Terence Tao and nurturing gifted kids
Someone had posted a question about Terence Tao, recent winner of the Fields medal in mathematics, on another thread. While the "early ripe, early rot" cliche gets bandied about a lot, Tao's story is more of the "early bud, early bloom" variety. A child math prodigy, he grew up into an adult math sensation.
Much has been written about his schooling. One example from Miraca Gross (like Tao, an Australian) can be found at GT-Cybersource here. I've been doing some research on this topic as I'm supposed to write a column for USA Today on prodigies (once they get done with the Sept. 11 commemoration pieces).
Basically, Grace and Billy Tao realized very early that they had an exceptional son (all their children are, really!) He taught himself his letters and numbers by watching Sesame Street at age 2. He was doing high school math by age 7, and amused himself by working problems and reading books in his spare time. Keeping him in grade level classes was a non-starter. So the Taos directed his schooling, at one point having him study math only at home, not at school, so he wouldn't learn to hate it by being unchallenged. He took various other classes out of sequence as well, at one point doing humanities classes with kids in Year 8 (as the Ozzies call it), geography with kids in years 10 and 11, physics with year 12, etc.
The Taos also gave him plenty of time to become absorbed in his favorite subject but, as his father, Dr. Billy Tao, said in an email to me, never "pushed." They wanted Terence to learn to think for himself. So rather than telling him what he was doing wrong when he got frustrated by a tough problem, they asked him questions that would help him think about the problem in a different way. This was slower in the short run (and frustrating to an impatient little boy!) but in the long run helped him gain a deeper understanding of problem solving. And, as Dr. Tao pointed out, eventually there would come a time when he and his wife couldn't help anyway. So it was good to have Terence learn self-reliance from the beginning.
The results show. Only mathematicians who make major contributions to the field win the Fields prize. Talent has to be nurtured. As M.A. (Ken) Clement wrote in a biographical article of Terence Tao in Educational Studies in Mathematics in 1984, "I had to admire the efforts which his parents, Billy and Grace, had made on his behalf, despite the danger that they would be labeled 'pushy' by persons who did not understand.... In a society where hostility towards parents who regard their children as sufficiently bright to warrant extra-special educational consideration is endemic, it is refreshing to discover parents as courageous and realistic as Grace and Billy Tao."
In other words, when it comes to highly gifted kids, what many people mistake for pushy parenting is, in fact, good parenting of pushy kids.