The Plight of Child Prodigies
The Child Prodigy
Children are remarkable little beings who see the world in a fresh view, and every child has untapped gifts and potential that we all want to flourish. Nothing breaks a parent’s heart more than squandered potential, the “could-have-been” and “maybe.” This is why it perplexes us when prodigies fail to live up to their early success.
A child prodigy is a person under age ten who demonstrates expert proficiency in a field. Some examples include: Emanne Beasha, a six-year-old opera singer and winner of Arabs’ Got Talent; Kevin Vechiatto, a Brazilian actor and comedian; 8-year-old Laurent Simons who graduated from high school; or violinist Jennifer Pike, who won BBC Young Musician of the Year at 12 years old.
Yet, some of these prodigies don’t scale up in adulthood and become the next Mozart, the next John Neumann, or the next Albert Einstein: that upturns the fabric of the field. In fact, some of them burn out by college, stagnate in their field, and never fulfill their full potential. Why is this the case?
Why They Don’t Measure Up
Malcolm Gladwell best explains this in his address at the 18th American Psychological Society. Prodigies are gifted learners, not innovators. People are looking for individuals who create something new, not someone who is good at old things.
Science has shown that prodigies across math, music, and sports possess extraordinary short-term memory. A particular study by Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz included 4 music prodigies with working memory above the 99.9 percentile. Combine this memory with a genetic predisposition to a field and a “rage to master” their domain, and you have a child prodigy: an individual who can focus on the minutiae of a talent and memorize every detail.
As extraordinary as this is, it doesn’t mean much to us if they don’t use the talent to reshape the field. Most prodigies master the field they’re talented at in a short time, but may not contribute something that redefines the domain. But this is perfectly fine. Expecting anyone to measure up to the likes of Enrico Fermi, Oppenheimer, or Jimi Hendrix is too much. If talented children can achieve a high proficiency and joy in what they excel at and contribute even a little to the field, then it's wonderful. Not every prodigious child should upend the field.
How Not To Raise A Child Prodigy
But it’s when a precocious child fails to cultivate their talent and joy in their work, it’s tragic. There are many unheard stories of children who, initially excelling, lose confidence, crack under pressure, grow bored, and become bitter with what was their joy. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen, it's best to understand what NOT to do.
1. Keep Them Bored
If you want to stop their growth immediately, keep them bored. Don’t challenge them, don’t present new things to learn, and keep them at an unbearably slow pace. Often, prodigies will quickly master the content for their grade or beginning level. Once impeded by the constraints of education, they will lose the desire to hone their craft, grow bored, and never develop the mental willpower necessary to master the upper echelons.
2. Spoil Them
Never teach them the value of hard work, never confront them with the eventual difficulty of their field, and never express the possibility of other people being more talented than them. Doing this would set them up to be vulnerable to setbacks and challenges. Often, children prodigious in sports never meet any major failures until they reach the upper tier. At which point, a sudden loss shakes them to the core. They lose their self-worth, joy, and drive to succeed. Conditioning children to prepare for this shock would help mitigate such an event.
3. Starve Them of Extracurriculars
Never introduce any new hobbies, pressure them to continue practicing their talent, stifle interest in other activities. The result would be a two-dimensional child sick to death of their talent and unwilling to go further. Prodigies are characterized by an intense interest in their domain, but even this has limits. Breaks are necessary to avoid burnout, and other talents must be grown. Doing this will give the child a diverse sense of identity and multiple sources of self-worth. This is all necessary to strengthen the child’s emotional resistance and ensure their passion doesn’t fizzle out.
4. Accelerate Them Too Fast
Dial the difficulty of their content to 100. Raise the goalposts to unreasonable standards. Section them away from other children their age. This will maximize frustration, kill their confidence, and lessen their willingness to learn more. Teaching prodigies is the same as teaching normal children. While prodigies learn at a faster rate, this rate simply needs to be accounted for. Their activities should be challenging, but not impossible, doable, but not effortless. The best way to achieve this is through strong communication between parents and educators. Offering children opportunities to skip grades, take advanced classes, or compete with better opponents at their own pace is essential in keeping their interest alive.
Precocious children are alike and not alike to other children. The 4 principles I set above are just as applicable to normal children as to prodigious children. So in a way, all it takes to cultivate a child prodigy is to raise them right, just like any other child. The difference is that it takes more resources and more effort to do so.
Terence Tao is a professor of mathematics at UCLA, and is known for his contributions to the field of partial differential equations, and is also a recipient of the 2006 Fields Medal. Terence is well known for being a child prodigy. In elementary school, he took staggered classes: taking math with 5th graders and other subjects with 2nd grade students. By age 9, he entered college part-time. He eventually earned his Ph.D. in math at Princeton before 21.
Yet Terry’s father attributes his son’s success not just to his upbringing but to the flexible education program present which allowed Terence to take staggered classes and enroll into college part-time.
The weekend enrichment at the Talented Children’s Association of South Australia. The connection with the head of the math department that became Terence’s supervisor and “life-long friend”. Not to mention the fact that Terence’s father is a pediatrician, gave Terence all the resources to succeed.
Prodigies are born, but geniuses are made, and making them means money, time, and support. But this applies to all children too, not just the exceptional. As obsessed we are with the potential of the gifted, we mustn’t be misguided because if even the most talented child can fall short, imagine the millions of other children who aren’t properly nurtured. Changes should be made to accommodate every student, not just the exceptional.