before the Great Recession we had a mounting skills problem as a result of 25 years of U.S. education failing to keep up with rising skills demands, and it’s getting worse. There was almost a doubling of the college wage premium from 1980 to 2007 — that is, the extra income you earn from getting a two- or four-year degree. This was because there was a surge in demand for higher skills, as globalization and the I.T. revolution intensified, combined with a slowdown in the growth of supply of higher skills.

Many community colleges and universities simply can’t keep pace and teach to the new skill requirements, especially with their budgets being cut. We need a new “Race to the Top” that will hugely incentivize businesses to embed workers in universities to teach — and universities to embed professors inside businesses to learn — so we get a much better match between schooling and the job markets.

“The world no longer cares about what you know; the world only cares about what you can do with what you know,” explains Tony Wagner of Harvard, the author of “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.”

Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami Dade College, the acclaimed pioneer in education-for-work, put it this way: “The skill shortage is real. Years ago, we started working with over 100 companies to meet their needs. Every program that we offer has an industry advisory committee that helps us with curriculum, mentorship, internships and scholarships. … Spanish-speaking immigrants used to be able to come here and get a decent job doing repetitive tasks in an office or factory and earn enough to buy a home and car and put their kids through school and enjoy middle-class status. That is no longer possible. … The big issue in America is not the fiscal deficit, but the deficit in understanding about education and the role it plays in the knowledge economy.”

The time when education — particularly the right kind of education — “could be a luxury for the few is long gone,” Padrón added.

Amid the Ashes, a Statue of Mary Stands as a Symbol of Survival

Amid the Ashes, a Statue of Mary Stands as a Symbol of Survival

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

The Breezy Point Madonna, still standing after 100 homes burned to the ground, has become a place of faith.

Where the McNulty home once stood on the corner of Oceanside and Gotham, a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean on the spit of land in Queens called Breezy Point, there now remains a charred, twisted ruin. Flooding and fire have left behind nothing but the foundation. Within it are strewed a dislodged bathtub, an air-conditioner casing battered into a helix shape, a mailbox coated with ashes.

As if all that loss were not loss enough, the storm spared a few tormenting reminders of life before its arrival. In the scorched shell of a cedar closet, screen windows stand neatly stacked. Three rolls of paper towels sit on a pantry shelf, toasted as delicately brown as cookout marshmallows.

So, yes, at the corner of Oceanside Avenue and Gotham Walk, the house inherited by the elderly McNultys’ niece Regina after the couple died, is a place of tragedy. It is also, astonishingly, a place of faith. For the one part of the home to survive intact was a statue of the Virgin Mary that Mary McNulty placed in her garden years ago.

The statue is one of the only recognizable remnants of the swath of Breezy Point where more than 100 homes burned to the ground while a flood kept firefighters from reaching it. Since the waters withdrew early on Oct. 30, the image of the Breezy Point Madonna has reached the nation, indeed the world, through vivid news photos. Pilgrims have come to leave offerings: a bouquet of yellow roses, four quarters, a votive candle, a memorial card for the victims of Sept. 11, a written admonition that healing begins with acceptance.

Ellen Mathis Kail knelt at the shrine five days after the catastrophe. She had spent 30 summers on Breezy Point and watched her parents save for decades to buy a bungalow on Gotham Walk. She had been married in the parish church, St. Thomas More, a few blocks away.

Living in Denver, teaching fourth grade at Saint Vincent de Paul, a Roman Catholic school, Ms. Kail had followed the grim news of the storm’s approach. On Oct. 29, when she saw a message on Facebook that said “Breezy Point burning,” she sent a text message to her childhood friend, Meg Dolan.

“Please, Meg,” she wrote, “before I tell my parents, is there any chance this could be a very bad rumor?”

Ms. Dolan sent a text back, “It’s all devastation.”

The next morning, the teachers and students at Saint Vincent de Paul began writing cards. Ms. Kail flew to New York with a bag full of them on Nov. 2. Initially, she said, she had thought of having Ms. Dolan or one of the parish priests give them to displaced families. But then, walking through the wreckage along Gotham, she noticed the statue and laid the cards at Mary’s feet.

“I am a kid from Denver,” one boy wrote, “and my teacher is Ellen. I love her accent, it’s funny. But I’m so sorry for your homes. But God will make something good out of it and God will protect you Big and Small. You Rock!”

Ms. Kail noticed a pot of violets outside another destroyed house. Somehow the flowers were still alive. She moved the pot beside the Madonna.

“It was so bleak, so horrific,” Ms. Kail, 44, said. “And I thought maybe if I left some color, some hope, it would brighten someone’s day, just to think someone is praying for them.”

One of the first photographers on the scene, Frank Franklin II of The Associated Press, reached the corner of Oceanside and Gotham at 6 a.m. on Oct. 30.

Winding through the fields of blackened debris, he found himself transfixed by the statue of the Virgin Mary. Though raised by Protestant parents, Mr. Franklin attended a Catholic high school and he immediately perceived a deeper meaning.

“It’s weird how I was drawn to it,” Mr. Franklin, 40, recalled. “I’m not the most religious person in the world, but I know what those images are. When I made that frame, I knew it would resonate with people. What I couldn’t imagine was how much.”

Through his Twitter account, Mr. Franklin has heard from people who saw his photo in print or online. “A wonderful image,” one wrote on Twitter. Another wrote, “A symbol of faith.” By the afternoon of Nov. 16, a Google search for “Breezy Point Madonna” retrieved more than 400,000 results.

What happened spontaneously speaks to a larger theme in Catholicism. According to Timothy Matovina, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, the veneration of Mary, or Marian devotion, tends to fall into three categories. One involves apparitions; the second concerns statues associated with miracles in response to prayer; the third, as at Breezy Point, centers on an image of Mary that survives in some extraordinary way.

“In the midst of terrible tragedy, here’s a holy image, a sacred image, that made it through,” Dr. Matovina said. “There’s a sense you’ve been crushed, but not abandoned.”

Last week, Msgr. Michael J. Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More, stood before the statue. A retired firefighter standing nearby surveying the remains of his home, greeted the monsignor, then nearly broke into tears.

“It will be a symbol of the suffering,” Monsignor Curran said of the statue, “but also of our rise from the ashes. It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through but also of our resurrection. It will be a reminder that for all the property we lost, God never left.”

How Do You Raise a Prodigy?

The New York Times

How Do You Raise a Prodigy?

Photo illustration by Peter Yang for The New York Times

By ANDREW SOLOMON

Drew Petersen didn’t speak until he was 3½, but his mother, Sue, never believed he was slow. When he was 18 months old, in 1994, she was reading to him and skipped a word, whereupon Drew reached over and pointed to the missing word on the page. Drew didn’t produce much sound at that stage, but he already cared about it deeply. “Church bells would elicit a big response,” Sue told me. “Birdsong would stop him in his tracks.”

May Armstrong

Kit Armstrong at 5; he graduated from high school at 9.

Sue Petersen

Drew Petersen began lessons at 5 and was playing Carnegie Hall within a year.

Natalie Paremski

Natasha Paremski at 12, rehearsing Ravel.

Chloe Yu

When Marc Yu was 8, he was flying from California to China for lessons.

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Sue, who learned piano as a child, taught Drew the basics on an old upright, and he became fascinated by sheet music. “He needed to decode it,” Sue said. “So I had to recall what little I remembered, which was the treble clef.” As Drew told me, “It was like learning 13 letters of the alphabet and then trying to read books.” He figured out the bass clef on his own, and when he began formal lessons at 5, his teacher said he could skip the first six months’ worth of material. Within the year, Drew was performing Beethoven sonatas at the recital hall at Carnegie Hall. “I thought it was delightful,” Sue said, “but I also thought we shouldn’t take it too seriously. He was just a little boy.”

On his way to kindergarten one day, Drew asked his mother, “Can I just stay home so I can learn something?” Sue was at a loss. “He was reading textbooks this big, and they’re in class holding up a blowup M,” she said. Drew, who is now 18, said: “At first, it felt lonely. Then you accept that, yes, you’re different from everyone else, but people will be your friends anyway.” Drew’s parents moved him to a private school. They bought him a new piano, because he announced at 7 that their upright lacked dynamic contrast. “It cost more money than we’d ever paid for anything except a down payment on a house,” Sue said. When Drew was 14, he discovered a home-school program created by Harvard; when I met him two years ago, he was 16, studying at the Manhattan School of Music and halfway to a Harvard bachelor’s degree.

Prodigies are able to function at an advanced adult level in some domain before age 12. “Prodigy” derives from the Latin “prodigium,” a monster that violates the natural order. These children have differences so evident as to resemble a birth defect, and it was in that context that I came to investigate them. Having spent 10 years researching a book about children whose experiences differ radically from those of their parents and the world around them, I found that stigmatized differences — having Down syndrome, autism or deafness; being a dwarf or being transgender — are often clouds with silver linings. Families grappling with these apparent problems may find profound meaning, even beauty, in them. Prodigiousness, conversely, looks from a distance like silver, but it comes with banks of clouds; genius can be as bewildering and hazardous as a disability. Despite the past century’s breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience, prodigiousness and genius are as little understood as autism. “Genius is an abnormality, and can signal other abnormalities,” says Veda Kaplinsky of Juilliard, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent teacher of young pianists. “Many gifted kids have A.D.D. or O.C.D. or Asperger’s. When the parents are confronted with two sides of a kid, they’re so quick to acknowledge the positive, the talented, the exceptional; they are often in denial over everything else.”

We live in ambitious times. You need only to go through the New York preschool application process, as I recently did for my son, to witness the hysteria attached to early achievement, the widespread presumption that a child’s destiny hinges on getting a baby foot on a tall ladder. Parental obsessiveness on this front reflects the hegemony of developmental psychiatry, with its insistence that first experience is formative. We now know that brain plasticity diminishes over time; it is easier to mold a child than to reform an adult. What are we to do with this information? I would hate for my children to feel that their worth is contingent on sustaining competitive advantage, but I’d also hate for them to fall short of their potential. Tiger mothers who browbeat their children into submission overemphasize a narrow category of achievement over psychic health. Attachment parenting, conversely, often sacrifices accomplishment to an ideal of unboundaried acceptance that can be equally pernicious. It’s tempting to propose some universal answer, but spending time with families of remarkably talented children showed me that what works for one child can be disastrous for another.

Children who are pushed toward success and succeed have a very different trajectory from that of children who are pushed toward success and fail. I once told Lang Lang, a prodigy par excellence and now perhaps the most famous pianist in the world, that by American standards, his father’s brutal methods — which included telling him to commit suicide, refusing any praise, browbeating him into abject submission — would count as child abuse. “If my father had pressured me like this and I had not done well, it would have been child abuse, and I would be traumatized, maybe destroyed,” Lang responded. “He could have been less extreme, and we probably would have made it to the same place; you don’t have to sacrifice everything to be a musician. But we had the same goal. So since all the pressure helped me become a world-famous star musician, which I love being, I would say that, for me, it was in the end a wonderful way to grow up.”

While it is true that some parents push their kids too hard and give them breakdowns, others fail to support a child’s passion for his own gift and deprive him of the only life that he would have enjoyed. You can err in either direction. Given that there is no consensus about how to raise ordinary children, it is not surprising that there is none about how to raise remarkable children. Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of young people beyond their comprehension.

Spending time with the Petersens, I was struck not only by their mutual devotion but also by the easy way they avoided the snobberies that tend to cling to classical music. Sue is a school nurse; her husband, Joe, works in the engineering department of Volkswagen. They never expected the life into which Drew has led them, but they have neither been intimidated by it nor brash in pursuing it; it remains both a diligence and an art. “How do you describe a normal family?” Joe said. “The only way I can describe a normal one is a happy one. What my kids do brings a lot of joy into this household.” When I asked Sue how Drew’s talent had affected how they reared his younger brother, Erik, she said: “It’s distracting and different. It would be similar if Erik’s brother had a disability or a wooden leg.”

Prodigiousness manifests most often in athletics, mathematics, chess and music. A child may have a brain that processes chess moves or mathematical equations like some dream computer, which is its own mystery, but how can the mature emotional insight that is necessary to musicianship emerge from someone who is immature? “Young people like romance stories and war stories and good-and-evil stories and old movies because their emotional life mostly is and should be fantasy,” says Ken Noda, a great piano prodigy in his day who gave up public performance and now works at the Metropolitan Opera. “They put that fantasized emotion into their playing, and it is very convincing. I had an amazing capacity for imagining these feelings, and that’s part of what talent is. But it dries up, in everyone. That’s why so many prodigies have midlife crises in their late teens or early 20s. If our imagination is not replenished with experience, the ability to reproduce these feelings in one’s playing gradually diminishes.”

Musicians often talked to me about whether you achieve brilliance on the violin by practicing for hours every day or by reading Shakespeare, learning physics and falling in love. “Maturity, in music and in life, has to be earned by living,” the violinist Yehudi Menuhin once said. Who opens up or blocks access to such living? A musical prodigy’s development hinges on parental collaboration. Without that support, the child would never gain access to an instrument, the technical training that even the most devout genius requires or the emotional nurturance that enables a musician to achieve mature expression. As David Henry Feldman and Lynn T. Goldsmith, scholars in the field, have said, “A prodigy is a group enterprise.”

Some prodigies seem to trade on a splinter skill — an ability in music that occupies their whole consciousness, leaving them virtually incompetent in all other areas. Others have a dazzling capacity for achievement in general and select music from among multitudinous gifts. Mikhail and Natalie Paremski held comfortable positions within the Soviet system: Mikhail with the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Agency; Natalie with the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. Their daughter, Natasha, born in 1987, showed a precocious interest in the piano. “I was in the kitchen, and I thought, Who is playing?” Natalie recalls. “Then I saw: it’s the baby, picking out nursery songs.” By the time she was 4, Natasha had played a Chopin mazurka in a children’s concert.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Mikhail emigrated to California; the family followed in 1995. Natasha entered fourth grade, two years younger than her classmates. Within months, she was speaking English without an accent and coming in first on every school test. The family couldn’t afford a good piano; they finally found a cheap one that “sounded like cabbage,” Natasha recalls, and she began performing Haydn concertos, Beethoven sonatas and Chopin études. “Everyone would say, ‘You must be so proud of your daughter,’ ” Natalie told me. “I used to say that it’s not for me to be proud; it’s Natasha who does this herself — but I learned that this is not the polite American way. So now I always say, ‘I am so proud of my daughter,’ and then maybe we can have a conversation.” Natasha agreed. “What did they do to make me practice?” she asked when I first interviewed her, at 16. “What did they do to make me eat or sleep?”

Natasha graduated with top honors from high school at 14 and was offered a full scholarship by Mannes College the New School for Music in New York. Her mother worried about a deficit of soul in New York. “There is no time for vision! People are just struggling to survive, like in Moscow,” Natalie said — to which her daughter replied, “Vision is how I survive.” In those early New York days, Natasha and her mother spoke by phone constantly. Nonetheless, Natalie said, “that was my present to her: I gave her her own life.”

In 2004, when Natasha was 16, I went to her Carnegie Hall debut, for which she played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. She’s a beautiful young woman, with cascades of hair and a sylphlike figure, and she wore a sleeveless, black velvet dress, so her arms would feel free, and a pair of insanely high heels that she said gave her better leverage on the pedals. Her parents were not there. “They’re too supportive to come,” Natasha told me just before the concert. Afterward, Natalie explained, “If I am there, I am so worried about every single note that I can’t even sit still. It’s not helpful to Natasha.”

Natasha later said she saw nothing strange in a musician’s ability to express emotions she has not experienced. “Had I experienced them, that wouldn’t necessarily help me to express them better in my music. I’m an actress, not a character; my job is to represent something, not to live it. Chopin wrote a mazurka, Person X in the audience wants to hear the mazurka and so I have to decipher the score and make it apprehensible to Person X, and it’s really hard to do. But it has nothing to do with my life experience.”

After the English lawyer Daines Barrington examined the 8-year-old Mozart in 1764, he wrote: “He had a thorough knowledge of the fundamental principles of composition. He was also a great master of modulation, and his transitions from one key to another were excessively natural and judicious.” Yet, Mozart was also clearly a child. “Whilst he was playing to me, a favorite cat came in, upon which he immediately left his harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time. He would also sometimes run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of horse.”

Every prodigy is a chimera of such mastery and childishness, and the contrast between musical sophistication and personal immaturity can be striking. One prodigy I interviewed switched from the violin to the piano when she was 7. She offered to tell me why if I didn’t tell her mother. “I wanted to sit down,” she said.

Chloe Yu was born in Macao and came to the United States to study when she was 17. She married at 25, and her son, Marc, was born a year later, in Pasadena, Calif. While she was pregnant, Chloe played the piano to him. When Marc was almost 3, he picked out a few tunes on the piano with two fingers; within a few months, Chloe had found him a teacher advanced enough to respond to his emerging talent. At 5, he added the cello to his regimen. “Soon he asked for more instruments,” Chloe told me. “I said: ‘That’s it, Marc. Be realistic. Two is enough.’ ”

Chloe gave up on the master’s degree she was working on. She had divorced Marc’s father, but because she had no money, she and Marc ended up living with her ex-in-laws, in a room over the garage. Marc’s grandparents did not approve of his “excessive” devotion to the piano. “His grandmother loves him a lot,” Chloe said. “But she just wanted him to be a normal 5-year-old.” When Marc was in preschool, Chloe felt he was ready to perform, and she contacted local retirement facilities and hospitals to offer free recitals. Soon the papers were writing about this young genius. “When I began to understand how talented he is, I was so excited!” Chloe said. “And also so afraid!”

At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.

Marc was being home-schooled to accommodate his performance and practice schedule. At the age of a third-grader, he was taking an SAT class. Chloe serves as his manager and reviews concert invitations with him. “In America, every kid has to be well rounded,” Chloe said. “They have 10 different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average. This is wonderful for disabled children, who get things they would never have otherwise, but it’s a disaster for gifted children. Why should Marc spend his life learning sports he’s not interested in when he has this superb gift that gives him so much joy?”

At their home in California, I asked Marc what he thought of a normal childhood. “I already have a normal childhood,” he said. “Do you want to see my room? It’s messy, but you can come anyway.” Upstairs, he showed me a yellow remote-controlled helicopter that his father had sent from China. The bookshelves were crammed with Dr. Seuss, “Jumanji” and “The Wind in the Willows” but also “Moby-Dick”; with “Sesame Street” videos and also a series of DVDs on the music of Prague, Vienna and so on. We sat on the floor, and he showed me his favorite Gary Larson cartoons, and then we played the board game Mouse Trap.

Then we went downstairs, and Marc sat on a phone book on the piano bench so his hands would be high enough to play comfortably and launched into Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” which he imbued with a quality of nuanced yearning that seemed almost inconceivable in someone with a shelf of Cookie Monster videos. “You see?” Chloe said to me. “He’s not a normal child. Why should he have a normal childhood?”

A parent is the progenitor of much of a child’s behavior, telling that child repeatedly who he has been, is and could be, reconciling accomplishment and naïveté. In constructing this narrative, parents often confuse the anomaly of developing fast with the objective of developing profoundly. There is no clear delineation between supporting and pressuring a child, between believing in your child and forcing your child to conform to what you imagine for him. If society’s expectations for most children with profound differences are too low, expectations for prodigies are often perilously high. “When you have a child whose gift is so overshadowing, it is possible for parents to be distracted and lose track of the child himself,” says Karen Monroe, a psychiatrist at Boston’s McLean Hospital who works with prodigious children.

If you dream of having a genius for a child, you will spot brilliance in your child, sometimes even when it isn’t there. Such children, despite being the subjects of obsessive attention, can suffer from not being seen; their sorrow is organized not so much around the rigor of practicing as around invisibility. And yet, accomplishment entails giving up the pleasures of the present moment in favor of anticipated triumphs, and that is an impulse that must be learned. Left to their own devices, children do not become world-class instrumentalists before they turn 10.

When I spoke to the mother of one musical prodigy on the telephone to set up an interview, I invited her and her daughter to dinner, but she said, “We have a family of fussy eaters, so we’ll eat before we come.” The girl and her parents, whom I’ve granted anonymity for their own protection, arrived wearing coats, and I offered to hang them up. “That won’t be necessary,” the mother said, and they sat holding them through the interview. I offered them something to drink, but the woman said, “We are so used to our schedule, and it’s not time for a drink right now.” In three hours, none of them had a sip of water. I had put out homemade cookies, and the daughter kept glancing at them; every time she did, the mother shot her a look. Whenever I asked the daughter a question, her mother jumped in to answer on her behalf; when the daughter did reply, she did so with an anxious glance at her mother, as if worried that she delivered the wrong response.

The daughter was holding her instrument case, so I invited her to play. “I think I’ll play the Bach Chaconne,” she said. Her mother said, “How about the Rimsky-Korsakov?” She replied, “No, no, no, the Chaconne is better.” The daughter had told me that she chose her instrument for its resemblance to her voice; now it provided her only chance to be heard over her mother. She played the Chaconne. When she finished, her mother said, “Now you can play the Rimsky-Korsakov.” The daughter dutifully launched into “Flight of the Bumblebee,” the proof of every virtuoso. “Vivaldi?” her mother said, and she played “Summer” from “The Four Seasons.” She played with a clear, bright tone, although not with such brilliance as to resolve the question of why a childhood had been sacrificed for this art. I had hoped this child would light up when her bow met the strings, but instead she brought out her instrument’s searing melancholy.

Throughout much of history, prodigies were thought to be possessed; Aristotle believed that there could be no genius without madness. Paganini was accused of putting himself in the hands of the devil. The Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso said in 1891, “Genius is a true degenerative psychosis belonging to the group of moral insanity.” Recent neuroscience demonstrates that the processes of creativity and psychosis map similarly in the brain, each contingent on a reduced number of dopamine D2 receptors in the thalamus. A continuum runs between the two conditions; there is no sharp line.

The parents of children with disabilities must be educated to see the identity within a perceived illness, but the parents of prodigies are confronted with an identity and must be educated to recognize the prospect of illness within it. Even those without a sideline diagnosis like A.D.D. or Asperger’s need to mitigate the loneliness of being peerless and of having their primary emotional relationship with an inanimate object. “If you’re spending five hours a day practicing, and the other kids are out playing baseball, you’re not doing the same things,” Karen Monroe says. “Even if you love it and can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, that doesn’t mean you don’t feel lonely.”

If Chloe Yu scorned the idea of a normal childhood, May Armstrong simply had to bow to the reality that no such thing could be achieved with her only son, Kit. Born in 1992, Kit could count at 15 months; May taught him addition and subtraction at 2, and he worked out multiplication and division for himself. While digging in the garden, he explained the principle of leverage to his mother. By 5, he explained Einstein’s theory of time dilation to her. May, an economist, was frankly bemused: “By nature, every mother wants to be protective, but he didn’t need protection. I can’t say that was easy.”

May had left Taiwan at 22 to study in the United States and spent holidays by herself. “I knew what loneliness was all about, and I thought he needed a hobby he could enjoy on his own,” she says. So she started him on piano lessons when he was 5, even though she had no interest in music. After three weeks of lessons, Kit started composing without an instrument on staff paper: the written language of music had come to him whole.

When Kit was 3, a supervisor of his play group told May that he let other children push him around. “I went in one day and saw another child snatch a toy away from him,” May said. “I told him he should stand up for himself, and he said: ‘That kid will be bored in two minutes, and then I can play with it again. Why start a fight?’ So he was mature already. What did I have to teach this kid? But he always seemed happy, and that was what I wanted most for him. He used to look in the mirror and burst out laughing.” May enrolled him in school. “His teacher told me that she wanted her other kids to grow up in kindergarten,” she said. “She wanted mine to grow down.”

By age 9, he had graduated from high school and started college in Utah. “The other students often thought it was strange that he was there,” May says, “but Kit never did.” His piano skills, meanwhile, had advanced enough so that by the time he was 10, he appeared on David Letterman. Shortly after, Kit toured the physics research facility at Los Alamos. A physicist said that, unlike the postdoctoral physicists who usually visited, Kit was so bright that no one could “find the bottom of this boy’s knowledge.” A few years later, Kit attended a summer program at M.I.T., where he helped edit papers in physics, chemistry and mathematics. “He just understands things,” May said to me, almost resigned. “Someday, I want to work with parents of disabled children, because I know their bewilderment is like mine. I had no idea how to be a mother to Kit, and there was no place to find out.”

May moved them to London to pursue Kit’s musicianship, and he soon met the revered pianist Alfred Brendel; he took Kit on and refused payment for lessons. When he learned that Kit was practicing at a piano showroom, he had a Steinway delivered to their apartment.

“I have no ear to be any help to Kit,” May said. “All I can do is remind him that he is very lucky to have been born with those talents. I’d have preferred that he be a professor of mathematics. It’s an easier life.” Then she added, “But Kit has decided that mathematics is his hobby, and the piano is his work.” At 18, Kit was pursuing an M.A. in pure mathematics in Paris; he said he did it “to unwind.” I asked May if she ever worried that Kit, like many young people of remarkable ability, might have a nervous breakdown. She laughed. “If anyone’s going to have a nervous breakdown in this setup,” she said, “it’s me!”

There is no federal mandate for gifted education. But if we recognize the importance of special programs for students whose atypical brains encode less-accepted differences, we should extrapolate to create programs for those whose atypical brains encode remarkable abilities. Writing in Time magazine in 2007, the educator John Cloud faulted the “radically egalitarian” values underlying the No Child Left Behind Act, which provided little support for gifted students. Once again, it falls to parents to advocate for their children’s needs, often in the face of a hostile or indifferent educational system. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, himself a conductor and a former wunderkind, remarked dryly, “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”

Growing up gay in the 1970s, I encountered prejudice from the world at large that often crossed into disdain. My parents were never derisive, but they were uncomfortable with the ways I differed from them and encouraged me to try to be straight. I began researching children of difference in a quest to forgive my mother and father for pressing me to be untrue to myself. I wanted to look at the process through which parents reconcile themselves to children who throw up significant challenges. I found that many families come to celebrate children with characteristics they initially found incomprehensible — just as my parents did. Having seen how hard it was for other parents, I decided, with considerable relief, that mine had actually done a pretty good job and realized that I was ready to be a parent myself.

My research on prodigies echoed my study of children with other differences. Sue Petersen compared her experience to having a child with a wooden leg; May Armstrong saw common ground with parents of disabled children; and I realized that parenthood always entails perplexity and that the valence of that perplexity matters less than the spirit with which parents respond to it. Half the prodigies I studied seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents. Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder. That insight has largely shaped me as a father. I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude.

Andrew Solomon is a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell. His book “Far From the Tree,” from which this essay is adapted, will be published this month by Scribner.

Editor: Jillian Dunham

Swedish School’s Big Lesson Begins With Dropping Personal Pronouns

An interesting New York Times article on Sweden’s attempts to assure equal opportunities for boys and girls.
Stockholm Journal

Swedish School’s Big Lesson Begins With Dropping Personal Pronouns

Casper Hedberg for The New York Times

All children at the Nicolaigarden school may play with dolls, and both boys and girls, called “friends,” can cry.

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Published: November 13, 2012 98 Comments

STOCKHOLM — At an ocher-color preschool along a lane in Stockholm’s Old Town, the teachers avoid the pronouns “him” and “her,” instead calling their 115 toddlers simply “friends.” Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun “hen,” an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles.

The New York Times

 

Casper Hedberg for The New York Times

Masculine and feminine references are taboo at the Nicolaigarden school.  In the little library, with its throw pillows where children sit to be read to, there are few classic fairy tales, like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” with their heavy male and female stereotypes, but there are many stories that deal with single parents, adopted children or same-sex couples.

Girls are not urged to play with toy kitchens, and wooden or Lego blocks are not considered toys for boys. And when boys hurt themselves, teachers are taught to give them every bit as much comforting as they would girls. Everyone gets to play with dolls; most are anatomically correct, and some are also black.

Sweden is perhaps as renowned for an egalitarian mind-set as it is for meatballs or Ikea furnishings. But this taxpayer-financed preschool, known as the Nicolaigarden for a saint whose chapel was once in the 300-year-old building that houses it, is perhaps one of the more compelling examples of the country’s efforts to blur gender lines and, theoretically, cement opportunities for both women and men.

What the children are taught, said Malin Engleson, an art gallery employee, as she fetched her 15-month-old daughter Hanna from the school, “shows that girls can cry, but boys too.”

“That’s why we chose it,” she said. “It’s so important to start at an early age.”

The model has been so successful that two years ago three of its teachers opened an offshoot, which now has almost 40 children. That school, named Egalia to suggest equality, is in a 1960s housing project in the Sodermalm neighborhood.

What has become a passionate undertaking for its teachers actually began with a nudge from Swedish legislators, who in 1998 passed a bill requiring that schools, including day care centers, assure equal opportunities for girls and boys.

Spurred by the law, the teachers at Nicolaigarden took the unusual step of filming one another, capturing their behavior while playing with, eating with or just being with the center’s infants to 6-year-olds.

“We could see lots of differences, for example, in the handling of boys and girls,” said Lotta Rajalin, who directs the center and three others, which she visits by bicycle. “If a boy was crying because he hurt himself, he was consoled, but for a shorter time, while girls were held and soothed much longer,” she said. “With a boy it was, ‘Go on, it’s not so bad!’ ”

The filming, she said, also showed that staff members tended to talk more with girls than with boys, perhaps explaining girls’ later superior language skills. If boys were boisterous, that was accepted, Ms. Rajalin said; a girl trying to climb a tree on an outing in the country was stopped.

The result, after much discussion, was a seven-point program to alter such behavior. “We avoid using words like boy or girl, not because it’s bad, but because they represent stereotypes,” said Ms. Rajalin, 53. “We just use the name — Peter, Sally — or ‘Come on, friends!’ ” Men were added to the all-female staff. With Egalia, Nicolaigarden sought and obtained certification from an organization for gay and bisexual people that its staff is sensitive to their problems.

Criticism was not long in arriving. “There are a lot of letters, mail, blogs,” Ms. Rajalin said. “But it’s not so much arguments; it’s anger, basically.”

A persistent critic has been Tanja Bergkvist, a mathematician at Uppsala University whose blog consistently attacks Sweden’s “gender madness.” In an article for the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, she questioned whether children were not being “brainwashed by our parents already at the age of 3 months.” On outings, she mocked, “what do they do when a girl is picking flowers, while a boy collects rocks?”

Such criticism, said Carl-Johan Norrman, 36, who has worked at Nicolaigarden for 18 months, “starts from misconceptions: we want to turn little boys into little girls. It’s a whispering game that snowballs.”

Despite such gibes, others see the efforts as somehow peculiarly Nordic, and admirable. “I think it’s quite Swedish, it’s good,” said Camilla Flodin, 29, a native of London who has lived in Stockholm for two and a half years. Her boyfriend’s sister gets annoyed, she said, if you give her daughter a gift that is overly feminine.

Peter Rudberg, 36, an anesthesiologist whose 3-year-old son, Hjalmar, attends the kindergarten, called its gender-neutral approach “a boon,” though, like many Swedes, he believes the country has moved beyond the problem. “In modern Sweden, gender equality is a nonissue,” he said. Yet he cautioned against extremes, like “boys prohibited from playing boys’ games.”

At Stockholm’s immense brick town hall, the moderate-conservative coalition government fully supports the gender policy. “The important thing is that children, regardless of their sex, have the same opportunities,” said Lotta Edholm, the deputy mayor responsible for schools. “It’s a question of freedom.”

On the other hand, she said, parents will always play a larger role in children’s development than day care or school. “Preschool is a couple of hours a day,” said Ms. Edholm, who has a 16-year-old son. “Most of the time, children are with their parents, and the values parents impart to their children tend to be the values they adopt.”

As the Christmas season approaches, Swedes are preparing for the Feast of Lucia, on Dec. 13, when children march in processions accompanying St. Lucia, traditionally portrayed by a teenage girl in white robes and crowned with a wreath of lighted candles.

Could a boy now portray Lucia?

In fact, Ms. Edholm said, in recent years in a town outside Stockholm a teenage boy did seek the role, but was refused. Evidently, she said, women in modern Sweden can more readily slip into male roles than vice versa.

“The interesting thing is that it’s not a problem for a girl to be Santa Claus,” she said. “But it is a problem for a boy to be Lucia.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 14, 2012, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: A School’s Big Lesson Begins With Dropping Personal Pronouns.