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!

Bingo-Bango-Bongo: A Review of Meg Wolitzer's The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

I admit that I am a Scrabble tournament virgin. I've only ever seen a Scrabble tournament while watching the documentary Word Wars, and I've read about this particular subculture in Stefan Fatsis' delighful Word Freak But in many ways the Scrabble tournament world doesn't seem to differ too much from its intellectual cousins, or "sports of the brain"-- the spelling/geography bee (if you haven't seen Spellbound, one of my favorite documentaries of all time, add it to your Netflix queue immediately!) and the chess tournament. This was one of my biggest take-aways after reading Meg Wolitzer's delightful foray into children's literature, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

Wolitzer, best-known for literary fiction like The Ten-Year Nap and this year's popular The Uncoupling, tries her hand at children's fiction here. This novel, directed at readers aged 9-12, has elements kids will love-- like a whiff of romance and a touch of magical realism. It also contains tips for aspiring Scrabble players including a list of two-letter words, "vowel dump" words, etc.  The main characters embody particular archetypes of competitive childhoods (the father who lost this Scrabble tournament as a kid and now wants his son to win, the girl who doesn't fit into her jock family, the homeschooled boy) while also capturing the sense of camaraderie that often develops between kid competitors.

As I said I have never attended a Scrabble tournament, but I did attend over 15 scholastic chess tournaments while doing research for Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. The biggest tournament I attended was the grade Nationals, where over 1300 kids converge each November/December.  These grade national decide who the top chess player is in each grade (K-12). Wolitzer's description of the fictional Youth Scrabble Tournament (modeled on the real National School Scrabble Championship, down to the $10,000 prize) resonated with my observations at chess nationals. She writes beautifully: "Players hunched over their Scrabble boards in intense, aching silence." (159).

Surrounding this intense, aching silence are the parents, roped off from the tournament floor (true for both chess and Scrabble).  As with chess, some Scrabble parents want their kids to be in the Scrabble Club thinking it might help their children get into college someday.  Since I wrote about some of my original research recently, I thought I would share this quote from a lawyer mom whose fourth-grade son plays tournament chess: It’s that ability to keep your concentration focused, while there’s stuff going on around you. As you go into older age groups, where people are coming in and out, the ability to maintain that concentration, a connection with what’s going on, on the board in front of you, and still be functional in a room of people, it’s a big thing. I mean to see those large tournaments, in the convention centers, I know it is hard. I did that to take the bar exam, and the LSAT I took for law school, and GREs. You do that in a large setting, but some people are thrown by that, just by being in such a setting. Well that’s a skill, and it’s an ability to transfer that skill. It’s not just a chess skill. It’s a coping with your environment skill. Playing in large, timed events-- whether they be Scrabble, chess, or something else-- is seen as having tangible, transferable long-term benefits for kids (note that this perspective even goes beyond college to graduate/professional school achievement).

Still the kids are at the heart of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman just as they are at the heart of their own experiences in the real world.  Kids become part of the culture of their chosen activity, picking up lingo (like "coffeehousing" in Scrabble and "skittling" in chess). They worry about the costs of competition (both financial and social), but embrace the friendships that develop in a place where they feel they fit in and belong.  They also figure out how these competitive activities really work.  Wolitzer explains: “With Scrabble, Duncan saw, you didn’t need to be a genius. You didn’t even have to know what the words meant, though it could be more interesting—and sometimes useful—if you knew the meanings of some of the strange ones… You mostly had to know which ones were good, and which ones weren’t.” (101)

It's true that don't have to be a genius to be the best Scrabble player, speller, or chess player in your age division.  But you do need to be a genius to write like Wolitzer and have her level of insight not only about childhood, but also about parenting and relationships. For this reason, this book is worth a read by any adults with kids involved in competitive academic activities, or by any adults who themselves love Scrabble tournaments.