Pelley: The 12-year-old prodigy whose “first language” is Mozart

The 12-year-old prodigy whose “first language” is Mozart

Alma Deutscher was playing piano and violin by the time she was 3 years old and wrote her first opera at 10. For her, making music seems as natural as breathing

We cannot explain what you are about to hear. Science doesn’t know enough about the brain to make sense of Alma. Alma Deutscher is an accomplished British composer in the classical style. She is a virtuoso on the piano and the violin. And she is 12 years old. She’s different from other prodigies we have known, because at the age of ten she wrote an opera, which demands comprehensive mastery; not just how to play the piano, but, what is the range of the oboe? What can a cellist play? We don’t know how she understands it all. It seems that Alma was born that way.


Correspondent Scott Pelley and Alma Deutscher


Scott Pelley: What is your earliest musical memory?

Alma Deutscher: I remember that when I was three, and I listened to this really beautiful lullaby by Richard Strauss, and that was when I really first realized how much I loved music. And I asked my parents, “But how can music be so beautiful?”

Those notes of Richard Strauss ignited a universe. At three, Alma was playing piano and violin.

Scott Pelley: When did the composing begin?

Alma Deutscher: When I was four, I just had these melodies and ideas in my head, and I would play them down at the piano. And sometimes my parents would think that I was just remembering music that I’d already heard before. But I said, “No, no, these are my melodies, that I composed.”

“For me, it’s strange to walk around and not to have melodies popping into my head.”

This past summer, in Austria, we watched Alma prepare her violin concerto and the premiere of her piano concerto. Joji Hattori conducts the vienna chamber orchestra.

That night, the soloist was the composer herself. Remember, she wrote all the notes for all the instruments.

We could see, Alma was living a story.

A story of loss.

A story of redemption.

Scales of emotion beyond a child.

And yet her vision was almost like wisdom.

Scott Pelley: Do you have any idea where this comes from?

Alma Deutscher: I don’t really know, but it’s really very normal to me to go around — walk around and having melodies popping into my head. It’s the most normal thing in the world. For me, it’s strange to walk around and not to have melodies popping into my head. So if I was interviewing you, I would say, “Well, tell me Scott.  How does it feel not having melodies popping into your head?

Scott Pelley: It’s very quiet in my head.  I must say.


Alma Deutscher


But, it appears, it’s never quiet in hers. When she has nothing to do, the music flows from its mysterious source as fluently as breath.

Her parents, Guy and Janie, are professors. She teaches old English literature, Guy is a noted linguist. Both of them are amateur musicians.

Scott Pelley: Do you feel that there’s anything about Alma’s gift that you don’t understand?

Guy Deutscher: We don’t understand creativity. Does anyone? I mean I think that’s the crux of the mystery. Where does it come from? This melody popping into your head. It really is a volcano of imagination. It’s almost unstoppable.

It was Guy who taught her how to read music.

Guy Deutscher: I thought I was an amazing teacher because you know, I hardly had to–

Scott Pelley: You thought it was you!

Guy Deutscher: I thought it was me. I hardly had to say something and you know her piano teacher once said ‘it’s a bit difficult with Alma It’s difficult to teach her because one always has the sense she’d been there before.’

Janie Deutscher: She wouldn’t be able to imagine life without dreams and stories and music. That’s as unimaginable to her as it is strange for other people to think about a girl with melodies in her head.

Alma Deutscher: I love getting the melodies. It’s not at all difficult to me. I get them all the time. But then actually sitting down and developing the melodies and that’s the really difficult part, having to tell a real story with music.

“I think I would prefer to be the first Alma than to be the second Mozart.”

The story Alma tells in her opera, is Cinderella, but it’s not the Cinderella you know.

It seemed demeaning to Alma that Cinderella was attractive because her feet were small so she cast Cinderella as a composer and the prince, as a poet.

Alma Deutscher: Cinderella finds a poem that was composed by the prince and she loves it and she’s inspired to put music to it. And in the ball she sings it to the prince.


Alma Deutscher


Alma Deutscher: I think that it makes much more sense if he falls in love with her because she composed this amazing melody to his poem, because he thinks that she’s his soul mate, because he understands her.

Scott Pelley: Well, people can fall in love with composers.

Alma Deutscher: Exactly.

Scott Pelley: I think this may be one of those times.

They fell in love with Cinderella in its first production in Vienna.

Scott Pelley: There is another composer who had an opera premiere in Vienna at the age of 11. Mozart. People compare you to Mozart. What do you think of that?

Alma Deutscher:  I know that they mean it to be very nice to compare me to Mozart.

Scott Pelley: It could be worse.

Alma Deutscher: Of course, I love Mozart and I would have loved him to be my teacher. But I think I would prefer to be the first Alma than to be the second Mozart.

In Israel, Mozart joined Alma on stage, she played his piano concerto with a cadenza. In a cadenza, the orchestra stops and the soloist breaks away in music of her own making.

Alma Deutscher: It’s something that I composed because you see it’s a very early concerto of Mozart and the cadenza was very simple. It didn’t go to any different keys.

Alma Deutscher: And I composed quite a long one going to lots and lots of different keys doing lots of things in Mozart’s motifs.

Scott Pelley: So you improved the cadenza of Mozart?

Alma Deutscher: Well, yes.

Robert Gjerdingen is a professor of music at Northwestern in Chicago. He has been a consultant to Alma’s education.

Robert Gjerdingen: It’s kind of a comet that goes by and everybody looks up and just goes, “Wow.” I sent her some assignments when she was six, seven, where I expected her to crash and burn, because they were very difficult. It came back, it was like listening to a mid-18th century composer. She was a native speaker.

Scott Pelley: A native speaker?

Robert Gjerdingen: It’s her first language she speaks the Mozart-style. She speaks the style of Mendelssohn.

Scott Pelley: And the names that you just mentioned are the ones that live for centuries.

Robert Gjerdingen: Yes. She’s batting in the big leagues. And if you win the pennant, there’s immortality.

The route to immortality leads through California. In December, the Opera San Jose Orchestra will stage Cinderella in Alma’s American debut. She’ll be the belle of the ball, on the piano, organ and violin.


Alma Deutscher


Alma Deutscher: The piano music teachers say, “Well you must choose the piano.” And the violin music teachers say, “Oh you must choose the violin.” But anyway, that’s better than the piano teacher saying, “You must choose the violin.”

Scott Pelley: That would be a bad sign.

Alma Deutscher: That would be a bad sign, yes.

“I know that that life is not always beautiful. That there’s also ugliness in the world. That’s why I, I’ve learned, that I want to write beautiful music because I want to make the world a better place.”

Fortunately she doesn’t have to choose. This is her composition, Violin Concerto Number One.

Alma Deutscher: It’s extremely jolly and very happy and jocular that movement. I want to make the people who listen to it laugh and be happy. The first movement of the violin concerto is quite the opposite. It’s very dark and dramatic.

Scott Pelley: What does a girl your age know about dark and dramatic?

Alma Deutscher: Well yes, that’s an interesting question because you know what?  I’m a very happy person so I have lots of imaginary composers. And one of them is called Antonin Yellowsink.

Antonin Yellowsink, Alma’s imaginary composing friend, is an insight into the music of her mind. Alma told us that she made up a country where imaginary composers write, each in his own style of emotion.

Scott Pelley: So how many composers do you have in your head?

Alma Deutscher: I have lots of composers. And sometimes when I’m stuck with something, when I’m composing, I go to them and ask them for advice. And quite often, they come up with very interesting things.

Even the real world is magical. The Deutscher’s moved to the English countryside to be near a famous school of music. Alma is privately tutored and homeschooled alongside her sister Helen who also knows her way around the piano and the tree house.

Scott Pelley: I usually don’t ask people your age this question, but, what have you learned about life?

Alma Deutscher: Well, I know that that life is not always beautiful. That there’s also ugliness in the world. That’s why I, I’ve learned, that I want to write beautiful music because I want to make the world a better place.

We cannot know how Alma Deutscher channels her music like a portal in time. But in a world, too often ugly, and too often overburdened with explanation, it’s nice to take a moment and wonder.

Produced by Robert G. Anderson and Aaron Weisz

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, “60 Minutes”


Skenazy and Haidt: The Fragile Generation

One day last year, a citizen on a prairie path in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst came upon a teen boy chopping wood. Not a body. Just some already-fallen branches. Nonetheless, the onlooker called the cops.

Officers interrogated the boy, who said he was trying to build a fort for himself and his friends. A local news site reports the police then “took the tools for safekeeping to be returned to the boy’s parents.”

Elsewhere in America, preschoolers at the Learning Collaborative in Charlotte, North Carolina, were thrilled to receive a set of gently used playground equipment. But the kids soon found out they would not be allowed to use it, because it was resting on grass, not wood chips. “It’s a safety issue,” explained a day care spokeswoman. Playing on grass is against local regulations.

And then there was the query that ran in Parents magazine a few years back: “Your child’s old enough to stay home briefly, and often does. But is it okay to leave her and her playmate home while you dash to the dry cleaner?” Absolutely not, the magazine averred: “Take the kids with you, or save your errand for another time.” After all, “you want to make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”

The principle here is simple: This generation of kids must be protected like none other. They can’t use tools, they can’t play on grass, and they certainly can’t be expected to work through a spat with a friend.

And this, it could be argued, is why we have “safe spaces” on college campuses and millennials missing adult milestones today. We told a generation of kids that they can never be too safe—and they believed us.

Safety First

We’ve had the best of intentions, of course. But efforts to protect our children may be backfiring. When we raise kids unaccustomed to facing anything on their own, including risk, failure, and hurt feelings, our society and even our economy are threatened. Yet modern child-rearing practices and laws seem all but designed to cultivate this lack of preparedness. There’s the fear that everything children see, do, eat, hear, and lick could hurt them. And there’s a newer belief that has been spreading through higher education that words and ideas themselves can be traumatizing.

How did we come to think a generation of kids can’t handle the basic challenges of growing up?

Beginning in the 1980s, American childhood changed. For a variety of reasons—including shifts in parenting norms, new academic expectations, increased regulation, technological advances, and especially a heightened fear of abduction (missing kids on milk cartons made it feel as if this exceedingly rare crime was rampant)—children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own. This has left them more fragile, more easily offended, and more reliant on others. They have been taught to seek authority figures to solve their problems and shield them from discomfort, a condition sociologists call “moral dependency.”

This poses a threat to the kind of open-mindedness and flexibility young people need to thrive at college and beyond. If they arrive at school or start careers unaccustomed to frustration and misunderstandings, we can expect them to be hypersensitive. And if they don’t develop the resources to work through obstacles, molehills come to look like mountains.

This magnification of danger and hurt is prevalent on campus today. It no longer matters what a person intended to say, or how a reasonable listener would interpret a statement—what matters is whether any individual feels offended by it. If so, the speaker has committed a “microaggression,” and the offended party’s purely subjective reaction is a sufficient basis for emailing a dean or filing a complaint with the university’s “bias response team.” The net effect is that both professors and students today report that they are walking on eggshells. This interferes with the process of free inquiry and open debate—the active ingredients in a college education.

And if that’s the case already, what of the kids still in grammar school, constantly reminded they might accidentally hurt each other with the wrong words? When today’s 8-year-olds become the 18-year-olds starting college, will they still view free speech as worthy of protecting? As Daniel Shuchman, chairman of the free speech-promoting Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), puts it, “How likely are they to consider the First Amendment essential if they start learning in fifth grade that you’re forbidden to say—or even think—certain things, especially at school?”

Parents, teachers, and professors are talking about the growing fragility they see. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the overprotection of children and the hypersensitivity of college students could be two sides of the same coin. By trying so hard to protect our kids, we’re making them too safe to succeed.

Children on a Leash

If you’re over 40, chances are good that you had scads of free time as a child—after school, on weekends, over the summer. And chances are also good that, if you were asked about it now, you’d go on and on about playing in the woods and riding your bike until the streetlights came on.

Today many kids are raised like veal. Only 13 percent of them even walk to school. Many who take the bus wait at the stop with parents beside them like bodyguards. For a while, Rhode Island was considering a bill that would prohibit children from getting off the bus in the afternoon if there wasn’t an adult waiting to walk them home. This would have applied until seventh grade.

As for summer frolicking, campers don’t just have to take a buddy with them wherever they go, including the bathroom. Some are now required to take two—one to stay with whoever gets hurt, the other to run and get a grown-up. Walking to the john is treated like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

After school, kids no longer come home with a latchkey and roam the neighborhood. Instead, they’re locked into organized, supervised activities. Youth sports are a $15 billion business that has grown by 55 percent since just 2010. Children as young as third grade are joining traveling teams—which means their parents spend a lot of time in the car, too. Or they’re at tutoring. Or they’re at music lessons. And if all else fails, they are in their rooms, online.

Even if parents want to shoo their kids outside—and don’t come home till dinner!—it’s not as easy as it once was. Often, there are no other children around to play with. Even more dishearteningly, adults who believe it’s good for young people to run some errands or play kickball down the street have to think twice about letting them, because busybodies, cops, and social workers are primed to equate “unsupervised” with “neglected and in danger.”

You may remember the story of the Meitivs in Maryland, investigated twice for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home together from the park. Or the Debra Harrell case in South Carolina, where a mom was thrown in jail for allowing her 9-year-old to play at the sprinkler playground while she worked at McDonald’s. Or the 8-year-old Ohio boy who was supposed to get on the bus to Sunday school, but snuck off to the Family Dollar store instead. His dad was arrested for child endangerment.

These examples represent a new outlook: the belief that anytime kids are doing anything on their own, they are automatically under threat. But that outlook is wrong. The crime rate in America is back down to what it was in 1963, which means that most of today’s parents grew up playing outside when it was more dangerous than it is today. And it hasn’t gotten safer because we’re hovering over our kids. All violent crime is down, including against adults.

Danger Things

And yet it doesn’t feel safer. A 2010 study found “kidnapping” to be the top parental fear, despite the fact that merely being a passenger in a car is far more dangerous. Nine kids were kidnapped and murdered by strangers in 2011, while 1,140 died in vehicles that same year. While Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes in 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature that life in most countries is safer today than at any time in human history, the press keeps pushing paranoia. This makes stepping back feel doubly risky: There’s the fear of child kidnappers and the fear of Child Protective Services.

At times, it seems like our culture is conjuring dangers out of thin air, just to have something new to worry about. Thus, the Boulder Public Library in Colorado recently forbade anyone under 12 to enter without an adult, because “children may encounter hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture, electrical equipment, or other library patrons.” Ah, yes, kids and library furniture. Always a lethal combo.

Happily, the library backed off that rule, perhaps thanks to merciless mocking in the media. But saner minds don’t always prevail. At Mesa Elementary School, which also happens to be in Boulder, students got a list of the items they could not bring to the science fair. These included “chemicals,” “plants in soil,” and “organisms (living or dead).” And we wonder why American children score so low on international tests.

But perhaps the single best example of how fantastically fearful we’ve become occurred when the city of Richland, Washington, got rid of all the swings on its school playgrounds. The love of swinging is probably older than humanity itself, given our arboreal origins. But as a school district spokesman explained, “Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

You may think your town has avoided such overkill, but is there a merry-go-round at your local park, or a see-saw? Most likely they, too, have gone the way of lawn darts. The Consumer Product Safety Commission even warns parks of “tripping hazards, like…tree stumps and rocks,” a fact unearthed (so to speak) by Philip Howard, author of 2010’s Life Without Lawyers.

The problem is that kids learn by doing. Trip over a tree stump and you learn to look down. There’s an old saying: Prepare your child for the path, not the path for your child. We’re doing the opposite.

Ironically, there are real health dangers in not walking, or biking, or hopping over that stump. A Johns Hopkins study this summer found that the typical 19-year-old is as sedentary as a 65-year-old. The Army is worried that its recruits don’t know how to skip or do somersaults.

But the cost of shielding kids from risks goes well beyond the physical, as a robust body of research has shown.

Of Trophies and Traumas

A few years ago, Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray was invited by the head of counseling services at a major university to a conference on “the decline in resilience among students.” The organizer said that emergency counseling calls had doubled in the last five years. What’s more, callers were seeking help coping with everyday problems, such as arguments with a roommate. Two students had dialed in because they’d found a mouse in their apartment. They also called the police, who came and set a mousetrap. And that’s not to mention the sensitivity around grades. To some students, a B is the end of the world. (To some parents, too.)

Free play has little in common with the “play” we give children today. In organized activities, adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

Part of the rise in calls could be attributed to the fact that admitting mental health issues no longer carries the stigma it once did, an undeniably positive development. But it could also be a sign, Gray realized, that failing at basic “adulting” no longer carries the stigma it once did. And that is far more troubling.

Is this outcome the apotheosis of participation-trophy culture? It’s easy to scoff at a society that teaches kids that everything they do deserves applause. But more disturbing is the possibility that those trophies taught kids the opposite lesson: that they’re so easily hurt, they can’t handle the sad truth that they’re not the best at something.

Not letting your kid climb a tree because he might fall robs him of a classic childhood experience. But being emotionally overprotective takes away something else. “We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to…experience failure and realize they can survive it,” Gray has said. When Lenore’s son came in eighth out of nine teams in a summer camp bowling league, he got an eighth-place trophy. The moral was clear: We don’t think you can cope with the negative emotions of finishing second-to-last.

Of course, it’s natural to want to see kids happy. But the real secret to happiness isn’t more high fives; it’s developing emotional resilience. In our mania for physical safety, coupled with our recent tendency to talk about “emotional safety,” we have systematically deprived our children of the thousands of challenging—and sometimes upsetting—experiences that they need in order to learn that resiliency. And in our quest to protect them, we have stolen from children the best resilience training known to man: free play.

Play’s the Thing

All mammals play. It is a drive installed by Mother Nature. Hippos do backflips in the water. Dogs fetch sticks. And gazelles run around, engaging in a game that looks an awful lot like tag.

Why would they do that? They’re wasting valuable calories and exposing themselves to predators. Shouldn’t they just sit quietly next to their mama gazelles, exploring the world through the magic of PBS Kids?

It must be because play is even more important to their long-term survival than simply being “safe.” Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.

The older kids, meanwhile, throw the ball more softly to the younger ones. They’re learning empathy. And if someone yells, “Let’s play on just one leg!”—something they couldn’t do at Little League, with championships (and trophies!) on the line—the kids discover what it means to come up with and try out a different way of doing things. In Silicon Valley terms, they “pivot” and adopt a “new business model.” They also learn that they, not just grown-ups, can collectively remake the rules to suit their needs. That’s called participatory democracy.

Best of all, without adults intervening, the kids have to do all the problem solving for themselves, from deciding what game to play to making sure the teams are roughly equal. Then, when there’s an argument, they have to resolve it themselves. That’s a tough skill to learn, but the drive to continue playing motivates them to work things out. To get back to having fun, they first have to come up with a solution, so they do. This teaches them that they can disagree, hash it out, and—perhaps with some grumbling—move on.

These are the very skills that are suddenly in short supply on college campuses.

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives,” Gray writes in 2013’s Free to Learn (Basic Books). “Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

Unstructured, unsupervised time for play is one of the most important things we have to give back to kids if we want them to be strong and happy and resilient.

Where Have All the Paperboys Gone?

It’s not just that kids aren’t playing much on their own. These days, they’re not doing much of anything on their own. In an article in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin admits that “when my daughter was 10, my husband and I suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult.”

In earlier generations, this would have seemed a bizarre and wildly overprotective upbringing. Society had certain age-related milestones that most people agreed on. Kids might be trusted to walk to school by first grade. They might get a latchkey at 8, take on a newspaper route around 10, start babysitting at 12. But over the past generation or so, those milestones disappeared—buried by fears of kidnapping, the rise of supervised activities, and the pre-eminence of homework. Parents today know all about the academic milestones their kids are supposed to reach, but not about the moments when kids used to start joining the world.

It’s not necessarily their fault. Calls to eight newspapers in North Carolina found none that would take anyone under the age of 18 to deliver papers. A police chief in New Albany, Ohio, went on record saying kids shouldn’t be outside on their own till age 16, “the threshold where you see children getting a little bit more freedom.” A study in Britain found that while just under half of all 16- to 17-year-olds had jobs as recently as 1992, today that number is 20 percent.

The responsibility expected of kids not so long ago has become almost inconceivable. Published in 1979, the book Your 6-Year-old: Loving and Defiant includes a simple checklist for what a child entering first grade should be able to do: Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored? Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels? Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to a store, school, playground, or friend’s home?

Hang on. Walk to the store at 6—alone?

It’s tempting to blame “helicopter parents” for today’s less resilient kids. But when all the first-graders are walking themselves to school, it’s easy to add yours to the mix. When your child is the only one, it’s harder. And that’s where we are today. Norms have dramatically changed. The kind of freedom that seemed unremarkable a generation ago has become taboo, and in some cases even illegal.

A Very Hampered Halloween

In Waynesboro, Georgia, “trick or treaters” must be 12 or younger; they must be in a costume; and they must be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years of age. So if you have kids who are 15, 10, and 8, you can’t send them out together. The 15-year-old is not allowed to dress up, yet she won’t be considered old enough to supervise her siblings for another six years. And this is on the one night of the entire year we traditionally let children pretend to be adults.

Other schools and community centers now send letters home asking parents not to let their children wear scary costumes. Some even organize “trunk or treats”—cars parked in a circle, trunks open and filled with candy, thus saving the kids from having to walk around the neighborhood or knock on doors. (That would be tiring and terrifying.) If this is childhood, is it any wonder college kids also expect to be micromanaged on Halloween?

At Yale in 2015, after 13 college administrators signed a letter outlining appropriate vs. inappropriate costume choices for students, the childhood development expert and campus lecturer Erika Christakis suggested that it would be better to allow kids to think for themselves. After all, Halloween is supposed to be about pushing boundaries. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little obnoxious…or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—your capacity—to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

Apparently, yes. Angry students mobbed her husband, the professor Nicholas Christakis, surrounding him in the courtyard of the residential college where he served as master. They screamed obscenities and demanded he apologize for believing, along with his wife, that college students are in fact capable of handling offensive costumes on Halloween. “Be quiet!” a student shouted at him at one point. “As master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students!” She did not take kindly to his response that, to the contrary, he sees it as his job to create a space where students can grow intellectually.

As it turns out, Halloween is the perfect Petri dish for observing what we have done to childhood. We didn’t think anything was safe enough for young people. And now we are witnessing the results.

No Fun and No Joy

When parents curtail their kids’ independence, they’re not just depriving the younglings of childhood fun. They are denying themselves the grown-up joy of seeing their kids do something smart, brave, or kind without parental guidance.

It’s the kind of joy described by a Washington Post columnist who answered the phone one day and was shocked to find her 8-year-old son on the other end. He’d accidentally gone home when he was supposed to stay after school. Realizing she wasn’t there, he decided to walk to the store a few blocks away—his first time. The mom raced over, fearing God knows what, and rushed in only to find her son happily helping the shopkeeper stock the shelves with meat. He’d had a snack and done his homework, too. It was an afternoon he’d never forget, and neither would his very proud mother.

When we don’t let our kids do anything on their own, we don’t get to see just how competent they can be—and isn’t that, ultimately, the greatest reward of parenting? We need to make it easier for grown-ups to let go while living in a society that keeps warning them not to. And we need to make sure they won’t get arrested for it.

What Is To Be Done?

By trying to keep children safe from all risks, obstacles, hurt feelings, and fears, our culture has taken away the opportunities they need to become successful adults. In treating them as fragile—emotionally, socially, and physically—society actually makes them so.

To combat this problem, we have established a new nonpartisan nonprofit, the Let Grow Foundation. Our goal is to restore resilience by overthrowing the culture of overprotection. We teamed up with Gray, the professor whose research we highlighted above, and FIRE’s Shuchman, a New York investment fund manager who is now our chairman.

We are building an organization that seeks to change the social norms, policies, and laws that pressure and intimidate parents, schools, and towns into coddling their kids. We will research the effects of excessive caution, study the link between independence and success, and launch projects to give kids back some free time and free play. Most of all, the Let Grow Foundation will reject the assumption of fragility and promote intellectual, physical, and emotional resilience.

Children know that their parents had more freedom to roam than they do, and more unscheduled time to read or tinker or explore. They also realize that older generations were trusted to roll with some punches, at school and beyond. We hope kids today will start demanding that same independence and respect for themselves. It’s their freedom that has been chiseled away, after all.

We want them to insist on their right to engage not just with the physical world, but also with the world of ideas. We want them to hear, read, and voice opinions that go against the grain. We want them to be insulted by the assumption that they and their classmates are so easily hurt that arguments must stop before they start. To this end, we hope to encourage their skepticism about the programs and policies that are ostensibly there to “protect” them from discomfort.

If this effort is successful, we’ll soon see kids outside again. Common setbacks will be considered “resilience moments” rather than traumas. Children will read widely, express themselves freely, and work through disagreements without automatically calling on authority figures to solve their problems for them. The more adults step back, the more we believe kids will step up, growing brave in the face of risk and just plain happy in their independence.

Children today are safer and smarter than this culture gives them credit for. They deserve the freedom we had. The country’s future prosperity and freedom depend on it.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson

Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and president of the nonprofit Let Grow Foundation.

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, author of The Righteous Mind (Pantheon Books), and a co-founder and board member of Let Grow.

De Bellaigue: Eton and the Making of a Modern Elite


The world’s most famous school aspires to become an agent of social change; but, as old boy Christopher de Bellaigue learns when he goes back, it is also an increasingly effective way for the global elite to give its offspring an expensive leg up in life


One of Simon Henderson’s first decisions after taking over last summer as headmaster of Eton College was to move his office out of the labyrinthine, late-medieval centre of the school and into a corporate bunker that has been appended (“insensitively”, as an architectural historian might say) to a Victorian teaching block. Here, in classless, optimistic tones, Henderson lays out a vision of a formerly Olympian institution becoming a mirror of modern society, diversifying its intake so that anyone “from a poor boy at a primary school in the north of England to one from a great fee-paying prep school in the south” can aspire to be educated there (so long as he’s a he, of course), joyfully sharing expertise, teachers and facilities with the state sector – in short, striving “to be relevant and to contribute”. His aspiration that Eton should become an agent of social change is not one that many of his 70 predecessors in the job over the past six centuries would have shared; and it is somehow no surprise to hear that he has incurred the displeasure of some of the more traditionally minded boys by high-fiving them. What had happened, I wondered as I left the bunker, to the Eton I knew when I was a pupil in the late 1980s – a school so grand it didn’t care what anyone thought of it, a four-letter word for the Left, a source of pride for the Right, and a British brand to rival Marmite and King Arthur?

To judge from appearances in this historic little town across the Thames from Windsor Castle, which many tourists think is worth a visit between the Round Tower and Legoland, the answer is actually not a lot. Aside from the fact that there are more brown, black and Asian faces around, the boys go about in their undertakers’ uniforms of tailcoats and starched collars, as they seem to have done for centuries, learning in the old schoolrooms and depleting testosterone on the old playing fields before being locked up for the night in houses they share with 50 of their peers (each boy has his own room). As the absence of girls demonstrates, Eton considers itself exempt from the modern belief in the integration of the sexes that so many independent schools now espouse. And it remains a boarding school – a form of education which is in decline, and which some people consider a mild form of child abuse. Add to all this the statue of Henry VI, who founded the school in 1440, amid the uneven cobbles of School Yard, and the masters cycling in their gowns to their mid-morning meeting, resembling nothing so much as a synod of ravens, and you get the opposite impression to that conveyed by Henderson: one of solidity, immobility – anything but dynamism.

To the question, “which is the ‘real’ Eton?” – the laboratory for progressive ideas about social inclusion, or an annexe to Britain’s heritage industry – the answer is of course “both”.

All schools are defined by their intake, but none more so than Eton, which for hundreds of years received the pipsqueak sons of the ruling class and disgorged them to become statesmen and administrators. (Nineteen Old Etonians – OES – including David Cameron, have served as prime minister.) This has now changed, and a new admissions policy has brought in poor clever boys, foreign boys and “new money” that the school would not have welcomed in the past. A recent parent described his surprise at finding out that the commonest name at the school was Patel.

At the same time, many elements of the timeless, traditional Eton have been preserved. They’re among the reasons new parents send their sons here, along with the belief that the school will coax and push and cajole the best out of the boy – that Eton is, as the headmaster puts it, “unashamed in its pursuit of excellence”. The school aims to educate the elite, as it always has, but it has reshaped itself in order to accommodate a new elite defined by money, brains and ambition, not pedigree, titles and acres.

A delicate relationship seems likely to exist at Eton in the coming years, between deserving boys of modest background who enter the school on bursaries, often in the face of incredulity or even opposition at home, and the poised, prepared, nutritionally optimised children of the new upper class whose parents are expected to finance all this largesse – not simply by paying their fees, but also by responding to pretty much continuous appeals for money. The latest “exciting and strictly limited opportunity” is the chance to have your name inscribed on a stone around School Yard, costing £10,000 spread over four consecutive tax years.

Eton’s rich and poor coalesce and become each other’s raison d’être in the context of the school’s ambition to be “needs-blind” in the manner of Harvard – that is to say, able to offer a boy a place regardless of his parents’ ability to pay. Eton’s big plan was evoked succinctly by William Waldegrave, the provost (head of the governing body), when he told me, “what I hope is that this school will continue to produce the prime minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and entrepreneurs of all sorts, but that three-quarters of them will have been here on bursaries.”

Waldegrave and Henderson may be the latest advocates of Eton’s transformation, but the process began a generation ago. Over the past quarter-century many places have opened up to poorer families, with some 270 of the pupil body of 1,300 now receiving substantial or complete fees remission and the school recently taking out a £45m loan to raise this number further. The school can also draw on a very large endowment by British standards. As of August 2014 it had investment and property portfolios worth £300m and an annual income from school fees of around £45m, not to mention all the immovable assets and art collections. For all that, many more millions need to be wrung from parents and OES if the school is to become genuinely needs-blind.

As the school mediates between the aspiring rich and the deserving poor, a third group fights for survival: old “Eton” families who have been sending boys to the school for generations. This group dominated the Eton I attended in the 1980s, when the school was still a barely-selective rite of passage for the descendants of Britain’s Edwardian upper and upper-middle classes – complacent, snobby and full of surnames recognisable from the inter-war diaries of Harold Nicolson. This tribe’s representation is shrinking. The percentage of pupils at the school with an OE father went down from 60% in 1960 to 33% in 1994 to 20% now. Eton has gone from being an heirloom handed down through the generations to a revolving door.

Rainbow education

Pupils cheer during the Eton wall game, a sport unique to the college

No elite connives in its own dethroning, however, and Eton is a living illustration of the oft-forgotten truth that social mobility cuts both ways. Having striven to get their son into a school whose fabric reeks of continuity, it would not be a surprise if the new Eton families showed tenacity in trying to hang on to their new status by forming dynasties of their own. This new elite, floating on its liquid wealth, is probably better placed to preserve itself than the old, landed one. As often as not Mum is as high powered as Dad, and the progeny are primed not to rest on inherited laurels but to go out and achieve material success.

Here, in the emergence of a new upper class – more fluid, more international, and yet revelling in its association with the old, snobbish, British continuities – lies the tension at the heart of Eton’s ambition to become a meritocracy. To borrow from the Patek Philippe advert, “You never actually own a place at Eton. You merely look after it for the next generation”.

Iperformed badly in my entrance test to Eton and squeaked in only after my mother pleaded with the admissions tutor that her father had been at the school: in those days, Eton took care of its own. The establishment I entered in the spring of 1985 looked to me like the embodiment of continuity, but across the country, the mood was turning hostile. The immediate post-war period had witnessed three Etonian prime ministers in succession (one of whom, Harold Macmillan, named no fewer than 35 OES to serve in his government), but the squall of egalitarianism in the late 1960s, aggravated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s ethos of self-help and aspiration, loosened the school’s grip on power. In 1990, when Thatcher lost the Tory-party leadership, Douglas Hurd, who stood to succeed her, found his Eton background being used against him. “I thought I was running for leadership of the Conservative Party,” he complained, “not some demented Marxist sect.” Hurd lost the election – and the keys to 10 Downing Street – to John Major, a state-educated former insurance clerk.

Tony Blair’s New Labour administration of the late 1990s and early 2000s married Thatcher’s brassy meritocracy with a social conscience. Oxford, Cambridge and the other major universities came under pressure to admit more state-educated pupils, and private schools were told to share their facilities with publicly funded neighbours or forfeit the tax breaks to which they, as charities, were entitled. In 1999, in a clear sign that the school could no longer count on its old links to parliament, almost 700 hereditary peers (many if not most of them OES) were expelled from the House of Lords.

In any case by now Eton had read the runes. There was a feeling among masters and governors that the school needed to raise standards in order to maintain market share in the new, more meritocratic Britain – to keep feeding boys to Oxford and Cambridge; to keep producing prime ministers – and a more competitive admissions system was the key. But the school had an image problem. It was widely considered a closed shop that would favour the dim and idle viscount over the up-and-coming City trader’s brilliant, motivated son, with the result that the City trader didn’t apply. The school’s policy of allowing parents to register their sons at birth for the so-called “Eton List” exemplified the school’s built-in prejudice in favour of its own. The Eton List effectively allowed an OE to sew up a place for his son while the boy was in nappies.

In 1990 the Eton List was abolished and a decade later a uniform entrance test and interview were introduced for all would-be entrants at the age of 11, under which the children of OESenjoyed no head start over the sons of people who had not been privately educated, or, for that matter, the offspring of successful Pakistani immigrants or Malaysian electronic-chip manufacturers. In time the tests got harder, the yearly intake cleverer, and the dim, idle viscounts were turned away. (Clever, industrious viscounts continued to get in.) Aided by its proximity to London, whose attractiveness as a safe deposit box for the super-wealthy was on the rise, the school became heavily oversubscribed. (In the 1950s the school had empty places.) Each year, around five and a half boys compete for each of the 260 places on offer.

Although Eton’s internal reforms were well under way by the time Tony Little, Henderson’s predecessor, took over in 2002, this former scholar (an Etonian in the 1960s, he was the first member of his family to be educated over the age of 14) introduced them to a sceptical world. He was “more foreign secretary than home secretary”, as one master recalls, giving interviews and making friends with educational reformers in the Blair government; his railing against the “deadly cloud of class awareness” rates as one of the more unexpected interventions from an Eton headmaster.

Under Little, Eton sponsored a state boarding school up the road in Ascot and a sixth-form college in the London borough of Newham. Bursary schemes were also set up by wealthy OES. At first, bringing in boys from some of the poorest parts of Britain and overseas turned out to be surprisingly difficult; heads weren’t keen on losing their brightest boys, and parents needed some convincing that Eton wasn’t another planet. A documentary about three Eton scholarship boys that was shown on the BBC’s children’s channel in 2014 led to a spike in applications, the school’s access officer told me, “not because parents saw it, but because their sons did, and thought, ‘I’d like to do that.’” Of two former bursary boys in their 20s I recently spoke to, one has gone on to become a speech-writer for a Conservative MP and aims to go into parliament; another is a rising actor.

Changes to the admissions policy have seen the school’s non-Anglo-Saxon intake rise considerably, though for all the foreign names one sees on pigeon holes in each house, Eton remains a “British” school, and its policy of diversifying its intake seems aimed at preventing it from being captured by any particular sub-group of the global elite. Traditionalists have chafed at the more international atmosphere, however, and Little described how one “finger-jabbing” OE accused him of being a “socialist who won’t rest until you have built a mosque on the school playing fields”.

Visiting Eton this spring, I spent an hour in College Library, watching the school’s Arabic master show three 16-year-old Palestinians some medieval manuscripts that the school had recently purchased, among them a page from a ninth-century Kufic Koran. Born in refugee camps in Lebanon, these boys had been flown to Britain for interview. Come September, two of them will be in tails.

Little’s memorial at Eton is a shiny research complex, the donor-funded Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, which joined forces with Harvard to advance research into the adolescent brain – all synaptic pruning and neural pathways. The centre’s mission statement is a slightly laboured attempt to establish Britain’s poshest school as a public good: “we want Eton and the wider UK to be at the forefront of new developments in teaching and learning, for the benefit of all.”

The new Eton – friendly to the international plutocracy while also containing strong elements of political correctness – naturally went down badly with the established Eton families whose names adorn the war-memorial plaques and the sporting cups, and whose sons have been rejected in big numbers. In 2009, at a reunion I attended, Waldegrave delivered a speech lauding diversity of intake and beating the drum for an appeal. “They want our money,” my neighbour growled, “but not our sons.” In the main, however, the old guard seems resigned to its demotion, in part because, however exercised they are by the newcomers, many OES would be unable to afford the school even if their sons were admitted.

My father paid around £6,000 per year (around £14,500 today) for me to go to Eton in the late 1980s. The annual fees are now £34,000 ($50,000, or about £7,000 more than the average annual wage in Britain). The merely well off – the country solicitors and provincial landowners who once formed the school’s backbone – have been priced out. In the words of one OE, “many people in my circle have decided that it’s not worth it, and that a good state school will do just as well.”

To say that there is a cultural divide between the old Eton and the new one would be an understatement. Traditional parents wince as they describe corporate-hospitality tents and sushi bars being erected by brash parvenus for the Fourth of June, the school’s annual shindig (which is not, of course, held on June 4th). Back in the 1980s it was hard-boiled eggs and wine out of a box, consumed while rocking on one’s haunches on a picnic blanket.

For all the talk of 270 bursary boys and rising, furthermore, the vaunted egalitarianism of the new Eton is not always obvious. “We tried to identify the bursary boys who are with my son,” remarked a pupil’s mother, “but his year group includes two oligarchs’ sons and a family with four children all at different English boarding schools. Our suspicions fell on the parents of an Indian boy but then we bumped into them while skiing in Val d’Isère.”

Some newcomers feel that change hasn’t gone far enough. As an American mother said, “you still get some students who would have been there 100 years ago, and they’re not always the cleverest. But”, she went on with evident relief, “they don’t dominate.” Her only regret is that Little didn’t bring in girls. Henderson is rumoured to want to abolish tails, though that would face opposition from the boys, who are attached, in quite a sweet way, to Etonian traditions.

Master plan

Simon Henderson, the current headmaster

Inevitably, the cultural divisions felt by parents are less important to the pupils, in part because the uniform has the advantage of flattening socio-economic disparities. One former bursary boy told me, “Only after I left the school, and visited my friends in the amazing flats they had been given by their parents, did I realise just how rich they were.”

With every place at Eton so keenly contested, enterprising parents sometimes try the back door. The recently retired head of admissions, Charles Milne, was visited by a famous Russian oligarch whose son had been placed on a waiting list after failing to win a place in the entrance test. “They crowded into my little office,” Milne explained, “the Russian and his two bodyguards – one of them eight foot tall. I began explaining how the system works, that other boys would have to give up their places for his son to get in.” Milne had not got far before the oligarch raised a hand to silence him. “Mr Milne,” he said, “I won’t waste your time. When you have decided what needs to be done for my son to get his place, you will tell me.” The boy ended up at another school. Another very rich foreigner, whose son had been rejected, phoned Milne to tell him he was a “fucking bastard”. It became an in-joke between Milne and Little. “When I went to see the headmaster, he would greet me, ‘hello, fucking bastard’.”

Given the intense competition to get a place, it’s no wonder that the waiting room before the test (much harder than the one I took) is like the Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter”. Children sit ashen-faced while their parents confer in whispers. No one speaks to anyone else; the tension is palpable. Some boys burst into tears when they get into the interview room.

The contest isn’t simply between candidates. It’s a battle of wits between a school whose proclaimed intention is to identify deserving talent and ambition, and parents who will do everything to stack things in their child’s favour. Well-off, well-organised parents prepare their sons ruthlessly, hiring tutors, making the boys do ceaseless verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests and sending them to interview classes to learn how to be sparky and empathetic. The school is wise to these constantly evolving efforts to game the system, however, and a lot of boys who have done brilliantly in the computerised test are turned down because they aren’t “interesting” at inter­view. “If a boy makes me laugh,” says one of the school’s interviewers, “he stands a good chance of getting in.”

The battle to enter Eton is the first exchange in a relationship between parents, boys and school that is characterised by high expectations. The rich parents want their kids to flourish and go on to an excellent university, preferably Oxford or Cambridge. The school wants these parents to show their appreciation in five figures. The bursary boys need to validate the decision to give them bursaries. Meanwhile the OES bite their fingernails and hope that the 20% figure won’t go down or the fees rise even further.

The story of Eton’s reconquest of the commanding heights of Britain is one of gradual rehabilitation. With the weakening of the hard left, the prospect of private schools being abolished receded, while Eton’s efforts to present itself less as a throwback to an earlier age than a guarantor of achievement in the current one began to pay dividends. Though confessing to an Eton education remains a conversation-stopper in liberal-left north London, in general the school has become less of a lightning rod for class resentment. And over the past decade OES have become more pervasive than ever.

Back in the 1950s it was the fact of having been to Eton, more than the education you received there, which set you up for success. Now the inverse is true. The teaching is superb, the facilities unparalleled, the results impressive. This year 85 Etonians were offered places at Oxford or Cambridge. St Paul’s, Westminster and Winchester have higher Oxbridge admission rates, but then those schools always specialised in cultivating clever boys. What’s interesting about Eton is the way it changed its focus from class to brains. The school has seen off the threats to its continued relevance by taking in clever boys, and sending out cleverer young men into a world that no longer defers to inherited privilege, and prizes cleverness and ambition above all.

This shift in strategy has changed the culture of the school. The ordeal of the entrance test; the upwardly mobile parents; the fact that the boys know they got into the school on their own merits, not because their fathers are OES – all this militates against the studied unconcern, the famous “entitlement”, that was the default pose of Etonians in the 1980s. Just as it was intensely uncool to be industrious then, now the opposite is the case. “It’s the boy who doesn’t take advantage of all the opportunities at Eton who’s considered odd,” a current Etonian told me, “not those who do.”

A strong work ethic comes naturally in a school that opts in to the hardest public exams and fosters competitive relationships between pupils. One recent Etonian noticed this cultural peculiarity while observing a debate at St Paul’s, Concord, a posh American boarding school. (Eton’s debating teams often sweep the board at inter-school competitions.) “The Americans were elaborately polite to each other,” he recalled, “whereas at Eton we could be brutal, saying, ‘that’s an incredibly stupid thing to say’.”

Not a sushi bar in sight

The Fourth of June in the 1980s

More than schools with higher Oxbridge acceptance rates, Eton stresses activities outside the classroom. Drama, one of its particular strengths, is an opportunity for collective endeavour that also contributes to the legendary Etonian self-assurance. The production budget at the 400-seat Farrer Theatre is higher than that at one of Britain’s top drama schools. No wonder scouts and agents are often to be spotted there, looking for the next Eddie Redmayne – one of Eton’s many recent showbiz alumni.

The investment in a wide range of extra-curricular interests may help explain why, when it comes to success defined more broadly than through exam results, Eton comes top. According to the Sutton Trust, a charity which works to widen opportunity, the school educates just 0.04% of Britain’s secondary school population, but some 4% of nearly 8,000 “leading people” whose education the trust tracked were OES. Eton produces more than three times as many big cheeses as its nearest rival, Winchester (Henderson’s alma mater). Taking into account Eton’s larger student body, its high-achiever output rate is 50% higher.

And that figure underplays Eton’s success, for OES cluster at the very pinnacle of British life. The closer you get to power and achievement, in other words, the more likely you are to run into one. David Cameron and his rival for the soul of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, both attended the school. So did Prince William and Prince Harry, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the actors Tom Hiddleston and Damian Lewis as well as Redmayne, the adventurers Bear Grylls and Ranulph Fiennes and the Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon. The law, business and banking fester with Old Etonians.

It’s very likely that Eton has a higher “strike rate” than it did in the 1980s, when for every top banker or ambassador there were one or two who conspicuously failed to enter well-paid careers (or indeed careers of any sort), and ended up cultivating marijuana or running a small country estate into the ground. No father of an Etonian in the 1980s would have admitted to thinking about anything so crass as a “return” on his investment, nor were we boys party to our parents’ financial affairs. This too has changed. A recent bursary boy who attended the school with a third of his fees remitted told me that his parents, both teachers at state schools, had sold the family home in order to afford the other two-thirds.

Britain no longer has a ruling class, and the boys who enter Eton are anyway too varied to constitute one. Yet by the time they leave they belong to something like an emerging global elite. They have in common brains, determination and, in many cases, an aspirational family that sets great store by worldly success. These qualities got them to Eton, and they are deployed again and again to ensure they get the most out of the experience. Whether it’s arranging holiday internships with City law firms, Skype tutorials in the run-up to a geography exam, or a reels refresher course before the Caledonian Ball, parents are constantly (and expensively) bolting on all kinds of optional, mini-advantages to the considerable advantage of an Eton education. The great project of modern elite parenting is all about leaving nothing to chance.

There is, of course, a natural tension between the school’s role in this enterprise and its ambition to be an engine of social mobility – just as there is at the American Ivy League universities that Eton’s admissions system seeks to emulate. A small number of Etonians are poor; some are only modestly well-off; but the majority of them are seriously wealthy by the standards of most of the world. One of the consequences of Eton’s transformation is thus to ensure that the children of the very rich stay that way.

For all its inbuilt advantages, the task facing Eton at the turn of the millennium was a tricky one. It needed to entrench its position at the top of British life while carrying out controversial and difficult reforms. Few would argue that the changes have been anything but necessary and skilfully accomplished, but they have come at an intangible price. A recently retired master complained that teaching has got more boring because boys constantly harp on the need to stick to the syllabus: “are we going to need this for the exam, sir?”

Eton used to have a strong sideline in rebels and oddballs. My time there was enriched by exposure to some truly unusual characters, both masters and boys, which engendered a tolerance of human foibles and acted as vital redress from a hierarchical, rules-based institution. Inevitably, as the school has grown more concerned with outcomes and assessments and ever keener to maximise the use to which its facilities are put, the eccentrics have been purged from the institution.

The value of such people is hard to quantify; their achievement doesn’t show through in the exam results, but in the diffusion of a spirit of irreverence and scepticism. One boy in my house, William Sinclair, was a brilliant subversive and satirist of the school; his lampooning of the authorities and disrespect for conventional hierarchies among the boys punctured the pretension and self-regard to which Eton is easily prone. William’s planting of a live chicken in our housemaster’s bathtub was the least of his misdemeanours.

My tutor over my final years was Michael Kidson, a lop-shouldered historian who terrorised us in thrilling, beautiful, confident English, threw blackboard rubbers at boys who offended against syntax and grammar – I got one in the head for pluralising “protagonist” – and defended his oversexed spaniel for trying to solace itself against our thighs. (“Nothing wrong with a young man wanting a wank!”) Above all, Kidson was loyal and would fight fiercely for you if you got into trouble; several boys escaped expulsion thanks to his efforts. On all sorts of levels it is hard to imagine either Sinclair or Kidson being welcomed to today’s Eton, but back then they were among the school’s best-loved figures and knowing them seems as useful to me now as any City internship would have been.

Eton isn’t alone among reformed institutions to have got duller as it has got better, and few of the current boys’ families will rue the absence of eccentrics if their son gets his Oxbridge place. The school has gone from being a rite of passage for a now-defunct upper class to a coalition of different sorts of people who have signed up to an ambitious agenda that may not, in fact, be their own. If Eton hasn’t quite become the liberal, socially transformative institution the reformists seek, it is undeniably more discerning in allocating one of the best starts in life that money (or brains, or ambition) can get you.

Karpinski: Hyper Brain, Hyper Body: The Trouble With High IQ

Hyper Brain, Hyper Body: The Trouble With High IQ

Summary: A new study reveals an increased risk of psychological and physiological disorders in high IQ people compared to national averages. Researchers report 20% of Mensa members, with an IQ of 130 and over, have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, compared to 10% of the general public.

Source: Pitzer College.

A new study in the journal Intelligence reports that highly intelligent people have a significantly increased risk of suffering from a variety of psychological and physiological disorders.

Lead author of the study, Ruth Karpinski, says the findings have implications both for the study of intelligence and for psychoneuroimmunology, which examines how stress responses to the environment influence communication between the brain and immune system.

“Our findings are relevant because a significant portion of these individuals are suffering on a daily basis as a result of their unique emotional and physical overexcitabilities. It is important for the scientific community to examine high IQ as being front and center within the system of mechanisms that may be at play in these dysregulations,” she says.

Karpinski and her colleagues developed a hyper brain / hyper body theory of integration. It posits that individuals with high cognitive ability react with an overexcitable emotional and behavioral response to their environment. Due in part to this increased awareness of their surroundings, people with a high IQ then tend to experience an overexcitable, hyperreactive central nervous system.

“A minor insult such as a clothing tag or an unnatural sound may trigger a low level, chronic stress response which then activates a hyper body response. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes chronically activated, it finds itself in a continuous fight, flight, or freeze state that triggers a series of immune changes in both the body and the brain-altering behavior, mood, and functioning,” explains Dr. Nicole Tetreault, co-author.

To explore the premise, Karpinski and her colleagues surveyed 3,715 members of American Mensa, Ltd. whose documented IQ scores fall at or above 130. Each was asked to self-report their experiences of both diagnosed and/or suspected mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and physiological diseases that include autoimmune disease, environmental and food allergies, and asthma. The team compared the survey data against the statistical national average for each disease or disorder.

“If high intelligence was not a risk factor for these diseases and disorders, we would see a similar prevalence rate between the two groups,” explains Audrey Kinase Kolb, co-author. “However, in this study, the Mensa population had significantly higher rates across the board. For example, just over 10% of the US has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, compared to 20% for Mensans. For these conditions, having a high intelligence is related to having between 2 to 4 times the chance of having a diagnosis compared to the average American.”

“While falling within the extreme right tail of the Bell Curve is generally touted as a ‘gift’ leading to exceptional outcomes, this is not always the case,” says Karpinski. “Those with high IQ possess unique intensities and overexcitabilities which can be at once both remarkable and disabling on many levels.”

Image shows a brain.

The results are surprising given that previous studies have shown high intelligence to be a protective factor for many health outcomes including heart disease, stroke, smoking-related cancers, respiratory disease, and dementia. However, these disorders and conditions are not specifically rooted in immune dysregulation. Additionally, these studies looked at increases in IQ, but stopped short of including participants with gifted intelligence in their samples.

“We know that for many of the examined conditions there must be a combination of genetics and environment for them to manifest,” says Karpinski. “The results of this study support our hyper brain/hyper body theory, and may help direct future studies regarding high intelligence as a potential genetic piece of a psychoneuroimmunological puzzle.”

Drenth: INTJ Relationships, Love, and Compatibility

INTJ Relationships, Love, & Compatibility

By Dr. A.J. Drenth

Despite their status as Introverts and Thinkers, INTJs are as interested in relationships as most other personality types. In order to better understand how INTJs approach dating and romantic relationships, it is necessary to consider the potential impact and implications of their four primary personality functions (Ni, Te, Fi, Se).

Introverted Intuition in INTJ Love & Relationships

INTJs’ dominant function is Introverted Intuition (Ni). As I have previously explained, since Ni is a Perceiving function, INTJs are best understood as dominant Perceivers. Although not afraid to assert themselves via their auxiliary function, Extraverted Thinking (Te), the INTJ is naturally more passive, even somewhat phlegmatic in his or her presentation. More proactive types, such as ENTJs, might even consider the INTJ a bit lazy or apathetic. Of course, INTJs would be the first to tell you that how we define lazy is entirely relative. Because their first job is to function as Intuitive Perceivers rather than as Judgers or actors, operating in a passive mode of perception is actually the sort of “work” they are meant to be doing, work that can ultimately benefit society.

As INTJs intuitively form impressions about the world, they naturally want to express them via their auxiliary Te. And because INTJs often prefer expressing themselves orally rather than in writing, they seek out others interested in hearing their knowledge and insights (they resemble INFJs in this respect). In fact, one of the primary reasons INTJs seek relationships is to have someone to share ideas with. As David Keirsey put it, for INTJs, love often comes (and arguably should come) in the form of a “mindmate.”

Extraverted Thinking in INTJ Relationships

Unfortunately, finding a suitable mindmate is rarely an easy task for the INTJ. When it comes to forming and developing relationships, INTJs often have a few factors working against them. For one, they express themselves via their auxiliary Te rather than Fe. Consequently, like other TJ types, they can come across as blunt, mechanical, or lacking a certain degree of tact or social know-how. Their reputation as arrogant know-it-alls can also be attributed, in part, to misperceptions involving their Te.

intj relationships

While INFJs are strong in extraverting their judgments, INTJs can be even more so because they lack the peacemaking, people-pleasing, and socially sensitive elements of Fe. This is why INTJs are often perceived as “brutally honest,” a trait that can be off-putting and misunderstood by types preferring a softer or more sensitive approach.

INTJs may also be labeled as excessively stubborn or rigid, although this too relates to Te-related misunderstandings. As we’ve seen, INTJs are best viewed as dominant Perceivers, so while they may appear stubborn in a moment of judgment, their preferred state is one of inner openness. It is therefore important for partners to remember that INTJs’ first priority is accuracy of perception, so if the INTJ happens to be wrong, there is a good chance he will eventually come to recognize it.

In order to compensate for such misunderstandings, INTJs might reason that if they could only understand people better they could overcome their relational difficulties. This may inspire them to gather as many facts and self-help strategies as they can regarding human psychology and relationships. While there is certainly nothing wrong with doing so, it may not always remedy their predicament in the way they might expect. For one, INTJs with a history of relational difficulties can be prone to attribute those failures to psychological problems in their partners, thereby failing to see their own shortcomings. But the truth is that even if INTJs’ intentions and motives were entirely pure, they may still lack some of the necessary skills for effective functioning in relationships. While not necessarily their fault, this should comprise at least as much of their relational attention as trying to see and diagnose problems in their partners. To be fair, accurate self-evaluation can be a problem for all J-types, since their preferred mode of Judging (Fe or Te) is directed outwardly rather than inwardly. This is one reason why typology can be so useful for INTJs, as well as other types.

Introverted Feeling in INTJ Relationships

INTJs’ tertiary function is Introverted Feeling (Fi). One of the hallmarks of Fi is a desire to preserve and defend the uniqueness of the individual. This is why some INTJs (as well as IFPs) can seem fairly dismissive of or even hostile toward typology.

Related to a strong concern for the individual is the Fi desire to aid the weak, helpless, and marginalized of society. This is why IFPs, for instance, can often be found helping the homeless, working with children with special needs, protecting endangered species, etc. With that being said, it is important to remember that INTJs’ Fi is in the tertiary position, which means it’s fairly unconscious. Therefore, INTJs are generally less consciously concerned about Fi matters than FP types are.

One way in which Fi may influence INTJs’ relationships is by inspiring a sort of “savior complex” in the INTJ. We’ve already seen how, as J types, INTJs are prone to seeing and diagnosing problems outside themselves. Once we add Fi into the mix, it is not hard to see how INTJs might be attracted, even if unconsciously, to rescuing and fixing those who seem needy or helpless. The relationship then becomes a sort of psychotherapeutic forum, with the INTJ working to analyze, diagnose, and treat his wounded partner.

On a more positive note, Fi also contributes a strong sense of loyalty to one’s partner and offspring. It zeroes in on the unique features of the individual and grows deeply attached to those qualities. While INTJs may not experience the consistent strength of feeling that FP types do, they are nonetheless influenced by the less conscious workings of Fi, which helps inspire loyalty, love, and commitment.

Extraverted Sensing in INTJ Relationships

INTJs’ inferior function is Extraverted Sensing (Se). Despite its inferior position, Se can profoundly impact INTJ relationships. The reason for this, as I’ve described elsewhere, is the inferior function represents a sort of Holy Grail for psychological wholeness and individuation. This makes it a highly alluring function, powerful enough to inspire a fierce and protracted tug-of-war with the dominant function.

One of the most salient ways Se may impact INTJ relationships is concerns about money. Like INFJs, INTJs can have a love-hate relationship with money. They love it because it grants them access to life’s Se pleasures—fine meals, accommodations, automobiles, etc. Money also relates to status, another Se-related desire. When caught up in Se, INTJs may display similar desires as ESTPs with respect to wealth, status, and sensory stimulation.

The “hate” element of INTJs’ view of money is feeling they have to compromise their Ni interests or integrity in order to get it. They may, for instance, feel forced to perform unfulfilling work that fails to utilize their Ni-Te gifts. Or, they may struggle when the quality of a product or accuracy of information is compromised for the sake of marketability. INTJs also hate having to act before their intuition has prompted them to do so. All of this can make the work life of INTJs rather miserable as they struggle to find a compromise between their Ni and Se concerns. Even the idea of compromise can be loathsome to INTJs, since their idealism and perfectionism are so pronounced.

As is true for INFJs, the issue of perfectionism cannot be ignored in INTJ relationships. INJs’ perfectionism can be understood as stemming from their desire to see their Ni visions perfectly manifest in physical reality (Se). This perfectionism tends to be most acute when they attempt to directly control Se outcomes, such as when making art, performing, or obsessing over money or status. When functioning healthily in Ni, however, they rarely fall into the obsessive grip of perfectionism.

In sum, if both INTJs and their partner can understand the potential pitfalls of their respective inferior functions, they can proceed with greater awareness and understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

INTJ Compatibility with Other Personality Types

With Se as their inferior function, INTJs can be spellbound by the beauty or physical prowess of ESFPs and ISFPs. Psychologically speaking, SFPs embody INTJs’ less conscious Fi and Se functions, which as I’ve said, are integral to their quest for wholeness. With that said, pairing with an SFP rarely brings lasting satisfaction to INTJs, since, as introverts, their wholeness must come from the inside out, rather than vice-versa. In many cases, the INTJ will develop a similar same love-hate relationship with an SFP partner that he has with his own inferior function, making such pairings less than ideal for INTJs.

Typically, INTJs aren’t as drawn to SJs (ESFJs, ISFJs, ESTJs, ISTJs) as they can be to SPs. And because Si and Ni are often at odds with each other, SJs and NJs may find themselves having to “agree to disagree.” Therefore, longstanding SJ-NJ pairings are fairly uncommon.

Because NJ types are the rarest of all types, INTJs may enjoy few opportunities to pair with another NJ. However, in today’s Internet age, this is certainly more likely than it would have been in past. INTJs may also happen upon other NJs in their work settings, especially in scientific, academic, or tech-related fields. Of these types, pairing with ENTJs or another INTJ is probably their best bet. Overall, ENTJs may be somewhat preferable, bringing a degree of typological variety to the relationship. This pairing can enjoy great discussions and INTJs may appreciate ENTJs’ willingness to actively implement the INTJ’s insights and ideas. Moreover, neither type needs worry about accidentally hurting the other’s feelings through customary use of their Te. They can simply be themselves and feel comfortable employing their normal modes of communication. One potential drawback of this pairing is neither ENTJs nor INTJs are particularly good listeners. This could feasibly produce a situation in which the INTJ feels overrun or stifled by the more dominant ENTJ.

INTJs may not enjoy the same ease of relations with INFJs or ENFJs. Because NFJs use Fe rather than Te, their mode of communication, as well as their way of seeing and understanding the world, often diverges from the INTJ’s. And when this is combined with the natural power struggles of J pairings, such relationships may fail to get out of the starting gates.

NP types are another solid option for INTJs. Since they are more common than NJs, INTJs can encounter NPs nearly anywhere. In my view, INTJs can enjoy satisfying relationships with any NP type, with ENTPs, INTPs, ENFPs, or INFPs. However, of these, the INTJ-INFP pairing seems to be the most common. There are a few reasons for this.

One reason is that most INTJs are males and most NTPs are also males. Therefore, heterosexual INTJs may rarely only rarely encounter an available NTP female. If they are fortunate enough to meet, INTJs can enjoy great compatibility with either INTPs or ENTPs. Such pairings have a good balance of differences and similarities and, again, are less likely to struggle with issues pertaining to hurt feelings or emotional sensitivities.

Another reason INTJs commonly end up with INFPs is some ENFPs may seem too distracted or flighty for the INTJ. INTJs want a partner who can partake in lengthy and focused discussions. They can therefore grow frustrated if they feel their partner appears distracted or incapable of sustaining her focus. With that said, some ENFPs have greater powers of focus and can match up quite well with INTJs.

Finally and most importantly, INTJ-INFP relationships are common because these types complement each other so well. Both INTJs and INFPs enjoy abstract discussions, including potential ways of improving the world. INFPs are great listeners and enjoy taking in new ideas and information via their Ne. This complements INTJs’ love of dispensing information a la Te. Moreover, both types use the Fi-Te function pair, which can significantly improve communication and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings. INFPs are less apt to be scared off by INTJs’ Te, since INFPs also use Te in their communication. For these reasons and more, this pairing seems to have unlimited potential for growth, depth, and intimacy.