The reader gets the impression from Hothouse Kids—the title refers to children whose extraordinary gifts are nurtured in controlled environments—that precociousness is springing up everywhere these days. As Quart tells it, there is an abundance of super-precocious artists, mathematicians, musicians, and debaters in miniature constantly being managed by parents, trained by high-priced tutors, and whisked from one high-stakes competition to the next.
It isn’t that kids are necessarily smarter than they once were, but that they are now expected, as Quart writes, to become “employee[s] of their talent.” Surrendering their leisure time and working at their gifts around the clock, many of these kids become young professionals before the age of 10.
Quart’s book is extremely balanced, and she is not willing to argue that an intensive focus upon a child’s gift is necessarily a bad thing. Many children depicted here are completely engrossed in what they do and need little inducement to practice an instrument, say, six hours a day.
On the other hand, the line between coercion and nurturance is almost hopelessly blurred—hence the “dilemma” of the title. Quart details how what she terms the “extreme parenting crowd” can damage kids by harping relentlessly on their gifts. One representative woman, once deemed a girl “genius” by her father, now says, “I totally try to repress my childhood. The ‘enrichment’ bled the joy out of me.”
Paradoxically, as childhood “genius” is worshipped as never before, gifted programs in public schools are being gutted to satisfy the No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes boosting the test scores of low-achieving students. Hence, gifted children without resources are being “left behind.”
The overarching goal, Quart concludes, is to find a golden mean between normalizing kids and hothousing them. That is, we should nurture giftedness while resisting the temptation to overcultivate, which inadvertently causes harm.