Pushy parents: the naked truth


April 12, 2008

Pushy parents: the naked truth

If you decide to hothouse your child, don’t be surprised if they turn out to act rather wildly

A few days ago I stood, notebook poised hopefully, outside the new-build Salford flat where Sufiah Yusof, child maths prodigy-turned-prostitute, now twiddles her nipples for clients at £130 an hour.

Sufiah, who won a place at Oxford at age 13 after being pressured mercilessly by her father, is now 23 and has just been exposed by the News of the World as being a “Genius on the Game”. It is here, on a bed made up in the lounge, that she gets her kit off for punters who book via her online escort agency.

Apart from asking the obvious – whether this new lifestyle direction is purely to punish her parents – I wanted her take on the theory that overbearing parents risk making anarchists or even dropouts of their children. Alas, she had already done an exclusive newspaper deal and duly told her story dressed in a leopardskin bra and brandishing a riding crop – predictable, perhaps, since hookers don’t tend to perform for free. “I have studied so intensely for so many years I wanted to have fun,” she said.

Whether pleasuring businessmen en route home to their wives is much fun is debatable. But every pushy parent in the land would be advised to cut out the picture of the beautiful Sufiah gyrating naked (and get this – looking absolutely delighted to be doing so) and consult it each time they are tempted to strong-arm their child into yet another “improving” activity or extra Mandarin lesson. Sufiah was taught by her father under the Accelerated Learning Technique and apparently made to study alone for hours in freezing rooms to keep her brain alert. As a further discipline, he pushed her so hard at tennis that she was seeded No 8 in the country for under-21s.

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Obviously Sufiah’s case is extreme – most overachieving kids do not run away from university, as she did at 15, describing her childhood as a “living hell”, and later make a living turning tricks. But it does serve as a warning that if you push children too hard to “win” they might defiantly set out to “lose”. As one reader of her story writes on a website: “You can’t treat children like lab rats and expect them not to bite you.”

The phrase coined by psychologists is “helicopter” parents – hovering busily over every aspect of their kids’ lives, doing their homework, lying to get into faith schools and absorbing their every achievement as their own. But perhaps the abbreviation “hell” would do just as well. This seems to be dawning on the nation’s grandparents.

A report this week claimed that grandmothers see their grown-up (middle-class) children as competitive obsessives who approach parenthood in exactly the same way as their careers – with targets, checklists and ruthless ambition. Professor Rachel Thomson, of the Open University and co-director of The Making of Modern Motherhood report, said grandmothers were horrified by the “modern pressure and compulsion on parents to be constantly busy and sociable, taking their child to every class available, being up to date on endless independent research into everything from developmental goals to nutrition”.

Why are so many parents obsessed with their offspring being conspicuous overachievers that they are willing to sacrifice their childhoods for it? Do they now regard the word “average” (regarded as quite good, ie normal, in my day) as now equal to “shameful”? Maybe they truly do believe that the formula of right school/right hobbies/right university automatically equals wonderful, happy life. Ask the parents of child prodigies and many will tell them to be careful what they wish for.

Child Genius, a Channel 4 documentary series that will be broadcast next Wednesday, will show the other side of being superbright; the lack of friends, the family tensions, the struggle to find a school able to cope, and in one case a moody “genius” boy of 13 being threatened with expulsion for taking a replica gun in to his private school. In any case many “genius” children go on to become fairly mediocre in adult life: their dazzling light cannot be sustained indefinitely. One parent in the C4 programme says that, if not handled properly, her daughter’s gift could turn out to be a curse. Another says: “It’s fine having a brain but if you can’t mix in society there’s no point.”

Well, quite. And in the same way, if pushy parents focus exclusively on ripening their child’s intellect, they must accept that their emotional development will be stunted. There was something needily childlike about Sufiah saying “My clients treat me like a princess”, as if they provide the affection she was denied as a girl. As long ago as 1978 the psychologist Peter Congdon wrote a guide for parents of gifted children in which he said: “Accelerating mental development is sometimes bought at the expense of slowing down the pace of social and emotional growth. The result can be a lopsided and maladjusted individual.”

This applies in other ways too. The pitiful decline of Britney Spears, hothoused within the showbiz industry from a tender age, may be seen as a modern parable of what can happen when teenagers are denied a normal adolescence (as, of course, is Michael “Neverland” Jackson). Spears was not allowed youthful high jinks. Her job was to peddle the clean-living, God-fearing, virginal ideal to the masses while, strangely, dancing provocatively on video. So she had her drugs and alcohol backlash years later when she was a mother. Now, aged 26, with two children and two marriages behind her, she was recently carted off to a psychiatric unit. Doesn’t that make you feel better about your teenagers getting drunk?

We cannot ask Sufiah’s father, Farooq, whether he regrets the albatross that he placed around his daughter’s neck because he has just started an 18-month prison sentence for sexually assaulting two 15-year-old girls that he was tutoring in maths. But her mother says: “Part of me is haunted by the notion we had driven her to that.” You don’t say.

What would haunt me more is that in the newspaper “glamour” pictures and video that you can view online Sufiah looks genuinely happy, relieved almost. It comes to something when a child’s spirit has been so crushed by her family’s ambition that she considers prostitution a lucky escape.

But since her father treated her as little more than an object it is hardly surprising that, with paying punters in her Salford flat, she continues to behave like one.


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