Mensa is on the hunt to find Britain’s brightest child in a four-part documentary.It’ll be a tough competition, but before all of that, we got to meet two of the candidates to find out what it’s like to be the brightest of the bunch (and what it’s like for mum and dad!).
Shrinidhi, 11, “My brain breaks a few speed limits”
It’s no coincidence that the carefully argued economics essay on Shrinidhi’s laptop reads uncannily like Robert Peston. The Under-12 World Scrabble Champion can reproduce any style, whether it’s Shakespeare, Wordsworth or her hero, the BBC’s business editor.
She already has several novels under her belt, and is one of the 21 children aged from seven to 11 who are battling for the title of Child Genius in Channel 4’s tough four-round contest.
Shrinidhi’s phenomenal abilities first hit the headlines when, aged three, she could identify the flags of more than 250 countries. By five she could memorise 200 pages of a favourite book. But she insists, “I am not what I’d call a genius. It’s just that my brain breaks a few speed limits. Mostly it’s pretty handy, but sometimes it gets a bit annoying. Like when my teacher asks a question and I’ve got it, and I’m waiting for the others to get it.”
Shrinidhi has traditional tastes and a quaint, almost academic, way with words. Favourite classics – Black Beauty, Swiss Family Robinson, The Three Musketeers – are lined up on her bookshelves, she’s addicted to Countdown and, unlike most girls her age, she hates shopping.
Her mother, Suja, says, “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. But her teacher says she’s very happy at school and accepted in the class.”
When Shrinidhi was two, Suja gave up her career as a software engineer to give her more attention. The family moved from Bangalore four years ago, and now live in Kent with Shrinidhi’s proud grandmother and three-year- old brother, Sachin – another fluent reader. Suja insists there was no hothousing; she simply played imaginative games with Shrinidhi and initiated her in reading and Scrabble.
“We try to do our best without being pushy,” she says. “The problem is that a gifted child gets bored very soon. So it’s not just about keeping her engaged but finding the right openings for her – and that is a bit of a challenge.”
The family almost withdrew from Child Genius when they realised it was a competition as well as a documentary. But participation brought unexpected benefits. Suja says, “The programme was a great support for me. I got to meet parents who shared a lot of the challenges that I do. And Shrinidhi met a lot of like-minded children.”
Hugo, 10 “I know I’m a nerd”
When Hugo’s mother, Michelle, was pregnant, she ate sardines every day, because she had read it could boost intelligence. Sometimes she wishes she hadn’t: “Hugo was hard work, so I always thought there was something slightly odd about him,” she sighs. “As a baby he was never content and always awake. He can still get by on five hours’ sleep. It was absolutely exhausting. I was so relieved to get his younger brother, Oscar – I call him my reward.
We love Hugo; he’s just very bright. He’s like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. I’m always rolling my eyes.”
Hugo, tucking into his third cherry bakewell before dancing Gangnam-style with his younger brother, is as unfazed by his mother’s remarks as he is when classmates get fed up with him knowing all the answers. His parents may be bemused by his intelligence, but they clearly have a very close relationship.
Hugo is an all-rounder with an encyclopaedic knowledge of trains, planes and the London Underground. But he’s also a bit of a joker. So when he goes on about how fantastic he is at aircraft design, at skiing, at the trumpet, at cricket, at maths – it’s hard to know whether he’s having you on. Even his mum can’t tell.
Michelle, a consultant in the oil industry, and Mark, a geologist, stopped trying to keep up with their son long ago.
“We want Hugo to be normal, we don’t want him to be different,” Michelle says. “We’ve never done anything special with him or had him tested, although when he was younger we considered moving him up a year at school. He isn’t swotty at all. He either knows it or he can’t be bothered to know it.
“Then recently my best friend said, ‘If Hugo were my son, I wouldn’t raise him in the way you are. I would recognise he’s different.’ To humour her I went on the Mensa website, and that’s how we fell into Child Genius.”
Hugo is the first to acknowledge that things can go a bit pear-shaped when he gets bored. Michelle has got used to being glared at in public and never leaves home without a book for Hugo – currently his favourite author is David Walliams. Hugo explains, “When I’m bored I just switch off and I start doing stupid things. I start being Hugo Behaving Badly. I enjoyed filming Child Genius because I love having too much attention and I didn’t have to attention-seek.”
Finding the right school proved a painful process. Michelle remembers, “When Hugo was younger, we never knew if he would be in tears when he came out of school. Every day he came out with all the pent-up emotion of the day, and then he’d cry and tell us he was in trouble again. It was so stressful for the whole family.”
Hugo is much happier and more confident at his current co-ed independent school, where he even gets to teach the occasional lesson – in plate tectonics, for example – and is given extended work. Recently he’s discovered computer games and football.
He says, “I used to walk around reading my book in the playground, but now I play football. I still take a book sometimes and if anyone says I’m a nerd I just say, whatever. I know I’m a nerd.”
See Child Genius tonight at 9:00pm, Channel 4