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, February 01, 2009

On intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

It puzzles me how often the parents of gifted children are assailed with the accusation of being "pushy" parents. I marvel at the essential incomprehension of the gifted situation this reveals. To be brief, it is impossible to push a child to exceed their limits and achieve something that is not in them.

A gifted child is not pushed into being a gifted child. It is an innate condition, as inherent as the colour of their eyes. It is absurd to accuse the parents of somehow creating this situation by being demanding. Yet, so often, the parents of gifted children hear this assumption wielded in their general direction.

There is a failure to understand the need for intrinsic - and not extrinsic - motivation when it comes to a gifted child, particularly a prodigious one. It is absolutely impossible, in my opinion, to create a prodigious child from one who is not naturally given to be so. The mental qualities of such a child are either in the child or not. One particular quality that must be present, if anything worthwhile is to be achieved, is that of intrinsic motivation. By this, I mean that the child must be motivated, of their own accord, to seek understanding of the subject matter of their interest. The drive to learn must come from the child. I see no real possibility of a prodigious child coming out of an extrinsic learning situation, in which the motivation to learn comes from external factors. So, I think it impossible that a parent (the extrinsic factor) could ever drive a child to become prodigious. The child must already be becoming prodigious of their own accord, driven by their own intrinsic motivations and founded on their own inherent abilities.

It is clear that those who accuse the parents of prodigies of being pushy, actually know nothing about prodigies. If they did, they would understand that it is the child, in such a situation, who does the driving.

Ainan often bugs me to do something with him. It is not what you might imagine. It is not bugging me to get him a toy, or play a game with him. He bugs me to get me to sit down with him and teach him science. He nags me to provide him with scientific stimulation. Anyone who had ever witnessed this, would, at once, have a rather different view of the origin of prodigies and gifted children, than is commonly - and wrongly - supposed. The secret of a child's gift, is in the child themselves. Their gift emerges from their own innate nature. It is not imposed on them from without. They are not a "tabula rasa". They have certain gifts and predispositions at birth and these are fostered by the child themselves, if they are truly destined to become something special. The parent can only provide what the child makes clear, by their actions, nature and requests, that they need. The rest, largely, is up to the child themselves. They must have the ability within them, to excel, but they must also have the drive to do so. It must be something that they really want for themselves. It cannot be imposed on them from without.

Thus, the model many people have in their minds of a gifted child moulded by "pushy parents" into becoming something that they otherwise would never have been is utter nonsense. It is, in fact, an impossibility. If the child is not intrinsically motivated to tread the path that has been chosen, there is no way on earth that they are going to be able to do so. Extrinsic motivations are never going to be strong enough to create the kind of child we come to know as a prodigy. Nor, I would suggest, are they strong enough to engender a gifted child of any kind. There is a reason why a child is called "gifted" - and that is because it is as if a special quality has been bestowed on them, at conception. They are in possession of a gift. It is not something that can be imposed from without, by force of will. It is there, or it is not. The child has received a gift, at conception, or they have not.

Rather than continuing to misunderstand the parents of gifted children, society would do better to enquire what those parents need for their children, to give them what they most require, to take them where they should go and become what they should be.

All parents have a great responsibility to the future of our society. I would suggest that the parents of gifted children have a greater responsibility given the potential of their charges. It seems a pity to assail them with misunderstandings instead of trying to help them do the best they can to ensure that the potential of their children, becomes something actual - for the betterment of the child, and of society as a whole.

So, the next time you hear someone speak of pushy parents, remember my words and explain to them that, without intrinsic motivation, a child could never achieve anything worthwhile at all. So, if the child has achieved something, it is because it is in them to do so. It wasn't put there, from without.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, 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, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 9:44 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

U are .. staying in Singapore where the Gahmen have carfully cultivated a siege\zero-sum-game\ultra-competitive(tuition+enrichment+more tuition+more enrichment+...) mentality and u are asking why u are being "assailed" for having a outrageously talented kid.

Looks like Ainan inherited his genius from Mom. ;-p

PS: I am just kidding.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think that the system here in Singapore is wrong. Kids have no room to live and breathe here. Additionally, I don't see them becoming all that brilliant, either...they just become stressed, depressed and unhappy. What a way to do things!

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tt's life here and in many other asian countries like china and hk, as supported by those from there studying here in local Unis.

i envy my friends who are in countries like UK and US. They regularly top(or almost top) their class with 1st class honours with less effort than us here- As those who have studied in local unis before shifting over and those on exchange programs explain to me. And they're no different from most students here either- Not exceptionally smarter or anything either.

12:01 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This is easy to explain. In most other countries there is emphasis on a more balanced life in University. There is less concern for studying hard. A Singaporean, used to slaving at the books, will do well surrounded by people more interested in partying than studying.

However, the Western system seems to create rounded people able to be effective in life. That shouldn't be forgotten.

Thanks for your comment.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep. That is true. Which is also why i envy the western system of a more balanced life.

I guess it's a society issue- In Asia, great emphasis is placed on studies, at the expense of the other aspects of life. The western world however, does not place such a high value on studies(at least not at the expense of the other experience of life) Look at Japan, a developed country, which has adopted western tech and many ideas and innovation. Even there, studies is still very much important, which explains the stress students face during the university entrance exams.

Some of my overseas friends( and local ones too) have mentioned that while the western education system produce at most mediocre students (in sci and tech), it also produces the brightest minds. While in Asia, although many sci/engine/math students are above mediocre compared to the ave western student, there are very few geniuses. Perhaps time will prove me wrong with China.

Speaking of which, my friend in a prominent college in NY mentioned how his stats prof couldnt even get a simple probability qn of dice rolling correct.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

Academics come effortlessly to many gifted children. I believe that high levels of talent are supported by high levels of interest. Children typically enjoy to do the things that they can do very well.

The internet can be a strange place. Those that accuse parents of being "pushy" have never met or personally interacted with the children. It seems reckless and irresponsible to make an accusation w/o witnessing the alleged "pressure."

3:48 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Shannon, you are right about the internet. It is a place where people become instant seers and mystics able to see from afar and judge in a god-like manner, without any information at all. In fact, this tendency is also seen in the media, where pundits are asked their opinion of a situation and give it, without having any firsthand information. It is, of course, a form of stupidity.

(P.S: My wife, who is looking over my shoulder, thinks so, too, about the situation!)

You are right re. motivation and ability going hand in hand...I think children like doing what they are good at doing. They know what it just let them do it.

Best wishes

5:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi. I wouldn't say that China is likely to produce too many geniuses. I have taught many PRC students and never seen much evidence of originality or creativity among them. It is common, in fact, for them to be noticeably lacking in these qualities. They are, however, very good at copying things. Unfortunately, for them, in an era of photocopy machines there doesn't seem much call for that particular skill.

I once asked a room full of Chinese students for a funny story from their own lives. They duly went off to do their homework. The next day I got them to read out their personal stories in class. Two of them turned out to be identical. They had copied them from a folklore book. This tale is not untypical of their approach to academic tasks.

I wouldn't say that the students I grew up with were mediocre. I would say that they were quite able. But then, my school wasn't typical so I can't really say. I would agree with the "more geniuses" assessment. The western way does seem more compatible with such minds.

Thanks for your comment.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Mr Cawley,

I read with great interest your post above regarding the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of gifted children. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you are essentially arguing out the case of nature versus nurture of our children.

In your post above, you mentioned that "Extrinsic motivations are never going to be strong enough to create the kind of child we come to know as a prodigy" Would your definition of a prodigy be the same as that of the commonly accepted definition which would be a person who has fully and completely mastered one or more skills at a young age? If so, have you considered the fact that it might be possible for such skills and abilities to be inculcated into these children from a young age?

You suggest that perhaps these children have innate skills or abilities which are inborn and are supposedly god given.Undoubtedly, there are a handful of children who exhibit such characteristics and can be truly termed as gifted. However, it would be worth considering that in our society today, it has become increasingly easy to find examples of children who have been moulded and shaped into "gifted" kids. By and large, our accomplishments or certificates of achievements have come to represent our abilities and skills which is definitely not what giftedness is about in my humble opinion.

In summary, it might be more difficult to sieve out truly gifted students from those who are merely "trained" to appear gifted. As much as this might seem improbable to you, perhaps it would be easier to differentiate such students from the truly gifted by teaching them subjects which would include a whole range such as the sciences and the humanities which they are absolutely unfamiliar with and measure the time taken for them to grasp the content or concepts.

Of course, such a suggestion does not come without its flaws. It might lead to parents who expose their children to a whole host of subjects in hope of hitting the "jackpot" of a subject that might be tested and hence allow their children make it through the test.

In conclusion, it has become more and more difficult for us to truly differentiate gifted children from those who are trained and one of the possible ways to sieve them out would be to administer a test such as the above. What would be your take on this? Just interested to find out. Thanks so much for your time!

6:19 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...


Highly trained, but not gifted children, tend to lack a spark of spontaneous thinking. They can be recognized by interacting with them, listening to them, talking to them - they are altogether a duller breed than those whose spark is innate. So, I think they can be distinguished, particularly by an observant and experienced teacher.

My point is that you cannot coax a child into great performance, unless that is what they really want to do. I am not convinced that purely external factors can produce prodigious performance. Sure, the right support can help...but that is not going to make an ordinary child into a prodigious one.

What I was trying to convey is that special children tend to be innately special, in my view and experience. The extrinsic factors, alone, cannot explain such children.

Thanks for your comment.

9:18 PM  

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