Child Genius (Prodigy)

You see them. Toddlers playing violin virtuoso, preschoolers solving algebraic equations, schoolchildren getting Ph.D. in Physics. Every parent wants such kids.

Image courtesy of Lumosity. A child prodigy.

What do you call these children? Prodigies.

What are prodigies? A prodigy is a person, especially a child or young person, having extraordinary talent or ability.[1] This means a child who can master any ability or skill that is supposed to be mastered by an adult or someone with long exposure and practice to a particular field. To be called a prodigy, one must be a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert performer.[2][3][4][5] Accordingly, child prodigies are rare, and in some domains, there are no child prodigies at all. Prodigiousness in childhood does not always predict adult eminence.[2]

Why there are child prodigies? What causes prodigiousness in children and why there are only few child prodigies? Child prodigies are rare. Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychologist at Ohio State University, stated “I would say for a true prodigy it’s as rare as 1 in 5 million or 1 in 10 million.”[6] These prodigies are not usually jacks-of-all-trades sort. They have usually very professional skills in only a few fields of knowledge: most often in the rule-based fields of music, mathematics, art, and chess.[6] Characteristics of child prodigies:

  1. Exceptional memory
  2. Great attention to detail
  3. Elevated intelligence quotient

Prodigies usually have exceptional memories.[6] This means the child will automatically remember and do any difficult skill or activity even if just from observation. In a study of eight prodigies published earlier this year in the journal Intelligence, each had a working memory ability in the 99th percentile.[6] Child prodigies do also have great attention to detail, which which aligns with people on the autism spectrum. Although prodigies aren’t on the scale, more than 50 percent of them have a family member on the scale, Ruthsatz’s research shows.[6] These kids do have elevated general intelligence. Ruthsatz says that the prodigies have a range of IQs from 100 to 147, with a mean of about 128.

Aside from these 3 traits, Ruthsatz adds that altruism is also a trait found in child prodigies. Ruthsatz says that her subjects tend to be far more altruistic than the general population. In watching her cohort grow up, she says they continue to do well and be well in society: “They’re just benevolent souls.”[6] And these traits make up child prodigies. The reason for child prodigies to exist is not yet that known. Aside from a probable heritable component to prodigious talent, there is not much known about the biology of intelligence.[7]

Image courtesy of wellingtontreat.com. Child prodigies’ exceptional memories make them very well adept to high-school and college level mathematics and science.

But studies suggest atypical brain development as a cause for development of child prodigy brains[7]:

Currently, the causes and the nature of genius are not well understood. The human brain is still a mystery in many ways, but science has unraveled a few interesting clues. Scientists don’t know exactly how the gray matter in the human brain works, but there is an interesting correlation between intelligence and grey matter. While the overall size of a brain does not appear to have much influence on intelligence, the amount of grey matter in the brain may. A 2004 study at the University of California, Irvine found that the volume of gray matter in parts of the cerebral cortex had a greater impact on intelligence than the brain’s total volume. The findings suggest that specific physical attributes of certain stuctures of the brain may partially determine in what ways a person excels intellectually.[7]

Child prodigies are geniuses; therefore, life is easier for them right?

But there is also a flip side of the coin in being a prodigy. While most child prodigies do have high IQs, they do not demonstrate extraordinary performance across the board. Rather, they are bright individuals whose ability is far beyond that of age mates but falls short when compared to adults. Some child prodigies, however, have skills outside the range of even the most able adult competitors.[8] But multiple intelligences are rare to the prodigy. Lewis Terman, who studied 1500 genius children 70 years ago, was quite surprised to find that starting life with an enormous IQ was no guarantee of future success. While it was true most of his subjects went on to make substantial contributions to society, there were many who seemed to flounder as they reached adulthood. Some had trouble keeping a steady job, others were merely average at the jobs they had.[8] Grown-up child prodigies’ intellectual prowess did not make them immune to mental illness, and a good percentage struggled with alcoholism. At least twenty-two of his subjects committed suicide.[8]

Why prodigies have a hard time coping with life?

Contrary to popular belief, child prodigies do have strengths that beat other children, but when they become adults, they often struggle with everyday lives.

Problems of Child Prodigies:

Because society place child prodigies on a pedestal, we expect them to be flawlessly perfect in every way especially in their endeavors. This puts child prodigies into a very high risk of underachievement and social problems. According to an article in the Genius Experiment, while child prodigies excel at some areas, “as they grow up, many talented children who were not as precocious start catching up in terms of technical skills and mastery of the domain in question, and suddenly different qualities set the star performers apart.” A perfect memory or excellent analytical skills can facilitate learning, but they are not enough to become an adult genius.[9] This means simple “rote” memorization and very structured activity domains do not necessarily make a child genius mature enough into an adult genius. People usually measure intelligence as an extremely high IQ, a near perfect memory or technical proficiency in an instrument, rather than a long term focus on originality, imagination and psychological characteristics that will support outstanding achievement (persistence, patience, focus, obsessive interest in a certain area, dealing with frustration, self-confidence).[9] In short, structured domains does not make a child genius smart enough when dealing with life trials, such as activity failures, which makes them also at risk for various emotional problems.

Child prodigies are at risk of emotional problems. Because the whole world expects them to be perfect, the child prodigy learns to be perfectionist that every small error they commit (i.e. a 9 out of 10 in a quiz score) is already considered a major failure that they become hypercritical of themselves, may become very depressed, or very anxious. They may also procrastinate because they tend to make projects or tests “perfect” that can cause delays in submission, which makes them at risk also for educational underachievement. How they obsess with quizzes? Some highly gifted children relentlessly consider the implications of each answer and what the risks are of making an error, which makes their test paper more at risk for errors because of over analysis.[10] (I do really relate on that in my childhood)

Image courtesy of howdoidate.com. Perfectionism in child prodigies causes life risks such as emotional problems.

Another problem for child prodigies is that they have adult brains in children’s bodies. These children are so insightful at such a young age, able to make sense of adult ideas, they are constantly aware of the potential risk of failure. This awareness can immobilize them to the point of emotional paralysis, a quiet demon that parents and teachers must watch for[10] (For more about this, see my article giftedness here). Child prodigies do also find age-level schooling more boring because this does not stimulate their brains enough. Gifted children who are not challenged can quickly grow bored with school.[10]

The worse part is social isolation for child prodigies. These kids usually have more advanced cognitive and intellectual maturity than most kids that when a child prodigy tells about feudalism to his peers, his peers will only laugh and make fun of him, and may even leave him, causing social isolation. Another thing here is that, child prodigies do demand to have more intelligent friends (and lovers when grown up). Contrary to popular belief, child prodigies do not on average have more school or social problems than their less gifted peers, according to longitudinal studies. They may have fewer friends, but that is usually because they make greater demands of acquaintances.[10]

And the worst part of the above problems is that the child prodigy knows these problems, yet they are very fearful that they will fail. And peers, parents, and teachers may become very disappointed to them that instead of helping the prodigy, they

What to do for child prodigies to unleash their potential in the long run and prevent problems in the future?

The first step is to recognize exceptional intelligence.[10] This can be done by taking standardized IQ tests. Spotting exceptional talent (composing symphonies, solving trigonometry problems, etc.) is a must also.

When giftedness in a child prodigy is confirmed, special education classes designed for gifted are given to suit her intellectual capacity. This also encourages socialization with fellow child prodigies as they can relate more to each other; “birds of the same feather, flock together.”

Keep the child engaged and challenged.[11] School lessons must be attuned with her high intelligence. Gifted children often become bored in regular classrooms because they learn rapidly – many gifted children we’ve met have already read the textbook before the academic year begins! You need to find other ways to these children busy – or end up with a child who is chronically bored and possibly disruptive, underachieving, or frequently absent.[11]

Nurture the development of their gifts.[11] Here, they will reach their full potential as a person. If their gifts are not supported, they will develop poor school and work habits later (as a result of boredom and feeling of failure). When an appropriate challenge finally comes along – e.g. in college – they may lack the persistence and hard work that even profoundly gifted children need to fulfill their potential. Setting gifted children challenges from the early years keeps them motivated and develops their work habits.[11]

Don’t place child prodigies on the pedestal. Although they are more intelligent than the rest of us, child prodigies are still humans like us – they laugh, cry, become fearful, etc – can feel emotions. Most of all, child prodigies are still children who want to play and have fun. If you treat a child prodigy as some alien with supernatural or computer-like powers, you will end up treating him less of a human and more of an object. Putting too much expectations on child prodigies will make them at risk of every emotional problem – perfectionism, procrastination, boredom, and depression. Doing so will do more harm than good on them.[12]

But with proper identification, acceptance, and management, I’m very sure child prodigies can make most of their lives.

Some examples of historical child prodigies[13]:

  • Blaise Pascal
  • Maria Agnesi
  • Felix Mendelssohn
  • Marie Cure
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Jean Piaget
  • Jascha Heifetz
  • John von Neumann
  • Paul Erdos

Some examples of modern prodigies[14]:

  • Mikaela Fudolig
  • Akrit Jaswal
  • Taylor Wilson
  • Cameron Thompson
  • Jacob Barnett
  • March Tian Boedihardio
  • Priyanshi Somani
  • Akim Camara
  • Ethan Bortnick
  • Tanishq Matthew Abraham

For more child prodigy list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_child_prodigies

Music child prodigies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_child_music_prodigies

Reference:

  1. dictionary.reference.com/browse/prodigy
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_prodigy
  3. Feldman, David H.; Morelock, M. J. (2011).“Prodigies”. In Runco, Mark A.; Pritzker, Steven R.Encyclopedia of Creativity (Second Edition). Academic Press. pp. 261–265. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-375038-9.00182-5. ISBN 978-0-12-375038-9. Retrieved 8 April2015. Lay summary (8 April 2015). For the purposes of this and future research, a prodigy was defined as a child younger than 10 years of age who has reached the level of a highly trained professional in a demanding area of endeavor. – via ScienceDirect (Subscription may be required or content may be available in libraries.)
  4. Rose, Lacey (2 March 2007). “Whiz Kids”. Forbes. Retrieved 3 April 2015. At the moment, the most widely accepted definition is a child, typically under the age of 10, who has mastered a challenging skill at the level of an adult professional.
  5. Feldman, David Henry (Fall 1993). “Child prodigies: A distinctive form of giftedness” (PDF). Gifted Child Quarterly 27 (4): 188–193.doi:10.1177/001698629303700408. ISSN 0016-9862. Retrieved 1 June 2014.
  6. http://www.popsci.com/blog-network/kinderlab/what-makes-child-prodigy
  7. http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2007/09/newtons-childre.html
  8. http://brainconnection.brainhq.com/2000/07/20/child-prodigies/
  9. http://www.geniusexperiment.com/2012/12/why-child-prodigies-fail/
  10. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/watching-prodigies-for-th/
  11. http://prodigy.net.in/managing-a-gifted-student/34
  12. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-wrong-way-to-treat-child-geniuses-1401484790
  13. http://mentalfloss.com/article/27906/9-child-prodigies-who-actually-ended-doing-something
  14. http://listverse.com/2013/07/09/resend-10-modern-child-prodigies/

Further reading:

Child prodigies, what happens when they grow up? http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/15/child-geniuses-prodigies

The Downside of Being a Child Prodigy: http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1532087,00.html

Filipino 90s Child Prodigies Now Grown Up: http://mommybloggersphilippines.com/2015/02/02/filipino-child-prodigies-now/

A Life of a Child Prodigy: http://www.rappler.com/move-ph/76107-four-year-old-gifted-boy plus video: https://youtu.be/S6hV3EQK7rU

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