Wry Society: The gifted child

Will a pushy mother’s hothousing reap rewards – or cause her talented toddler to wilt?

Image: phildisley.com

Salvia was a genius. That much Helen had established before her daughter was even able to walk. Helen was a busy woman – she tended to regard a 60-hour work week as “kicking back” – but nothing was too good for her only child. The battery of cognitive and developmental tests Helen had paid for had established that Salvia was the brightest of buttons; and Helen was determined her little button would be polished to within an inch of its life.

Salvia had Baby Mozart piped into her cot. Her first toy was an abacus, and when you pressed Dr Ted’s paw he recited his times tables. She had spoken her first word (“Sorry”) at four months. In Salvia’s three-and-a-half years, Helen had dabbled with Montessori, Suzuki and Steiner before settling into Grange Park – a highly exclusive and prohibitively expensive west London nursery that took only 10 pupils at any one time. 

The routine was unvarying. Routine, Helen knew, was very important to children. Every morning melancholy, lank-haired Ana woke Salvia at six sharp (the nannycam made sure of that; Helen checked the feed from her office), gave her a portion of bircher muesli and supervised her yoga and maths exercises. Then it was off to school. 

Helen made sure she was home at least two nights a week, if possible, to read Salvia a bedtime story or kiss her goodnight. And Saturday morning was sacred: family time. (Helen would respond only to the most urgent emails, and then only on her Blackberry.)    

And all this wholesomeness had been reaping rewards. Little Salvia was top of a tough class. Until yesterday evening, that is, when Helen came home to find a letter on the kitchen table. Ana had left a Post-it saying she had discovered it in Salvia’s schoolbag. As she read the letter, Helen’s face paled and a pink blush rose on her throat. Blah blah substantially behind the class blah blah difficulty with the syntax of complex sentences blah blah struggling with vocabulary…

How could this be? Could her dear little munchkin have suffered a neurolinguistic reverse? Helen had heard of outlier cases where child prodigies flared into brilliance and burned out. Had she pushed Salvia too hard? 

She crept into Salvia’s bedroom; it was immaculate as always. The nightlight glowed pink. The algebra mobile turned softly in the air, disturbed by the opening of the door. And there was Salvia, hair dampened with sweat, lips moving in her sleep. Helen placed her hand on her daughter’s warm forehead. Before she went to bed she emailed the office and had her morning meetings rescheduled. 


Now she was perched in the headmistress’s office, pouring out her fears. “I’m so worried that something’s gone awry in her language acquisition. She was so far ahead and now… Does she need to see a specialist?”

“Oh goodness, no,” Dr Harbord said. “Her problem isn’t language acquisition. It’s code-switching.”

Helen didn’t like to admit when she didn’t know something. “Code-switching…” A full stop, or perhaps an ellipsis. Not a question mark. 

Dr Harbord smiled. “How many nannies has your daughter had?”

“We’ve been unlucky,” said Helen, frostily. “We’ve had the odd one who didn’t work out.” Her mind flicked to an inner show-reel of illicit chocolate bars, mistimed naps or allergen-related blunders, and the consequent dismissals. Conchita, she thought; and Margo, Mei Ling, Edita, Florence, Herman, Helena, Svetlana, Indira and Olga. “I’d have to check with the agency. But fewer than 10.”

“Well,” said Dr Harbord, kindly. “Salvia seems to be multilingual in Urdu, Polish, German, Russian, Mandarin, French, Spanish and Croatian. Why she struggles is that she’s learning English as a second language. I’m going to suggest…”

But Helen had stopped listening. Her mind was roaming over a vision of the globe turning in space, of airline routes and capital flows, of the possibilities of Salvia’s professional future unfolding like a many-petalled flower. “Oh yes,” she said, barely suppressing a smile. “Yes, yes. Extra lessons.” She waved her hand. “There’ll be time for English.”