I find it odd how the fandom focuses so much on Aang’s childhood being ruined when he learned he was the Avatar at 12, but there’s very little talk about how discovering she was the Avatar as a toddler affected Korra’s life and how she was raised.
But we’ll circle back to that...
Because this is a good starting point to talk about one of the most prevalent themes in the story, which the mainstream discussion of tends to only focus on a few characters -- That is the Child Prodigy.
We’ll start with the two most obvious. The ones we always talk about.
The clearest example of your typical child prodigy (if there is anything typical about a prodigy). Azula showed early mastery of very advanced Fire-Bending techniques, and is the only Fire-Bender to use blue flames, which was intended to make her stand out amongst the other villains but is also indicative that her Fire-Bending is more pure and powerful (blue flame is produced when burning pure O2 or fuel without contaminant at a very high temperature).
All this lead to her being praised and favored by Ozai as a child, but as double-edged swords go, this also meant she had a lot of pressure on her shoulders to never fail, and she rarely did. Her ego matched her talent, and let’s be honest she was the baddest bitch the show had ever seen. Conquering Ba Sing Se, defeating the Avatar in combat, and dropping some of the most devastating lines of dialogue in villain history; she was a force nobody wanted to reckon with.
And that become a problem for one asshole in particular...
Being jealous of his own child is just one item on a laundry list of reasons why this guy is the worst father in the history of fathers. Azula had begun to outshine him with her victories, and Ozai’s maniacal ego couldn’t handle that, so he left her behind to babysit the Fire Nation while he went out to burn/conquer the world, which also was her idea.
And while this wasn’t the only thing that aided in her demise, it certainly was the final straw which sent her spiraling down into this...
In the end Azula is a sad example of how certain unfair expectations are placed upon talented children, and the more they succeed, the more these expectations grow and weigh on the them until they either disappoint those looking down on them or surpass and embarrass their elders.
It is a lose-lose situation which inevitably destroys them.
There is a similar example of the child prodigy, but his story goes a little different.
Even as a twelve/thirteen year-old boy Aang by far has the most impressive stats among any character in the Avatar universe.
Basically mastering 3 of the 4 Elements in less than a year, after mastering Air by the time he is twelve (not to mention inventing his own Air-bending move, the Air scooter).
Aang is an example of a child prodigy who had too much thrust onto him at too young an age because of the talent he showed; because of this he panicked and ran away, and the world was worse off for it.
Aang/Sokka/Katara’s story is all about how in times of War, responsibilities normally handled by adults are pushed onto kids who then have to grow up very fast in order to deal with it all.
The message is clear. War robs the young of their childhoods.
Now, let’s talk about a different kind of child prodigy.
Yes, of course I’m talking about Toph, the greatest Earth-Bender to ever live.
Because of her blindness, Toph’s family tried to keep her sheltered and safe by hiding her from the world. Refusing to believe she could ever be more than helpless. Anyone who has seen the show knows that is far from the truth.
But because her potential went unseen, there were some negative effects to her personality. Initially, she resented her parents, and rebelled; which established a certain level of independence, a bad attitude, and a hot-headed streak. Over time spent with the Gaang these behaviors subsided because she finally had friends and they accepted her for who she was. By the end of the series she was fully willing to accept aid from them when she needed it, like holding on to Sokka’s arm in environment where her bending couldn’t help her “see”.
Toph’s story is a foil to Azula’s, both showed immense talent and badassery, but while recognition of Azula lead to ever-mounting pressure for her to succeed; the lack of recognition for Toph created a need for her to be acknowledged and set an undercurrent of frustration which leads to her acting out in the ways she does.
The lesson to take from Toph’s story is not to shelter your kid from the world out of fear for their safety, and to be open to recognizing their talents, not shun them.
Next are two more Unacknowledged.
Katara and Sokka.
Their story, and the reason behind their circumstances, is one of the more complicated and nuanced ones in the series, so here we’ll focus on how it fits into the subject of discussion.
Because of the War, Katara was robbed not only of her mother but also of any Southern Masters to train her, and any role models Sokka could have looked up to left with his father to fight. Because of this Katara’s potential and Sokka’s genius went unacknowledged not due to neglect but rather due to circumstance. (Yes, I think Sokka is a genius, how many 15 yr olds do you know that can plan an invasion, design submarines, and spit poetry off the cuff?).
This is a further example of how War robs kids of necessary childhood experiences, and these two robberies had particular effects on both Katara and Sokka’s character developments.
Sokka had the responsibility of protecting his home put upon him at a young age. The men of his tribe leaving prevented him from completing his rite of manhood until the Gaang ran into Bato of the Water Tribe, and early on Sokka was constantly trying to prove himself as a man and a leader. Sokka is one of the smarter characters of the series, but he rarely got credit for it until the third season. Not to mention that because he wasn’t a bender he often seemed less useful than the others. The circumstances of war made his talent go unnoticed and because of that he often was unsure of himself and overcompensated to prove something.
Speaking of talent going unnoticed.
Katara is definitely one of the more talented benders of the series. After training herself for years with little progress, she essentially mastered Water-Bending in a few weeks under Master Pakku. While her anger towards the Fire-Nation mostly centers around the loss of her mother, it can’t be ignored that the delay in her training was a direct result of the Fire-Nations’ actions. Toph’s anger and frustration vented itself as rebellion. However, the same frustration and anger is within Katara, but because she wasn’t as natural a bender as Toph she sought to learn and be respected, and when that was denied to her is when that anger bubbled to the surface in some terrifying ways.
While Toph’s talent went unnoticed because of her families neglect, Katara and Sokka’s wasn’t acknowledged because there was nobody to acknowledge it. Because of that both brother and sister wanted to prove themselves to the world.
And then there is Zuko.
I know what you’re thinking. Zuko wasn’t a prodigy, his Fire-Bending skill didn’t catch up with Azula’s until the finale and he never mastered Lightning-Bending, but this section is about the Unacknowledged.
Zuko had many other talents besides Fire-Bending, he was a master swordsmen, and was able to successfully break into every secure facility he attempted in the show (which was almost every secure facility the show featured). Unfortunately, these talents were never recognized, because the only thing the royal family cared about was bending ability (It’s possible the reason he learned the sword was because he lacked skill in Fire-Bending).
As per usual with Zuko, this part of his tale is quite sad. Many can relate to being outshined by a sibling, and when it becomes all too clear that one cannot match another’s talent it’s quite understandable to focus on what they do excel at, but even then there is no promise of recognition for their own talent. Zuko was even mocked by his father during the solar eclipse when Ozai tried baiting him into attacking with his swords.
This lack of recognition is one of many sad aspects of Zuko’s early life, but it is a definitive example of one of the hardest unacknowledged prodigy’s cross to bear. The Outshone prodigy, one whose talents are never noticed because a bigger and brighter star stands in the way of such recognition, and arguably the most frustrating type mentioned here. Toph/Sokka/Katara all came from situations were there was no recognition being given to them or anyone, but Zuko had to bear watching massive amounts of praise be piled on to his sister while he and his accomplishments went by the way side.
Ozai summed up the situation best.
“Azula was born lucky, Zuko was lucky to be born”
Alright now where have I been going with all this?
So, far we’ve covered a lot of wrong ways to treat a child, whether they show talent or not, and how the circumstances of war can also take many things from children.
But what happened to Korra?
(Before we get into to this I should state that I like Korra, and the purpose of this is not to bash her as a character or her arc, but rather to give a little of my insight into it.)
It’s well established that Aang was told of his heritage too young, and that was a detriment on his development into an adult, but what would have happened if he realized his powers himself not long after he could walk? We’ll never know, but we do get to see the effects it had on Korra.
When she revealed herself as the Avatar, Korra set her entire life in a new direction, and because Aang tasked the White Lotus with finding and training her that direction was out of her control. There are two key differences between Korras’ and other Avatars’ lives.
1. She grew up in isolation on a White Lotus compound.
Every Avatar before Korra we know of spent a portion of their early lives traveling the world in order to master the elements; along this journey they not only learned how to bend the other 3 elements, buy also many things about the 3 other nations and the world they are tasked to protect as a whole. By confining Korra in safety and bringing the masters to her the White Lotus deprived Korra of this opportunity to learn and grow and understand the world and the people within in. It also deprived her of learning modern bending styles until she reached Republic City.
While this might have kept Korra safe from the Red Lotus, it grew within her a naiveté about how the world worked, and because of this when she actually did venture out into the world she was terribly unprepared for it.
2. She was trained and mastered 3 of the elements by the time she was 16.
Most Avatars don’t know they have this power until they reach 16 and then they spend several years learning to control it. Korra’s natural talent in the bending lead to her training being expedited not by necessity like Aang’s, but due to her talent and eagerness. Korra excelled at the physical part of being the Avatar and because of this by the time she reached maturity she had become over-confident in her abilities and true to what her Fire-Bending master said in Ep.1 she lacked restraint.
I’m not saying her bending isn’t great, but rather because it is so great it’s her go-to solution to anything, and she enjoys that so she uses it with enthusiastic gusto and not a lot of thinking before striking.
This overconfidence coupled with her naiveté of the world is what lead to many of her rash decisions and actions, most of which had negative consequences, and I believe are the reason behind some fan are dissatisfied with her. Aang had been almost the complete opposite, even by the age of twelve he was an experienced world traveler and an incredibly humble guy.
Some may have been dissatisfied by these character decisions, but they served a purpose, they are only the beginning of her arc. The internal challenge Korra must overcome through 4 seasons is to humble herself before the world, and learn from it. This was finally achieved in the 4th season when the metal poisoning in her body forces her to face others in the world as equals, only then had she completed her journey.
And why did it all go this way?
Because she is a very unique child prodigy, what she demonstrates in the first episode of LOK would be akin to a toddler playing the violin or hitting a three-pointer; she could bend 3 elements close to just after learning to walk. That is the kind of prodigious talent rarely seen because it is mostly impossible. How does a rational person handle a child like that?
It’s a tough question, and something this essay has been circling around the whole time. Each example here is the wrong way to handle talented and different children, but what is the right way?
As always look to Iroh.
Who treated his surrogate son Zuko with both respect and compassion.
Unlike Toph’s parents, Iroh worried over Zuko’s well being, but also allowed him to be independent, make his own decisions, and take his own risks.
Unlike the Nomad Leaders, he didn’t want Zuko weighed down by his position in the world and the responsibility that came with, and always encouraged him relax and take advantage of the moment.
Unlike Ozai, Iroh would always be there to support Zuko in his victories and his failures. Iroh shows him the right path but does not force him down it.
And even after Zuko betrayed and abandoned him.
Iroh was never angry with him, and embraced him upon his return.
He wanted Zuko to grow and be a better man. Even if Zuko wasn’t a prodigy like his sister.
And that is the answer here. The way to raise a prodigy is the same way anyone should raise any child. Love, Support, a Guiding Hand rather than a Forceful Shove, Recognition of What Makes Them Unique, and Forgiveness When They Falter. The problem comes along when you start treating children differently because you see them as different or special. All children are different, all children are special.
Kids are kids, and they all deserve a proper childhood.
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