The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Are you the parent of a gifted child?

Gifted children are widely misunderstood: sometimes accidentally so, sometimes mischievously so. Many people speak of them in ways which only further the misunderstandings. One such person, is, I believe, Malcolm Gladwell.

For those of you who have read much of my site will know that Gladwell's opinion on prodigy is off the mark. However, what he says about prodigy is actually addressed to a wider target: the precocious in general. This means all the gifted children of the world - and the gifted adults are his target. Presumably, in targeting them so, he does not include himself among them - and I would tend to agree with that.

Let us look at one of his contentions. He says precocious children - that is gifted children, like your son or daughter - are nothing more than gifted learners. He says as children they learn well - but as adults, they are not gifted doers. He draws a distinction between childhood giftedness, equating this to being a gifted learner, and adulthood gift, equating this to gifted doing - or productive activity - that is actually having an output. He contends that they are different things and so argues that gifted learning as a child, does not portend gifted doing as an adult.

My own son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, a scientific child prodigy, is a living refutation of Malcolm Gladwell's contention on giftedness. You see, my son is much more a gifted doer than a gifted learner. He spends his time writing science books on a variety of subjects. He invents experiments of his own. He theorizes about the phenomena he observes in the world and learns of in his explorations. He is his own guide, his own motivator: he charges ahead dragging me behind. This is not just a "gifted learner" at work - although he is definitely that - he is also a gifted doer - a very active, productive, young doer.

I would like your feedback. Is your gifted child/precocious child a gifted doer as well as a gifted learner? Do they busy themselves with projects? Is Gladwell off the mark with precocious children in general as he is with mine?

The statistical analysis below that I performed on Gladwell's figures show that he is wrong in his interpretation of the evidence. Let us flesh out the disproof that analysis provided, with some real life stories: just comment below if you feel that your gifted child's story/nature/behaviour is relevant. Thanks.

For more on the Cawley story, in particular that of Ainan Celeste Cawley, my scientific child prodigy son, aged six and his gifted brothers, go to: for a tour. Thanks.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:02 PM 


Anonymous Anna Stanton said...

Hi there. Just an update on Jack.

It's very good news. We had a meeting with Jack's headmaster last Tuesday where we did our best to explain Jack to him. I bought along a portfolio of some of his projects, which he was very interested in. He confessed he'd never seen a child so bright but was more than willing to try and find a solution. In fact it was he who raised the idea of Jack moving class as he felt the other teacher, a young man, would be better able to handle him.

Fast-forward to Thursday, we attended a second meeting,this time with the new teacher who not only radiated enthusiasm to make provsion for Jack, but confessed to being highly gifted himself. I was further shocked to discover he had been aware of Jack for some time through discussions with the other teacher in the staff room and had been trying to advise her on how to cope with him. It was arranged to move Jack to this class as of this week and draw up an individual education plan.

Its now been two days since the move and I've seen the most heart-warming change in Jack's attitude to school and his general happiness.
Today his new teacher set him Year five reading assignments and let him design his own experiment on friction.
Oh, he also gave him a gold star for his new model nephron.

Thanks so much again for your help. I'm so so relieved to have Jack happy and learning.

2:32 AM  
Blogger Cher Mere said...


I have recently been reading your blog. I am homeschooling my 5 3/4 yo PG daughter in California.

Your sons sound amazing and it is very interesting to read about them.

My daughter is a gifted "doer" as well.

She actually has the opportunity to do professional level work in one of her areas of giftedness, as a gifted performer.

When she was four she was acting in Shakespeare plays and a Cole Porter musical in children's theatre groups where the next youngest performers were eight. Then over the summer she was performing with teens and adults.

Now she has an agent and has gotten work doing voice overs.

It is still hard for her, even though she doing "professional" acting because nobody writes things for kids her age that any kid her age couldn't do. So she isn't getting parts that really equal her ability.

But for voice over work she can do the voices of older kids, talking magical animals, etc.

My daughter, Z, has a strong gift in musical expression. She takes piano lessons and excels in that but it is her singing and composing that astound me more than anything else.

Almost every day she is making up songs for her musicals. Their subject matter is often surprisingly adult. For example: one was about a man who didn't want to go on living after the death of his wife and then the second song was from the point of view of the wife, wondering if she was in heaven or hell.

Most of her songs have rhyming elements that she is able to come up with on the fly. I don't think I would be able to come up with the songs she spontanously sings if I had a week and a rhyming dictionary.

Another example of her way with words is this poem that she made up a month after her 2nd birthday

In the wind I lost my hat
It blew and blew around
It blew off my head
and then
It blew across the ground

8:10 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Anna,

I am happy to hear your news: it couldn't be better, as far as I can see. That Jack should have a gifted teacher is the ideal solution.

From how you describe Jack he seems to be a doer as well as a learner...again providing a counter example to Gladwell's view above.

It sounds like Jack is going to make a success of school now...and all by changing class. Brilliant.

You are fortunate to have a teacher like the new one described: few teachers are as aware of the needs of gifted children, or so willing to make adjustments.

Best of luck to Jack and yourself.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Cher Mere for your post.

Again, your daughter provides a perfect counter-example to Gladwell's unhelpful opinion that giftedness has nothing to do with doing. She is clearly a productive, active, creative child - characteristics which, I feel, predict a productive adult future ahead.

It is good that she has complementary gifts in both performing and musical creation - for that combination can lead to very good things in years to come. She might find the writing of musicals challenges her more than performing will eventually - though there is no reason she could not do both.

She could join James Woods as a PG actor.

Has she recorded any material that one might be able to see on TV/in a movie?

Her writing is very mature for 2...encourage her to keep it up. In my experience, the greater your talent - for writing or any other creative activity - the easier it is for you to create spontaneously. So her fluency with rhyme is a good sign of underlying talent.

Keep me posted on how she is getting along.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Cher Mere said...


She will be in the rerelease of Disney's Haunted Mansion.

Thank you

1:03 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Cher Mere, I shall try to to see the show.

I am going to write a post about acting soon...because I feel that it is not entirely appreciated how much of a gift it actually is, to be an actor. Good actors make it look easy - and so people think it is. It is not. It is a special gift and one which I will be addressing soon.

Take care

1:56 PM  
Blogger giftedkids said...

Dear Valentine,
thank you so much for your website. My son J is 9 and we live in Wales in the UK. He is very gifted in Maths and Music. He has just passed his GCSE Maths (age 16 exam) with 81%. He did the exam privately as the local authority and county maths inspectors have stated catagorigally that he is 'not gifted' and therefore should recieve no special provision. J has been doing maths and playing piano since the age of two, and understands difficult concepts in maths such as infinity and 3D geometry. He draws complex maps and diagrams to illustrate ideas and processes. I am glad that the Head teacher quietly believes that J is exceptional and lets me take him out of school secretly for an hour in the mornings to teach him Higher level maths. But even she and the teachers still do not 'get' it. They keep telling us there are things he still does not know, and are determined to catch him out to prove this, so they can keep giving him low-level work to do at school. He was descibed as a prodigy in the local paper when he passed his exam, yet the local authority is still blocking all our attempts to get him special provision. Even the National Association for Gifted Children do not seem to understand children like J, and say that it's a bad idea to 'accelerate' children beyond 2 years above thier chronological age because they may not fit in with their peers.

It drives me mad, Valentine, but in honour of J and his triumph, I have opened my own part-time school of Maths here in North Wales, to cater for the children who are not succeeding in Maths in Mainstream education. I am finding that there are children with 'special needs' who actually have unrecognised gifts in Maths, not a surprise, as our own son masked his gifts at school, mostly due to the attitude. I am also happily collecting gifted children, and finding that I have to often reassure the parents, who feel that their child's gift has been treated almost like a disability, a shameful secret that must not be spoken about!

It is so refreshing to read your articles. i have passed on references to some of my parents so that they can feel less 'bad' for nurturing their children's gifts.

Very best wishes to you and your children! Please keep up the good work!
Mrs B

4:03 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Mrs. B, for writing of your gifted son.

Yes, the gifted are often misunderstood and marginalized - and frequently, as you are experiencing, they are also NOT acknowledged. The system does not wish to make exceptions, so it goes out of its way not to acknowledge exceptions - for to acknowledge them is to put them into a position of having to do something about them. Thus, they will do as they are doing to your son: set out to "DISPROVE" their giftedness...catch them out, trip them up and generally make a fool of them, if they can. Of course, this puts the teacher in the position of competing with the child, not nurturing the child. The teacher will seek to disable the child's growth just to prove that they are not growing faster than normal and are not worthy of special attention. This is all rather stupid and just a little bit evil. Yet, it happens - as you are experiencing.

Re. the idea that the gifted child should "know everything" I bet you that even Leonardo Da Vinci DIDN'T know everything there was to know, in his time, by the time of his death. He knew a lot, yes...but not everything. It is a silly idea to expect anyone to know everything. One should focus not on what they don't know...but acknowledge the value of what they do know. That is taking a more positive outlook on it.

Good luck with your school venture. It is good to see that you are turning a negative situation into a positive, by taking control of it.

Furthermore, best wishes on raising your son - and congratulations to him on his exam pass!

4:57 PM  

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