The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, February 15, 2007

How to make parents unhappy, Singapore style

There are many ways to make parents unhappy, but one of them is exclusion from involvement in their children's education. Recently, I have posted about our son Ainan's acceptance onto the Gifted Education Programme, in Singapore. We have kept an open mind as to what benefits might accrue from their involvement with Ainan, and we are still trying to, but the latest developments offer, perhaps, a warning as to what might be to come.

Today, as I write, Ainan, my seven year old scientific child prodigy son, aged seven years and two months, is in a room with two chemists from the Gifted Education Branch and his Principal. They are there to interview and assess him regarding his scientific interests and "other matters" which were not specified to us. We are not happy about the circumstances of this discussion for many reasons and all of them come down to one thing: parental involvement.

The Officer from the Gifted Education Branch has spoken a lot of parental involvement, of how nothing is done without the approval of the parents and how the parents' involvement is important. As far, however, as her actions show, this is all empty talk. We had requested that either my wife or myself be present at the meeting, to make Ainan more comfortable. This request was firmly denied, the Officer arguing that our presence would make it difficult for him. Yep. I can see how having his mum present would be socially awkward: he is seven and she is his mother...what difficulty could there be? No measure of persuasion on the issue had any effect at all. One member of the Branch suggested that we could be present behind a two-way mirror and watch proceedings. (This, apparently, is something that is done quite often.) Another pooh-poohed this very stiffly, clearly irked by her colleague's suggestion. So, we weren't allowed to be present behind a screen either. We then asked if we could have a recording of this meeting, since it would be valuable to have such a record of this scientific meeting between Ainan and two chemists...invaluable really for the future, to record what he was like at this age. That, too, was denied, with the argument that the presence of a recording device would make him "feel like he is being evaluated". OK: so a panel of three judges firing questions at him, does NOT make him feel evaluated but a passive recording device, that says nothing, does?

I cannot see any good reason why they don't want either parent present, or a device to record what transpires. However, it is not difficult to see bad reasons, with a little thought. Why, basically, don't they want either parent to know what is happening in the confines of that room?

The manner in which we are being sidelined in the education of our son, by the Gifted Education Branch from the moment they came to recognize his gifts is quite perturbing. They are behaving almost as if they own Ainan in some way - and we are perceived as an inconvenience in the way of their plans for him. At least, that is how it feels from the way we have been treated on this issue.

In our previous meeting with the Gifted Education Branch, the Officer mentioned that, sometimes, parents refused to co-operate with the Branch and tried to go against their plans. Well, I wonder why? Could it be because the Branch disregards the wishes of the parents and treats them as a barrier to total control over the child?

Ainan is generally a quiet child. I am unconvinced that a panel of three strangers bombarding him with questions is a superior experience to one that included his mother as a reassuring presence. I am also unconvinced that the presence of his mother would detract from the quality of his responses. His greater comfort would be likely to produce a better result. Placing him in an uncomfortable situation is unlikely to secure the greatest access to his thoughts on science or any other matter.

What is notable is that his Principal was quite fierce on the phone on the issue of not allowing a recording or the presence of a parent. She had clearly been briefed by the Branch before she received my wife's call and cut her off before she had even begun to explain what she had in mind and quickly denied permission in an irrefutable style.

Given their approach to Ainan and his parents, one wonders if this Gifted Education Programme is concerned about what Singapore can do for Ainan, or what Ainan can do for Singapore. If their interest is education, it should be the former, if their interests lie elsewhere, it will be distinctly the latter.

Perhaps we were naive, but we didn't expect this high-handed approach to Ainan's future. The way the Branch Officer spoke, the Gifted Education Programme was portrayed as a great enabler, that allowed the children to grow as was appropriate. Yet, it is only the beginning of their involvement and what we already feel, strongly, is that our wishes are being disregarded and theirs imposed on us and Ainan. It is as if the parents are the enemy and the child is the trophy to be won over and harnessed to their own ends. Whether or not that is their intention, that is the impression they have managed to create in the space of a week.

I noticed, during the first meeting, that the Branch Officer, gainsayed a lot of what I said. She often had a counter view to my own. Since then, she has displayed complete inflexibility over how she wanted things to go, failing to accede to all of our requests. She always had strongly held views as to why things had to go her way and even came out with the "I am a psychologist...I know what to do." with an implicit, "I know better than you.", she doesn't. She knows very little about Ainan. She even said: "All child prodigies have the same issues." Really? Now, if that isn't stereotyping, I don't know what is.

She had already irked me enough by her refusal to accommodate our requests - and so she was unable to irk me more when she spoke in a manner that can only be described as condescending: "You should read about gifted kids then you would understand your son better."

That would be hilarious, in a dark sort of way, if it wasn't so alarming about what it implies of her understanding of the situation. My wife and I have a gifted child, a scientific child prodigy...does that not imply, genetically, that we too were once gifted children and so are well aware of the issues? That thought appears beyond conception for her. If I want to know about my gifted children, there is no need to consult a my memories of my childhood will do.

Whatever results from the meeting today, one thing is most clear: the Gifted Education Branch have not handled this case well at all. Ainan's education has just begun, but we already feel left out of the equation altogether. Is this typical of gifted programmes worldwide - or is it just Singapore's approach to parents?

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:38 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How terrifying. I want to cry for your poor kid. Maybe this is why he wants homeschooling so bad. I live in the USA, and I have NEVER heard of any gifted child being treated that way. Some child prodigies begin college as children. I heard of one of them who was handed his diploma at the age of 12, because his existence was so disruptive to the order of the school (when a kid knows more than the teachers...). It seems that most of the time in the US, profoundly gifted kids are ignored by the school system. They fall through the cracks. One of my personal friends who is profoundly gifted managed to survive the drudgery of the public school system, became a punk and now works odd jobs. But I have never ever heard of a school acting posessively with a child like that.


I feel paranoid in sympathy.

- Seng Mod

2:07 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you,

When I get home tonight I will find out how the meeting went, from Ainan's point of view. However, even if it went well, I am not happy about the manner in which it has been conducted.

It is a very uncomfortable feeling to be so firmly excluded from something pivotal to Ainan's future. The results of this meeting could open many doors for Ainan (so they say...we will see)...but the way in which they have conducted it is almost designed to ensure that problems will arise. There might be difficulties with Ainan's response to the situation - and there will certainly be difficulties with our view of the Programme, given their behaviour. I can see so many problems arising because of their basic disregard of the parents.

You know, a little humanity makes a lot of difference. It seems people in this country have forgotten that.

Best wishe to you at Seng.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if you got any insight into what was going on, now that its decided?

12:20 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think it is about control. If we don't have access to the information, we can't question the decisions. Who knows what the information was? They do. Who knows whether any given decision is the right one or not...the one with the information - which is not us.

I still can't think of any good reason to with-hold information from the parents. There are only bad reasons for that.

I still have reservations about the communication style being employed...that is as little information to us as possible.

Best wishes

1:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I still can't think of any good reason to with-hold information from the parents. There are only bad reasons for that."

I agree, if it makes you feel any better.

- Kathy

4:38 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

There was a "confidential report" on the desk of our interviewer today - but we weren't allowed to see it.

It didn't feel good.

6:25 PM  

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