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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, Eleanor image via