The media loves a success story, especially if the protagonist is still a child. Those who become the youngest to achieve something or show exceptional promise, are often the focus of endless news coverage and are catapulted into the public eye. Too often though, in a desire to laud those young people who seemingly have pushed the boundaries of human capability, the potential negative effects of such achievements are ignored.
The case of George Atkinson, who recently became the youngest person to climb the highest peak on every continent at just sixteen, is a case in point. Questions that should be asked, about the motivations behind such a climb and the risks involved, have largely been neglected.
To complete the challenge George had to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. It is a mountain where for every ten successful attempts, on average one climber will die. Indeed some of the world’s most experienced mountaineers have perished on its slopes. While it seems probable that every step was taken to ensure George’s safety, I imagine few parents would be comfortable letting a sixteen year old tackle such a dangerous and unforgiving challenge. In order to achieve ‘youngest ever’ records or when confronted by exceptionally gifted children, parents often let their common sense take a back seat.
A further problem is that it is extremely hard to know whether children are being forced into things by their parents; whether in effect they are merely participating in their parents’ dreams. George Atkinson climbed the first of his seven peaks aged just eleven, clearly it is unlikely that he was the one instigating that first climb. Indeed he was probably pliantly following his parents’ wishes for the first few of his seven ascents. The role of parents in such young achievers’ stories is an extremely vexing one. Often the line between encouraging a child’s passion, coercion and negligence is an extremely fine one. It is an issue that perhaps came to a head with the case of Laura Dekker, a thirteen year old Dutch girl, who wanted to sail around the world in 2009.
Laura, a keen and experienced sailor, was eager to make the trip and her parents were happy to let her, having encouraged her passion for sailing from an early age. The Dutch courts ruled that she was incapable of making such a voyage and that it would be irresponsible for her to be allowed to sail around the world alone. Dekker was placed into care for two months while her state of mind was assessed, though she later returned to live with her family. By implication the court ruled that Laura’s parents had been negligent. It is a problem that all parents of those who attempt to, or do achieve, great physical accomplishments when they are young have to ultimately face. Extraordinary children often pose their parents extraordinary conundrums that are rarely satisfactorily resolved. The problems ‘Too Much Too Young’ can pose however are not confined to physical feats of exertion. One only has to think of the numerous child actors who have either failed to make the grade in the long term or fell into a life of drink and drug abuse. Closer to home, those who over achieve far beyond their age group academically often face significant problems due to their preciousness. The story of Sufiah Yusef, who won a place to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, at just thirteen, provides an interesting insight into the extraordinary pressure many academic prodigies are placed under. She was raised in an extremely intense academic environment where her father tutored her and her two siblings and so later ran away from Oxford, no longer able to take the continued academic expectations of her parents. Later it emerged that Sulfiah, now in her twenties, was working as a prostitute, probably in no small part due to the psychological breakdown that her academic gifts and uncompromising upbringing had led too.
Not every child prodigy though is unable to cope with the demands placed on them by university. One only has to think of Ruth Lawrence, who came to Oxford at the age of twelve and remains a successful mathematician. Or perhaps most impressively, the brilliant career William Pitt the Younger went on enjoy, after coming up to Cambridge aged fourteen. However those who come to university when they are much younger than their peers miss out on essential parts of the university experience. It is often hard for them to relate to, or be taken seriously by, their peers and obviously they cannot participate in many of the things that most students take for granted. Students under eighteen will not be able to share the common experiences during Freshers’ Week that are vital to making friends, a vital support network for any student. This is not, for the most part, conducive to an enjoyable, rounded or positive university experience.
Perhaps the most tragic result of these children’s preciousness however is that they lose out on what might be termed a normal, happy and fulfilling childhood. Often they are cut off from their peers for months on end, perhaps educated at home, and any friendships they do make remain transient. Relationships with their parents can also be distorted, as parents put pressure on them and forget more than anything else that these talented and capable children need support. We should celebrate those who achieve extraordinary things while young but never lose sight of the complicated ethical and moral questions that these children and their achievements raise.