Every decade or so, a young kid, usually a girl, appears singing some sacred favorites, folk songs, and a little bit of opera. She is hailed as a miniature opera singer and makes a lot of money touring around and selling CDs and appearing on television.
Some of them continue to have singing careers as adults.
Others burn out.
Charlotte Church was very famous as a child singer when I was a kid (she's a year younger than I am). She had a "classical" career from 1998-2002. She then tried to transition into a pop career, releasing an album in 2005 and another in 2010, along with several singles. This has brought her nowhere near the success of the semi-classical music, to the extent that a lot of Americans who loved her early stuff now have no idea that she's still working.
Jackie Evancho is the latest young sensation. Her vocal technique is very wonky--just look how her jaw wobbles when she sings!--but her fans insist that her team of coaches, doctors, and promoters will make sure she doesn't injure her young vocal apparatus. Personally I think they'll just make lots of money off her while they still can.
A lot of professional musicians look at the likes of Jackie Evancho and offer her up as an example of why children shouldn't start voice lessons. The vocal apparatus of a child is delicate and working on repertoire intended for adults can seriously--perhaps permanently--damage a child's voice. However, I think that the right kind of vocal training is good for a child. Sensitive training of the child's ears, sense of rhythm, sight-singing ability, breathing and posture is more likely to prevent problems later than allowing a child to sing any which way until the age of sixteen or seventeen, since a child who wants voice lessons IS going to sing regardless of whether they receive lessons. Singing along with the radio might help develop a child's musical sensibilities, but, especially depending on what they're listening to, it might be harmful to the actual vocal chords and create a lot of bad habits that will have to be unlearned later. Better to develop good habits early than have to unlearn bad ones.
My parents called several voice teachers when I was nine years old. Most of them wouldn't take me. They eventually found one who agreed to meet me, hear me sing, and then make her decision. She took me on, and I'm really glad she did. Lisa was my voice teacher for eight years and I know I wouldn't be the musician I am today without her. She also taught me a lot about life, people, and not taking myself too seriously, particularly when I suddenly got shy as a teenager ("The song is called 'I'm Just a Girl Who Cain't Say No,' WHY are you singing it like a nun?"). She guided my young voice in the way it should go and made sure that I learned good breathing, used my head voice, and didn't try to sing like a 35-year-old jazz singer when I was 11 (I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald in those days).
I would have been singing anyway. When I was 12, I was in three choirs. I was developing an interest in Irish folk songs. I had an almost insatiable appetite for listening to music (it was probably a good thing for my school grades that YouTube hadn't been invented yet). I could have done myself a mischief if not for Lisa's excellent instruction. I hope I can provide that service for some other youngsters in the future.