Should You Hothouse Your Child?

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Hothouse children are children whose parents push them into learning more quickly and earlier than is appropriate for the cognitive age of the children.

The term comes from the verb "hothousing," which researchers coined to refer to parents' attempts to create a "superbaby," in other words, a genius. These parents provide every type of enrichment they can for their child, beginning in infancy. They play classical music for their infants, and may even use flashcards to prepare their infant for reading and math. When their children become toddlers, the real lessons on reading and math begin, using either flashcards or other methods of instruction. They also provide a piano or violin lessons for their children, often starting when the children are three or four and make every effort to get their children into the "best" preschools, which they believe are the ones that emphasize academics.

Hothouse children are often overscheduled in activities their parents believe are essential to their children's success in life. The two keys terms in this definition are "push" and "cognitive age." Gifted children are not generally hothoused children even though they are learning more quickly and earlier than most children their age. However, the learning is child-centered, which means the desire to learn comes from the child, not the parent. Gifted children can also be hothouse children if and when their parents are the ones initiating — and insisting on — early learning.

The Problem With Hothousing Children

The main problem with hothousing children is that it often has more negative than positive effects. We read frequently about precocious children whose fires burned brightly when they were young but then fizzled barely before the children became adults. Five-year-old talented musicians or eight-year-old math whizzes seem to have lost their talent before they had a chance to do much with it. So much promise was lost.

Consider the case of William James Sidis. He is an excellent example of a hothoused child. William was undoubtedly born a gifted child, but his parents weren't content to let their son develop on his own. They pushed him to learn from the day he was born. It's unlikely that William could have achieved what he did no matter how hard his parents pushed had his brain not been developmentally ready. For example, you can shove flashcards in your child's face and push her to learn to read, but if her brain isn't ready, her reading skills will be limited.

Poor William didn't have more than a minute to himself. As a result of his parents' pushing, William graduated cum laude at age 16 from Harvard with a degree in math. What did he do with that degree? He attempted to teach math, but that didn't work out well as he was younger than the students he taught. He quit teaching and essentially attempted to hide from the public, working odd jobs that had nothing to do with math, although he did write books under various pseudonyms. One of those books included a discussion of what we now refer to as "black hole theory." He died at age 46 in his basement apartment.

The story of William James Sidis may be an extreme example, but maybe only because he was so famous. We know that other children are pushed — hothoused — and many of them end up leaving their promise behind. Parents often hothouse their children in hopes that they create a gifted child, but gifted children aren't immune to being hothoused. It is never a good idea.​

2 Sources
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  1. Gallagher JM, Coche J. Hothousing: The clinical and educational concerns over pressuring young children. Early Child Res Q. 1987;2(3):203-210. doi:10.1016/0885-2006(87)90030-5

  2. Bates S. The Prodigy and the Press: William James Sidis, Anti-Intellectualism, and Standards of Success. Journal Mass Commun Q. 2011;88(2):374-397. doi:10.1177/107769901108800209

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.