Is this the brainiest child in Britain? Proof you DON'T need to be a pushy parent to make your little darling a success
- Shrinidhi Prakash has been crowned Britain's first Child Genius
- She can recall the order of an entire pack of 52 playing cards
- Also speaks Latin and is a world champ at Scrabble
- Her parents say she has natural talent and they do not push her
When most 11-year-old girls day-dream about their idols, they fantasise about Harry Styles from One Direction and write his name in love hearts all over their school exercise books.
Not Shrinidhi Prakash. She is counting down the days until she meets her very own hero, the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston. She is a big fan of his work.
She hopes he will be impressed by the essay she has penned for him on economic growth, entitled Notes On Austerity. Quite clearly, Shrinidhi is no ordinary girl. This week, she beat more than 2,000 children to be crowned Britain’s first Child Genius - a sort of Mastermind-meets-Countdown, for the under 11s.
Thirst for knowledge: Shrinidhi and her mother Suja
On the day I visit Shrinidhi at her home in Orpington, Kent, it’s hard to miss the giant silver trophy she was awarded at the end of the final of the Channel 4 series. In fact, it’s so big it won’t even fit on the mantelpiece - so it stands on the floor of the living room, by the fireplace, until her parents can find a piece of furniture big enough to hold it.
Even so, Shrinidhi is not entirely happy with her gong. She’s squinting critically through her spectacles at the Latin inscription on the side: ‘I am not sure that’s the right grammar,’ she says.
‘Angusta ad Augusta; it’s meant to mean: ‘Through trial to triumph,’ but I think Augusta is not the right word. That’s the name of the wife of the Roman Emperor.’
Grammar aside, the wording is indeed apt: there were indeed plenty of ‘trials’ for the young competitors in this programme.
Word whizz: Shrinhidi has a remarkable memory and loves books
Over the four-part series, 21 finalists aged eight to 11 were tested in quick-fire rounds such as Debating, Logic, Mental Arithmetic, Spelling and General Knowledge.
Not only were the questions so hard that many were beyond plenty of adults. But the stress for the children answering them was also mercilessly recorded by cameras, which seemed to take perverse pleasure in recording their faces crumple as, one by one, they crashed out of the competition.
'She can't tie her shoelaces but she can remember the exact order of a whole pack of playing cards'
Even cycling gold medallist Chris Hoy, a man used to the extreme edge of competition, tweeted that these intelligence tests made ‘the Olympics seem pretty stress-free’.
Other commentators questioned the programme’s seeming failure to acknowledge that other competitors in the group might possibly be on the autistic spectrum in case it jeopardised the fun they were having at the children’s expense.
Yet despite the intense pressure, Shrinidhi thrived. Not only did she manage to recall the order of an entire pack of 52 playing cards, but in the final programme she triumphed with a winning debate speech on whether money brings happiness, correctly identified Lake Baikal in Siberia as the largest freshwater pool in the world and correctly spelled the world ‘metallurgy’.
Title holder: Shrinidhi won the Child Genius final after beating Connor aged nine and 'human dictionary' Ben
Shrinidhi’s achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that her first language is not even English, but Tamil, which she still speaks with her family at home, and she came to live in the UK from India only three years ago.
But the supreme irony is that of all the children in the competition, Shrinidhi appeared to be the least pushed by her parents, Suja and Raman. Indeed, the mild-mannered Indian couple looked like pussy cats compared to other tiger mothers in the show.
Take chess prodigy and fellow contestant Josh Altman, nine, who sat meekly as his mother told him he needed 50,000 practice hours to become a chess grandmaster by the age of 13.
He later writhed in discomfort as she told him to keep going to the next round, despite the fact he had hardly scored a point and complained to her that he felt ill?
Supreme Tiger of all was Sarah Gyles, 34, mother of nine-year-old Connor who announced without a shred of embarrassment: ‘Of course, I want him to do well. I want to show off. Is that bad?’ And: ‘I want to go around and say: “Look how clever my son is. Aren’t I great?” ’
'Shrinidhi is not driven by achievement. She doesn’t work to targets. She simply follows what interests her'
Shrinidhi, however, seemed to trundle through the competition in her own sweet way. Of all the children who appeared in the series, Shrinidhi, the current Under-12 World Scrabble Champion, seemed the most naturally gifted and the most rightful winner.
Compared to Josh, Shrinidhi plays about an hour a week to retain her Scrabble title.
She would love to spend more time playing it online, but finds that other competitors get abusive and accuse her of cheating if she gets more than three bonus words in a row.
Blessed with a brain that is an amazing magnet for words, even before Child Genius came along Shrinidhi’s favourite book was her bumper edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
As she worked her way through the literary classics, she looked up the words that interested her and jotted them down on her iPad.
Perhaps after all this hot-housing, this then was the secret. While other youngsters faltered in tears with nerve-induced nausea and anxiety attacks, Shrinidhi was under less pressure and so managed to keep her head. Yet as charming as Shrinidhi is, dressed today in her too-small dungaree dress, it’s hard not to wonder if her gifts come at the expense of other areas of her development.
She is, to be blunt, sweetly unaware. Her confession that she loves to sniff and even lick the books she describes as her ‘friends’ will go down as one of the oddest remarks on a reality TV show.
And mother Suja, 36, a stay-at-home mother who also has a three-year-old son Sachin, is honest enough to admit that while her daughter is far ahead in some areas, she lags behind in others.
‘Where Shrinidhi is lacking is that she is not street-smart. She is a bit innocent for her age. It’s difficult for her to attach herself to a group, because her interests are on a different plane.
Champ: But her parents say she is not driven by achievement
‘She has her ups and down. She is very absent-minded. She often brings other children’s bags or cardigans home by mistake. If you ask her to tie her shoe laces, she really struggles.’
Shrinidhi’s sweet naivety means she also sometimes misses out on the meaning of the words she knows instinctively how to spell.
Such is her voracious literary appetite that she has been allowed to read Fifty Shades Of Grey. But like a lot of adult books, it perplexed her because it turned out not to be a book about colours after all, as the title promised.
Not surprisingly, she generally prefers to stick to the less ambiguous worlds of Enid Blyton and J.K. Rowling.
When I dare to challenge her to a game of Scrabble, because I take longer than a nano-second to choose my word, she dives in to give me a suggestion. In a flash she instantly spots how I could use up all my seven letters in one go, with the word COLOURS, thereby granting me 35 extra points.
A few turns later, I turn back to see Shrinidhi has trotted out the word ‘Lez’ - a�technically legal, but not very politically correct, slang word for a lesbian - even though she doesn’t have a clue what it means. Seeing I am beaten before I’ve begun, I decide to stick to interviewing, while Shrinidhi is happy to carry on playing herself, surely a more worthwhile opponent.
'We did not enter her to win, but for the experience - and to meet other like-minded children on her level'
So why expose such an innocent child to such high expectations and intense public scrutiny, especially when so many famed prodigies - such as Sufiah Yusof who ran away after landing a place at Oxford at 13 - go off the rails?
As newcomers to Britain, were the family simply naïve about the ways of reality TV? Or did they enter because they were still living by the cultural norms of their native country where academic excellence is more highly prized?
In fact, it turns out that being recognised as a child genius already runs in the Prakash family - and their decisions seems more economic than anything else.
While Shrinidhi was still a toddler, one of her female cousins was picked for the Indian version of the Child Genius programme, and went on to get an all-expenses paid scholarship to an Ivy League University in America. It is in her footsteps that Shrinidhi eventually hopes to follow.
Luckily, Shrinidhi also showed early promise. By the age of three, she was already a mini media celebrity in India after she was filmed being able to remember the flags of more than 200 different countries. She had learned them by watching the flag-waving spectators at cricket matches with her father.
By five her parents noticed her talent for memory. It morphed into a precocious gift and she began using long words in English. When they introduced her to Scrabble soon after, she began trouncing players several times her age.
So when her father Raman was offered a job in IT in UK, they moved here not only to further his career but also their daughter’s - especially as she already spoke English better than 99.9 per cent of the people who live here already.
Unbeatable: Shrinidhi excelled at Scrabble from an early age
Yet Suja, a former software engineer, insists there is no tiger parenting at work. If anything, she claims her daughter’s intellect is so vast she is struggling to contain it and stop her getting bored.
‘We are not chasing anything. Shrinidhi is not driven by achievement. She doesn’t work to targets. She simply follows what interests her.
‘Of course, I can’t control what other people think, but I have never been pushy with Shrinidhi. For example, I didn’t coach her to memorise 52 cards in row for the competition. She invented her own system by naming them after characters in her favourite books.’
And what of the antics of the other pushy parents on the show? Suja, who has clearly witnessed some extremes behind the scenes, prefers to be diplomatic on that front.
‘Everyone knows how to get the best out of their child. Personally, I know that Shrinidhi is best if I leave her to be natural.
‘The moment you start chasing a target becomes the moment you feel the pressure of being a genius. We did not enter her to win, but for the experience - and to meet other like-minded children on her level.
The youngest person to join Mensa in the UK was aged two years and four months, along with 18 other pre-school children. The oldest member was 103
‘She did hit off with several of them and is still in touch. That way you enjoy the journey.’
Now, despite thrusting her into the limelight, Suja says her main hope for her daughter is ‘normality’. She claims not to see a contradiction in having her hailed as a genius on national television - nor any potential difficulties fitting in at school.
‘The only thing we say to Shrinidhi is: “Be very normal and you will be accepted.” She knows she is different, but she is also very conscious of it. She does not try to have an air around her. She is friendly with everyone in her class because she is not one to show off.
‘Even when she won the Scrabble World Championship, it was two or three weeks before she took her award into school to show her friends. She kept forgetting. It is not important to her.’
So how does Shrinidhi see her life panning out before her, now that she is officially Britain’s cleverest child?
‘I don’t see it as anything different. Because it’s part of my brain, I don’t see anything extraordinary. For me this is normal. One day I would like to study economics or etymology at university. But I would also like to have two Ferraris.’
So after being proclaimed a child genius, what is next on the agenda? Maths A-level? An early Oxbridge application? Thankfully no, says Suja: ‘It’s her Grade One Piano exam.’
For Shrinidhi’s sake, thank goodness for that.