Thursday, 15 July 2010

Chess parents and others

There has always been a fairly strong tradition in home education for parents to push their children to develop one talent or ability to the exclusion of all other interests. The intention is usually to create some sort of genius in a particular field. Ruth Lawrence and mathematics, Venus and Serena Williams in tennis, Judit Polgar in chess; there are many examples of this, all overseen by home educating fathers. Now there is a fine line between encouraging a child in a pre-existing interests or hobby, as opposed to deciding on the child's behalf that this is what will happen. When a parent remarks of his child, ' These children are like racehorses, You've got to look after them very carefully to bring the best out of them' , one feels instinctively that this line has been crossed!

The above comment was made by the father of a home educated 'chess genius', Peter Williams of England. He is typical of the intensive, genius producing school of home educators and the path which he has chosen for his son is of course that of chess. Chess has, over the last decade or so, become very popular for this sort of thing. There are good rewards to be gained, not least a Chess Scholarship at Millfields independent school in the West Country. I used to be pretty involved in the chess world myself; my daughter used to attend tournaments and win trophies regularly, although it was never more than a hobby. There were a fair few home educators in the game at that time, many of them parading their kids like racehorses or greyhounds. For these people, chess was anything but a hobby; it was a matter of life and death. I cannot tell readers the feverish atmosphere at these tournaments. The child who lost a game would be interrogated and berated by the father. 'Why didn't you move your rook to E8? How could you have been so stupid as to lose your bishop so early on?' A not unnatural consequence was that the child who lost a game would be devastated and reduced to tears.

There are two problem with these single interest upbringings of the kind that the chess playing Williams family of Alton go in for. Firstly, there is no plan B. The child's education is typically focused upon just the one subject and everything else is very sketchy. For Ruth Lawrence, mathematics was the main thing in her life as a child and nothing was allowed to interfere with it. No wasting time playing with children her own age, or learning about the Tudors! There can only ever be a very few top people at tennis, chess or mathematics. For every child who makes it right to the top, there are many who do not. We seldom hear about these kids. The outlook for them is not very good. This brings us neatly to the second problem. When a child has been praised and told how wonderful he is and what a fantastic future career he has in the field chosen by his father, he often begins to value himself not for who he is, but for what he can do. A large part of his identity becomes bound up in being able to play chess, tennis or the violin really well. If he then fails to become the best, if he begins to lose ground, then this strikes at the very heart of who he is. And often, because of the unbalanced nature of such an upbringing, there is nothing to fall back on. Without the chess, there is nothing else; he is nothing else.

This can result in tragedy. The first child to win the Chess Scholarship to Millfields for example was one of four siblings, all of whom had been groomed for chess stardom by their mother. I attended the same chess club as them when they lived in Chigwell. They did not reach the pinnacles at which she had aimed and the result was that there was a good deal of psychological disturbance. The oldest son, as soon as he was bigger than his mother, began knocking her about in revenge for the times that she had shouted at him for losing chess matches.

There is always a risk in setting out to produce a genius. The risk is greatest when the child himself is told of the plans and begins to define himself as a genius. Those who watched the Channel 4 programme Child Genius will have seen some very peculiar children with some even more peculiar parents. The home life of Peter Williams and his son was featured on this programme and very odd it looked too. Nothing except chess and mathematics, the mathematics taught by a computer with a speech synthesiser. His only playmates were his father and grandfather; both chess fanatics. We were told that none of the children with whom the child had been at school would talk to him now and he himself said how sad this made him. Still, as he later remarked, looking at his father for approval as he said it, 'If you can play chess, you don't need school'. All the signs are that this child is not naturally gifted at chess, but that his talent is the result of many hours of intensive tuition by his father and grandfather. Despite some early promise, commentators in the chess world are dubious about his prospects for the future. Without a Plan B, things might not be looking so rosy for this child in a couple of years time. He could well be on course to become another victim of the genius producing, home educating fathers.


  1. Well, I don't know anything about chess parents other than my encounters with the one on here. I have come across a few others though who have a different goal (such as Olympic swimming - friend of my youngest dd), music and the like. The trouble is that it is really difficult to distinguish between the goals of the parents and those of the children. It is only with hindsight that you can really tell-if the children felt pushed by the parents or regretted their life focus, then it evident then.

    I do think though that it is important that however fixed a childs eyes may be on their particular goal, their education should be broader than that, and they shouldn't be denied normal interactions with a wider group of those who don't share the same interests. Statistically they will have to deal with mixing with others sooner or later (if they fail to reach their desired career it may be sooner)and they need to have developed enough other skills and interests to cope if things don't go according to plan.

  2. Yes, I couldn't agree more. We have had several friends with kids who were gifted in one area or another. The children who treated the talent as a hobby and didn't take it over seriously seemed to get by OK. Those who who were urged to think of themselves as geniuses and future world champions often had difficulties later on. This is precisely why I am in favour of a broad education and not one focused upon just one area.

  3. Although there are drawbacks to promoting a single activity such as playing chess such as feeling like if you are no good at that particular thing then you are nothing, I would argue that there are positive aspects to this as well. It gives someone a goal, something to pursue, helping to avoind mindless drifting. It makes you interesting. Someone who has a passion they pursue to the exclusion of all others has a deep understanding of that subject, not a superficial one. They seem to those around them to be mysterious, complex, interesting. And it is better to be a person who is deeply interested in one thing that a wallflower waiting for others to pay attention to them. This is especially true for girls, who so often sit on the sidelines and watch the men pursue their worldly activities. A final thought is that if they do decide to move to a different subject they will be able to bring with them the ability to delve deeply into a subject with the discipline and passion true genius requires.

  4. How can you be the best if you don't try? Had Peter Williams been referred to Russian chess coaches his game play would improve fast. Most of the best talents in any field do so through hard work, genius does help, but it is a small factor in eventual success.