Pygmalion’s Regret


Once upon a time, I was – like a lot of kids – a Suzuki violinist. My parents dutifully schlepped me to Suzuki violin lessons, to weekend Suzuki events, to orchestra practice, to state performances, as I slowly (and painfully) progressed from Lightly Row to the most basic of symphonic works. On and on it went. The entire time, as I accepted sheaf after sheaf of sheet music, I kept asking when I would get to write my own pieces. But that’s not really part of the Suzuki program (and, to its credit, it never purports to be a creative program, just a good method for violin instruction). So as the years went by, the cognitive dissonance mounted up for me. From my perspective, a violin was a box of colored pencils, ready to transform a blank sheet of paper into new sounds and arrangements. But the message coming from all around me was one of reproduction, not creation.

My parents were saddened and disappointed when I quit the violin at age 15 to take up the guitar. I still play the violin from time to time; I even picked up the cello a few years back. But my main musical love is the guitar, and I’ve spent more time making music with it in the past two decades than I ever would have spent churning out rote classical performances on the violin. I wonder, as I look back, what their goal for me was: to become a classical violinist, or to become someone who loved making music. I honestly don’t know to this day. If it was the latter, they might have achieved their goal, but only by allowing me off the path they’d set out for me. It was in the act of departing from that path that I found a better one for myself – so if their goal was for me to enjoy making music for my whole life, that moment was a moment of success, not failure.

I thought of that moment this week as Jack Andraka, the sixteen-year-old creater of an innovative and inexpensive cancer test, vaulted into the headlines with a Forbes article entitled “The Genius of Raising Brilliant Kids.” The Forbes piece itself is actually fairly benign: it’s a point-for-point discussion of how the Andrakas raised Jack(and equally impressive brother Luke). Their checklist of parenting recommendations had me nodding as I went through it line by line: independent learning, focus on passion projects, parental engagement, limited rules, child-directed investigation, Socratic learning, problems as opportunities-in-disguise. A few Andraka family touchstones slowed my nodding (I don’t keep college guides around the house, and mine tend to have multiple irons in the fire at any one time, which I encourage). But by and large, I don’t have an issue with the Andrakas, or even how Forbes spun them in its article.

I do, however, have an issue with the derivative press emerging surrounding prodigies like Jack, most of which centers on the concept of turning your child into…well, into the next Jack Andraka. Some are chillingly clinical. Others are chillingly batshit. (There’s one actually titled “How to Create a Science Prodigy,” and ironically, it’s actually one of the more reasonable considerations of Jack.) Most aren’t articles recommending the Andraka checklist for uncovering your own kid’s passion; they encourage you to chisel a Jack Andraka clone out of the kid you have. Even the Forbes article itself couldn’t resist the urge to get into that line of thought itself, closing with a section called “Unlocking the Genius Within,” as if there’s a cancer-researching wunderkind inside every one of us.

First off, I’m not sure I want the next Jack Andraka. Society already has one, and he might be the greatest thing ever, or he might be someone telling a better story than the first person to try what he did; maybe the timing was better for his iteration of the nanotube story than the original one. (We all know that timing can be everything in this world.) Regardless, I think what he’s done has been fantastic; I’m not sure I’m more impressed by his creativity or his diligence. He found what was important to him and worked mindfully toward a goal he set for himself.

That’s what I would take out of the Andraka story – not the outcome, but the process and the passion. It’s not as if the Andrakas knew what Jack was going to become; they let what was within him come forth, in a supportive environment.  What I want from my children is not necessarily for them to follow in Jack’s footsteps, but to find a path of their own on which they’re as creative and passionate as he was. That might lead them into scientific innovation, or it might not; they might write something groundbreakingly creative, or  they might not. Perhaps they’ll touch the lives of a few deeply, or touch the lives of millions in some momentarily engaging way. What I want for them is not Jack Andraka’s life, but rather his clarity of purpose and vision. I want them to find in their lives what Jack found in his: an endlessly fascinating pursuit that made the clock hands circle like the wind, mindful within the flow of their activity.

But society isn’t making it easy on them. It doesn’t help when we refer to ‘ingredients’ making up a child prodigy, or reduce their existence to checklists. (Jack Andraka himself should probably take umbrage at the idea, no matter how tongue in cheek, that “any kid can be Jack Andraka.”)  This fall, we’re going to throw more gasoline on this fire with a new television series on prodigies. I’m not sure our success-at-all-costs society has really taken into account the unseen toll taken on normal children raised with the expectation that they will become prodigies when it may not be within their abilities to do so. In this article, pianist extraordinaire Lang Lang lays it out simply when asked about the brutal treatment he endured at the hands of his father during his musical upbringing. “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 says.

For me, the question comes down to your perspective on your child’s development. Are you a sculptor or a guide? Pygmalion, or Bridger? Pygmalion parents believe there to be a defined form within the limestone of their kid, one that can be directed to assume a final form with enough chisel time. Bridger parents believe that they aren’t the ones to determine that form; they believe that their children should find their own way, with help and support, and that the task of the parent is to provide opportunity and exposure to a broad variety of paths. Pygmalion parents raise children they can be proud of. Bridger parents raise children who can be proud of themselves.

I see the evidence of sculptor parents all around me – lawyers and engineers and IT professionals and business executives who became what they were sculpted to be, but are not happy with their lives. Kathy tells me the same stories about doctors who can’t wait to escape from day-to-day practice to become medical practice administrators or pharmaceutical executives or clinical researchers, because being a doctor was what they were told to do – but not what they love to do. Those children grew up in Pygmalion households, shaped carefully for a single purpose by doggedly persistent parents, whether their child was ever meant for that purpose or not. And now they stand, for the remainder of their days, trapped in the stone they were carved from, never able to stretch and move and run down the sunlit paths that Bridger children were always encouraged to explore.

3 responses to this post.

  1. This is so … right! Just the other day, when my little family of three (husband, eight year old daughter and I) were practising music together, I stopped and asked her this question: Do you really love music? Do you really like playing the guitar?
    She barely skipped a beat, and said, “Yes!”
    My husband, knowing precisely what triggered my question, said to her, “We want to make sure you’re doing this because you love it, and want to learn, and not because you know WE love it, and therefore want you to do it for that reason.”
    I worry about being what you term a “sculptor parent” — I didn’t know what to call it, but I have tried to be vigilant in my way. Fortunately, for us, she really adores music, as can be seen in how eagerly she learns all the new songs we set about learning.


  2. Posted by overexcitable on March 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I like the way you use the term “Pygmalion Parent” instead of the common “Tigermom”, as it is much more precise and descriptive of the process the parent chooses to undertake. The description of the parent as a sculptor chipping away at the block that is a child in order to shape this human being into someone else’s image of what this “raw material” should become is also chilling and, frankly, heart-wrenching.


  3. Posted by Catherine Gruener on March 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    Brilliant post. Thank you.


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