If you'd like a child to learn something from you, you better stop being so amazed that they can learn anything at all.
From time to time, I hear a new teacher say something like, "Wow, that kid is only eight?" He's going to be an incredible guitarist!"
First of all, that's not how it works. Just because you started at fifteen and this kid started lessons at seven does not necessarily mean that, at age fifteen, he's going to play like you did at twenty-three.
But more importantly, there's no reason to burden this child with an external standard to compare himself to. He is doing a great job now, and he has his own road of progress ahead of him just like anybody else, one day at a time.
Trying to project a future for a child, however benign your intent, is not helpful...it just comes off like that awful "Mommy, What Will I Look Like?" business that Lindsay started on Arrested Development.
By not comparing a child to other people, you avoid discouragement, false confidence, arrogance, hopelessness, and envy. Or at least, you might postpone it a little.
We respect children by appreciating where they are developmentally and giving them appropriate challenges, as well as appropriate praise for their efforts.
We disrespect children by giving them inappropriate praise, challenges that are too big or too small, and treating them as though they are small, quirky adults.
Earlier this year, Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic for the New York Times, wrote a series of articles in an attempt to choose the top ten composers of all time. This thoughtful project encouraged responses from many readers, including the son of two professional viola players, a Manhattan eight-year-old named Lucas Amory. Tomassini featured the child's letter on his blog.
Note how Tommasini shows respect for Lucas' opinions ("Lucas has a passion for the Romantics so Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Schumann appear on both his lists") without being self-conscious or clever about it. He acknowledges that it's the child's budding critical thinking skills that set him apart at age eight, not simply the fact that he's writing to the Times or that he's into classical music. Tommasini writes, "He clearly understands the difference between all-time greats and personal favorites — quite impressive for an 8-year-old."
Since people generally do not point out the developmental milestones of adults, Tommasini demonstrates here that he understands his role in fostering Lucas' further growth as a human being. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion, especially with regard to art, is impressive for an eight-year-old. By praising this, he is encouraging conversation between Lucas and his parents on the subjects of critical thinking, art criticism, and beyond.
Lucas illustrated his list with a picture of Tchakovsky and Schumann competing for the top spot. The drawing is clever, funny, and cute. But Tommasini doesn't tell us (or Lucas!) it's cute - he just includes a print of the letter in its entirety and lets the audience enjoy the natural, un-self-conscious sweetness of a child instead of calling attention to it.
On the other hand, a video produced a few day after the letter was initially published is cringe-inducingly awful. From the simpering interviewer to the self-important editing to the soul-crushing length of it, it's a terrible production that disrespects the child by inflating his ego. They actually ask him to spell the word "precocious," and they actually included the footage of him spelling it, with the interviewer's embarrassingly surprised and delighted response. They also baited him by asking about Lady Gaga's music. His nasty response should not have been encouraged or included. It's certainly not Lucas' fault at age eight - the grownups should have known better.
There's more - for instance, they asked Lucas questions that were sent in by Twitter followers, which I personally was uncomfortable with (he's a celebrity expert at age eight?). "Why are you so awesome?" is not a good question to ask an eight-year-old, and following it up with, "A lot of people are impressed with your knowledge," is not helpful either. You can see that, to his credit, he really didn't know what to do with that and handles the ridiculous and immature interviewer as graciously as he can.
A bright spot was the chance to hear Lucas play Bach. He plays with an impressive and unforced artistry and technique. It is truly special to hear a child play so beautifully and be so deeply engrossed in the music. Of course, the producers unwisely cut off the end of the piece.
Lucas is special because of who he is, as we all are - there is no need to use him as any kind of example. In the video, Lucas was unfairly objectified - he was playing the role of "precocious child" the way a young woman might play the role of "video vixen" or "bikini babe." Shame on the Kaufman Center for allowing this to happen. I hope Lucas Amory continues to pursue his varied interests and develop his budding intellect away from the watchful eyes of the cameras.
Every child deserves respect. Glorification and indulgence - whether it's a silly video, too much ice cream, or too much power - is not good for kids. Let's set limits on what they can have, love them for who they are, praise them for who they are becoming, and give them an opportunity to show us what they can do - on their own terms.