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Child Genius: Nature versus Nurture

Channel 4’s thought provoking documentary has returned for a second series, complete with the usual mix of intense stress and incredible intellectual feats, and provides a fascinating insight into the great educational debate: nature versus nurture.

If you are not familiar with the format, a group of the smartest children in the UK are invited to compete against one another in a series of challenging rounds, in order to crown one of their number as the Child Genius. With the field having been whittled down in the first two episodes, ten contestants remained for last night’s third instalment. After last week’s memory and mathematics rounds, this week focused on spelling and general knowledge.

The show brings together families from a variety of cultures, with a wide spectrum of views on how best to prepare their children for the competition. It is perhaps the insight from the adults which is most revealing in terms of the nature versus nurture debate, particularly when questioned about their own teaching methods.

Tolu and Gold, parents to Tudor (and his elder sister who was eliminated in Episode Two), are the most vocal believers that parents have a strong hand in the achievements of their children. Father Tolu openly admits that Tudor is fearful of answering questions incorrectly, as he worries about his parents’ reaction – but it is Tolu’s belief that “the right combination of happiness and fear produces genius”. There is little doubting Tudor’s natural ability – he spells dehydroepiandrosterone with consummate ease – but he repeatedly falters on other questions due to nerves. When Tolu states that his son “can be anything he wants to be”, it is clear that any choice will be heavily influenced by the parents.

It is hard to get away from the impression that some of the parents have a greater emotional investment in the competition than their children. Of course, Tolu is the standout figure, as he asserts that “this is more a competition for parents than for kids”, but he is not alone. One mother places difficult words on the bathroom wall to ensure the best preparation for the spelling round. Another tellingly describes the spelling round as “one of our hardest sections”. Whilst the pressure on each contestant does crank up as the competition progresses, nobody is more stressed than Catherine.

Child Genius Eleanor

Eleanor is the most nervous of all the participants.

With her flustered reaction to each new round, the contrast between her comportment and that of Tolu is revealing. Mother to eleven year old Eleanor, Catherine constantly worries about how the stress of the competition is affecting her daughter. In Episode Two, she half seriously told the presenter to “shut up” after they asked Eleanor if she wanted to win the competition – all too aware that progression would only heighten the intensity. By Episode Three, Eleanor looks to be over her nerves, but the insecurities return when she goes on a bad run in the general knowledge round: she begins to cry and requires family support.

Eleanor is a naturally bright girl, aided by her reading obsession – she reads 100 books a month – and has an individuality of thought which sets her apart from a lot of her competition. She broke down before last week’s memory round, and understands that her “mummy doesn’t like the stress”. Catherine gives a knowing glance, or a reassuring smile, or an encouraging wink, to cajole her daughter, but the relief that each round is over is quickly replaced before the next, to the point that she is “full of dread and foreboding”.

There is a slight hint of class debate when Essex girl Sophie and her dinner lady mother Debbie are introduced to the viewer, although that mostly comes from Sophie herself. After failing to score any points in the spelling round – her words are oligodendroglia, myxomatosis, assiduous, effluvium and vicissitude (I needed Google’s assistance!) ­– and just two in the general knowledge round, she describes herself as a “typical Essex person”. Sophie and her mother (“she just wants to go home and watch Dancing on Ice” according to Sophie), have the most laissez-faire attitude to the competition, because Debbie doesn’t “want to be a pushy parent”. She believes that “intelligence [is] all down to genes” and doesn’t want to be forceful with her daughter.

The most touching moments in the show are reserved for Cuneyd. At twelve years of age, and having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he has had a somewhat abnormal childhood – with none of his classmates aware of his condition. He progresses through the competition, finding people with similar interests with whom he can have stimulating conversation. It is heartwarming to see his reaction as new friend Rubaiyat achieves a high score: Cuneyd punches the air in celebration – despite the result having an effect on his own potential progression. By the end of his experience, he feels comfortable enough to open up to his school friends about his condition.

In Tudor, Eleanor, Sophie and Cuneyd, Child Genius delves in to the psyches of four supremely gifted individuals. They all have a natural aptitude for learning, and demonstrate their ability to express themselves in a challenging environment, but they also rely heavily upon parental guidance. For me, there is only one conclusion to the nature versus nurture debate, and it remains the same in any field: the two aspects go hand in hand. All the natural talent in the world can be wasted if one does not have the right circumstances in which to thrive, and this is where educational philosophy comes in to play. The most crucial means of aiding a child’s development is to help them to bring out their individuality. Whilst it is impossible to devise a learning strategy which accentuates the virtues of each individual in a traditional school system, focused tuition (from a parent/guardian or a tutor) can allow a child to thrive, and utilise their own nuanced traits to prosper.

Child Genius airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday evenings, or can be watched on 4OD, where you can also catch up with the first series. Featured image via www.channel4.com, Eleanor image via www.whatsontv.co.uk

11 Comments

  1. It’s easy for parents to forget that there is more to genius than getting the correct answer or having complete knowledge. Being confident in your ‘own skin’ is important. Having your own take on the world and being able to argue your position in a variety of circumstances is really crucial.

    • Bob I think you are spot on there, and your point fits in well with the programme. A number of the children were so keen to seek the validation of their parents that they became unable to deal with the slightest extra pressure, and that is undoubtedly a defect of the parenting style.

  2. This is a very interesting discussion. I feel that whilst it is evident that a combination of both nature and nurture work together to determine the success of an individual, the competition highlights a more nuanced approach to the status of ‘genius’ – nature and nurture compensate for one another’s failings or flaws. Given a less privileged background but with natural gift a child can achieve just as much as a child in alternative circumstances who may have much less natural ability but greater environmental intervention and pressure. At university there are a few simplistic groups students can be placed within; those with great natural ability that do not fully apply themselves, those with less natural ability that work incredibly hard for their achievements and then finally those with great natural ability instilled with the work ethic to always fully apply themselves. I feel it is only in the circumstances of the latter where nature and nurture (from a young age) have worked together to ensure success as opposed to compensating for one another’s failings.

    • Your university groupings work well as an example of educational development, and the final group is indeed the perfect example of nature and nurture combining to get the best out of an individual.

  3. As a person who was in a gifted programme and who completed university very early, and many other accomplishments, I can relate to the issue at hand. You also need an environment to develop your abilities. Both nature and nurture is needed because there are many individuals with abilities but never got the chance to develop it. Environment does play a role with a stimulating environment being a great help for the human brain. Listening to classical music and having the chance to read and write cannot hurt the learning process.

    • Katherine, it would be interesting to hear your own personal story – perhaps in an article? Furthermore, your suggestion of classical music is an intriguing one as I have seen that used with older people with memory loss conditions, and with various states of dementia, to good effect as a stimulating tool.

  4. The brain needs exercising as much as the legs or arms if it is to function correctly. Even if a child possesses innate abilities, these can be enhanced by exercising the brain through mental stimulation. So the parents have a very important role to play in the early years of a child’s intellectual and emotional development. As the child grows older, this role is then shared with teachers, tutors and the child’s peers. Nature needs to be nurtured.

    I have not seen the programme but please do not lose sight of the fact that this is a television programme and accordingly, the presenters are not really looking for a child genius but someone who is televisually interesting (however that may be defined). Pushy parents and tearful children make for more ‘interesting’ television and I suspect the producers care less about any emotional damage they may cause to their ‘child geniuses’ than they do about audience viewing figures.

    • I agree wholeheartedly that nature must be nurtured. For better or worse this most often falls to parents to achieve in the child’s pre-school years, which are arguably the most formative as learning patterns established then are notoriously difficult to change.

      As for Child Genius, it is not purely a Channel 4 venture but run in collaboration with British Mensa, who presumably therefore endorse the (melo-)dramatic and viewer-friendly nature of the programme. Let’s hope they mean well and aren’t only in it for the publicity.

  5. I worked hard to “nurture” my two sons – starting in the womb with regular reading to them AND playing them classical music. Once they were born the reading intensified and my husband and I gave them as much stimulation as we could from music; reading (avidly); sports; learning instruments; Kumon lessons; karate lessons and so on. I also think diet is important – but only in the fact I ensure plenty of fresh fruit and veg…nothing more radical than that. In first school, although 5 years apart both were “labelled” gifted and able. Both excelled acedemically; one being at Oxford as we speak, the other on his way to a new and very lucrative life in Dubai. I am a firm believer in both nature and nurture playing parts! In what proportions is a different debate! I feel very sorry for some of the children in the Channel 4 documentary. In some instances I fear the parents desire for success is at the cost of their child’s happiness and long-term wellbeing. My husband and I were keen for our sons to excel, but not at the cost of their happiness and childhood. My elder son one day turned round to me and said he didn’t want to do Kumon any more as he found it boring. After a very short debate I removed him from classes as I was keen not to turn his favourite subject into a chore. I am so glad I did as he was (according to teaching staff) a maths genius and it so easily could have back-fired if we’d assisted making something pleasurable into a nightmare for him

    • Dawn, I think you pretty much sum up my feelings – and you have obviously done a good job given the successes of your two sons. The problem, as you point out, is when parents are more concerned about attaining that success than ensuring their children are comfortable and happy. Whilst others have rightly pointed out that people can succeed without “nurture” or without exceptional natural talent, it certainly removes many obstacles if the parents/guardians and the children are working hand in hand.

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