When ridiculously smart kids appear onscreen, they’re often portrayed as freakishly intelligent, with very narrow hopes and ambitions. Here on the set of Child Genius, in contrast, is a large group of well-rounded kids who high-five between rounds, have a supportive secret WhatsApp group to share study tips... and would all very much like to win this competition, even as they acknowledge it's an honour to be here in the first place.
Host Susan Carland sets the scene: “As the show suggests, it’s about finding really smart kids, and it tests them across a range of different areas – spelling, maths, general knowledge – but also their memory, and that can be taught in different ways. They'll be put in a room and, for 40 minutes, they need to learn everything they can about, say, Australian history.”
WATCH: Child Genius airs Monday to Wednesday nights on SBS at 8:30pm, with episodes available to stream anytime at SBS On Demand.
That’s the round I sat in on before I spoke to anyone. I was arrogant in my knowledge of the subject, but very rapidly put in my place by the information stored away in these kids’ mind tanks, followed by an out-of-proportion smugness at my knowledge of when prime ministers served. It was an egotistical rollercoaster and the final dip was the realisation that I was silently competing against children.
Before each round, there’s a briefing with all the kids, and if you’ve ever played a board game against a rules lawyer you’ll be familiar with the kinds of esoteric questions, points of order and attempts to gain the edge on display here. Arielle wants to know if the dinosaur-themed questions will be split according to their eras: early, middle and late (yes, they will be). Sumedh wants to know if he can have pen and paper on the podium (no).
(“Are you the dinosaur expert?” one of the mums asks me. I’ve never been more flattered in all my life.)
What you’re seeing on screen are unvarnished, authentic personalities – kids, in other words. There's a lot of character here, but that doesn't only mean extraversion. Ayden double-points to his head when he gets a question wrong that he knew the correct answer to. Nathan looks dubious of the judges when he makes an error. Adam wears a tropical hat because he's feeling tropical. Amy, unprompted, shows off her taekwondo skills.
“I love that kids just do that,” says Susan. “Adults would be like, ‘Oh no, I shouldn't.’ They're at the age where they're still themselves. You know life and society hasn't beaten that difference out of them yet and it’s delightful.”
Learning to fail gracefully
A lot of planning went into Child Genius – not just in terms of plotting narratives and building sets but also making sure that every last detail was just right. Executive producer Maxine Gray reveals: “My greatest fear was not knowing if we’d pitched the questions at the right level for the children. The thing that kept me awake at night was that none of the children would get the answers, but they have. They have come through so strong.”
A considered level of care drives the heart of the show, too. Contestants are eliminated as the competition rolls on, but they’re fully supported through that process. Today it’s a girl who leaves, and after a private chat with the on-set child psychologist, she seems pretty psyched to go home and hang out with her friends from school.
“One mum actually said that she really wanted her son to take part in the competition, but she wanted him to fail,” says Maxine. “Because he always wins: at his school, in his life. She really thinks that it would be a positive thing for him to fail.”
When he was eventually eliminated, despite initially feeling sad and disappointed, he grew to see it as a positive outcome. “Isn’t that remarkable?” Grey reflects: “For a child of 10 or 12 years to have that kind of maturity is just fantastic. And that’s the case with a lot of the children – their emotional maturity, their emotional IQ is quite high. A lot of them see the world like adults.”
Parents on board
Backstage, there’s plenty happening, as kids and parents plan for what’s coming up next. I felt guilty taking them away from their studying time, but it was worth it to learn both that Mahnoor’s favourite dinosaur is the Procompsognathus (which only weighed one kilo), and her mum Anmoila’s motivation for encouraging Mahnoor to audition for the show:
“I come from a very tribal background – the tribal area of Balochistan [Pakistan]. Women are not so lucky in the sense that they don't get equal opportunities, especially when it comes to women’s rights, when it comes to studying. But I was very lucky because my parents did take a stand. My father, God bless him, he said, ‘My daughters will also go to English-speaking schools, very good schools, and I will not differentiate between my son and daughter.’
Anmoila moved to Australia after her husband passed away seven years ago. “Coming here has been a very big jump as well, surviving on my own…and looking after my kids – working as well as supporting them.” She says that living here has encouraged her to take risks and do things she may not have done anywhere else in the world: “I love Australia. I love Australians and the support they've given me.
“My motivation was that my daughter can have a forum where she can express herself, where she's independent and free, and where she’s not looked at as she’s a girl or a boy. She can do this, she can be herself and she can conquer.”
Still, it’s clear that there’s some stress among the audience that’s shared by the contestants on stage when the cameras are rolling.
“It's nerve-racking,” reveals one of the parents, Larnie, who has both a son and daughter (Maxwell and Amy) in the competition. “I’ve had heart attacks about 15 times.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had sweaty palms before,” laughs her husband, Guy. “You get these two young children and you put them up there in front of a couple of hundred people, and cameras and crew and everything else, and you think, ‘Gee, just don't freeze!’”
Alani chimes in: “They’re so resilient and they’re so brave and they just take it in their stride. They are all my babies, not just these two!”
Camaraderie in the trenches
Child Genius may be a competition, but underneath its competitive structure, the show is conducted in a spirit of friendship – one that encourages you to want to cheer for everyone. Unlike many reality TV show set-ups, there are no villains here.
Anmoila confirms that the behind-the-scenes vibe of the show is one of togetherness: “The kids are from everywhere around the world and it’s a really nice atmosphere – how the kids are supporting each other is amazing. They've formed a group on WhatsApp and they're frequently updating each other about their status, about their fears, what's coming up, what they've done, what they need to do and giving each other tips.”
“They’re lovely,” adds Susan. “They're lovely to us, they're lovely to each other, and that's going to come through when people watch it. These kids, there's a light that's on in them, and they're all so different. Some are very extroverted, some are really shy, some are really quirky, and it's great to see that diversity.”
If you grew up as one of the smart kids in primary school, you might remember being a mascot at best or a lonely victim of bullying at worst. Child Genius shows a different side to these young brainiacs. Not just in how they study up, but where they come from, and how they live, too.
More importantly, beyond their impressive ability to recall facts, solve problems and spell surely-made-up words, what you also get to witness is their generosity and heart: how they go forth to form the foundations of lifelong relationships and look after each other.
A new six-part SBS series Child Genius hosted by Dr Susan Carland follows the lives of Australia’s brightest children and their families and will see them testing their abilities in maths, general knowledge, memory and language.
The quiz show will be broadcast over two weeks starting November 12. Episodes will be aired Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm.
After they air, episodes will stream at SBS On Demand: