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 +

Friday, March 07, 2008

On sensitivity and toughness

Which is more valuable: to be sensitive or to be tough? I know what Singapore's answer to that question is: I heard it today, many times.

This morning I attended a talk, at Ainan's school, for parents. The underlying purpose of the talk was to tell parents how to "toughen up" their children. Everything about the talk, was directed to this end, of achieving tough little children. The speaker, who was an "expert on raising children", had the view that toughness was to be valued. His view had one merit: that a tough child would be more resilient in the face of disappointment or setback. In that sense, he had reason for his position - yet, I worried, as I heard him extol his techniques for generating toughness in children. There seemed to be something missing: the appreciation of sensitivity.

Sensitivity was a word noted only by its absence from his two hour talk. Not once did he mention the concept of sensitivity. Not once did he evaluate its use, value or purpose in the personality structure of a child. I found this lack really perturbing. You see, what is a sensitive child, but one that responds to the environment? What is a sensitive child but one who feels, and thinks, subtly and with freedom? A sensitive child may become an artist, or an actor, a writer - or a leader who feels for his or her people. A sensitive person can make a great boss, for they will feel for their workers and respond to them more warmly. Sensitivity is not something to be dismissed - yet it was ignored entirely. This Singaporean "expert on raising children", clearly did not value the human side of children at all. What he valued seemed very much like a worker who would put up with anything, without complaint. What he valued seemed very much like someone who would take endless abuse and just carry on. Perhaps that is what is really needed in the Singaporean system. Perhaps people without feeling or responsiveness, who just carry on ploddingly, no matter what are what is sought from education, here. Yet, I can't help but feel that such people would be incomplete: without a decent measure of sensitivity they will wholly fail to grasp the essence, truth and beauty of life, at all. Without some sensitivity such people will never truly live.

Every beautiful person I have ever met - and I mean beautiful on the inside, not the outside - has been a sensitive person, to some degree. None of them have been so tough as to fulfil the criteria sought by this speaker.

Resilience is important if a child is to grow up into an adult able to cope with the vicissitudes of life. However, that resilience must not come at the price of losing one's essential sensitivity. It is the latter quality that leads to a beautiful life. Toughness does not afford one a beautiful life - it only allows one to endure the suffering of an ugly one.

There is, I feel, too little concern for the human side of humanity, here. The attention is directed too much to creating efficient little workers who will fit nicely into the system without creating any perturbation - and will endure all the discomforts that come with a system that doesn't actually value the individual human being for themselves.

I would rather a sensitive child than a tough child. A sensitive child could be a great poet, a wonderful actor, an inspiring leader, a perceptive thinker, a lyrical writer, a profound musician. A tough child is unlikely to be any of these - though they are likely to endure in the face of much suffering and "succeed" eventually, in a conventional sense. Perhaps that is all that is wanted here, by the educational system: that the children "succeed" in a conventional sense. No wonder, then, that there is such a dearth of creative geniuses here. Why, you wonder? Well, you see, most great geniuses are, dare I say it...rather SENSITIVE!

With all this effort to knock the sensitivity out of children - indeed with special talks for just that purpose - it is no wonder that so little genius survives to flourish here.

What we need more of is: gentleness, sensitivity, kindness and consideration. Unfortunately, no more alien concepts could be tabled, than those four words, when set against what the system here, would like the children to show - and grow into.

Personally, I would rather a nation with a measurable sprinkling of sensitive geniuses - than an abundance of tough little workers. To create such a place, of course, would necessitate a complete change in the way the children are raised - and that's definitely never going to happen.

So, tough Singaporeans it is to be.

Ah well.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:14 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having a balance is best. I find for example the ppl who really have an impact on me are those who can be relied upon to be firm and yet humanitarian at the right time, place and calling.

There are a few leading figures in blogoland, Mr Brown, Mr Wang, Alex Au, brotherhud / darkness, Galye Goh.

Each have their strength, but the ppl who really make an impact are the ones who are prepared to be firm and human at the same time.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Such a balance, as you speak of, is difficult to achieve - for the achievement of "toughness" is often at the loss of sensitivity.

It is, however, true to say that the most effective people are those able to call upon the widest repertoire of responses. There are, however, few such people...

I feel that the quality of firmness is not incompatible with sensitivity - if, by firmness, you mean being resolute. One can be resolute and yet sensitive at the same time.

Thank you for your comment.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous shoestring said...

I believe toughness and sensitivity can go hand in hand. One can be sensitive to his/her surroundings but at the same time be tough enough weather the experience and handle the emotions it evokes, appropriately, without being 'defeated'.

I am surprised the speaker did not mention the all time favorite - emotional intelligence. Because that is what EQ refers to in part.

Perhaps he wanted robots.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Shoestring,

No mention was made of EQ though he did use the word "tough" an awful lot.

I think the speaker's values and outlook had been formed solely from Singaporean influences. In this way, he endorsed the need for robots, probably without even realizing what he was doing. He wouldn't be in a position to see that robots was what he was promoting. You see robots are very easy to deal with: they don't talk back, they don't have opinions, they work hard and they put up with infinite abuse: ideal (from his point of view).

What worries me is that this fellow does his job daily...going from place to place, speaking of raising "tough children". I daren't think of what effect this has on any sensitive children of parents who hear his talk...

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alot of it has to do with how one defines tough. I know for a fact even in blogosphere, if you really look around there are some people here who often come across as tough, but in a smart sort of way as there are those who just show us how stupid they really are. The smart / tough one usually ask alot of spikey questions and judging from what they regularly write, they can certainly take the opposition a few times around the block. No fear! I dont consider these personalities rude or abrasive, not at all, as I have the benefit of having studied abroad, so I am quiet accustomed to an adversarial sort of exchange, but its surprising how so many do! Especially those from local U's.

There has to be a big difference being assertive and rude. Just the other day, I saw a man demanding service from a waiter in a restaraunt. He didnt make a scene, he was emphatic, yet firm and all in all he came across as a very attractive fellow. I think there is appeal to such people as they know their rights. In SG at least, we tend to lump it all together. As a result conformance is prized and asking difficult questions guarantees one a seat on the train that leads to Coventry.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You raise an issue, at the end, that strikes to the very heart of the problems that Singapore faces, now and in the long term: the excessive valuation of conformity. In such a culture, very little of great worth will ever arise. Everything will be no more than "average"...which isn't good enough in my book.

Thanks for your comment.

4:22 PM  

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