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 +

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Careers advice for a gifted child

This is a post that will only begin to address the issue and will do so with a tale from our own lives.

When my wife was a child, she had broad horizons: there seemed to be so many things she was interested in, so many possibilities of things she could do. Needless to say, she took her ideas for her future to the adults around her, to those who were in a position to dispense careers advice. Now, the events are so long ago, that she cannot recall precisely who it was who advised her so - which adult, which teacher, which "career adviser", who told her as they did, but the advice has never faded, the exact words used remain with her to this day.

She was a child who thought about many things, whose interests were deep and many and various. So she had more than one vision of her future. So, one day, she asked this career adviser their opinion of her choices:

"I would like to be an archaeologist when I grow up." she revealed, rather shyly - for she was ever rather shy.

"Everything has been found already." was the blunt, dismissive reply.

Syahidah, the little girl, was rather disappointed about this, for she had dreamt of travelling the world, going to strange places, in search of even stranger lost and distant realms, almost forgotten, newly to be discovered. This vision had been dismissed as romantic nonsense - yet, the funny thing is, her idea of the possibilities is closer to the truth than her narrow-minded "adviser": there are still cities to be discovered, lost worlds to be explored. That we have found much, does not mean that there is not much more to be found, deep beneath us all.

Though disheartened by this opinion, she mustered the courage in her small body for another statement of her ambition.

"I want to be an architect.", she said, already proud at the thought of the buildings she might build, the cities she might shape.

"Everything has been built already, in Singapore." was the even more dismissive and bone-headed answer.

Look at the answer of this "adviser". For a start it considered the world entire to be nothing more than Singapore: as if the architectural needs of an entire planet were not worth bothering with. Secondly, Singapore, more than many cities, is very much in need of good architects. Too much of it looks the same as everywhere else. Some architectural genius would go a long way to improving the quality of life in this small but ambitious city. Furthermore, Singapore is constantly pulling "old" buildings down (anything over fifteen or twenty years seems to be too old to leave alone around here) and replacing them with new ones. There is, therefore, both a dire and enduring need for good architects, here.

After two dismissals she didn't have the courage to raise any more of her aspirations to be shot down. The little girl that was Syahidah never forgot those words - and never more did she dream of being an archaeologist - or an architect.

That unremembered adviser, whose words have never been forgotten, deprived Singapore of an architect (which it so evidently needs) and an archaeologist - which I have never heard of it having. Such conversations, between the advising adult and the child - gifted or otherwise - should never be conducted lightly. They have a permanent effect on the child concerned.

In the end, my wife has become an artist - but that is a story too long for this post. Let it be said that no-one helped her along the way - or advised her appropriately.

So if a child approaches you for advice on a career, think carefully. Don't dismiss whatever they offer up as possibilities: look at the positive side of what they are proposing, look at the good things that could come of them. Don't puncture a dream just because you no longer have any of your own (which was probably the case with her sour, disenchanted "adviser"). Let their dreams continue to live - and give them a little encouraging prod. Who knows, perhaps your kind words may lead them to become a fulfilled, successful, happy, productive individual, one day - instead of someone whose progress was blocked and stifled by "advice" lacking in vision, imagination, and knowledge of the world.

My wife's childhood adviser knew nothing of my wife's gifts. Her self-diagnosed possible career paths were, retrospectively, more than appropriate given the mental strengths she has later shown: in particular in visual matters - a strength required in both archaeology and architecture - as well, of course, as in art.

Often the child with a dream, may also be a child with a reason (for that dream). Listen to them, and speak as wisely as you can, for it is a chance for you to help someone become what they truly wish for - and should be.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 9:06 PM  0 comments

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Art of communication, Tiarnan style.

When you are a baby, communication is both very important, and very difficult. How do you relate to those giant adult beings, in a timely manner to have your needs met?

Tiarnan, fifteen months, has always been a good communicator, with both body language and words. He also goes out of his way to make himself understood.

A few days ago, his mother, Syahidah asked him:

"Why do you have these marks on your legs?"

"Jatuh." he said, which is Malay for "I fell down."

He has been speaking since he was two months old, so that was not the surprise. What was telling was what he did next. He picked up a plastic cup and threw it to the floor and repeated what he had said: "Jatuh".

I find this very interesting. It shows that he is tackling the need for communication in more than one mode: by word, then by deed, to demonstrate the meaning of the word and to show that he meant what it meant. This shows that he understands the problem of communication very well. It also shows that he is resourceful in tackling it in his own way.

He has, in this instance, translated a word into an action. This recalls his earlier development of many months ago, of translating between languages to show that he knew the corresponding words in both of his main languages.

(If you would like to know more of Tiarnan, fifteen months, or his gifted brothers, Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and five months, or Fintan, three, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children and gifted adults, in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:06 PM  0 comments

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On disability and ability: society's obligation

It is taken as obvious that the mentally disabled should receive assistance in developing the skills and behaviours necessary to allow them to function in society. Yet, it is seen as controversial, in some countries, to make any special provision at the opposite end of the ability spectrum. Is this rational?

What does it mean to be disabled? It means one's abilities are different from the norm, in the sense of being lessened. What does it mean to be gifted? It means one's abilities are different from the norm, in the sense of being heightened.

You will note that the situations have a logical identity and a logical difference. It is the identity to which I wish to draw your initial attention. With both the disabled and the gifted, there is an essential difference from the norm. These people are not typical of humanity in general - and it is their lack of typicality that requires that they be given special attention. The general provision of society for its members is equally inappropriate for both classes of individual: the disabled and the gifted (or the enabled, as one might call them).

There is a view, often stated, though never intelligently held, that the gifted do not need special provision because they are MORE able than others. This view fails to understand the ways in which extreme ability can be a kind of disability, too. The truly gifted child will be set apart by their gifts, from those around them. They are likely to be isolated not only in being mentally different to those around them, but also in terms of being rejected, by them. They are unlikely to fit in. They may have communication difficulties. They may have difficulty in both being understood and in understanding those they meet in the everyday world. Think about my last four sentences. They could have been written about a mentally disabled person - and they would still hold true. The gifted and the disabled both a share a communication gap - they both share a social disability. To be in either state is to be divorced from society - and this is a burden whether it is at the lower or upper ends of the spectrum. The difference, in many societies, is that the burden of the disabled is recognized by all, but that that of the "enabled" or gifted, is recognized only by those who have experienced it for themselves, in most cases.

To both constituents, the gifted and the disabled, a humane society must make a special effort to reach out to and accommodate them and their needs. The key phrase is "humane society". So many voices on the internet seem to be espousing an inhumane, uncaring, cold society - well, I for one, would not vote for such a society.

Both kinds of people need special help in fully integrating into society: the disabled with basic functioning, the gifted with, if you like, "optimal function" - finding the niche that best expresses their abilities and least encumbers them.

A society that ignores either constituent is at the very least inhumane - but it is also something else: it is a society which will fail for obvious logical reasons. A society which does not enable the disabled to function, is one that will be burdened by them; a society which disables the enabled by not allowing them to function at their best - is one that will never enjoy the benefits of such people in their midst.

I will write more on this in future, for otherwise this post would become too long.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:54 AM  0 comments

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Brotherly love and solidarity

Tiarnan is a little boy of big emotions. Though only fifteen months old, he shows an interesting degree of complexity in his social interactions and emotional responses.

A few days ago, Syahidah scolded Fintan, for something or other. Tiarnan was a witness to this. On seeing that Fintan was upset by this, he took it upon himself to deal with the matter. He followed his mother out of the living area and into the kitchen and, when he finally reached her, he gave her an overarm slap, with all the not very mighty force of his diminutive frame. Then, having satisfied his innate sense of justice he hurried back to Fintan, where he sat beside him, sharing a silent solidarity with him.

It was touching to see this demonstration of togetherness with his much larger brother: there they sat, a Laurel and Hardy like pair - Tiarnan, appearing slender, delicate and dwarfed by his much stockier, three year old brother Fintan.

It is in such displays that we can read the love children have for each other. Tiarnan is very attached to his mother - yet, on seeing his brother scolded, he took umbrage - and sided with his sibling.

(If you would like to read more of Tiarnan, fifteen months, or his gifted brothers, Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and five months, or Fintan, three, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children and gifted adults in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:28 AM  0 comments

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A new meaning of obvious

A few days ago, Ainan, seven, made the kind of remark that has become characteristic of him.

"One of the biggest calculations I have done..." he began, speaking, implicitly, one felt, of a mental calculation. Incidentally there was no calculator in sight. " the fourth root of 12,117,361." He paused briefly. "Now, obviously it is 59," he stated this without a hint of humour in his voice: clearly he meant it to be obvious (!), "because 59 to the power 4 is 12,117,361."

If there is an error in these numbers it is one of my own remembrance, because, at the time, I checked his statement with a calculator and found it to be true.

This kind of statement is the product of Ainan's growing familiarity with numbers. Now, I would not say that Ainan has become a mental calculator like his uncle Josh, but, perhaps with greater familiarity with numbers he may develop a good facility in that area. It is clear to me that is not his purpose, but it may be a side effect, one day, of his growing interest in all things mathematical and numerical.

We will see. Meanwhile, I have noted his new meaning of the word, "obvious" - as being absolutely inscrutable.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:53 AM  2 comments

Monday, May 07, 2007

On jealousy and policy

Sometimes I receive a comment post that I just can't post, because I know something that they seem to forget: my children read this blog too. Such posts may not be overtly unpleasant (very, very, few comments are, thankfully), but they may be inappropriate in some way, for a child to read.

One such post recently came from a reader at an Ivy League University in America. They were very careful to point out their Ivy League origin and wrote as if they spoke for the University itself. However, on reading the entire comment, it became clear that they were, in fact, an overseas Singaporean - probably sent overseas to study by their parents. There were three strands to their argumentation each of which was profoundly at odds with the reality of gifted children. I found it remarkable that such thoughts could be found in the mind of someone attending such a prestigious University. I will look at one strand, alone, in this post.

If the essential argument of their comment is extracted and generalized, it could be stated in the following simplified form: "A society should do nothing to help a gifted child succeed, because that gifted child may not do so, in the end, and the money/resources given to them would then be wasted."

I found myself utterly flabbergasted by the essential bovinity of this line of thinking. This person - male or female, I do not know - who originally came from Singapore, placed such a high value on money that they would argue against the expenditure of any of it to help a talent flourish. They would rather that such talents went unsupported so that money could be devoted to other - unstated purposes. Or perhaps, simply hoarded, and not spent at all.

Imagine a world that was run according to this commenters outlook. No gifted child would get appropriate schooling. No gifted child would get opportunities to grow and express themselves. No gifted child would realize the fullness of their talents. Perhaps, too, no gifted child would grow into a productive gifted adult, so hampered were they by their ungiving societies. What would such a world be like? It would be impoverished in every way. It would be a world of lesser culture, lesser science, lesser richness and diversity in every way. Yet, this commenter imagines that their world is a better one - because they don't expend resources on such gifted children. The exact phrase they had used to describe the situation was that money shouldn't be devoted to such children because there was "too high a risk" of them not succeeding. This supposedly educated individual clearly considers it better to waste the talents of all gifted children, than "risk" wasting money on any of them who turn out not to meet expectations.

What could underlie such a viewpoint? I think it likely that jealousy, whether conscious or otherwise, does so. Jealousy at the gifts of such children; jealousy that anything should be done to help them. Something else, too, seems to underpin such thinking: too high a value placed on the hoarding of money and resources, rather than their wise usage.

I have entitled this piece: "On jealousy and policy" for a reason. For I wish you to consider what sort of world would come to be if this jealous, abstemious, short-sighted mindset were to be the policy of a nation. Such a nation would utterly stifle its future growth. It would become a stagnant place where no ideas grew and no-one flourished. It would be a dying culture, a nation without a future. Yet, that viewpoint is held by an educated Singaporean.

If Singapore is to flourish, grow and become a great nation - as it aspires to be - it must guard against this brand of short-sighted foolishness, lest it become a nation that could have been, and nothing more.

Oh, and by the way: if this individua'ls parents held his or her view, then they wouldn't have sent them overseas to study at an Ivy League college - for isn't that "risking" resources that may come to nothing?

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:24 AM  4 comments

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