I recently watched the film Catfish, a documentary that involves the discovery of an 8-year old art prodigy. It got me thinking: how do you know if your child is a prodigy? I guess if a kid is teaching themselves minuets in 30 minutes like Mozart did, it’s pretty clear. But most of the time, navigating the line between a work-of-art and work-of-fun is probably much fuzzier.
A child prodigy is defined as “a child with a skill set or an ability that is incredibly accomplished, far beyond their years," according to Alissa Quart, author of Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child.
Maybe it's more clear who the prodigies are when the focus is an objective area like math or science, but art is so subjective that it would seem harder to validate who really is an art prodigy. What’s the measure: an expert stating that the child’s process and technique are extraordinary? Or good marketing that leads to high prices and people who want to collect the work?
I am no expert on who is a prodigy and who is not, but labels are a dicey place to go as proven by Dr. Carol Dweck’s research (she’s currently a social psychologist at Stanford.)
One aspect of her research focused on how we identify kids -- e.g., for their intelligence (“smart”) versus for their effort (“you tried hard.”) The research showed that kids who were told they were making a “great effort” achieved more and took on more challenging tasks than the kids who were told “you are so smart.” The idea is that when things don’t come easily, the “smart” child becomes afraid to try for fear of failing. (more info on the research here)
Alissa Quart’s book reiterates this point. She cautions calling a child a prodigy because "the overcultivated can develop self-esteem problems and performance anxiety." (from Time, 9/6/06)
No worries in my house. I’m happy to simply keep praising the “good effort” while I celebrate the fact that my 4 year old can clearly see a Yoda and light saber in the blob of glitter glue he lovingly placed on his paper while grinning from ear to ear. It reminds me of what's truly valuable: a child having Fun creating art...that's priceless.
Here are a few links to child painters who are considered by some to be art prodigies:
Marla Olmstead (also featured in the documentary, My Kid Could Paint That)