Highly Gifted Children and the Press
by Kathi Kearney
Gifted Education Consultant
Founder, The Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children
© 1991 Kathi Kearney
This article first appeared in Understanding
Our Gifted, March and May, 1991
Reprinted with permission of the author and
Open Space Communications, Inc.
Highly Gifted Children and the Press - Part I (March 1991)
Susan, at age 10, was a full-time college student. Unfortunately, she
was also subject to the compulsory attendance law' which required her family
to apply to the local school board for an "equivalent instruction" program.
Since Susan had been homeschooled the previous year the school board insisted
she take a fourth grade achievement test to "prove" she was learning. When her
parents refused, the reporter covering the school board meeting that night
filed the story with the local newspaper. The next morning's headlines
screamed, "Genius Child is Denied Home Teaching." That was bad enough, but
that was not all That morning an Associated Press reporter called the family
'just to confirm the details" of the story. Two days later an Associated Press
article made the front page of the state's dailies. Susan 's family received
calls from The Today Show, People Magazine, and The Tonight Show They refused
these and all further interviews, but that did not prevent them from receiving
calls from reporters for a full year after the local story was first
Extraordinary children occasionally receive extraordinary attention.
Magazines, newspapers, radio, and television have portrayed the plight of highly
gifted children in various ways since the turn of the century. From the vicious
press attacks on celebrated child prodigy, William James Sidis, in the century's
early decades to "Doogie Howser, M.D.," ABC television's sensitive and
well-written weekly series about a highly gifted 17-year-old doctor, both press
coverage and dramatic portrayals of this population reflect the consistent
ambivalence Americans feel toward highly gifted children.
The 9-year-old college student, the 14-year-old published novelist, and the
6-year-old composer are bound to draw at least some attention to their unusual
accomplishments. Though they are fascinating to the public, such accomplishments
also can make some people uncomfortable-uncomfortable, perhaps, with how they
have developed their own abilities; uncomfortable because there is nothing in
their own experience to explain such a phenomenon; and uncomfortable because
these children often have not used the conventional routes to their
achievements: conformity to the status quo is not the way a 9-year-old ends up
in college. Historical tensions in American society between excellence and
equality introduce political and sociological issues as well. Thus, the public
reaction to the 9-year-old's college placement is more likely to be "I'm
certainly glad I don't have your problems, Mrs. Grost. These children always
turn out to be unproductive failures..." (Grost, 1970, p.136) than it is "How
nice, Mrs. Smith, that your daughter is enjoying her new school"
We live in a media-saturated environment. If highly gifted children are going
to be featured in television documentaries, on the pages of Life
magazine, and in the scripts of a major television network series - and they are
- it is extremely important that reporters and scriptwriters have access to
information that will help them understand the unique needs of these children.
It is also imperative that parents, teachers, and the children themselves share
a rudimentary understanding of how the press works, and realize that they
always have the right to say no to a reporter. Balancing these two
considerations is often a conflicting task. When should a child be allowed
publicity, and when should he or she be protected from the press? What are the
long4erm consequences of early press coverage for a highly gifted child? What if
those families and professionals who are concerned about portraying an accurate
picture of extraordinarily gifted children don't talk to the press? Will
others who have less information and less concern about the welfare of these
children do so instead?
These questions have no easy answers; the right decision for one child and
family may be a devastating decision for another. Both individual and family
developmental patterns need to be considered very carefully, and even then the
best choice is often to say "no." Publicity, like the contents of Pandora's box
once it has been opened, cannot be recalled. However, the families of many
highly gifted children and child prodigies often discover that they must deal
with the press at some point. The next column will present specific information
and guidelines for families contemplating press coverage.
- Grost (1970).
Genius in Residence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Highly Gifted Children and the Press - Part II (May 1991)
Life Magazine, Parade, the New York Times, the New
York Times Magazine, CBS News 48 Hours, and a host of national and local
talk shows and newspaper articles have all featured stories about highly gifted
children and child prodigies within the past year. This American phenomenon of
prodigy-watching is nothing new; as early as 1911, American Magazine
featured the Victorian era's latest crop of prodigies, including such celebrated
children as William James Sidis, Winifred Stoner, and A. A. Berle (Bruce, 1911).
But what if it is your child the press wants to interview? In the last
column, we discussed some of the difficult questions families face as they
confront media attention, including the conservative and safe response - just
saying no. However, for those families who find themselves in the midst of media
attention either by chance or by choke, this issue's column provides a number of
Remember that you can always say no.
You are not obligated to talk to the press. In many cases (perhaps most), it
will be better for you and for your child if you do not. Press attention has a
way of getting out of hand, even under the best of circumstances, and highly
gifted children often cherish their privacy (Hollingworth, 1942).
Ask for time to consider whether or not to do the interview.
Most situations will not require an immediate interview, even though the
reporter may want it; depending on the type of press coverage, the reporter may
be able to wait for a few days or even a week or two. Much of the publicity
about highly gifted children is in the form of feature articles or television
documentaries, in which there is much more lead time for the reporter than in a
late-breaking story. Get all the in-formation that you can about both the
interview process and the publication or television show in which the proposed
interview will appear, including the reporter's name and a description of the
audience. If there's time, do some homework. Read back issues of the publication
(especially other stories about related topics, and other stories by the same
reporter); watch a segment of the television program, or listen to the radio
Make the decision as a family whether or not to talk to the press.
Neither parent should make such a decision alone; unity is essential. You
will need the support of each other. Consider your child's wishes-no child ever
should be forced to participate in an interview. Be prepared for some unforeseen
ramifications within the family if you decide to go ahead with news coverage:
sometimes siblings feel left out, jealous, or even frightened.
Understand the media's role.
The same news media that uncovered the Watergate scandal, explained "smart
bombs" to a worldwide television audience, and brought the Vietnam War into your
living room will be interviewing you and your child. Their objective is to get
the story, make it interesting and simple enough for a wide audience,
investigate, and raise alternative points of view. Do not be surprised if you
are asked tough questions on the one hand, or if complicated concepts are
portrayed simplistically on the other. The press may well interview someone who
is in disagreement with your point of view, and then juxtapose the two
interviews in the final copy. The press's job is to get the story; your job, if
you decide to talk to the press at all, is to protect your child from undue
exploitation. Occasionally, there will be a collision between these two
Think before you speak.
This is good advice any time, but critical when talking to a reporter. You do
not have to give an instant answer. Listen carefully to each of the reporter's
questions, and take a moment to think about it. Answer clearly, and concisely,
if you can.
Double-check the facts with the reporter.
In the midst of an interview, you or your child may neglect to give complete
information, or the reporter may have recorded information incorrectly. The
reporter needs complete, clear and accurate information. Before concluding the
interview, double-check important facts with the reporter.
Treat everything you say as if it were on the record.
Even if the reporter assures you that you are talking to her off the record,"
keep in mind that what you say will shape her perception of your child, your
family, and the issues involved. Now is not the time to mention your marital
problems, a disagreement you've had with the child's teacher, or what the
neighbors think. Sometimes information ostensibly given "off the record" finds
its way into a news story anyhow. The prudent course is to treat everything you
say to a reporter as if it were on the record.
Understand that press coverage makes your child traceable, now and in the
Publicity cannot be recalled. If your child's story ends up in the New
York Times, for instance, his or her name will be listed permanently in the
New York Times Index. If you agree to one story with one publication, expect to
receive other publicity "offers." For example, on the recent CBS News 48 Hours
segment about child prodigies, most of the children featured had experienced
extensive media coverage in the past. Choosing whether or not to participate in
press coverage is a difficult decision. It should be a decision informed by
thorough family discussion, a rudimentary understanding of how the press works
and what some of the unforeseen consequences of press coverage can be, and the
child's own developmental patterns. No one has a crystal ball; no one can
predict the outcome of media coverage ahead of time. It is always a judgment
call. Those families who choose to tell their stories to the world via the
camera's lens and the reporter's voice do deserve credit: without their stories,
extraordinary giftedness would remain shrouded in mystery for the general
public, instead of being given names, faces, and a growing realization, that the
prodigy can also be the child next door.
For Further Reading
- Hermann, W E. (1982, Nov/Dec). Publicity and the prodigy. G/C/T.
- Hermann's short article describes additional considerations for families
contemplating or caught in the middle of press coverage.
- Bruce, H. A. (1911, July) New ideas in child training. American
Magazine, pp, 286-294.
- Hollingworth, L. S. (1942).
Children above 180 IQ (Stanford-Binet):
Origin and Development. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company.
Annotated Reading: Gifted Children and
The following books about highly gifted children and their families discuss
both positive and negative experiences with press coverage.
Wallace, A. (1986).The prodigy: A biography of William James Sidis,
American's oldest child prodigy. New York: E.P. Dutton.
This book details the difficult life of William James Sidis, and includes an
extensive discussion of the negative role of the press. Included are
excerpts from newspaper and magazine accounts.
Feldman, R.D. (1982). Whatever happened to the Quiz Kids?
Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.
"Little Ruthie Duskin" was one of the famous radio "Quiz Kids" during the 1940s.
In adulthood, she wondered what had become of her highly gifted cohorts.
This book outlines her search for the rest of the "Quiz Kids," the story of
their lives and achievements 40 years later, and the impact of early publicity
on their lives.
Grost, A. (1970). Genius in residence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
This is a mother's story of raising Michael, a math prodigy who went to college
at the age of 9. Mrs. Grost provides a humorous and realistic view of what
it was like to be stuck in the middle of massive press coverage about her highly
Kathi Kearney is founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted
Children in Auburn, Maine, and is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College,
printed from Hoagies' Gifted Education Page,
Original URL is www.hoagiesgifted.org/hg_and_the_press.htm