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, December 26, 2006

Gifted isolation or gifted community?

Most gifted people, children or adults, live fairly isolated lives. This is because of the statistical reality of their gifts. If you are more gifted than one in a thousand people, not many of the people you meet in life will be comparable. If you are more gifted than one in ten thousand, you may not encounter any in your life who are as gifted as you - except if you frequent those places where gifted people concentrate. If you are more gifted than one in a million people, it is almost certain that you will never encounter anyone "on your level" in your lifetime. Giftedness can, therefore, be a lonely affair.

Yet, not all is as it seems. One can have a conversation with anyone, on your level, or not. Furthermore, the "gifted communities" that might be available may not be supportive at all. I encountered one, or should I say one encountered me - an American message board, devoted to the extremely gifted - and too many of the comments received about me and my family were highly unpleasant. This would have been poor behaviour coming from anyone - but from a "gifted community support group" it was entirely inappropriate. However, it taught me a lesson: gifted community is not all that it should be and not all that it purports to be.

Before I go on, I should say that some boards do appear to be more friendly places - so there is great variety in the "gifted community support groups" out there. Some will be supportive, some will be jealous, hostile, embittered places that no-one would want to be.

The question you need to answer is: are you happy in your isolation - or do you need "community"? For many, who are honest with themselves, will discover that they have found happiness without the need for "community". Many gifted people express their talents through some complex productive activity - be it creative or not - and it is in this activity that their giftedness is manifest. There is less need for them, therefore, to have a "gifted community" to relate to. There is another issue which you should note. Contact with the gifted community can alter some parents' perspective on their children in ways which are negative. For instance, what if a gifted parent of a moderately gifted child encounters a support group for the profoundly gifted? How is that parent going to feel when he or she learns that their child is not only not so gifted after all, but, in comparison, seemingly not gifted at all? Are they going to be disappointed in their child? Are they going to expect less of them? Before such exposure to the wider gifted community, such a parent may have been happy with their smart kid and have looked forward to a bright future for them. Afterwards, they may not be so happy, nor have such high expectations. Yet, they are wrong to do so, for what it is very important to realize is that how your child will fare in life is NOT dependent on their relationship to the gifted community - but on their relationship to the NON-gifted community. You see, a moderately gifted child is going to become a moderately gifted adult - and, as such, will be smarter than almost everyone they meet. They will be smart enough to succeed in most occupations - and will be able to make a very good contribution in life, in whatever endeavour they choose. In fact, the moderately gifted child may grow into a better adjusted adult, who is consequently more productive, than their more gifted fellows - for the more gifted one is, the harder it can be to adjust to the world as it is.
(The ideal range of giftedness is an IQ 125 to 150 according to one estimate. This is the range of best fit to the environment, that allows most effective use of one's talents, without communication problems between the gifted person and their environment. A moderately gifted person, at IQ 130, say, fits into that range. So does a highly gifted person, at IQ 145.)

A parent must not lose sight of the reality of their child, in comparison to the wider world. Comparison to the gifted community is misleading. You see, the gifted community comprises a very unusual group of people. They are not the wider world. How successful your gifted child will be is dependent on their merit relative to the wider world - and not in comparison to the gifted community. If your child is smarter than the average person, then they will have better opportunities than the average person. It is irrelevant to know that there is some kid much smarter than your own - because that kid is not really the competition for your child, in most endeavours. There are too few extremely gifted children for them to be considered competition for most endeavours - there are just not enough of them to go around.

Contact with the gifted community may produce a lack of appreciation of your child's specialness, by confronting a parent with many children who are as gifted or more gifted than your own. In such an environment, you may UNLEARN an understanding of how special your child is. Your child is special in relation to the average child. In the wider world, it is the average child that your own will encounter most often. It is the average child who will fill many workplaces. These are the ones to measure your child against. Measurement against a child who is one in a million is laughably irrelevant - because there are so few such children and they cannot, in their numerical paucity, ever be competition for your child, in any real sense. Measurement against them, therefore, can only have negative effects - for it may reduce your appreciation of what is special in your own child.

Any gifted parent of a gifted child, therfore, should cherish the specialness of their child in relation to the world as a whole. Gifted community is for those who feel a need to be among those like themselves - and that is an understandable motivation. But if you do venture into the gifted community, choose well among those available - some are positive places, some are not. Furthermore, understand that no matter where your child is on the gifted scale, they remain special in TRUE terms, because they are unusual in relation to the wider world and the typical human. Any gifted child is equipped to do something special in the world, given a chance to grow and show themselves. That some are more equipped than others, does not alter the fact that all gifted children are more equipped than is usual.

We are not connected to a gifted community here, in Singapore - but we are quite happy in our isolation. We have each other and we have an understanding of our children in relation to the wider world. Our children are accepted by the non-gifted community and we have not had hostility on the personal level. On the whole, that is a lot better than what we encountered on that "gifted community support group". I would say, therefore, in conclusion that gifted isolation can actually be superior to gifted community - it really depends on which community you encounter and what you need from them. We enjoy our quiet lives, here, with no actual direct contact with a gifted community: you can too.

(If you would like to read of my scientific child prodigy son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, and his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:23 PM 


Blogger Jason Jones said...

It has been my experience that on-line gifted communities are best looked at from a far. Any posting seems to invite attack especially if you're viewed as elitist. It doesn't matter if you are or not. The people who are elitist will question your motives and your very being (that's putting it nicely). Your child couldn't be smarter than thiers... Seems some self-reflection on thier part is needed. You'd expect more understanding and better manners from a gifted communinity but it just isn't there. For my family I hope visiting other local gifted children is different.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Jason for your comment.

Your experience tallies with our own. It is a pity that people are this way, for it ruins what could be a source of support for those with gifted kids to bring up. Being a gifted parent has unique problems that shared experience could help - but instead of supporting each other, they attack one another.

You may be right about a different response occurring on the ground. We have had nothing but warm responses to our children in person. I hope that is your experience and that of others, too. (Though I might add that these warm responses are from the general public, not a "gifted community".)

A community is a mutually supportive entity. That the gifted "community" is not mutually supportive, indicates it is not really a community - that stage hasn't been reached. Perhaps a little more kindness to others would take us closer.

Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts: both are much appreciated.

A Happy New Year to you and your family.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Jorge said...

Well, hello there. I'm 14 years old, and yeah, I'm gifted. Moderately, probably. Anyway, straight to the point:

Ironic that I found your blog while looking for a gifted community, and, I have to say, that the point of view that is shown there is pretty interesting.
After all, you're gifted compared to the average person, not compared to the average gifted. So the experience may become pretty much pointless, if the problem is in being the best between the best.

Although sometimes, it's good to know people who can actually intelectualy challenge you. Even if one in a million is extremelly gifted, that doesn't mean that one in ten thousand cannot still have a decent conversation.

After all, even if the mental skills of the more highly gifted one are much bigger, the other one is STILL intelligent, and has some capacity to take on the conversation.
I consider myself that TOTAL gifted isolation is not totally positive (my father is very gifted, more than me, I'm afraid).
Why? Because most people look rather non-amusing to me. Not that I can't interact with them.
But the average teen is so previsible and ignorant, that it gets rather easy to deal with him.
So, the problem may not be in social skills, but in mastering them.

Thank you for your attention.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Jorge, thanks for your comment.

re. gifted comparisons. Many people in my family are gifted compared to the average gifted person. So I am not sure what your point about that is.

It is true that a decent conversation can be had with someone who is not so gifted, as oneself. In fact, more conversations of that kind will occur than the other type.

My point about isolation being preferable to community is based on our experience that the "gifted community" particularly in America can be a massively hostile place (in fact the board in question is the most hostile board I have ever poster even spoke of murder, as a response to a gifted child: some of the posters were completely insane). Total isolation is utterly to be preferred to a "community" like that.

If, however, you are fortunate enough to meet pleasant gifted people to relate to, that can be a boon.

I wish you well.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Jorge said...

Of course, I understand.
America has the particular habit to exagerate when it comes to more unusual ocasions.
From strange phenomena to gifted children.

I always have a good laugh when I find those ''Coaches for gifted people''.

What I meant on my first point was:

When compared to other gifted person, you're not that gifted anymore.
As if taking the concept of average to a whole new level, a higher level, and maybe, you can reach the lower level, and find that negative in relation to other gifted people.

But then again, if you compare yourself with the average people, you're gifted again.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Jorge said...


At my first answer,
''After all, you're gifted compared to the average person, not compared to the average gifted. So the experience may become pretty much pointless, if the problem is in being the best between the best.''

I wasn't refering to yourself, I was just talking in general way.
Maybe too informal, I guess.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I was at Cambridge, where everyone is supposed to be gifted. It didn't seem so to me, at the time though...

There were many there who seemed to miss the point of what I was trying to say to them. It was funny really.

Best wishes

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Carrie said...

I enjoyed reading your intro. It is good to hear from other gifted adults. For a long time I have been beating myself up about not living up to my "gifted" label. I also feel disappointed in myself for many other things. My mind is constantly fulll of ideas that I can't turn off. In my mind I often make elaborate plans but very rarely complete them in real life. I am constantly overwhelmed by the feeling that I can do a wide variety of projects and want to do them all. I then get frustrated when I don't. My perfectionistic tendencies are also debilitating. Everything needs to be how I envision as "just right" or it is all wrong. I am very black and white in my thinking. If something seems wrong in my relationships, the relationship ends. My moral values are very high and if others are not as I think they should be I innately feel they are wrong. And if I can't get something set up perfectly, I often can't start it. (I remember in college I would deliberate for hours and then weeks over finding the "perfect" notebook for each class. Until I found this I would just take notes on random paper or in a temporary notebook in which I would write inelligibly since I planned on rewriting it. I ended up with lost notes, disorganization, no notebook and quite a mess sometimes as long as when the class was ending)

Recently I have also been struggling with a deep discontentment in all that I do. As expected, I get myself depressed a lot as well. I am highly sensitive especially noise, smell, visual detail and to social negativity. I get frustrated with my independence and introversion and lack of relationships.

I love analyzing issues and problem solving. I am thrilled by learning mew things. And in the midst of all of this I feel painfully disappointed in myself for not having anything to "show" for my seemingly high potential. Sure I have 2 BS degress and 2 master's, but I didn't finish my PhD. I have a job that pays less than what someone with a bachelor's makes and I feel little intellectual respect from those around me. I've switched jobs and careers a couple times now actually (I'm 34). I like my current job, but I definity don't feel I am where I should be by now in life. I look at other people in my high school who were all well behind me grade-wise or class difficulty-wise and their positions in life are better than mine. It is hard for me not to feel I have somehow wasted my talent. And if I have not wasted it per se that I at least can not seem to harness my mind to focus on one thing long enough to do it well. I am actually frustrated that I am interested in so many things.

In reading what information I have found today describing the characteristics of gifted people I actually am much less frustrated with myself now. I understand that my talents and some of the problems I experience are not unique to me and they may have to do with some of the qualities that go along with giftedness. I am not sure why it is so comforting to know. It doesn't change anything. Yet for some reason it does change my perception. I think the one thing I have struggled with was whether the label of "gifted" did more harm to me than good. Until now it has been somewhat of a confidence booster while simultaneously tearing down my self-esteem. I felt I had to live up to the high expectations that come with the label. And if I wasn't I could at least drop the word that I was gifted to re-establsh that 'I am smart' to those whom I worried did not know. Yet now, I may begin to think of it as more of a personality trait and way of thinking that does not hold the partially irrelevant expectation of simply being "intelligent". I think I can be comfortable and proud to be "gifted" and be proud of my way of thinking rather than worried that I am not doing enough with it. I feel relief that others who are gifted have my same struggles and talents. Thanks for your article.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Carrie, for taking the time to express your thoughts on your situation as a gifted person, in this perhaps not ideal world of ours.

I have one piece of advice...well, two actually. Firstly, don't ever worry about what other people think about you and what you have and have not achieved. Then, pick something you enjoy doing, some project or other that expresses one of your deeper interests - and begin it. Don't expect it to be perfect...just expect it to happen as you try to make it happen. Then work on it over time to bring it to your satisfaction. Before you know it, you will have completed something to your satisfaction and delight. Make a habit of this and you will soon have a wonderfully productive life.

I wish you well. I am glad you appreciate what I have written - and I am more glad still if it has helped.

10:51 PM  

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