Press articles portraying child prodigies and scientific experts will have you believe that geniuses are born and that there is little one can do to create “gifted” children. People who claim that geniuses are made can even be labeled callous businessmen trying to sell your their educational products with false claims. Though giftedness has a genetic base and at the same time many products that claim to make your child smarter haven’t been proven to work (e.g. Baby Einstein), here are facts that should open your eyes to a different view of “giftedness”. Did you ever wonder why….

  • Mozart‘s father was a composer and violinist?
  • Google founder Sergey Brin‘s father was a mathematics professor, his mother a NASA scientist?  And Larry Page‘s parents were both computer scientists?
  • A psychologist and amateur chess player in Hungary, Laszlo Polgar, was able to raise three daughters who became chess grandmasters?
  • Many of the 20th century’s most prominent mathematicians and physicists, including several nobel laureates, all happened to be taught by the same maths teacher at the Lutheran High School in Budapest, Laszlo Ratz?
  • Many mathemtic olympiad winners stem from fathers who are scientists, including the most successful female maths olympiad participant (and second most successful participant ever), Lisa Sauermann, whose father is a computer scientist and whose mother is an electronic engineer and former maths olympiad participant. The same goes for Peter Scholze, who won 3 gold medals at the International Maths Olympiad and whose father is a physicist, mother electrical engineer.
  • In the field of sports, there are the well documented cases of “child prodigies” Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters who were trained by their parents as soon as they could stand, if not earlier

Of course, some of these facts can be partially explained by genetics – it is quite likely that Sergey Brin, for example, would have excelled anyway with such parents, even if he had been watching TV all day. Would he have invented the most successful search engine though? Maybe not. Many parents of successful prodigies insist that they didn’t make their child so, that it was all child-led, and in a way, that is true of course. They just followed the child’s lead, answered their questions, bought them a computer or books and let them learn. But what would have happened to these children if the parents hadn’t bothered to answer their questions or hadn’t bought them books and computers when they asked for them? In fact, many families of documented gifted children made a lot of efforts to accommodate their children’s genius – taking time off work to home school, moving countries to access the top violin teachers, giving children the freedom to stay up all night composing rather than forcing them to bed. Ellen Winner in Myths and Realities of Gifted Children showed how children who became high performers in a certain domain almost always came from families who showed the responsiveness and flexibility to provide the best environment for their talent.

But for all these successful cases, there are many more innately gifted children who never reach such heights because the parents either don’t care (which is rare) or don’t believe that it will make much difference. The problem is, the most common view expressed in the media and by “experts” on giftedness is that children shouldn’t be pushed and that gifted children will do well no matter what. Parents might think “if my child was truly a musical genius, she would be driven to practice all day by her talent, so I don’t need to push her”. I see it on parenting forums all the time. Parents of gifted children ask about their gifted child and if they should do anything, and the most common response is “don’t worry, let the child relax, if he is gifted he will find his way to succeed”. And for a while during school years, this might seem true. Unfortunately, later on, as they grow up, these gifted children will realise others with comparable innate talent have overtaken them by far.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate. When I was about 12, our maths teacher handed the top maths students in class problems for the annual maths olympiad. We were encouraged to send in our solutions to the regional committee, and if we did well, we would be invited to the regional mathematics olympiad. At home, I looked at the problems for a while, but since I had never come across anything like it, I didn’t know where to start. My mother was working full-time and not very good at maths (as she always told me), so I couldn’t turn to her for help. Then I had all sorts of distractions that young teenagers have, and I forgot about the sheet. A couple of months later, I found out that a classmate of mine had been invited to take part in the mathematics olympiad (he later went on to win several prizes at regional competitions, though he never won at the national level). I asked him “how did you do it? I couldn’t figure out the first problem at all?” He told me that his father, a computer scientist, had sat down with him and had shown him a few mathematical problem solving tricks that he had used. In fact, they had gone through all the maths olympiad papers of past years together to practice. I am not saying he cheated, as he had to compete alone in the actual competition, but it seems obvious to me that someone with a parent who is a mathematician or computer scientist has a big advantage in getting started and overcoming initial frustrations (and if you go through the biographies of the International Maths Olympiad Hall of Fame, you will find many more cases of children of mathematicians).

Probably the most honest book on achievement of recent years is Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. While I don’t advocate her methods of child-rearing, I really enjoyed her honesty. She said she wanted to do away with the hypocrisy surrounding high achievement and show how much work was really behind  musical and academic achievement. It matches research documented by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – the Story of Success, in which he showed among top musicians, there was not a single one who hadn’t spent at least 10,000 of practice. The case of someone just being absolutely brilliant without practice and support simply doesn’t exist. There will be cases among profoundly gifted toddlers who do something spectacularly ahead of time at a young age (but something that many adults can do), but among adults, there aren’t any spectacularly successful writers, musicians or scientists who haven’t put in any work and are simply talented. There is too much competition and no-one is so exceptionally brilliant that he can compete with those who put in a lot of effort in getting ahead. Or, as Alex Prior put it in the documentary “The World’s Greatest Musical Prodigies”, nowadays there could hardly be musical prodigies in England because people there thought making a child practice an instrument for four hours daily is considered child abuse.

What are we to make of this? I am not trying to encourage you to be a tiger mother or dad necessarily, but I do want to convince you that geniuses are not just born, and that if you have a talented child, he will not just develop without a lot of encouragement, stimulation and guidance. Don’t believe the people who claim that genius just happens and that either you are born with it or not. Most documented cases of high achievement and success show that the exact opposite is true and that you can do a lot to support the development of your children so they don’t feel later that they didn’t fulfil their potential.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

MB October 28, 2014 at 4:44 PM

I agree with so much of your statements, especially that “children who became high performers in a certain domain almost always came from families who showed the responsiveness and flexibility to provide the best environment for their talent.” Perhaps it is NOT that the parents are able to work out the math problems with the child or provide connections or resources in any given area of giftedness but that they are able to provide the micro-environment that nurtures that particular child. We call that good parenting these days. As a professional who works with families, I encourage flexibility as a desired trait that helps the child and keeps the parents sane.

I do not agree with your sometimes interchanging the words genius, giftedness, and prodigy as they are generally considered very different things. In educational parlance, a young child might be gifted and that gift may or may not develop in a way to create anything NEW or to perform at a certain level. Prodigy and genius are used to show that the individual honed the skill to CREATE. THAT takes 10,000 hours. The gift or innate capability may be there and never come to fruition (either by circumstance or choice). For example, most three year olds cannot read adult literature but some can. Even a highly capable educator or parent is not going to be able to get a three year old to that skill level if there is no innate gift for reading. Some of it is hard-wired giftedness. YEs, the adult can provide the environment to nurture that already present gift and the individual may or may not continue pursuing a passion at a high level over the years. Talent needs attention. Gifts may thrive or wither on the vine…either is okay, by the way.


Genius Experiment October 28, 2014 at 9:01 PM

MB – very good point, you are right about the difference, completely agree!


Clementine B October 28, 2014 at 4:34 PM

Thank you for this very good post, which reflects my thoughts and research exactly. I will follow your blog with interest.
Clementine B recently posted..The Giftedness Project – A brief noteMy Profile


Genius Experiment October 28, 2014 at 9:00 PM

thanks for your feedback! I am really glad you answered so quickly.


Catarina April 24, 2014 at 2:18 PM

One of the many personality traits of these people who are high achievers is “drive”. May the person have the right education, if he doesn’t have a natural drive, he wont become a genius because it takes work to become a genius.
So it is not so linear. Check out the biographies of great geniuses like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He was so obsessed with reading that he didn’t even study, he just lived for his passion.
I myself have a talent but could never develop it as much as I should. My parents didn’t have any knowledge about my passion and never helped me to develop it but I still learned it and continued to learn without any kind of reward. However, I had too many psychologiccal problems which didn’t let me become as good as I should. But my parents are not to blame. I didn’t have the possibility but now, at 28 I’m doing everything I can to compensate the lost time.
It comes from natural drive (and personality traits are also genetic!). That’s the key.


Catarina April 24, 2014 at 3:13 PM

Also, many of those people have been throught traumatic experiences (check out their biographies, you see this pattern repeatedly) and their passion for maths or whatever was a way for them to have a reason to live – therefore they developed their passion just by themselves.
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Genius Experiment May 23, 2014 at 12:18 PM

I completely agree, I have observed the same. It’s hard to know which one comes first. Are they so good because of drive or are they driven because they’re good at something? It’s hard to disentangle. But I have seen it happen a lot in my younger daughter who is incredibly acrobatic and sporty. She sets herself new targets every week and then practices the same movements over and over like a maniac until she accomplishes it. It’s her drive that makes her so competent because she is very determined and keeps going until she masters something.


Lacy August 15, 2013 at 3:08 AM

Great article! I also really believe that the gifted label does a disservice to both the gifted child and the child not labeled as gifted. Many “gifted” children miss out on achieving their dreams because they are under the impression their success will just come to them magically like their “gift”, and the average child doesn’t achieve the greatness they are capable of because no one told them they were “gifted.” The label is damaging on both ends of the spectrum.


Genius Experiment August 15, 2013 at 4:10 PM

exactly! amen to that! I read so much from parents of gifted children upset about the lack of motivation in their children and I really think the idea that it is a “gift” is very detrimental. At some point, other more hard working children outperform them and they are surprised!


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