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Thursday, 6 July, 2000, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Hothouse children: Making the break

Missing maths genius Sufiah Yusof turns up safe, but refuses to go home. A typical case of teen rebellion, or do child prodigies crave a dramatic break for adulthood?

Behind every child genius is an over-protective parent cheering - or heckling - from the sidelines.

When the time comes for this child to grow into adulthood, the talented teen may feel that these parental ties bind too tightly.

In an attempt to take control of one's destiny, the formerly acquiescent teen may feel the need to take drastic action - a step further than your average teen rebellion.

Sufiah, centre, with her father and sister
Sufiah, centre, with her father and sister

Jo Counsell, the education consultant at the National Association for Gifted Children, says life is likely to be very confusing for a prodigy such as Sufiah Yusof, the 15-year-old in her third year at Oxford University.

"She's going through her adolescent years at university, yet she's sheltered from aspects of university life such as parties and pubs, which you would expect for a 12- or 13-year-old. But she's 15 now, and it's quite normal for teenagers to want to rebel.

"It must be hard for parents, who have invested so much - and I don't just mean financially - in their children. It must be very difficult to admit that children grow up and have a life of their own."

Socially immature

Her organisation recommends that parents not fast-track their child's academic career, and instead find other ways to challenge their intellectually advanced offspring while staying in contact with their peer group.

Bright sparks
About 8,500 students under 18 at UK universities
Experts say many are socially immature
NAGC warns against sending young teens to university

"Otherwise they will not be able to benefit from the social experiences that university offers," Ms Counsell says.

Sufiah's experience has certain parallels with that of Ruth Lawrence, the mathematician who rose to national fame in the 1980s when she went to Oxford at 12.

She spent her academic career under the tutelage of her protective father, Harry, who banned her from playing with other children. They even rode to lectures together on a tandem bicycle.

Now 28, Ms Lawrence lives in Jerusalem, the other side of the world from her US-based father. She has said she wants her four-month-old son Yehuda to "develop in a natural way".

"I suppose I might have liked my childhood to be different in some ways, but I do not want to judge my parents. And I do not envy them."

Sink or shine

Michael Howe, a professor of psychology at Exeter University, has made a study of child prodigies.

David Helfgott
David Helfgott was playing Chopin at age 10

"It's awfully good to excel at something while you are young, but if that means missing out on friends and other experiences you need for a fulfilling life, it's not worth it," he says.

Young musicians tend to have an easier time than, say, a mathematics prodigy because of the social nature of their field.

A musician will perform with others and so have the opportunity to make new friends, Professor Howe says, whereas a maths genius lives a more solitary existence.

Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose life was depicted in the film Shine, spiralled into decades of mental illness after an irreparable rift with his father.

Peter Helfgott had lavished attention on his talented son, but refused to hear of him studying abroad. When, at 19, David defied his father's wishes to take up a scholarship at London's Royal College of Music, his mental health deteriorated rapidly.

It was not until the mid-1980s - more than 15 years later - that he began to regain his musical confidence.

Vanessa Mae
Young musicians lead a more social existence

Violinist Vanessa Mae, by contrast, made a far less traumatic break for independence.

At age 21, the pin-up girl of classical music ended her professional relationship with her mother, Pamela Mae Nicholson, who had managed her career for more than 10 years.

Both denied any rift, saying it was time for Vanessa Mae to call her own shots.

Families can, at times, be overly demanding, says Professor Howe. Witness the courtside outbursts by the parents of top class tennis players.

"How happy you are and how self-confident you are is just as important as being successful."

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See also:

03 Jul 00 | Education
Gifted but socially isolated?
30 Jun 00 | UK
The racket parents make
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