Mind games

When ambitious parents exploit gifted children for fame and fortune, no one wins

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / March 13, 2010

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Until last week, I’d never even heard of Patricia Travers, the “violinist who vanished,’’ as a New York Times obit called her. Travers, who died last month at 82, was a ’40s-era musical prodigy whose last appearance with a professional orchestra, in 1951, was with the Boston Symphony. She then disappeared from view for six decades, never speaking publicly about her once-stellar career. No one knows why.

Andre Agassi pulled no such disappearing act. But as his autobiography (“Open’’) makes painfully clear, he paid a heavy price in becoming the world’s top-ranked tennis player. Turning pro at 16, he won eight Grand Slam singles titles, earned tens of millions in prize money, married and divorced a movie star (Brooke Shields), and later wed fellow tennis legend Stefanie Graf, with whom he’s now raising two children.

He also cultivated a drug habit (crystal meth) and bad-boy image that often obscured his prodigious athletic gifts. Oh, and he loathed tennis, the sport that made him rich and famous. No big mystery there. “After years of hearing my father rant at my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant,’’ Agassi writes. “I’ve internalized my father — his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage — until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it all by myself.’’

The loss he’s referring to? A third-set tiebreaker in a 10-and-under tournament. Agassi was 8 at the time.

Boston College psychology professor Ellen Winner doesn’t know much about Agassi’s tennis career and twisted childhood. But she does harbor sharp opinions about a television quiz show called “Our Little Genius,’’ which thankfully never made it to air. Fox TV pulled the plug two months ago, after the FCC began investigating charges that the show’s producers were illegally spoonfeeding answers to contestants, some as young as 6.

The whole mess bore a faint whiff of Charles van Doren and the ’50s-era scandals immortalized in the movie “Quiz Show.’’ Still, as Winner maintained in an unpublished letter to the Times, the real scandal might have been Fox programmers conceiving such a show in the first place.

Calling it the “commercialization and exploitation’’ of kids, Winner wrote, “Children with spectacular memories for specific areas of knowledge are put on a television game show for the chance of winning lots of money (for their parents). . . . [This] embodies distorted and ultimately damaging values.’’ Winner, the author of “Gifted Children: Myths and Realities,’’ goes on: “Studies document difficult adolescent and adult years, as these children grow up to realize that they were just an instrument for parental ambition.’’

Has anyone checked on Balloon Boy lately?

In a phone interview, Winner says music and sports (and art, to a lesser extent) are fields where parents are most likely to push talented children beyond a point they can reasonably handle. “It’s the fame factor,’’ she says, noting that prodigies celebrated for their amazing technical abilities — Travers being one example — seldom grow up to become mature, creative artists who leave lasting marks on their fields.

“To me, a genius is someone who changes a domain,’’ says Winner. “And no child changes a domain.’’ Throw in charges of answer-rigging, she adds, and Fox’s idea of “genius’’ entertainment is “totally corrupt, a perfect vehicle for parent narcissism.’’

Winner has studied the curious case of Michael Kearney. Homeschooled, he sped through a high school curriculum by age 6, earned a college degree by 10 (the youngest on record to do so), and was teaching at Vanderbilt University before he could legally drive. He achieved an added measure of fame by winning six-figure sums on game shows like “Gold Rush’’ and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.’’

At some point, he and his family moved to Hollywood with the intention of turning young Michael into his dream job: game-show host. “I learned all of Bob Barker’s mannerisms, all of Alex Trebek’s mannerisms,’’ he later told ABC News. It did not work out. No Regis Philbin, he.

Maybe if Kearney had waited for the chance to host “Genius,’’ he could have realized his dream.

Then again, maybe if he had read Agassi’s book, he would have rethought that.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

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