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 +

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The attitudes of a young prodigy

One of the things that is noticeable about Ainan is his attitude to the subjects of his interest. He is quite able to play as a child, running around, laughing and generally enjoying himself but, when it comes to the matters of the mind, his demeanour changes and becomes incredibly earnest. He speaks of his scientific interests, ideas and work with such profound intensity and seriousness - his eyes focus on one, and hold the gaze as long as it takes to explain what concerns him.

When he speaks like this, I feel that I am in the presence of an adult scientist. The thinking is very logical, but imaginative, too - and ever so solid. His demeanour is very serious and mature and all hint of the child seems to have been tucked away when he speaks in this way.

I think that this describes a very real division in him: he is both child and man. A child in the need to play and be a kid; an adult in his scientific mind - and the way he explores the scientific world. This is a very great difference between a child prodigy and an adult professional. They may be both alike in ability in the area of interest - though the child may be the more imaginative - but where they differ is in the emotional arena - the child prodigy is still a child, in many ways - and deserves therefore to be treated with the gentleness of any child, even if they are entering the adult world of their particular interest. Such a child may perform well in that adult arena, but should also be accorded the allowances given to any child: to do otherwise would be to be unfair on them.

It is noticeable that Ainan's serious demeanour predominates, in that he is frequently very sobre - but then he has periods of relaxation in which this attitude disperses, to be replaced by one of playfulness. He inhabits two worlds: the adult world, with his science, and the child's world with his brothers and friends. I am thankful that he can navigate both successfully.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and one month, or 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 @ 1:17 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So glad to hear some stories about other gifted children.

My children are not quite as gifted but they are quite gifted and were amazing developers.

What we have experienced is discrimination, victimisation and hostility.

I have a weblog about my families experiences in dealing with educating our gifted children it is called Education - Keeping them Honest

Its good to hear other people speaking out.

There is such a lack of understanding about difference and such prejudice and it just makes for children who spend alot of time sad.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your brave post.

Discrimination and hostility such as you speak of, was my own lot as a child: I felt it almost everywhere, even in unexpected places, such as the selective school I attended. Truly, people can be awfully unpleasant to those of gift. It shouldn't be this way - and I will do what I can in my life, to make it better for gifted people everywhere. ALL gifted people deserve to be welcomed, with warmth - not coldness.

Here's to a better world - for all people, but in particular for those whose suffering is usually overlooked - the gifted who are victims of the prejudice and unkindness of others.

I wish you well on raising your gifted children and remember this: there ARE others who understand, who have been through what you have been through.

Having known the hostility you speak of, I do everything I can to shield my own children from it. So far, I have been quite successful in that regard: but it may be the nature of the country I am living in, which assists in that regard - we will see if I can protect them, until adulthood.

Best of luck.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Valentine, you appear to be a step ahead of what I was in relation to bringing up gifted children. It probably helps that you yourself are highly educated. Unfortunately my husband and I were not and it was a huge shock to our system and a real experience.

Computers is what helped us survive as it gave me access to information and an avenue to vent and our children an avenue to feed thier mind and make friends of various ages and types in an environment where they could be whoever they wanted to be and therefore nobody could judge them because of their age or their type. They are very sensible and mature.

The biggest mistake we made was leaving them in schools when they were obviously unhappy.

We made that mistake with the first 2 who are now 15 and 16 as homeschooling was not something that we had ever considered but with the second two who are 9 and 10, if the school wasn't a place where they were happy and learning we pulled them out until we found an alternative. Acceleration has worked well for 2 although it wasn't enough, it didn't really make a difference work wise, just meant one year less of school and that did make them at least a little bit happy.

Good luck with your journey and try not to let people get you down. If your children are anything like mine they are well aware that they are different and well aware that there are those that resent what they have.

My children are happy for my family to talk about their experiences as they want there to be better understanding as they want change for all children and that includes gifted children.

This cannot happen when children are just seen and not heard.


9:06 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Jolanda, once again for your supportive and helpful comment. I appreciate your words of encouragement. The journey you have taken and the one I am beginning to take, is not easy, and few are prepared for it.

I think you are right in that it helps that I am educated myself - for that allows me to help my children and direct their energies onward, knowing, as I do, the path that lies ahead, having been there, myself. However, it also helps to understand what education is NOT and does not provide. More important than education is the extent and nature of a child's giftedness: that gift is something no amount of education can replace. The gift itself is special, whatever educational path the child eventually takes. Many overlook that - they mistakenly think that the education is more important. Not so. The gift is what brings success eventually - not the education (though giftedness helps one acquire a successful education, as well, of course).

I think you were right to homeschool - and I think we will homeschool too, as soon as it can be arranged. Schools are generally not well prepared to help gifted children grow - more often, a gifted child will learn about boredom and lack of challenge in a typical school. These are not good lessons to learn. My own son is very bored by much of what happens in school: it is at home in his own time that his mind comes alive. We are endeavouring to move him out of that environment.

Thanks, Jolanda, for having the courage to share the difficulties you have been through. The resentment that gifted children receive, is not generally known - and so it is allowed to continue unimpeded. It really must stop.

Never allow your childrens' gifts to be smothered by others. There is nothing more that the jealous people around would like to see than your gifted children to fail to express their gifts. Urge them on: encourage them to grow and show who they are and what they can do. I wish them the strength to deal with a world that can be truly unkind - and to be happy just to be themselves, despite it all.

All the best.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Valentine, you said:

However, it also helps to understand what education is NOT and does not provide. More important than education is the extent and nature of a child's giftedness: that gift is something no amount of education can replace. The gift itself is special, whatever educational path the child eventually takes. Many overlook that - they mistakenly think that the education is more important. Not so. The gift is what brings success eventually - not the education (though giftedness helps one acquire a successful education, as well, of course)."

I am not so sure if I agree with you there. Maybe you can explain what you mean so that I can try to understand better.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would be delighted to explain, Jolanda.

My view on education comes from my own experiences of it. In short, I was left rather unimpressed with the whole educational system: I don't feel it delivered what it should have, to those who should be best served by it. I would have liked to see more of a system that addressed what the students needed - and not a system that was concerned primarily with itself and what it needed.

My other experience is one based on observations of my family. Many members of my family are gifted - my extended family, as well. I note that some of them received no education past primary school - yet succeeded very well in life. I concluded, therefore, that it was their giftedness, that allowed them to teach themselves what they needed to know and to succeed, even without the help of a formal education.

A person is intelligent, gifted or creative independent of whether or not they are educated, as well. That is another point I was trying to make. The giftedness is a characteristic independent of whether or not someone goes on to receive an education.

That being said, an appropriate education can allow someone to develop skills and knowledge sets that equip them to succeed in life. My view is, however, that an intelligent person can do this without the support of an education system that may not, in fact, be supportive anyway.

I hope that helps...and good luck with your raising your gifted children.

Kind regards

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if I agree with you Valentine. I do not believe that it is the gift that allows people to succeed. In order to succed and grow one must be in the right environment so that one can possess the right frame of mind and have access to the information required to succeed. You cannot compare things today with things many years ago.

Even if your school experiences were not good your family obviously came from a good home.

Education is important especially in the early years and especially for those that dont live in an optimal learning environment. Gifted children who are born into poverty and who do not have optimal learning and living environments very rarely succeed. These children are hardly even often identified.

Your children are lucky but not because of their gift, but because there is real acceptance and understanding and you have the ability and means to support your children and to meet their individual needs.

How important Education is depends entirely on the needs of the individual child and their environment?

5:06 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for clarifying your views.

I think our understanding of this issue is formed by our own experiences of education and the success or otherwise of gift, in various environments. These experiences obviously differ from person to person.

I would agree that the importance of education varies as to the individual child and their environment. Some children may have a greater need of it, others a lesser need of it.

Success and the reasons for it, are as many and varied as there are successful people. The part that education played in any particular success story will vary greatly - in some, as in the examples from my family - it played no part at all - in others it may be the greater part of the reason.

Thanks for sharing your perspective on the issue.

Good luck in Australia: it sounds like there are a few issues there that need changing.

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That description was beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful child. If I marvel at your children much longer I think I might just beat your best reader.

- Seng Mod.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your heartfelt comment...your warmth is most welcome.

Kindest regards to you and yours.

8:49 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

What exactly do you mean by "education"? While education is certainly not a prerequisite in domains such as art, there's little sense in pursuing science independently without the knowledge base built by past generations of scientists. Even Ainan must have educated himself by reading books...

On the other hand, if you were referring to the formal education system (as I believe you were), then I am inclined to agree. While education can be helpful in teaching people the skills needed for their intended profession, the system is rarely suited for the gifted minority, and so they may benefit more from self-education.

Personality is also a factor: some may prefer a structured program where they can call upon teachers and classmates for help, while others prefer the freedom of self-paced, self-guided study. The question then becomes: how does one prove one's skills without possessing a formal qualification, and without prior work experience in the desired field of study?

Given that universities pride themselves on the successes of their students, they *should* be somewhat more flexible than the public school system. I don't know if it's possible to do something as drastic as applying directly to graduate school, but it may be worth a try as Ainan gets older.

The difficulty will be in convincing the universities that Ainan is ready... perhaps he could contribute a research paper on his own time? Not now of course, but whenever he's ready and wants to do so. In addition, many institutions view international olympiad performance more highly than standardized academic exams such as SATs and A levels.

It's sad when gifted children are forced into classrooms which provide no challenge for them... often they end up underachieving, and may never even become aware of their gift.

Another thing that worries me is research showing that creativity declines with age. In fact, most historical geniuses made their revolutionary contributions at a relatively young age. What are the implications for gifted children who were not allowed to accelerate through the education system, and thus do not earn their PhDs until around age 30? Worse still, what happens to geniuses in the third world? Surely there are a great many of them... given the current state of society and the environment, the need to nurture our brightest is greater than ever before.

In any case, your children are very lucky indeed to have someone so wise and knowledgeable caring for them, and I'm sure your blog is helpful to a lot of people. Thank you for writing.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Hi EbTech,

By "education" I am referring to formal, programmed instruction. I believe it is unhelpful for the best students, since it is more likely to hold them back, than enable them. I have written quite a bit on this.

Re. youth and genius. Yes. I am concerned too...we seem to spend far, far too much in school and not enough time in the real world. Frankly, it is a waste of time for the brightest students. I think I could have done COMPLETELY without attending Cambridge University, for was an utter waste of time, at which I learnt nothing but that the "Dons" were competitive with their students, that plagiarism was frequent and that any good idea said in the presence of ANYONE there would get awful experience really.

Children like Ainan (and the child I was) would do better to avoid conventional education altogether. There are more appropriate approaches in such cases.

Thanks for your comments.

1:01 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Avoid conventional education altogether? Oh no! Is it possible to enter a research career without official qualifications? Would he have the same opportunities?

I wouldn't give up yet. There are universities with much friendlier atmospheres than what you experienced at Cambridge. Even if they cannot fully accommodate a genius, I'm sure there are places where he would at least be respected.

My university may be such a place. I feel that my honours math and physics professors actually respect their students. They enjoy teaching bright individuals and don't mind having their errors corrected. We've had students and professors who might be considered geniuses. A few of them competed at the international olympiad level, among other things. They are generally respected by their peers. I've personally known at least two 16-year-old undergraduates, and our present record is 13.

Your best bet may be to look for intelligent professors who are accustomed to teaching intelligent students (such as teachers of honours classes or world-leading instructors). For they would be most likely to enjoy meeting other bright people, and to respect and want to help them.

Since graduate study consists largely of original research, Ainan could potentially benefit. It is also an opportunity for him to be mentored by a brilliant researcher. If possible, see if you can get to know the professors and find one that is right for him. Their influence might also allow Ainan to get accepted despite his age.

I hope my present experiences give you some hope. Total seclusion from the education system should be kept as a last resort.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your views, EbTech on education of the most gifted.

Ainan IS picking up qualifications...though entirely in his own time. He has more qualifications than any kid his age, I have heard of (which is not surprising considering that he is taking exams unprecedentedly early). It should be noted, however, that all if this educational progress has occurred outside of the school system. I see a lot of his progress being made that way.

As for your graduate school will be interested to learn of certain developments when the time comes to speak of them.

(By the way, I agree that the modern world being what it is, a complete absence of qualifications, even in the presence of the greatest genius, would probably be most unhelpful. Our intention is to find the right middle path that keeps the most options open.)

Cheers, EbTech.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Zubin said...

Education makes all the difference. Sure, some things may come easier for some people than for others, but ultimately the conclusions we arrive at is what matters. Our brains adapt in the same way our muscles adapt.

I must say though, you're lucky to have prodigious children. I just hope you guys don't succumb to the illogical elitism that many oriental families embrace.

Keep in mind, perhaps no human on Earth has ever had more than 1% of humanity's consequential knowledge. I suggest nudging your children toward choosing careers in natural science(if it was my choice it would be in theoretical physics).

It appears nearly all gifted children, that do contribute something significant society, are either physicists or mathematicians. Then again there is no real reason formal science from natural science(particularly physics) since the former is fundamentally intertwined with the latter.

4:15 PM  

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