For parents who dream their child will become a prodigy and stun the world with their brilliance, Chloe Hui has a message for you: Be careful what you wish for.
Her son, pianist Marc Yu, now 16, gave his first orchestral concert at 6 years old. He has since played venues like London’s Royal Albert Hall, Beijing’s Central Conservatory and New York City’s Carnegie Hall in a duet with superstar Lang Lang.
Along the way, Hui discovered that being the parent of a gifted child is not easy – nor cheap.
“I didn’t know what was ahead of me,” she admits.
That included living in an L.A. garage for four years, a living arrangement that was subsequently upgraded to a “shack,” she says. Virtually all the family’s money went to lessons with elite teachers, which cost $150-$250 an hour, multiple times per week.
There was no way Hui could work, as she managed her son’s budding career and homeschooled him. Eventually they moved to San Francisco, just to be near a school that could accommodate his elite talent.
Rearing a so-called average child born in 2013 through the age of 18 is estimated to cost $245,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For Hui, that’s chump change. Between the ages of 6 and 10, she estimates that she spent a half million dollars on lessons, travel and other services to develop Marc’s piano talents.
“It puts a huge strain on the families, and it’s very stressful,” says Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College who wrote the book “Gifted Children: Myths and Realities.” “Having a child prodigy is not necessarily a good thing.”
Before dig deep into your pocket, you need to ask yourself: Is your child just very talented at a particular skill, whether it is chess, violin or figure skating? Or are they truly a one-in-a-milion specimen?
You can usually tell the answer by who is doing the pushing.
“With true prodigies, it is usually the child leading the parent,” says Joanne Ruthsatz, a professor at Ohio State University.
Ruthsatz has been collecting DNA from child prodigies around the country, in the hope of identifying a “prodigy gene” – one that is shared with autistic savants, she suspects. She is releasing a book next year entitled “The Prodigy’s Cousin.”
“One little kid I worked with was downloading lectures from MIT, all on their own,” Ruthsatz says. “You just can’t stop them.”
On the other hand, there are the stage parents who are relentless in driving their kids.
A prime example, says Winner: Tennis great Andre Agassi, who bemoaned his miserable childhood in his autobiography “Open”. (Note: You can expect to spend $30,000 to $100,000 annually to fuel your kid’s dream of tennis stardom, according to Tim Donovan, founder of Donovan Tennis Strategies, a college recruiting consulting group.)
In other words, if your child isn’t a true prodigy, don’t invest a crazy amount of resources just because you sniff a potential payoff down the line.
If you do have one-in-a-million talent, though, then you have some hard financial decisions to make.
The good news is that if you do sacrifice and help launch them to world-class levels, the financial burdens start to lessen: They will likely garner full-ride college scholarships, for instance, and be paid for their performances with travel expenses covered.
After that, though, comes the most perplexing part of all: Making the successful transition to adulthood, both financially and emotionally. After all, if you can play the violin like a virtuoso at age 6, “everyone oohs and aahs,” says Winner. “At age 25, no one cares anymore. So you shouldn’t expect them to go on to become Einstein.”
To be sure, it is not an easy road for parents of gifted children. Hui certainly remembers just scraping by, as a single mom, even having to go knocking door-to-door to ask neighbors for donations. The whole experience even sent her into a deep depression.
“I tried my best,” Hui remembers. “But raising a gifted child is a lot of pressure.”