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Children of a Greater God

Margaux Kearney's picture

Jay Greenberg is not your average 12 year old. At the age of 3, he began to compose music by transforming his simple cello drawings into complex and distinct notes on a scale. By the age of 10, he was attending Julliard, one of the most famous conservatoires of music in the world on a full scholarship. Jay is considered to be one of the greatest child prodigies in history when it comes to musical composition. Prodigies like him, along with other young geniuses like Mozart or Einstein, are children (typically younger than 10 years) with the outstanding ability to perform at the level of a highly trained adult in an extremely demanding field (1). The child prodigy phenomenon is not new, yet it is hardly understood. It is still not clear whether child prodigies have specific genes, are created by their environment, or are simply miracles of a divine nature. Throughout history, scientists have struggled to explain the preternatural ability of these remarkable children, and only recently has research begun to establish that the brain of children geniuses appear to function in radically different ways from those of ordinary children (2). Some scientists claim that extreme intellectual giftedness is merely the coincidence of genetics as demonstrated in the chemical relationships in the brain (3). Others argue that hereditary factors have little to do with precocious genius, and that there exists a clear connection between the involvement of parents and their child’s accomplishments. Those opposing interpretations illustrate a need for additional scientific research to be done in order to determine if they are contradictory and therefore mutually exclusive, or if a combination of both factors could explain the mechanisms at work in young prodigies and why so few children possess their extraordinary abilities.               

It is obviously essential to first agree on what characteristics define a prodigy. In its earliest use, the word prodigy referred to any occurrence in a child that seemed to be “out of the usual courses of nature” or “monstrous” (1). However, over the course of the centuries, the term has changed drastically to now pertain to the extraordinary capabilities displayed by these young individuals. These extremely gifted children have been shown to learn at a “faster pace, exhibit greater efficiency in problem-solving, and they are more likely to be proficient and creative producers of thoughts and tangible assets” (4). Child prodigies are rarely one-mode thinkers, but rather possess the ability to make connections in ways other people can’t even imagine. In addition, they show enhanced sensory activation and awareness, and have increased memory efficiency (5). However, those very same neurological characteristics that makes the life of child prodigies so positively unique bear a number of negative consequences including memory overload, sensory hypersensitivities, personal disorganization, or delayed processing (5). It is also unknown what psychological effects these extraordinary features might have on the children themselves. Will that affect the way they see themselves? Do they perceive themselves as social outcasts and if so, what effect does this have on their development? What is it like to live amongst people of inferior capabilities? If common logic, as thought by people of average ability, leads to the conclusion that the life of a child prodigy must be lonely and frustrating, it is still reasonable to wonder if those children’s higher intellectual functioning allows them to also perform at a higher emotional level. In other words, is their superior intellect allowing them to counteract the negative impact of their uniqueness by generating an emotional response different from the one the man in the street would have?          

  Unfortunately, research shows that child prodigies do indeed believe that their high level of ability complicates their social interactions. Exceptionally gifted adolescents, for instance, can often experience resistance from their peer group in that they deviate from what is considered to be the social norm (4). Extreme giftedness may in fact become a stressor hindering any normal social interaction. As a result, child prodigies might attempt to limit the visibility of their extraordinary abilities in public settings by restricting the amount of information others have about them (4). It is here again interesting to note that for these children, prodigy seems to be lived as a burden more than a competitive advantage, leading them more often than not to hide their exceptional aptitudes as opposed to fully embracing them or even taking advantage of them.

Because child prodigies have historically directed their giftedness to pursuits other than political power or social status, they may as a result have much to teach us in terms of common human emotions and social behavior. Could greed, for instance, be the evil of the less intellectually endowed? Could the yearning for control and power decrease with extreme intellectual ability? The fact that child prodigies are often treated as “freaks of nature” when they have so much to offer might give us an unfortunate insight into the emotional and intellectual characteristics that separate them from others around. Why don’t we long to unlock the hidden mystery that makes these children so extraordinary by taking the time to appreciate the new perspectives they have to offer on life experiences, and why do they thrive on exploring new frontiers, be it in music, mathematics or else?

One could also wonder whether the role of parents is different for these child prodigies and what effect the knowledge that you have given birth to a child prodigy could possibly have on the child’s social interactions. Parents can indeed help or hinder the development of their child in an infinite number of ways, ranging from being attentive to overly obsessive (6). It is conceivable that child prodigies may not be allowed to benefit from a healthy balance in their lives if their parents are constantly demanding intense study or practice. In the end, the price to pay for child prodigies to experience their childhood just like every other child, be socially active and engaged in the world might just be for their parents to forget to some degree about their child’s exceptional abilities. Some greater insight into their parents’ thought process and emotions might offer child prodigies a way to function not as outsiders but as members of a community, and this is an avenue that researchers might want to explore further for the benefit of these children’s quality of life.

If the role of parents is of prime importance in the lives of child prodigies, it is equally vital to address the role of their teachers. Because these children have enhanced sensitivity, they tend to learn new material with fewer repetitions and often need less extensive clarifications in class (brain on fire). However, with increased sensitivity comes enhanced distractibility. Often times, these children are hastily labeled as suffering from ADHD. It is therefore crucial to create a safe environment at school where they can flourish by allowing their minds to explore and their creativity to soar. Prodigy children also require less review time and come to class with more outside knowledge than the average child (5). In order to provide opportunities for these children to progress, it is therefore essential that they be allowed to use their free time to learn how to think like experts, while the average child still attempts to understand new concepts. If need be, extra time should even be specially set aside after class for the prodigy child to work closely with a teacher who is an important figure and can help organize and process the child’s information.  If home schooling becomes a desirable option, it seems vital that the child should stay in contact with the outside world for intellectual stimulation and emotional wellbeing.

What intrigues me the most about child prodigies is why there are fields in which they seem to excel more frequently than others? There have only been an amazingly small number of scientific studies performed in this regard, but music has been observed as having the greatest frequency of gifted children (1). On the other hand, very few child prodigies have been identified in the natural sciences, philosophy, or dance (1). In order to fully understand how the brain functions in relation to music, it is important to remember that the human brain consists of billions of neurons that are present at birth. During the thinking process, these neurons are activated. What differentiates a “child prodigy” from an average child is the number of connections that exist between the different neurons (7). The abundant number of neurons linked by the cerebrospinal fluid forming a complex network means an increase in density of the brain functions. This increase, in turn, speeds up learning and problem solving processes (7). This “network thinking” requires the connection of the right and left brains, the cerebellum, the spinal cord and the nervous system to work efficiently. If for some reason, only the left side of the brain is being used, music transforms into mathematics (7). An explanation for the small number of child prodigies in fields other than music could be the fact that this “network” continuously works together. It would certainly be interesting to investigate further why this “network” suddenly becomes dysfunctional, how do more connections develop between the neurons, and whether these connections are only produced at birth?

In order to better understand the child prodigy phenomenon, current research should keep focusing on the mechanisms which allow a child prodigy to present with exceptional abilities in a given field. Is a child prodigy the result of genetic predisposition or is he shaped by his environment? Is there a difference in nature or in degree only between child prodigies and other children? Are the characteristics of children with above average ability, ranging from gifted to highly gifted, even the same as in child prodigies? Could the answer to the child prodigy phenomenon ultimately lie in the specific patterns of neurons the brain produces? With the advancements in technology, researchers are already able to analyze more accurately the brain of average children and compare it to the brain of prodigy children. Their findings could give child prodigies the greatest gift of all: a chance at normality based on greater understanding.  


Works Cited

1.   Feldman, David Henry. “Child Prodigies: A Distinctive Form of Giftedness.” National Association for Gifted Children, Gifted Children Quarterly. Fall 1993. Vol. 37, No.4, pp 188-193. 30 March, 2008.

2.   Marshall, Andrew. “Small Wonders.” TIMEasia. Feb.2003. 30 March, 2008.

3.   “Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page.” Montage: Vol 1, No.4, pp 3. 31 March, 2008

4.   Foust, Regan Clark, and Keonya Booker. “The Social Cognition of Gifted Adolescents.” Roeper Review. Bloomfield Hills: Fall 2007. Vol.29, Iss.5, pp.45-47. 30 March, 2008. 

5.  Eide, Brook, and Fernette Eide. “Brains on Fire: The Multimodality of Gifted Thinkers.” New Horizons for Learning. December 2004. 30 March, 2008.

6.  Renaud, Lucie. “Child Prodigies: A Poisoned Paradise?” LSM Online. October 1, 2000. 30 March, 2008. 

7.   “Can you train a Child Prodigy.” International Brain Academy. 29 March, 2008. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

appreciating new perspectives, prodigious or otherwise?

Sounds to me a bit like "prodigy" children have a lot of the same problems with peers/parents/teachers that all children have, no? Why indeed do "we long to unlock the hidden mystery that makes these children so extraordinary" instead of "taking the time to appreciate the new perspectives they have to offer"? Maybe one could ask the same question about all children?