“Just Don’t Burn the House Down”: Hands-Off Gifted Parenting

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by Bethany Johnsen

What would you do if your 14-year-old son came home from school one day and told you he had an idea for an early test for pancreatic cancer? As most of us would in their position, the parents of high school freshman Jack Andraka received this announcement with skepticism.

Less typically, however, the Andrakas have reserved their basement for their two sons’ lab experiments, a room where the only rule is “Don’t burn down the house.” Given that the Andraka boys’ Internet purchasing of lab materials has attracted a letter from the FBI, allowing them this freedom demonstrates considerable trust. Jack’s mother admitted that the less she and her husband knew about what was going on down there, the better. Her commitment to “not being a helicopter parent” continued when Jack gained permission to work on his project in a professional biomedical research lab. She dropped him off every day after school and waited in the car for him to come out every night, never following him in.

Now, after winning the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2012, Jack’s test has attracted the attention of the biotech industry. Although it will require years of further testing, his idea could potentially save thousands of lives. Watch the recent 60 Minutes feature Boy Wonder: Jack Andraka for a fascinating and inspiring look at what gifted teenagers can accomplish. And, for more on the parenting philosophy of the woman who raised him, check out Jane Andraka’s TED talk, “Hijacking your child’s education.”