“One feels nothing but anguish and sympathy for the poor child.” Our musical contributor, John Marks, sent this to me a few hours ago with an acerbic note on “child labor for the benefit of parents’ egos.” He has a point. The near-complete command this seven-year-old girl has over her violin is the sort of thing which does not happen by chance. The memorization of an eight-minute piece cannot be accomplished by, let’s say, an hour or two of daily practice. What you are seeing here is what I call child as machine. Children are plastic by nature. This one’s been forced into the shape of a concertmaster.
I would never do anything like this to my son, so I feel completely confident posting the video with a critical note — except that Mr. Marks also mentioned “youth motorsports” in his email. Which leads me to a pair of questions, one for those of us who are parents and one for all of us:
0. What is the value of being a prodigy?
1. What is the value of being exceptional at anything?
And this is where things get a bit unpleasant.
If you’ve read this blog for a while you know that my son is a fairly avid BMX racer and downhill mountain biker, with eleven class wins in about sixty weekends so far. He’s also a competitive fencer with a few tournament wins in epee (using his left hand) and a few decent finishes in foil (using his right hand). He plays upright bass in the school band and electric bass elsewhere, which led to a pretty neat opportunity last year. He’s won 50cc kart races and will likely return to competitive karting in 2021. Also, he is a reasonably accomplished high-level-language computer programmer, writing his first functional video game in MIT’s Slack language two years ago.
What bothers my son is that he is not truly exceptional at any of these things. He knows this not because he sees other kids outdoing him in real life — that rarely happens — but because he has YouTube at his disposal. YouTube is filled with single-purpose child prodigies whose parents are actively monetizing their existence. Jackson Goldstone, seen above, is a good example. At the age of ten, he was no better than my son is now at that age — but his parents spent the next four years promoting the living shit out of him. Now he is on “Nitro Circus” at the age of fourteen. He’s a household name in mountain biking. He has endorsements, he doesn’t pay for bikes. You get the idea.
I am 100% certain that I could get John to do everything that Jackson Goldstone has done. We would have to focus our whole efforts on it, relocate to NorCal or Squamish, grind through the inevitable broken bones and soft-tissue injuries. Any plans we have to kart or fence or just travel for our own amusement would have to be put on hold. I wouldn’t be able to race my cars, or support Danger Girl in her racing. It would cost some real money. But it could be done. I know it could be done — but I can’t bring myself to do it. It feels like child abuse.
There are a few dozen parents out there who have made the same calculation and decided to pull the trigger. I’ve communicated with some of them about bike setup and equipment. In at least three cases, the parents have quit their jobs, sold their homes, and entered the “vanlife” in the cause of making their children famous. They are omnipresent on social media. They hire advertising agencies to produce lush feature films about their children. The kids are both object and product, the two-wheeled versions of a 7-year-old violin prodigy.
What’s the payoff? It’s tempting to dismiss the whole thing as “child labor for the benefit of parental ego” — but there’s a flip side to this. There is a true joy in being the very best. If you take the safe route, as I’m doing — if you never force your kid to practice anything for more than an hour or two, if you ask him what he wants to do this weekend instead of telling him a schedule, if you enforce a diversity of activity so the kid doesn’t become a one-trick-pony — then you are willfully depriving your child of a chance to be the best.
We’d like to believe that isn’t true. We love the origin stories of scrappy, self-motivated teenagers who work hard and exhibit massive natural talent to succeed in sports or music. Think of Michael Jordan being cut from his high-school team, or of Wes Montgomery picking up the guitar at 17. These stories reassure us that we don’t have to push our children, that they will naturally discover whatever they’re best-suited to do.
The uncomfortable truth, however, is that most successful people start early. Jimmy Page was already playing the guitar on television when he was thirteen. Earl Woods was literally beating excellence into his kid, Tiger, when said kid was eighteen months old. The majority of today’s top-shelf auto racers were in karts by the age of six or seven. There’s a substantial body of medical evidence which says that a boy will never be first-rate at anything he doesn’t practice before puberty hits.
Therefore, if you want to be really good at anything, you should start when you are young. Which means you should start before you can make an informed decision for yourself. Which means that your parents will ultimately decide what you’re going to be good at. Which is absolutely terrifying. Consider, if you will, the fact that my son is a pretty decent recreational soccer player, and that Bark’s son is a pretty good rental-kart driver, even though Bark and I don’t encourage either of them in those pursuits. What if we are unknowingly training our kids to focus on the activity for which they have their second-highest potential? What if Jaco Pastorius hadn’t injured his hand as a child? Would he have become the world’s greatest jazz drummer instead? Or was that injury the proverbial happy accident that pushed him into his one true gift?
Making matters worse is the fact that kids don’t socialize and play outdoors the way they used to; they’re almost entirely focused on video games, which have an immediate dopamine hit. So they don’t discover or develop their athletic talents without parentally-guided opportunities. Making the water even murkier: There’s starting to be real money in video games. My son, and Bark’s son, can both win a Fortnite “battle royale”, and John is a regular top scorer in competitive-league CounterStrike matches. What if their true gifts are video-game-related, and we’re harming them by making them go outside to ride bikes and play soccer?
There’s another perspective to be had here, one espoused by my child’s mother. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea to be exceptional at anything. She thinks that the happiest course is to live an untroubled middle-class life with as little stress as possible. It grates on her when I push John into doing something exceptional. I know, and have worked with, a lot of people like this. They’re just cruising along. Watching Peak TV, enjoying life as a fan of the Browns or the Buckeyes or Porsche’s GTLM teams, earning decent but unspectacular livings, relaxing on the weekends, having travel vacations where they just look at stuff and drink wine. Getting very excited about food trucks, restaurants, new-release movies, Funko Pops. These are the people who ask me how I can spend my “retirement money” on car races that cost five, ten, or thirty thousand dollars per weekend. What’s the point of that?
John’s mother is right, after a fashion. There’s no evidence that truly exceptional people are happy. In fact, the evidence suggests that exceptional people are hugely unpleasant to others and miserable to themselves. Would you really want to be Elon Musk, for example?
At some point in the next few years, my son will have to specialize. He will have to place his bet. On a bike, on a bass guitar, on a sword, on a keyboard. And then all bets are off. He could be the next John Lennon or Jaco Pastorius, with all that implies. Or he could fail, and live to be a cheerful fellow in a suburb or a retirement home. Either would be fine with me. The question is whether it would be fine with him. What would it be like to reach true excellence in something, or to come very close to it, only to fall back into a mediocre everyday existence? Would you even be able to get up in the morning and live the same life as everyone else? To put it another way — how you gonna keep them down on the cube farm, once they’ve played Paganini?
For Hagerty, I wrote about waterboxer crap.
For TTAW, I reviewed a pair of Japanese-made, affordably-priced Anniversary G-Shocks.