Hilary Levey Friedman Ph.D.

Playing to Win

Not Just High Achievers

What child genius says about american achievement patterns

Posted Feb 26, 2015

It sounded like a horrible idea from the network that brought us Dance Moms, but Lifetime's new series, Child Genius, had a lot of heartwarming moments. The eight-episode series, which concluded earlier this week, featured 15 kids (aged 8-12) and their families as they competed to win $100,000 and the title of “child genius.” More than being good television, the show revealed a lot about achievement culture in the U.S. today. In particular the winner, 12-year-old Vanya Shivashankar from Olathe, Kansas embodies four important social/cultural factors related to American youth's achievement.

Lifetime's promo image of Child Genius cast
Source: Lifetime's promo image of Child Genius cast

1) Girls are the top achievers/studiers:

While the results are mixed when it comes to test scores, it is a stylized fact that across all age groups and subjects, girls earn better grades than boys. A meta-analysis published last year by Psychological Bulletin offered lots of evidence that this is a persistent finding over time and across countries. The way that Lifetime's competition show was structured, providing study materials to the children across 14 wide-ranging subjects (Math, Spelling, Geography, Memory, the Human Body, U.S. Presidents, Vocabulary, Current Events, Zoology, Astronomy and Space, Inventions, Literature and the Arts, Earth Science and Logic), favored children who had great memories and who were willing to sit down and do the hard work of learning assigned material. For that reason it was no surprise that the Final Four included three girls, and a girl ultimately took the top prize.

2) Children of immigrants excel in school and academic competitions:

If you watch the National Spelling and Geography Bees every year, which I do, you already know this. And if you watch carefully you would have recognized Vanya from her previous Bee appearances. And, if you watch really carefully, in the fleeting shots of Vanya's whole family, you would have recognized Vanya's older sister, Kavya, who won the Spelling Bee in 2009. In the Finals of Child Genius Vanya was not just one of three girls, but all three girls are the children of immigrant parents; Vanya's parents from India, Yeji's parents from Korea, and Katherine's parents from China. The numbers don't lie in the achievement of Indian children in the Bee (for a great analysis of why this is so, check out this interesting piece). The controversial Amy Chua/Jed Rubenfeld explanation of things regarding immigrants, insecurity, and self-control certainly adds another dimension to the results of Child Genius as well. Finally, sociological work finds that immigrants to the US were often top achievers in their countries of origin, and that is also manifest in achievement by the next generation in America.

3) Age and experience matter:

Not only was Vanya one of the two eldest competitors in Child Genius, but she was the eldest of the Final Four. Moreover, she has previously appeared on the national stage, in the pressure cooker of the Spelling Bee, which gave her an advantage in managing nerves, preparing, and knowing what to expect with cameras around.

4) Parental pressure and support impacts children:

Who knows what got left on the editing room floor, but the image provided of the Final Four's parents was much different than that of fifth place finisher, Ryan. Ryan, also the child of Chinese immigrants, clearly has Tiger parents (despite their multiple protestations that they aren't). His parents were highly critical of him until the end, where they still even declared that he didn't focus as well because he is a boy and he will be fine and he shouldn't cry (see point 1 above). The implication, and likely with much truth in it, was that the Final Four parents who were more supportive (though often no less strict in front of the cameras, just done with more smiles) helped their children achieve. Those with more normal social lives also seemed to do better at times. Vanya has a very close relationship with her father, Mirle, but when she wanted space to study by herself he honored her wish, and she finished in first that week.

Lifetime's promo image of Graham
Source: Lifetime's promo image of Graham

Mirle is definitely a bit of a legend in this world of high-achieving children at this point. If Vanya wins the Spelling Bee this year (and likely even if she doesn't) he could almost certainly become a highly sought-after and compensated spelling coach. His knowledge of these contests, how to teach, how to access resources, etc. was in contrast to the one exception in the Final Four: Graham.

Graham is a 10-year-old who lives in Oklahoma with his three siblings. His parents, devout Christians, claim they aren't sure where Graham's sky-high IQ came from, but his grandmother knows it is from "the Lord." Graham and his family never expected him to make it to the end of the competition. Graham didn't have the developed study techniques of Vanya, or the focus of Katherine and Yeji, or the resources of Ryan's family to focus on just the competition. Graham's family hopes that they can use college scholarship money he won to send him to a private school they can't afford (I'm assuming that especially after this that school may offer some financial aid-- they should!).

Because this was a reality show and not just a straight competition like the Bees, many of the kids like Graham, Vanya, Ryan, and Katherine earned their initial spots for their colorful families and compelling personalities. Yeji, recognized as a quiet dark horse, performed perhaps better than expected and earned her second place finish. The competition itself seemed straightforward (despite protestations of parents at times, including Graham and his family) and not based on reality TV tricks so once there merit counted most in terms of the outcome.

It will be interesting to see if the show returns and how it impacts these children moving forward—and what that will reflect about the evolving youth achievement culture in the US today. As someone who has studied and written extensively about competitive activities for kids—most significantly in my book "Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture," about elementary school-age children who compete in afterschool activities like chess, dance, and soccer, I expect to see more competitions like these with an academic focus even as athletics continue to be a big draw for kids and their families.

About the Author

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture, competition, childhood and parenting.

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