Pint-Sized Phenoms: Buzzing Around

It's the time of year when Bees are all the rage. My husband prefers the Geography Bee (when we watched it last week he tried to answer every question before the competitors did), but thanks to Spellbound, the original Bee-- the SPELLING Bee (one of the oldest children's competitions in the US, I might add)-- is my favorite. Six-year-old Lori Anne Madison garnered a lot of pre-Bee attention, seeing as the homeschooled girl is the youngest contestant ever, but she went out in the third round.

But spellers and geography whizzes aren't the only pint-sized phenoms generating buzz these days.

Take Tom Schaar. At only 12 he's already a skateboarding legend. He recently became the first person to ever land a 1080 (I definitely had to look that up) and he's the youngest person to ever win a gold medal at the X Games.

Another impressive young man whose achievement I wouldn't quite understand even if I looked it up is Shourryya Ray. At 16 he is being hailed as mathematics genius for solving a problem that Newton posted over three centuries ago. Based on his work "an item's flight path can be calculated and predictions can be made about how the object will hit and bounce off a barrier." It seems to me that this solution will have real practical implications as well. (Let's just hope that the skateboarding Tom Schaar never becomes the object bouncing of a barrier!)

Ashima Shiraishi is another pint-sized phenom I wouldn't want to see bounce off of any barriers. At only 11 she is already one of the best female boulderers (people who climb rocks using just their hands and no rope). Because this is the US and there's a competition for everything, it should come as no surprise-- given that she was recently profiled in The New York Times--that Ashima came in first at the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship. Though the sport isn't much older than they are, kids are a target audience for the growth of the sport.

Also recently profiled in the Times, but for a sport that is a bit older than bouldering, is 14-year-old Francis Tiafoe. Tiafoe is the top ranked boys player in his age group.  Especially impressive for the son of the tennis club's maintenance man who essentially grew up in a closet there.

It's striking to me that so many of the pint-sized phenoms are immigrants or children of immigrants. As a sociologist this isn't surprising, but it is remarkable (in the sense that it is to be remarked upon). If you watch any of the televised Bees you'll see a similar pattern, for the most part. In any event, it's exciting to see so many talented kids generating buzz doing things they love to do.

Pint-Sized Phenoms: Sports, Spelling, and Shopping

I was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article about parents who brag too much (I promise I will try not to fall into this category myself!). Here's what I had to say: "The quality of the honor your kid is receiving should also enter into your calculations, according to sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, author of the upcoming book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. 'One of the things that's occurred is what I call "the carving up of honor." We have all these awards that are given to kids these days so we (can) say, "My child won! My child's the champion!" But in reality what they won is some very small broken-down category like, they won for roller skating for 4-year-olds who have only been roller skating for three weeks.' Broadcasting these smaller awards can make the parent look silly and put undue pressure on children, Levey Friedman says. 'If it's a real, meaningful accomplishment it's not a bad thing to share that news with other people and for the child to celebrate that with their family members, perhaps with their friends,' she says." When I write this monthly post I try to focus on kids who have achieved in meaningful ways beyond the carving up of honor. Of course, many of them do extraordinary things that get overlooked because they don't play football or basketball, or there is something different about them. In that spirit I present to you this month's honor roll of exceptional kids!

1) Kamron Doyle- Kamron is only in eighth grade, but he can roll with the best of them (pun intended). This 14-year-old phenom is a champion bowler.  A few weeks ago he became the youngest bowler to ever reach the prize-money level in a Professional Bowlers Association tour event. What's amazing is that neither of his parents bowls, but they are supportive of him as he pursues this activity at such a high level. Best of all? All his winnings go straight into his college fund. It's not NBA-levels of cash, but it's a pretty good nest egg for a talented kid!

2) Lola Walters- This 13-year-old gymnast won't be in the running for the 2016 Olympics. But that doesn't make her any less incredible. Lola suffers for nystagmus, which leaves her legally blind. But that doesn't stop her from competing in gymnastics meets, tackling the beam and vault with aplomb. Watch her incredible story below.

3) Braedon Benedict-It's not just athletes who make the list, but also kids who use their brains when it comes to athletics. Case in point? Fifteen-year-old Braedon Benedict who invented a helmet to help warn players and coaches about concussions. The helmet is brilliant in its simplicity: it releases a dye when hit with enough force, visually showing that a player needs to be evaluated. Braedon is working on patenting his invention and he's already won a young scientist event. Let's hope he keeps using his head to come up with more inventions...

4) Lori Anne Madison-  Lori Anne knows how to use her head as well. This six-year-old (yes, six!) is believed to be the youngest ever participant in the National Spelling Bee's 87 year history. Lori Anne is homeschooled, which allows her extra time to study her words. I wonder how long they will let her compete (the cut-off is eighth grade or age 15)? There are actually many, many rules associated with the Bee, which you can check out here; my favorite is, "The speller must not have repeated fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade for the purpose of extending spelling bee eligibility. If the speller has repeated fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, the speller must notify the Scripps National Spelling Bee of the circumstances of grade repetition by March 23, 2011; and the Scripps National Spelling Bee will, in its sole discretion, determine the spellers eligibility status on or before April 30, 2011."

Spelling Bees are experiencing a surge of popularity (besides my pop culture favorites like Spellbound, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Akeelah and the Bee, etc.), helped by coverage on ESPN and network news, according to this Boston Globe article. I've written on the history of Bees, as part of the development of kids' competitive activities, so they will continue to fascinate me I am sure.

5) Willow Tufano-  Also fascinating? Fourteen-year-old Willow Tufano, a Florida resident who is being hailed as a "mini-mogul."  Willow bought a house in her neighborhood for $12,000 (she lives in an area hard but by the real estate bubble) and she now rents it out for $700 per month.  How did she become a landlord? With the help of her real estate mom and some entrepreneurial spirit. She saved up the funds by collecting discarded furniture from foreclosed properties and selling it online.

Who knows, someday Kamron, Lola, Braedon, and Lori Anne could be buying mansions from Willow!