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Are Americans obsessed with pushing their kids to greatness? Or is there just no stopping the inner drive of a true prodigy?

June 10, 1996|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When she was a year old, Dominique Moceanu's parents had her hang by her hands from the clothesline, just to see how strong she was. In third grade, Hannes Sarkuni had become a school disciplinary problem, not because of any of the awful things we seem to hear about too often these days, but because he wasn't being challenged enough in math. At the age of 3, Kobe Bryant spent hours dunking little basketballs through a miniature hoop, watching and imitating his father's friends playing on TV.

Today, all three are the stuff of headlines.

Last year, at the age of 13, Moceanu became the youngest U.S. gymnastics champion and is now the best hope for an American medal in that sport in the Atlanta Summer Olympics. A few weeks ago, at 14, Sarkuni became this year's youngest American college graduate, a double major in computer science and mathematics, from Rutgers University. And Bryant has created a sensation in the sports world at age 17 by declaring himself eligible for the National Basketball Assn. draft next month, going directly to pro ball from high school.

It appears as if the age bar is being lowered practically everywhere. "Piaget called it the American Obsession," said Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and author of "Gifted Children: Myths and Realities," a study of prodigies, just published by Basic Books. "There seems to be this obsession in America with pushing kids and breaking records."

The general public feeling about pushing kids to the extremes seems to range from skepticism to condemnation of both parents and the kids themselves. But researchers like Winner observe the phenomenon quite differently. Their insights into so-called pushy parents, how prodigies fare as adults and how and why specific cultures seem to foster prodigiousness are sometimes at odds and often surprising.

Bryant's announcement that he would forgo college raised hackles in sports circles. Though four other players have gone directly from high school to the NBA in the last 25 years, all were at or near 7 feet tall and all came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Bryant, whose father, Joe, played pro ball here and in Italy, is only 6 feet, 5 inches tall, and will graduate from Lower Merion High School, one of the most prestigious schools in the Philadelphia area, with a B average and 1200 on his SATs. People critical of Bryant's move think it will be dangerous for his relatively frail, young body to go up against those several inches taller and up to 100 pounds of muscle larger.

Since his announcement, Bryant has signed a sneaker contract with Adidas for a reported $500,000 and gone to the prom with pop / R&B singer / actress Brandy. He's been signed by the William Morris Agency and has been projected as high as the 10th pick in the July draft, which would earn him more than $3 million based on the NBA's rookie salary cap.

But what's the rush here? The interest in prodigies goes far back, especially in music. Mozart was composing and presenting concerts at the age of 5. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was the rage in the 1920s after his San Francisco debut at the age of 7. Need we mention the youthful Michael Jackson? But the interest in prodigious youth streams even further back.

"Jews have long looked for prodigiousness in firstborn sons," said David Henry Feldman, a professor of child development at Tufts University, who has studied prodigies for 20 years. "In Tibet, they are always looking for the young spiritual master. It's the Messiah tradition and Jesus is the most notable example. Sometimes it mutates. Menuhin, for example, was from a long line of Hasidic rabbis. In America, his family looked for early musical talent."

One of the things about prodigies today is that they are being asked to perform to larger audiences, which, in turn, makes them available for more criticism. "Menuhin's fame in the 1920s was actually equivalent to that of the Beatles or Rolling Stones," Feldman said. "But today, the media is more immediate and more intense and more aspects of the prodigies' lives come out. When they are seen on TV, for instance, they turn people off because they look freaky," he said.

Gary Graffman, director of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, said he is not certain that youthful musical talent is all that unusual.

"In order to be a pianist or a violinist at all, you have to start when you are 3, 4, 5," said Graffman, 66, who himself started performing on the piano at age 7. Most of Curtis' students are college-age, but eight are under 16 and at least one entering student next fall will be 12.

"It's probably a question of simply developing certain muscles in certain ways very early in your life, so it becomes almost automatic or second nature," Graffman said. "If you are not very talented, it doesn't matter. But if you are and you haven't (started young), then you can have the greatest conception of a piece of music that anyone has ever had, but physically you are not able to produce it."

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