Friday, 28 February 2014

Precooked Children and Pushy Parents - Clémentine Beauvais

My new research project for my academic work is on precocious children in literature and culture. I was trying to explain this in wobbly Spanish to my friend in Madrid by saying that I was studying 'el niño precocido', which made her burst out laughing - turns out it means the 'precooked child'.

It's a shame I'm not actually doing that; as far as I'm aware, it's a very undertheorised motif.

Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen
Anyway, the term 'precooked' keeps popping back into my head as I read. Throughout the 20th century, there's been a conceptual battle around the question of child precocity in child psychology and the sociology of education. 'Precocious' children are now widely considered, as the etymology suggests, to be 'praecox', 'ripe before their age', mostly thanks to an alignment of good circumstances: supportive family and school environments, task commitment, and above all social valuation of whichever type of 'intelligence' the child manages to develop ahead of peers.

But the literature, though it does acknowledge parental involvement in so-called child 'precocity', can be vociferous against parents. Parents are often described as 'pushing' their child, 'too early', with no regard for 'normal development'. In other words, they're indeed 'precooking' their child in the hope that it will have the equivalent effect as their 'ripening early'. 

And everyone knows that no amount of apple compote will make up for their being unripe.

Even scientifically rigorous articles get into very harsh denunciations of parents who try to 'create' 'precocious' children. Some scholars make the striking claim that exceptional children ahead of their peers who have been 'pushed' by their parents don't 'deserve' to be called precocious. Since the notion is essentially fallacious, its definition fluctuates anyway, but the hostility against the 'pushy parent' is interestingly intense.

Roald Dahl's Matilda famously begins with a critique of such parents:

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.

Children's books and films are indeed generally quite severe against parents who 'push' their children to 'overachieve', and don't grant them the same status as children presented as 'naturally gifted'.There's a clear moral split between the precooked and the precocious, even if in effect they achieve the same results. 
The bad precocious child
  Dahl is at the forefront - think of the punishments endured by the 'precooked' children of pushy parents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The myth of child precocity is paradoxical. It's torn between conflicting adult desires that such children should be, on the one hand, entirely unexplainable (a conservative, mystical view of precocity) and on the other hand, possible to create (from a more liberal democratic perspective).
So we don't like the idea that some children should be born with more 'gifts' than others: that hurts our egalitarianism. But at the same time, we definitely don't like to see how they're made, how they're cooked, specifically by their parents. It feels like we're just being tricked ('it's not real precocity!'). The ambiguity of this discourse is reflected in scientific articles about child precocity or 'giftedness', and often in children's books and films.


At heart, we want to believe in the possibility of a 'miraculous' child whose intelligence and creativity has no rational explanation. We also think that pushy parents are only pushy out of pure narcissism. And also, yes, we're jealous: who are these parents who are so 'gifted' at this parenting thing? (Judging from my Facebook feed, it's a ferocious competition out there).

We prefer to think that they will suffer a sad fate, and their children too. They will be punished for precooking children when they aren't ripe enough. HA!

Children's literature from Jacqueline Wilson to J.K. Rowling often indulges in such dreams, with cautionary tales that such 'fake precocious children' will never 'achieve their potential' and instead end up depressed and lonely - or, for the more positive tales, rebel before they're completely rotten.

The good precocious child
How hypocritical we writers can be... We know that we depend on an army of pushy middle-class parents to get their kids to read our books; increasingly so with the rumoured decline of the book. We deify precocious, 'gifted', 'genius' children in our texts. And we desperately want to have an impact on children, too.

And yet the ideal precocious child is uncooked, free from additives, a mystery to all. It is a child who laughs at the efforts of well-meaning adults to influence her.

That ideal precocious child lands in our writerly nets.

And then we can give it our books. Children's literature is absolutely OK with 'real' precocious child characters reading our books. We just love being in charge of the cooking.


Clementine Beauvais, hypocrite auteur of several books featuring precocious children, writes in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes, and the latter a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade mysteries (Hodder). She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.


Pippa Goodhart said...

Oh so true!

Stroppy Author said...

Super! And the real precocious child will out, with or without parental pushing as long as it has the smallest crack of opportunity to slip through.

Nick Green said...

I've found it amusing that - according to the Self-Help literature, anyway - all the signs of a 'problem' child seem to be exactly the same as all the signs of a 'gifted' child. From this I can only assume that there is no such thing as either.

Heather Dyer said...

Fascinating! It feels to me as though 'natural' precociousness is intuitively deemed (and rightly so) to be better by the academics, the children and the Roald Dahl's of this world, because it represents the child BEING THEMSELVES - being individuated, being confident in acting upon their own inner guidance. On the other hand, children who are unfortunate enough to have pushy parents are distorted by these parents into people whom they might not otherwise be. And even though they may initially be 'clever' or 'advanced' - as we all know, if we aren't ourselves we haven't got a hope of being happy or reaching our full potential - not really.

Emma Barnes said...

I've never thought of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as precocious - I don't remember them displaying any gifts, just an addiction to gum, TV or getting their own way!

Have you looked at Noel Streatfeild's books? Those are very sympathetic (in fact maybe rather romantic) accounts of both the artistic children and their "pushy" (actually usually supportive) parents, and although they are often about child "genuiuses" they also don't disguise the fact that a lot of hard work and a supportive environment is important if they are going to succeed.

Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe books are wonderfully funny stories of a family of precociously gifted children and the one ordinary brother, Jack. Not sure where she fits in on the "pre-cooked" issue...but she is certainly making fun of both the pretensions of the children and the adults.

Catherine Butler said...

So we don't like the idea that some children should be born with more 'gifts' than others: that hurts our egalitarianism. But at the same time, we definitely don't like to see how they're made, how they're cooked, specifically by their parents. It feels like we're just being tricked ('it's not real precocity!').

I love the whole post, but especially this point, which highlights a double-bind that can be made (analogously) across so many domains, notably that of gender.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thank you for all these comments - @Emma in particular, thank you- I don't know these books and will have a look!

I should indeed have mentioned the more recent film of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory is much more explicit than the book about the parents' pushiness to get their kids to be perfect, but this dimension is I think always there in the book.

@Nick that's really true, especially regarding boys...

@Catherine yes! it's always the same paradox isn't it...

@Heather the thing is, though, many 'geniuses' were pushed by their parents - Mozart to start with. Maybe he would indeed have been someone else without Leopold Mozart's intervention... but who?

Andrew Strong said...

A clever, fascinating post. Do you think precocious children tend to display their talents in fields where parameters are clear, e.g. music or mathematics? And that they are, to some extent, therefore, following rules? Perhaps this is one reason precocious children, especially those who are pushed, are portrayed negatively - we want rule breaking rogues, not mini-adults.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

@Andrew since the definition of precocity depends on whatever a society currently values as signs of 'intelligence', those things vary accordingly, I think...

Stroppy Author said...

Much as I despise pushy parents, don't they have to be starting with the right material? Mozart is a case in point. I think if Leopold Mozart had been my dad he'd probably have drowned me as a hopeless cause by the age of three. Surely there must be some innate ability or the pushing wouldn't get far? And most pushed children, while not stupid, aren't geniuses either. Some are, sadly, pushed into mental illness and misery when they don't realise their parents' expectations of them. Perhaps that's one reason we don't like them.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Fascinating post. Thank you. Your comment Stroppy Author of the consequences of having a pushy parent, reminded me of Andre Agassi writing in his biography of how his father strapped table tennis bats to his hands and hung a ball above his cot when he was a baby. He ended up a brilliant tennis player but he certainly was 'pushed' into some downhill spirals as a result of his father.

Teresa B said...

You have no clue about what it's like to raise a profoundly gifted child. Pushy? Um, wrong, wrong, wrong. It's more like being pulled along by the child (since she was 4 1/2 years old). Raising a PG child is extremely difficult. It's emotionally tough, it's tough on my marriage, it's tough on my relationship with my child. Until you've raised one or even actually met a few, stop writing this drivel you publish.

Carolyn K. said...

Perhaps you should have read a little further into Roald Dahl's Matilda. You would find a very different story, a story that many of us face. Expecting a "normal" child with a normal childhood, we are shocked to have a child who demands knowledge and learning, and defies the kind of stereotypes you propagate, a child who pushes the education system to provide what she needs, because "This is school, I'm supposed to learn here!" And then our parents laugh and point out, "She's just like you were!"

Instead of appreciating our kids for who they are, and appreciating the parents who fight for those kids because they are fighting for a better education for all students, you put us down and call us "pushy" and spout stereotypes against us.

Please do not put down an entire class of people who are different than you. That's discrimination, and it's bullying, and our gifted kids and their parents get enough of it in the world without your help.

Please respect that it's possible, nay, likely, that most of us are quite the opposite of pushy, instead being dragged along behind our kids as fast as we can scurry.

Because we are.