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Jeremy Sassoon showed great promise as a child and became a doctor at age 23, but he was unhappy. He later found peace playing music at nightclubs and weddings. (RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Jeremy Sassoon showed great promise as a child and became a doctor at age 23, but he was unhappy. He later found peace playing music at nightclubs and weddings. (RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/RANDY QUAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE GIFTED CHILD

The curse of giftedness Add to ...

At the age of seven, Jeremy Sassoon was the youngest student at Britain's newly opened Royal Northern College of Music, as gifted at trumpet and piano as he was at math, football, and anything else he set his mind to. The boy prodigy was sent out, in front of the assembled press of Manchester, to hand a bouquet of flowers to the Duchess of Kent, who presided over the opening.

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Over the next two decades, his rocketing accomplishments appeared to keep pace with his gifts: At 17, wooed by both science and music schools, he made a wrenching choice and decided on medicine over music. By 23, he was a doctor. By 30, a practising child psychiatrist. But then Dr. Sassoon left medicine and spent the next eight years suffering from bipolar disorder. He now can be found on most weekends in Manchester playing piano in restaurants, at weddings, or at nightclubs with his band, Dr. Sassoon's Jazz Prescription.

The trajectory for gifted children is not simply onward and upward; they are as likely to be plagued by crises of confidence as anyone. Perhaps more so: Their intellectual gifts mean they are even more aware of the flaws in their clay, of how short they fall from self-imposed goals.

"People are forever telling me the achievements of my life," Dr. Sassoon says, "and yet I feel I've accomplished nothing - nothing compared to what I might achieve." He has put his finger on a thorny issue: Is a gifted child destined to become an exceptional adult?

No is the short answer, if you listen to the British psychologist Joan Freeman, one of the world's leading experts on gifted children. For 36 years, Dr. Freeman has studied a group of 210 British children - some gifted, most not. In her new book, Gifted Lives, she concluded that, of the 20 identified as gifted, only six went on to adult lives that matched the potential of their early promise (one is a successful opera singer; another runs a hedge fund.)

The rest of the gifted children, so bright and full of eagerness at seven, were waylaid by a combination of factors: too much early pressure, mental or physical illness, lack of drive, lack of opportunity. Two died prematurely, one of cancer, and one of drink and drugs. Another is facing eviction from her home.

Judged by normal standards of achievement, however, the group did perfectly well: Many achieved great personal contentment and fulfilment, if not success in a material sense.

"Sometimes," says Dr. Freeman, sitting in her airy office in central London, with toys on the floor and copies of her 17 books on the shelf, "those with extremely high IQ don't bother to use it." The psychologist, who spent much of her own childhood as a wartime evacuee in Alberta, puts it bluntly in her book: "Success in school did not predict success outside of it." Most of the world's highest achievers, she points out, were never identified as gifted children. A gifted child is just one who has advanced beyond his or her peers; it takes drive, application, perseverance and insight to turn that potential into exceptional adult success.

Beginning in 1974, Dr. Freeman went looking for subjects at a time when it was unfashionable to single out children by intellectual potential.

Travelling up and down the country, from affluent London suburbs to grim northern industrial towns, she identified gifted children through a series of tests, and then interviewed them repeatedly over the years. Each of the 20 she identified had an IQ of at least 160; many were also musically or athletically advanced.

She saw fathers so jealous of their children's capabilities that they walked out on their families and mothers who desperately wanted a label of "gifted" to raise their own status, but also parents whose unconditional love gave their kids the freedom to blossom. One of the brightest, with the most paths open to him, was Jeremy Sassoon.

Dr. Sassoon, 45, is a friendly, introspective music and football fan who a decade ago would have described himself as "bitter and twisted," but now has made peace with his life and goals. Almost four decades ago, when he first joined Dr. Freeman's study, he was a driven, ferociously competitive little boy who excelled at regular school during the week, at music college on the weekend, and resented his status as "performing penguin."

Was he a happy child? "No," he says instantly. "Deep down I wasn't. There were all these congratulations and achievements and prizes, but I didn't have a good sense of who I was, and what I wanted to do."

At the same time, he acknowledges, he got great pleasure from the praise, and the pressure was largely not from his family, but self-imposed. Which brings us to the question that, above all others, tortures the parents of gifted children: How much pressure is too much? Are they driving their little darlings to Juilliard, or off the edge of a cliff?

Here Dr. Freeman may be a bit of a heretic, because she believes that parents are wrongly labelled "pushy" when they're merely being encouraging. "You have to provide opportunities," she says. "You can't play a violin without a violin, and without tuition." Turning off the television to make your child practice isn't a breach of the Geneva Conventions. The problem comes, she says, when a child believes her parents' love is contingent on bringing home A's, or tennis trophies, or passing her piano exams. Then the pain and resentment start.

Which is exactly what happened with Suzanne Riley, another of Dr. Freeman's subjects. Ms. Riley is a pretty 41-year-old who is easily given to fits of laughter and lives in the English city of Lancaster with two cats she rescued off the streets. As a child, "everything came easily," but accompanying that was a deep resentment of family and teachers who constantly expected more.

"There was a lot of pressure, and I didn't like it one bit," she says. "I'd get A's, and the question would be, why aren't they A-pluses? No matter how well I did, my report cards said, 'Suzanne could do better if she put more effort into it.' "

Although a talented pianist, she gave up music lessons because she hated the rigid structure. When a friend spent the entire holiday break studying for exams, "I thought she was mad. In the end, she got two more A's than me. Was it worth it?"

In Dr. Freeman's study, Ms. Riley was identified as not just intellectually gifted but "empathetically" as well. (Empathy, like creativity and imagination, is not something that intelligence tests are good at identifying.) With a degree in psychology, she used to work at a drop-in centre for people with mental-health issues, and now works for a housing charity. "I'm always hearing, 'You should apply for management jobs,' but one of my biggest lessons is that I don't want what other people think of as success," she says. "I'm very lucky. I love what I do."

For Ms. Riley, the best thing about the "gifted" label was outgrowing it. That's a sentiment echoed again and again by Dr. Freeman's subjects. In her book she quotes Gail, who now makes desserts for a living, saying the tag was "the bane of my life." Gary, the hedge-fund manager, found that when he left home he was "blissfully freed of the label of being gifted." At 12, Kevin was an overweight couch potato, depressed at his failure to live up to his parents' expectations, but once he escaped, he blossomed as an adult to become a happy restaurant owner in Spain, surrounded by friends and family.

Dr. Sassoon and Ms. Riley have never met, although they're tied by the experience of exceptionalness. Neither has children, and yet, asked to imagine how they would treat a son or daughter who was gifted, they use the same word: holistically. That is, they would look at the child as a package, and love all the child's gifts and faults. "The concept of 'gifted child' is a man-made phrase, an arbitrary line. It's not necessarily a holistic approach," Dr. Sassoon says. "I'll tell you one thing," Ms. Riley says, "I'd be the opposite of putting on pressure."

Elizabeth Renzetti is a writer with The Globe and Mail.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

 

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