March 25, 2011 10:10 pm

Why ‘Baby Mozart’ fell on deaf ears

It takes commitment to turn kids into prodigies and the truth is we never really had the staying power

We got rid of the Baby Mozart video this week and with it went the last vestige of our grand plan to raise child prodigies. It went in a giant clear-out of old boxes in the loft, along with Baby Van Gogh and sundry other parts of the Baby Einstein range designed to fleece pushy parents taking those first tentative steps towards hot-housing their children.

The truth is that in the pushy parents stakes, we’ve turned out to be strictly second division. Not so much tiger mums as pussycat parents. We did set out with the best intentions. TV time would be limited; we would not spoil them with new toys; and we would encourage higher pursuits such as chess to build their brains. A decade later, the TV is permanently on; the kids’ bedrooms resemble mid-size branches of Toys ‘R’ Us, and the Star Wars chess pieces are currently battling it out with the Bakugan invaders for control of the first-floor landing.

We did stick with Baby Mozart a fair while; it occupied the kids and the music’s terrific even at 5.40am, but the results weren’t that tangible. Perhaps they got confused because today they paint like Mozart and play piano like Van Gogh.

It wasn’t really the spawn’s fault. It’s not that they were unwilling or not capable. It was that deep down we couldn’t be bothered. It takes commitment to turn kids into prodigies and the truth is we never really had the staying power. It’s not as if you can just stick their feet in a flower pot and water them with wisdom. It’s true that they weren’t really up for extra maths before breakfast; but then neither were we. We’d start some new regime of setting them 10 questions in the morning, but it would soon be lost in a wider panic about mislaid lunch-boxes or their curious notions of what being ready to leave for school actually meant. Every now and then they would show signs of interest in being prodigies, but mostly in the field of Super Mario.

We both worked, so just getting them fed, bathed and doing their homework well offered all the logistical challenges we needed without working out how to get them to Kumon class after school. Perhaps we could have got chemistry sets and water clocks, but they bored us so we read the kids stories and played tickle time instead. And at night, well, we had an important appointment with a box set of The Wire.

There are moments of regret. Once in a while I imagine one of them, now grown up, acting out some Marlon Brando “I could have been a contender” scene from his cubby-hole office in some faceless multinational. “I could have been a genius. I remember that night you put away the chess set and said Daddy’s had enough. So somebody else got to play Kasparov and I got a one-way ticket to Palookaville.” Then again, child genius is not all it’s cracked up to be. You saw Good Will Hunting? The guy was working as a cleaner.

Naturally we’ve rationalised our indolence as being in their best interest. “Children should be allowed to enjoy their childhood,” we said. “We don’t want some über-nerd with no friends outside the Meccano club. We just want happy children; clever of course, but not freakishly so.” And if it was going to be freakish, we’d like it to be in a way we could boast about. They should be out in the park playing, not stuck in front of a computer filling in IQ tests, we added. Except they aren’t in the park, they’re sitting in front of a computer on Club Penguin or massacring aliens.

It’s probably no bad thing. It’s hard enough to get our children to do basic chores; prodigies might have been insufferable: “I’m sorry father, I’m not sure table-clearing is the best use of my time. I think you are far more intellectually suited to that pursuit.” So we raised normal kids; bright enough, but I do worry that they’ll never be seized with the urge to cut off their ears.

Consequently we dispensed with the prodigy props until all that was left was the Baby Mozart video; and now even that’s in the charity shop. But if you come across it there, I do recommend it. I can’t speak for its educational value, but the music’s terrific.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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