Parents demand a lot from their children nowadays. From extracurricular activities to accelerated learning programs, children are asked to demonstrate skills and capacities that are perhaps well beyond their age. Competition is stiff, and it oftentimes seems that everyone is doing it, so parents feel that they have to push their children to do more activities and advance at an increasing pace. In other words, though we want more than anything for children to find themselves, as much as we hate to admit it, we often try to orchestrate a certain version of what we want for them. Meanwhile, common parenting-related insecurities persist: Do we pale in comparison to other parents? Is everyone doing a better job than us? What is the ideal parenting model and do we measure up?
But how far would could you actually go to influence the kind of person your child will grow up to be?
Some have gone to the absolute extreme. In the 1960s, Hungarian chess player and psychologist Laszlo Polgar decided to put his long-held belief – that genius is made, not born – to the test. Polgar believed that any child has the innate capacity to become a genius in any field, as long as education starts before their third birthday and they begin to specialize at six. He decided to conduct an experiment together with his wife, Klara. After the birth of their first daughter, they contemplated which discipline to train the child in – mathematics, music, or science – but settled on chess after Susan, came across a chess board and asked to be taught how to play. An added benefit of chess was that progress could be easily be measured and quantified over time. With the birth of his two daughters, Sophia and Judit, Polgar gain two additional students and test subjects.
The girls would spend hours each day mastering the game. Laszlo home-schooled them, and organized their days around a busy schedule where the majority of time was dedicated to playing chess. In addition to this, Laszlo and Klara together taught their daughters German, English and high-level mathematics. There were few breaks in between. The interior of the Polgar household was a testament to their dedication: their shelves were filled with books on chess, and their walls donned with records of previous games and the tournament histories of potential competitors. The girls would sometimes even play blindfolded to maximally stretch their abilities and sharpen their intuition.
The results of the experiment were outstanding. The oldest daughter, Susan, was eventually named a grandmaster. Judit, the youngest daughter, became the youngest grandmaster – the highest title a chess player can attain – and, like her sisters, played and won against many of the most prominent figures in chess, including the likes of Garry Kasparov, Anand and Karpov. In doing so, the Polgar sisters battled and overcame many gender stereotypes, as chess was, and still is, a game largely dominated by men.