Child Genius: A Blessing Or a Curse?

What do you do when your kid is an actual 'know-it-all'?

Channel 4’s Child Genius Documentary Series follows in the footsteps of many an American television format that has come before it; pitting the intellectual strength of children against each other, all of whom have been found to be in the top 2% of the world’s population, as they compete in a MENSA run competition to find Britain’s top child genius. 

I can already sense the foreboding that pretty much anyone experiences when they see the words ‘children’ and ‘Channel 4 Documentary’ being used together. There’s no doubt that there is an element of the Freak Show about the programme, but what I would say is that the label of Freak is levelled pretty firmly at the feet of the parents and not the kids. 

So Hooray! (for me at least) as I can continue with my viewing, only slightly sickened at my own voyeuristic nature, that the Channel 4 documentary always manages to exploit. But it’s a programme that seems pretty popular with the British audience, unsurprising really when you consider that we are a on the whole a nation of curtain twitchers. But back to the programme…

What Child Genius seems to be really asking is; are the children’s mental capabilities down to nature or nurture, and how are parents meant to nourish this gift? There are some stand-out examples in either camp, and for nature I turn to the sassy-mouthed engineer enthusiast that is Hugo. Hugo and his parents Michelle and Mark perfectly display the somewhat torturous environment that can ensue when you have a child who, since the age of 5, has been able to outsmart and outwit any command that you put upon them. 

It’s the golden ticket of any parent or baby-sitter; the ability to simply say “because I said so” to a child, accompanied by a purposeful stare, almost always ensuring that your commands to brush their teeth, eat their greens or go to bed are adhered to. But imagine if that answer was never enough, that you always had to have a logical reasoning behind your order if there was to be any hope in hell of getting your kid to do what you wanted. Yikes! 

Michelle and Mark definitely can’t be accused of hot-housing Hugo. As a couple they seem to be pretty much at a loss with what to do with their child virtuoso, a 10 year old who exclaims such brilliant things as “Look! A class 319! Ohmygawd, I think I’m having a panic attack!” at the sight of one of his favourite trains. And as his mother Michelle explains, Hugo’s gift mean he’s also “in the top 5% of irritating children”. They only entered Hugo into the competition with persuasion from a friend, who told them it was time to stop trying to make Hugo ‘normal’ and allow him to be who he really is. 

On the other side of the spectrum is Longyin, the son of Terence, an ex-policeman from Hong Kong. Longyin lives his life according to his father’s stringent scheduling: after school it’s half an hour of PE, one hour’s homework, half an hour domestic chores, one hour Chinese, half an hour leisure (even that having an educational edge to it). But Terence thinks he’s got this parenting lark down, “You either have a disciplinary life in the first 16 years and enjoy the remaining 60 years, or you do whatever you want and then become depressed or homeless, provided you are not killed by a drugs overdose or gang fighting.” Alright Terence, chill out. 

The children on the show are brilliant, and despite what many other people seem to be saying on the likes of Twitter and Tumblr, I really didn’t find any of them to be that nauseating. Even the Leo’s and Hugo’s of the show, with their constant correcting of adult’s speech and knowledge, are enamouringly self aware. I suppose much of my inability to dislike them comes from the fact that these kids didn’t ask to be how they are, and it certainly wouldn’t have made life any easier for them socially. 

Leo, who read the Odyssey when he was 6, has been taken out of many of the country’s best schools because they just didn’t know what to do with him. Shrinidhi, the world scramble champion who has a thing for sniffing books, acknowledges that she has around 2,000 friends, all of whom she’s met in her favourite novels. For her mum, along with many of the other parents, the MENSA competition also allows the chance for the kids to meet peers who are just like them, to finally socialise.

The series hasn’t finished as yet, but thus far that’s been what stands out for me, how isolating it must be to be so young and intelligent. I’m pretty sure all of the children will have at some point been faced by a teacher who’s just slightly pissed off by the seven year old who keeps questioning or correcting their teachings and thus their proficiency. Ohhh… maybe there’s another Channel 4 Documentary in that?

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz