The Problem With Child Prodigies

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In this third installment of our series on genius, we look at the problem of child prodigies. Author David Shenk and chess champion Josh Waitzkin, who was the inspiration for the main character in 1993's Searching for Bobby Fisher, join us to discuss where prodigy comes from, and where it goes when the child grows up.


David Shenk and Josh Waitzkin

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Posey Gruener

Comments [8]

Philoreia F.F. from New York

No one could work hard to become what I am, and however lazy I could be, I would never be what you are. There are ways to achieve similar things to what I achieve as me by working in your own manner & style as yourselves, yet to deny that I am inherently different is to by contextual extension deny me access to proper services and supports, and is likely to cause you to both misunderstand and pathologize me and to fail to appreciate yourselves. To pressure people to preform like dancing monkeys can be very damaging (though there is fun in it; it is not all bad), and there is a great temptation for you average men to do that to us, and for us to do that to ourselves for you, but the way to avoid that is not to refuse to acknowledge basic and obvious differences but to recognize our shared humanity, and need for acceptance, comprehension, and camaraderie in all we do.

Aug. 23 2015 01:35 AM
Philoreia F.F. from New York

Love is indeed a critical element, yet I must say that at least for me, that the tendency to love specific things from within the context of this mortal world with a magnificent and terrible passion is innate. I am what has been called an 'omnibus prodigy' with exceptional powers in and love for imaginational generation, logical, geometric, and linguistic reasoning, philology, literary, linguistic, poetical, and musical composition, empathy, memory, and rapidity of mentation. Things come to me quite truly as easily as breathing or walking (I did begin walking early, and remember how and why I did so). It would appear that most humans do not find that the same things come so easily to them, and this cannot be because they are lazy or disinterested, for the very reason that it takes no or very minimal effort on my part to grasp the principles of these things, and only highly pleasurable exertion to apply that understanding to honing practical abilities to engage with those things in intense ways that often result in children -- imageny! I see the world, Existence itself, from the complete infinity that it is -- which I call Totalus, I understand Reality to be the subjective parallel of Existence, that is the basic source of my scientific powers, and I did not study to gain that perception but rather have, and have ever had, it whether I wish to or not. I have devoted myself to specific things out of passionate love, yet I cannot chose how to love, but rather am drawn by alignment of factors to love as I do. I have worked and worked intensely to hone certain skills or learn specific facts, yet that is a result of my powers, not the source of my powers, not what originated my prodigy. When I compose poems or musical pieces I plan and practice nothing, quite literally begetting full pieces as though bearing them forth from the possibility of their reality; at most I reign them in or encourage them to finesse, as one would shape a young life at a finishing-school. I cannot help but to notice that in this article, there is a tone of denying the fact of such minds and abilities as mine.

Aug. 23 2015 01:34 AM
Philoreia F.F. from New York

We are all equal as complete infinity, wherefrom we are variable as differentiation.

Being a prodigy is not a childhood disease but a lifelong condition.
There are specific challenges for one if one must live in a context designed for those very unlike oneself, as much as there are for persons downs syndromic or deaf. There is nothing truly wrong with being a mutant or anomaly within a species, yet one needs special supports and understanding, for there are many things that go wrongly when one is not properly prepared for, treated, a/o understood. There is no readily available medical, societal, or legal, support or protection for people like me, though my physiology, psychology, behaviour, and work style, are atypical in many ways, and despite the fact that I am very vulnerable to discrimination, and persecution due to my extreme rarity. Most do not realize that the things that make prodigies like myself different include neurological misfirings resulting from my brain discharging excess energy, vitamin processing differences that cause me to need specialized forms of certain nutrients, super high general energy level resulting in lack of need for daily sleep and high need for constant mental and emotional stimulation, physical and psychological androgyny, great neurological sensitivity, polypath synaesthesia, and neoteny, among other things, that are out-of-sync with most of humanity yet not pathological and not possible to alter without damaging or destroying me. To minimize the differences between people like myself and those who 'just work hard' is to do grave injustice to the application of a good life for either us or them, for our needs and behaviours in every area of life differ from theirs.

Aug. 23 2015 01:32 AM
David Shenk from Brooklyn

Domnogin is definitely onto something
It's treacherous emotional waters for young super-achievers. Huge success and the spotlight makes it very difficult (not impossible) to have a healthy home and school life, to grow up with a balanced ego, to find develop into a well-rounded and high-achieving adult.
Child achievers are also frequently hobbled by the psychology of their own success. Children who grow up surrounded by praise for being technically proficient at a specific task often develop a natural aversion to stepping outside their comfort zone. Instead of falling into a pattern of taking risks and regularly pushing themselves just beyond their limit, they develop a terrible fear of new challenges and of any sort of flaw or failure. Ironically, this leads them away from the very building blocks of adult success.

I discuss this more in my book.

Mar. 11 2010 09:45 AM
domnogin from Miami FL (WLRN)

Being a genius is a dangerous game. Whenever a parent boasts of a child being in a gifted program, I give my condolences in advance. By definition, only 2% of the population can see the world the way they do, which means at best 1% actually does; they are statistically abnormal, like an athlete but with few of the popularity advantages. This contributes to loneliness which can lead to premature death. This excludes what I call "quasi-geniuses" that don't quite pass Mensa's requirements for membership, including

Mar. 10 2010 11:06 AM
bunji fromartz from nyc

7 foods farmers wont eat

kinda answers the local v organic argument in favor of organic

dbfromartz at twitter

Mar. 10 2010 09:17 AM
Sarah from Tenafly, NJ

I really enjoyed this segment, especially the discussion on the scientific report about the effect of labeling children as "prodigies." If we tell children that they are just "born" this way or that, their drive diminishes. If we tell them that they got where they are through hard work and development, they work harder.

As a parenting "expert" it never ceases to amaze me how easily, and constantly, we limit our children by putting labels on them. And the effect is always the same, they end up believing us. This leaves them feeling helpless, powerless and uninterested. Even when we think the label is a "good" one.

It always comes back to hard work, learning, interest and passion.

Very powerful stuff for any parent to hear. I hope a lot of us were listening!

Thanks for this one. Well done.

Mar. 10 2010 08:21 AM
al sullivan from Jersey City

The concept of genius is mostly a lot of crap. Every parents thinks their child as special, so they generally ignore the one aspect necessary for success in this world: hard work.
The fact is most kids are NOT special, and the concept of possible genius replaces good old common sense.

Mar. 10 2010 07:53 AM

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