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, April 01, 2008

Kiasu and age appropriate toys

In the run up to Christmas, I was in the toy section of a department store, with Tiarnan, who was then one year old.

Nearby there was a very intent Chinese man in his late 30s, I would say. I noticed him because his son was playing among the toys near my own son. This little boy of his, was shorter than Tiarnan, so I would think he must have been less than two years old - probably 18 months, or something.

What was strange about this was that he kept snatching toys off his son and putting them back on the shelf. The toys he took from him were ones with lights and bells and knobs to turn: simple interactive toys, which were, I felt, age appropriate given his apparent youth. The father seemed quite irked at his son's interest in these toys and would substitute a reading preparatory toy which had all the alphabet on it, and really looked rather complicated. I could see that it was labelled "Suitable for 3 to 6 year olds".

I paused at that. This man's son had a clear and strong interest in toys suitable for a one year old. He looked to be between one and two years old, by comparison with Tiarnan who was standing fairly near him. Yet, the father was trying to interest his son in a toy suitable for up to 6 year olds.

What was particularly interesting was what the son did, everytime the father presented him with the reading toy: he looked briefly at it, didn't look at his father and then turned away, to search for the toy that had just been taken from him. Once he had found it, he would resume playing with it again.

The father would just look angry. He would then pull the toy away from his son, or his son away from the toy and again present the reading preparatory toy. It was a battle of the wills. Yet, clearly the father was not going to win this one, since his son completely failed to attempt to interact with the toy presented to him.

Most telling of all, was what the mother was doing, throughout. She was looking on, motionless apart from her lips, which open and shut slightly and rather tensely, as if she wished to speak, but restrained herself. She looked from father to son and back again and did nothing. Clearly, though, she wanted to intervene; clearly she had a different opinion to the father as to what was suitable for the boy.

They were still at it when I left, with Tiarnan.

Though months have passed, this incident stayed with me, for it is emblematic of an attitude Singaporeans are famous for: Kiasu. This is the idea that they must win, that they can't lose or lose out and that they must compete to have it all.

Here was a most kiasu father. He wanted his son to read, just after he had learnt to walk. He didn't want his son to play with mere children's toys (even though the child liked them and they seemed appropriate). He wanted the child to be what the child was not. If the child was ready for reading, he would be showing interest in the reading toy. Yet, he was not. Looking at the boy, it was clear he would not be ready for a few years. Here, was a father who was not going to "lose out"...his son had to read before his neighbours'/friends'/relatives' children did etc etc.

I have reflected upon this. This man didn't know the difference between wanting the best for his son and wanting his son to be the best. They are far from being the same. If the child was ready for reading, then it would be appropriate to give him the toy presented. He might then be the earliest reader in the father's social circle. That is fine if it is so. However, unless the child is actually like that, then you cannot make him be so: the child cannot be made to be the "best" unless that is already in him.

Perhaps this father had heard of an early reader and was now competing with this other child, through his son. This is a common product of kiasu thinking. However, it is the child that suffers in all this, for the child cannot be what the child is not meant to be.

The attitude of kiasu should be laid to rest. Each and every child should be given what they, as individuals, need. If it is reading material at one years old, that is suitable, that is fine. However, the child should never be made to do that which is inappropriate to that particular child. Let each child be, what each child is.

(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 @ 11:01 PM 


Anonymous passerby said...

"However, unless the child is actually like that, then you cannot make him be so: the child cannot be made to be the "best" unless that is already in him."

See, that's the crux of what kiasu people don't believe in. If you can make a child work hard enough, they can be the "best" (or at least better than average)... and I agree with that to an extent.

But the fact is, as you mention, the ultimate loser is the child. Many parents here (especially Asian?) treat their children as trophy children; they have to be good enough to show off and bring pride to the family. They can't be themselves.

I think raising children to be smart individuals definitely starts from young, but parents shouldn't be discouraged if their children don't express an interest in reading at that age - and most importantly shouldn't force it on them... A child not pressured into being the best is more likely to enjoy learning for what it is, and that's what really takes them far once they're out of the contrived institutions known as schools.

6:06 PM  

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