Yesterday's early morning caller had certainly sounded anxious and we all know that excessive anxiety in parents can cause all kinds of problems that can never be eradicated from a vulnerable child’s experience.
`You might blame yourself for being somewhat over anxious about him,’ I said, `Particularly as he’s a first child,’ – it turned out he was an only child which was even worse and meant that an over dose of anxiety went with the job description. `Take heart - you may not be quite as neurotic as you imagine,’ I heard myself say kindly.
Feodor Dostoevsky, I told her, was never allowed out of the house by himself or allowed to associate with anyone outside his immediate family. H.G.Wells was told he must not play with local children because they were rough, vulgar and common. William Pitt was allowed to go to University but his mother insisted that he be accompanied by a nurse in case he should become unwell. Alfred Nobel was another son desperately loved by his mother who shared his bedroom for years in case he should want something during the night (maybe not quite as odd as it sounds considering the day and age...) Marcel Proust was a clingy child whose parents doted on him. Until he was a teenager his mother stayed in his room each night until he went to sleep so that he would feel secure - which in itself makes Mrs. Nobel look a tinsy bit more normal. Marcel in fact begged his mother not to leave his side even for an hour or two and cried bitterly if she did so.
`They sound a lot worse than me,’ said my telephone communicant and sounded a little more hopeful.
I idly wondered if she was also a `Pushy Parent’. Had she ever been described as somewhat pushy by her son’s class teacher, or even by a member of her extended family? Did she sometimes ask him to play a Chopin waltz for visitors to show off his talent? Did she once send his poems to a publisher on his behalf? She admitted to these misdemeanours and shamefacedly joined the ranks of the over ambitious.
Not to worry though. Mozart’s father, I told her comfortingly, was the archetypal pushy parent, treating him like a performing bear and dragging him across Europe to show him off.
Carl Weber’s father was convinced that Carl was another Mozart, putting him through an intensive musical training and showing him off to all and sundry. Beethoven’s father felt much the same about little Ludwig and forced him to practise for hours on end on both violin and piano, even hauling him out of bed late at night to do so.
Samuel Johnson claimed in adult life that his parents exhibited him like circus animal and were perpetually relating tales of his brilliance to the neighbours. He particularly accused his father and felt that the man had been too old when he was born and that consequently he treated him more like an exotic pet than a child.
`How old was he?’ she asked and I had to admit that I had been quite unable to find out.
We talked about Early Development. Her son had been one of those infants who meet their milestones early, who crawl around at six months, having already developed several teeth. They often demand proper food at one year, ask for French lessons at three, and violin lessons at four. Initially they are a joy to their parents as they regale all who will listen with a list of their ever increasing abilities. They are fondly convinced that their child is well on the way to becoming a Rhodes Scholar.
Well, why not? Parenting the gifted was not destined to be doom and gloom all of the time.
Jeremy Bentham was only twelve years old when he went to Oxford, getting his B.A. at fifteen and his M.A. at eighteen. Picasso could draw long before he could speak. Handel was well known for his musical abilities at the age of six and by eleven was a competent composer. Haydn also developed early and composed a Mass at thirteen. Mozart’s precocity is legend. Beethoven first played in public at eight, Rossini was thirteen and Schubert was fourteen. Mendelssohn began to compose and play in public at nine, writing works for both violin and piano. When he was fifteen he wrote his first opera. It is said that when Chopin was a pre-schooler he would weep with emotion when he heard music, and he learned to play the piano long before he learned to read and write. His first compositions were written at the age of six. Brahms was also very precocious and while still a child he became a bar room pianist.
The anxious mother on the other end of the line began to sound a little more hopeful and even told me, quite decisively, she did not want her son playing in bars at any stage and she was almost tempted to put a halt to the music lessons for a year or two.