The Dark Side of Being a Child Prodigy

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree on May 9, 2015, I hadn’t updated the address on my file, so I never received the actual diploma. Not that I wanted to display it anyway. The empty holder is gathering dust at the bottom of a box with other artifacts from my rather questionable childhood. I know this isn’t exactly the attitude that you’d expect from a “child prodigy” who got their B.A. three days after becoming a legal adult, but here I am.

The “child prodigy” phenomenon has a uniquely American mythology to it. It’s reminiscent of the “prosperity gospel,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “move fast and break things.” We’re fascinated by kid geniuses, students skipping grades, scoring the highest on their SATs or graduating early altogether. “Getting ahead” is idolized. We sacrifice so much to the false gods of “hustling” harder ― including our kids.

I was an extreme example of this mythology, and it showed me that we’re pushing youth to shoot for the stars without bothering to send them up with oxygen. Stories about highly ambitious kids are told in fairytale terms, but in reality, being a young prodigy can be a nightmare.

We desperately want our kids to be top achievers, but we don’t have the infrastructure to support them as they reach for increasingly unattainable ideals. Plenty of officials have started to sound the alarm on this. The U.S. Surgeon General called free-falling adolescent mental health “the crisis of our time.” The CDC recently found that teen girls, in particular, are “engulfed in trauma,” even at a time when young women are being pushed to achieve more, more, more and go higher, higher, higher in academia. But the trophies aren’t worth the price we’re paying for them.

I graduated from university at 18 after transferring in as a junior at 16, armed with two years of community college credit that I began when I was 14. California, like many states, allows high school students to do something called “dual enrollment.” This is designed to let high school students earn college credit alongside their regular high school course load by taking a few classes at community colleges.

This is an option ambitious young people can pursue, and I’m not wholly against it. I do believe that it’s valuable for teenagers to learn in community college classrooms. Some of the most enlightening conversations and classes I took part in were at the community college. It’s a massive benefit to be in such a diverse, mixed-age environment, and there’s no problem with a teenager taking on a couple of those college classes throughout their high school career.

But that isn’t what happened to me.

"This was just after turning 15," the author writes. "I had'graduated' from high school at this point, spent virtually no time in social settings with teenagers, and the way I aesthetically presented to the world had drastically changed."
“This was just after turning 15,” the author writes. “I had ‘graduated’ from high school at this point, spent virtually no time in social settings with teenagers, and the way I aesthetically presented to the world had drastically changed.”

Courtesy of Kate Alexandria

The first year, I only took 12 units per semester until I secured a dubious high school diploma that meant the pesky requirements that kept concurrently-enrolled high school students at less-than-full-time status at community colleges no longer applied to me. I was able to “graduate” because California law allows any parent to register themselves as a “private school” online. It’s easy, takes only a few minutes and means that you don’t have to meet any state requirements to receive a high school diploma.

After I “graduated” from this “private high school,” which had no classes, I took 24+ units per semester at my community college. I took out Pell Grants, Cal-Grants and student loans. There are some galaxy-sized loopholes and untested gray areas for minors who are in college.

Somebody from the college or the Department of Education would see that all of my financial aid eligibility was being drained before I could even vote and step in to check that everything was OK, right? Surely, somebody would see a student loan application being signed solely by a child and not disperse those funds without investigating, right? Wrong. There wasn’t any intervention, in apparent defiance of the federal government’s laws on children taking out credit lines. Even Uncle Sam has forgotten to protect the “prodigy” kids, it seems.

“The entire ‘going to college early’ scheme wasn’t exactly my idea, and I think I would’ve cracked under the pressure of a social worker or counselor asking me that — but nobody ever did.”

Another tenet of American mythology seems to be pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t, and that approach worked well here. Much like time-honored classics like “Mission Accomplished” or “trickle-down economics,” my child prodigy story has a fair amount of bullshit behind the scenes.

On the outside, I was a precocious go-getter, a phenomenal A-student throughout my entire collegiate career, the first to raise my hand in class when a professor asked for a volunteer, and a supposed success story. I scored an internship in then-Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office before I was even 16. When a classmate who worked in another Capitol office remarked that they’d heard there was a 15-year-old working in Newsom’s office, I only smiled and cheekily said I hadn’t heard that before.

By the time I transferred to a four-year college, everyone knew how old I was, but it wasn’t a fact I advertised before then. It made people treat me differently — like a child, which was probably the most repulsive thing to be in my eyes back then.

"This was taken towards the end of my six-month internship in then-Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. I was 16 and would usually commute to my internship by light rail after classes at community college that spring and summer before I transferred to university in the fall."
“This was taken towards the end of my six-month internship in then-Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. I was 16 and would usually commute to my internship by light rail after classes at community college that spring and summer before I transferred to university in the fall.”

Courtesy of Kate Alexandria

On the inside, I was struggling beyond belief, even as university officials and professors fawned over me. I didn’t want to graduate from college early. I attempted to put an end to it, or, at the very least, take an extra year.

The entire “going to college early” scheme wasn’t exactly my idea, and I think I would’ve cracked under the pressure of a social worker or counselor asking me that — but nobody ever did. At no point in my college career did someone assign a counselor to follow along with the literal child on their campus to ensure that they were feeling OK with their “precocious” situation, that they weren’t being pressured and that they weren’t facing violence or intimidation on campus or at home.

I was highly vulnerable, steeped in pressure, and trapped by systems and adults that were unprepared for a minor or otherwise indifferent toward my needs. I experienced negligence and active exploitation in countless ways during my college years, and I lost myself to partying the pain away and self-harming.

Memorably, I was drunk onstage as a cultural ambassador in a round between American and Irish collegiate debaters, proudly waving my Squirt bottle full of vodka when the moderator introduced me to the crowd and said “for those of you taking the slow route through life, Kate is 17 and about to graduate from college.” The whole thing felt sacrilegious, and the defiant teenager in me refused to pretend that it wasn’t blasphemy.

The lack of oversight and support facilitated trauma. It also ironically robbed me of an academic future. By blowing through all of my college coursework and financial aid eligibility so young, I was also locking myself into the choices I was making as a child.

You don’t want your future determined by the decisions that you made as a teenager under terrible pressure. I wouldn’t get a political science degree today. Almost immediately after I graduated, I wished that I had studied journalism. I lost the ability to explore myself academically and personally before getting shoved into this half-baked model.

“I regret all the ways I never got to be a child because I was too busy being a child prodigy.”

I’m stuck with what I have, alongside nearly $40,000 of student loan debt that I signed off on before I was 18. It’s perplexing and seemingly illegal, since minors aren’t allowed to take out credit lines, but it happened. I can’t go back and get a different degree. I can’t erase that debt. I’m trapped paying interest on the decisions that I didn’t have the maturity or experience to make. The further I pushed the envelope as a prodigy, the more I stumbled into the realization that we’re often sacrificing the emotional and financial well-being of our youth so they “get ahead.”

People get caught up in the wonder of it and don’t ask questions, all too willing to barter a kid’s formative years for a shiny title.

Early developmental experiences are sacred. When young people face ever more pain and trauma, those moments are even more vital. I don’t regret missing prom, but I regret missing the chance to fully become myself before committing to such big, forever life-altering choices financially, academically and emotionally. I regret not being able to have my first sexual and romantic experiences free of power dynamics, coercion and violence. I regret all the ways I never got to be a child because I was too busy being a child prodigy.

Photos of me from my adolescence have the markings of this story if you look at them chronologically. In one from early 2011, I was in eighth grade; a normal, cringey, barely-teen dressed in Abercrombie and messing around in the mall with a friend. In another, barely a year later and just after I had “graduated” from high school, I was wearing a bougie adult dress and big gold earrings. When I was finishing up my second year of college, not even yet 16, I transitioned to blazers and heels, throwing out all of my graphic T-shirts, trying to scrub the child off of me.

It took a few years, but my dissonance did finally hit a breaking point. Six months after I solidified my “child prodigy” title with that B.A., I added another title to my belt: grad school dropout. I was halfway through my first semester of a master’s in public policy when I told one of my closest former professors that I wanted to drop out.

We talked over coffee while she was in town for a research conference. I dreaded letting her down. When she responded by strongly agreeing with my plan, I was floored. She made good points: I had already done so much, so fast, and I deserved the chance to explore myself. Grad school wasn’t going anywhere, she gently told me. I could always come back to it if I wanted to. But for now, why not live?

"A photo with my college-roommate-turned-good-friend, taken on'Welcome Weekend' my senior year when I was 17," the author writes.
“A photo with my college-roommate-turned-good-friend, taken on ‘Welcome Weekend’ my senior year when I was 17,” the author writes.

Courtesy of Kate Alexandria

No longer bound to the myth, I freed myself from it. I dropped out, and I haven’t looked back. I’m proud of the things I accomplished, and the ways I legitimately excelled in college. I want youth to get the chance to be as ambitious as they want. But I’m begging people to stop sacrificing their kids’ futures in service of that elusive “prodigy” title.

I know it is appealing to make our kids grow up fast and ensure that they’re in first place. But as someone who arguably blew the “first place” standard out of the water, I’m telling you that no trophy or title is worth destroying a teenager’s mental health over. Yes, let’s give our youth opportunities to get ahead if they choose to — but let’s ensure we have the basic infrastructure to support them, check their intentions, and protect their financial and emotional interests.

If minors are going to be on college campuses, higher education administrators need to develop proactive policies to keep them safe and well. The government needs to protect minors from taking out student loans before they’re 18, because credit cards pale in comparison to the harm that these loans bring. If we’re going to push young students harder and faster at even the high school level, we need to give them resources for dealing with the pressure of growing up too hard, too fast, in a chaotic and rapidly changing world.

The author poses for a photo in 2023.
The author poses for a photo in 2023.

Courtesy of Kate Alexandria

Ambition is a valuable quality, but the pressure we’re putting on our children, especially young women and femmes, is detrimental. It’s time that we value our youth more than our Americana mythology. We must stop idolizing this bizarre philosophy of getting ahead at all costs and instead focus on supporting the long-term well-being of our children, helping them to develop resilience and chase sustainable goals. We have to allow kids to be children first and prodigies second, or we risk condemning them to lifelong consequences and alienating them from their brilliant achievements.

If somebody had just recognized my humanity as a child and not a child prodigy, perhaps I would’ve decided to display the diploma I worked so hard for after all.

Kate Alexandria is being held hostage in an uncooperative body on a dystopian planet. Currently, she’s posted up living her good, bad, and weird life in Altadena, California, with her best friend and her cat. She is a writer, journalist and organizer who makes the most out of the constant barrage of WTF moments in this timeline by cultivating empathy and sharing honest, complex experiences — especially on issues related to sexual assault survivors, disability and LGBTQ rights. You might’ve also seen their work in KnockLA or Women’s Media Center, and you can find all of the antics at her portfolio, She also has a Twitter, @kfreddiea, that she occasionally (rarely) haunts.

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