Child prodigies: How geniuses navigate the uncertain journey to adulthood
Mother intervenes in Child Genius final
Laurent has what Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, calls a “rage to master”, an unstoppable motivation to excel in his domain of ability. When Laurent is an adult, he may reach the limit of that ability, allowing other bright individuals of a similar age to catch up. As a result, Prof Winner said, Laurent’s talents as a child might seem less special as an adult.
“When prodigies do not make the transition to adult creator, they may feel like failures,” Prof Winner, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, told the BBC. “No-one cares anymore that a 21-year-old can play the violin with great expertise or ace calculus or understand Latin and Greek.” Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Psychology professor Ellen Winner said Laurent had a “rage to master”
As a former child prodigy, Gabriel Carroll, now in his 30s, said he felt awkward when others talked about his illustrious past.
“I think gee, have I not done anything since then,” he told the BBC.
But Gabriel’s adult life has been far from a failure. An assistant professor of economics at Stanford University, Gabriel pursued a career in a field related to his gift: solving mathematics puzzles. Fifteen-year-old maths star accepted for Edinburgh PhD
In his seventh grade SAT [Scholastic Assessment Tests] exams, Gabriel achieved the highest score in California, including a perfect 800 in mathematics. In high school, his mathematical prowess was put to the test against the world’s best young minds at the International Mathematical Olympiad, where he won two gold medals in 1998 and 2001.
When speaking about his achievements, Gabriel struck a humble tone, more comfortable at pointing out his weaknesses than his strengths. Image copyright Gabriel Carroll Image caption In seventh grade, Gabriel Carroll achieved the highest SAT score in the state of California
“I feel less developed in the areas of social and emotional skills than perhaps I would have been had I not been so technically focused,” Gabriel said.
He credited his parents, both tech industry workers in California, with instilling him with that focus. They were “extremely important” in his development, teaching him mathematics and giving him puzzle books to solve from age six. Reflecting on his upbringing, Gabriel said he felt “very lucky on the whole” but did have “a couple of regrets when one thinks about how much agency one has as a child”. You may also be interested in: Media playback is unsupported on your device Media caption Meet the schoolboy with a higher IQ than Bill Gates and Albert Einstein
By agency Gabriel meant the capacity to act independently, free from the overt influence of parents. This has particular relevance in the context of child prodigies, whose parents are commonly depicted as pushy, domineering and overbearing.
Jennifer Pike, a British violinist who burst on to the classical music scene as a youngster, said the parents of child prodigies were often stereotyped in this way.
“I’m aware of the myth, or popular belief, that parents must somehow be pushing their young child into living their dream,” Jennifer told the BBC. “I think that’s a trope that’s definitely true in some cases, but not the case for most.” Image copyright Arno Image caption Jennifer Pike, a violinist, won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition at 12
For Jennifer, it was she who took the lead, not her parents. That self-determination was evident in 2002, when Jennifer won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition aged 12. At the time, she was the youngest winner of the award, a record she held for six years.
From that moment, her biggest challenge has been “overcoming that perception of you in one moment in your life”.
“People want to keep you in this box,” Jennifer, now aged 30, said. Image copyright Arno Image caption Jennifer said the parents of child prodigies were often stereotyped
Anne-Marie Imafidon, a tech entrepreneur with a master’s degree at the University of Oxford, said she couldn’t imagine a life outside that box.
“I’ve only ever had the label,” she told the BBC.
The label has stuck since Anne-Marie and her four siblings were dubbed “Britain’s brainiest family” by the UK media. At school, computing, mathematics and languages were her forte. She passed two GCSEs while still at primary school and, at the age of 11, became the youngest person to receive an A-level in computing. Image copyright Anne-Marie Imafidon Image caption Anne-Marie Imafidon has a master’s degree from the University of Oxford
Almost 20 years on, Anne-Marie said she had nothing left to prove, mostly because she never saw herself as a genius “you see in the movies”, a Rain Man-type. Excelling in her domain of ability – mathematics and computer science – is enough for Anne-Marie.
The difference between an adult genius and a child prodigy is an important distinction, Prof Winner said. A prodigy is a child who is very precocious in a certain field, mastering a domain that has already been invented, she says. A genius, she believes, is someone who revolutionises a field of knowledge. Who inspires this year’s Child Genius winner?
“Most prodigies do not make the leap in early adulthood from mastery to major creative discoveries,” Prof Winner said. “Some do, most do not. Instead most become experts in their areas of giftedness – professors of math; performers in an orchestra, and so on.”
Like Anne-Marie and Gabriel, Jennifer said she “never defined success in terms of achievements in that way”. Her life goals are far more modest.
“I’m just happy to have a career and to have survived the journey,” Jennifer said. Image copyright Reuters Image caption Laurent said he had #giganticplans for the future in a post on his Instagram account
Surviving the journey from childhood to adulthood with their aura of success intact is exactly what Jennifer, Gabriel and Anne-Marie have done. Their gifts have transcended childhood, delivering them to the promised land of recognition – their Wikipedia pages and websites brimming with accolades.
As for those child prodigies who did not, they are a cautionary tale for the next generation.
For now, Laurent is embracing the limelight, posting about his #giganticplans to his 64,000 Instagram followers . But Prof Winner said child prodigies like Laurent should be wary of the public stage. Given the trials and tribulations of adult life, it does not take a genius to figure out why. Related Topics