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 +

Friday, June 03, 2011

A culture of perfectionism.

A few days ago, Fintan, seven, came home from school looking a little disconsolate. I thought I knew what might be up.

"How did you do in your maths exam?"

Yes. He had had ANOTHER maths exam: they just love to test the kids, in his school.

"OKAAAAY.", he said, with a mournful expression. Clearly, it had not been at all, "OK".

"What did you get?", I asked, softly.

"99%", he said, sadly, as if the world had just come to an end.

"99?", I asked, surprised to hear such a good mark, in such a sad voice. "That is good, Fintan. I would have been happy, at your age, to have 99."

"I got one WRONG.", he said, becoming most upset at this unaccountable fact.

We ended up having to comfort him. He really couldn't accept that any result less than 100% wasn't a total failure.

This little scene came as as surprise to me, because we, as parents, have never stressed the importance of grades. We have never urged our children to strive for perfection. In fact, as an idea, I don't think too much of it: I prefer to see creativity, than perfection. It is clear, however, that this ideal, that Fintan has imbibed, that exam results must be perfect and that nothing less than 100% will do had to come from somewhere. I can only assume that it the culture of the children and, perhaps, the school, with which he is surrounded. The pressure for 100% must come from there - because it is most certainly not from us.

"You could get 100% next time.", I said to Fintan, finally, offering him future hope for restitution.

"Yes, but I have to wait for JULY for the next exam!"

In a way, that was funny, but I didn't smile. Here was a young boy, pining for an exam, just so he could get 100% in it. In my own life, Fintan is the first student I have ever come across who actually wants an exam to happen sooner.

Fintan slumped off, quite beaten down, by his single lost mark. It was some hours before a semblance of his old exuberant self returned.

The world shouldn't be like this. Little children must not feel that 99% is a failure. I was brought up in a pressured academic environment - but it was never so pressured that anyone who got 99% would feel a "failure". However, my schooling was in the UK: Asia is different. Here, it seems, it is quite possible to feel a failure with a score of "only" 99%.

We shall continue to try to convey to our children the idea that doing well is admirable, but that absolute perfectionism is unnecessary and, perhaps, harmful. There is something very wrong in a child being unhappy with 99% in an exam. It remains to be seen, however, whether we will be able to overcome the prevailing educational culture in Fintan's school, in which such attitudes may seem rational.

Well done, Fintan, on your most recent maths exam: 99% is more than enough to make any parent happy and content at your academic progress.

As an afterthought: perhaps Fintan was so disheartened because in his last exam, he had scored 100%. To my mind, however, both results are essentially the same: a young boy, doing very well, in maths.

I hope Fintan learns to take delight in his successes, by first being able to see them as successes. The danger of perfectionism, is that nothing is ever good enough...and the child will never be happy no matter how well they do. I don't want to see that life for Fintan. I remember that he was very happy at his previous 100% - but it shouldn't take perfection, to make him happy at his work. Such a life, is a very punishing one for any child. So, I will keep a watch on his responses to his successes and try to teach him, just what a success really is: it isn't perfection, as a minimum - success comes a long way before that.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:10 PM 


Blogger tearsunderstars said...

I can really understand how he feels. I had a few instances like that in secondary school days where just making a tiny mistake will make you feel, "just a little more and I would have gotten it!" and then feel very bothered by it. I would say I'm not much different now. If I make a tiny mistake during a performance I would feel very bothered and afraid that people will pick it out, though actually they praise me at the end.

But, yes, it's difficult to feel satisfied this way and might be detrimental to self-confidence. So I hope to get out of this habit.


4:47 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Tearsunderstars for sharing your similar experience. I think it is the culture of South East Asia, that you are both reflecting. To my mind, this aspect of it is very toxic to children: it can mar a perfectly decent upbringing.

I wish you luck in coming to a reasonable assessment of what constitutes "success": perfectionism is far too punishing as a benchmark.

Best wishes.

10:01 AM  

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