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 +

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

An unexpected maturity; a surprising immaturity.

Today, I saw something remarkable - and a little sad.

I was with Tiarnan in the Science Centre, after having seen the Leonardo the Genius exhibition. Tiarnan, three, was in the mathematics display area of the Science Centre and he was investigating the Double Gravity Well exhibit. He found it most absorbing.

Tiarnan first wanted to stand on the exhibit, to be able to see into it. It consists of an ellipitical table like surface, which is curved, dipping towards two holes along the central axis. The idea is that you should roll a ball along the surface and watch how it is affected by the twin wells, representing two gravitational masses near each other. I gave Tiarnan a ball, while he stood on the table but, instead of rolling it while standing on the top, he jumped down to the floor to do it "properly".

He held the ball in his left hand and rolled it. He was delighted as it careened around the table top, drawn in a curve around the wells and between them. Eventually, it rolled into one of the holes. Immediately, he rushed off to get more balls and rolled them, one by one, in different paths, to see what would happen. He managed to do it three times, before he was interrupted.

Laughing, shouting and pushing each other, there came a group of teenage boys into the room. They saw, at once, what Tiarnan was doing and rushed over to the balls and, immediately, started to throw them at each other. Tiarnan, who had three more balls in his hands, stopped in his tracks, and watched these older, bigger boys behaving so strangely.

The teenagers were among the least well behaved people I can ever recall seeing in a museum. They threw the balls at each other, hard and fast in rapid succession. Then they rushed over to the table and huddled around it. One of them jumped up and tried to punch a ball into the hole, forcing it down a hole it was never meant to pass through. He punched it several times, until it was thoroughly jammed. Tiarnan was shocked at what they were doing.

The teenagers ran around chaotically - from Tiarnan's perspective they must have seemed like giant lumbering lunatics. There was no order to their behaviour, it was just an exuberant, messy, riotous chaos. Tiarnan stood stock still, his three balls unused in his hands. He seemed to be waiting for them to go away. I looked down at him and he looked up at me in a shared understanding. He looked back at the boys, wondering, perhaps, just why they were behaving as they were. Tiarnan, you must remember, is just three years old and had never, in his short life, seen boys behaving like this before.

After the boy had given up trying to force the ball through the hole, with his fist, they started a battle on the table top. This involved moving the balls around the table as fast as possible, and trying to hit them together. This they did for a couple of minutes, before their short attention spans were exhausted. Then they decided to throw all the balls in the room on the table, upending the containers filled with them to do so. One container was upended over another boy.

I called Tiarnan away, lest they run into him.

He understood the need to move, at once, and came with me.

Behind us, the boys rioted on, scattering balls all over the hall, shouting as much as they threw.

For me, the contrast between my three year old's attentive, concentrated attempt to understand the double gravity well and its properties, and the teenage boys' mindlessness, could not have been sharper. Tiarnan seemed infinitely more mature, more composed, more thoughtful and more intelligent, than the mindless oafs who had taken over the museum hall. It was more than a little disturbing to realize that these boys - who looked to be about 18 years old - were SIX times older than my son - and yet, had none of his self-control, none of his consideration for others and none of his maturity.

After the gravity well, the gang of boys went from exhibit to exhibit, interacting with each in a very aggressive way - as if trying to test them to destruction. The hall was filled with the sounds of banging and bashing, alongside their shouts. We retreated as far from them as we could.

I didn't say anything to Tiarnan about it, then, but I think I should. I think those boys provided a terrible example to my son of what constitutes a reasonable way to behave in a public space and with public property. I wouldn't expect a three year old to try to be so destructive as those boys were. Isn't it shocking to think that 18 year olds are capable of behaving in a way which would be considered out of place even for a THREE year old?

The conventional overseas view of Singaporean school going students is that they are all a studious, serious lot. I can tell you now, however, that that is certainly not true of all of them. I imagine that far from being studious, the bunch of boys I saw today would be more likely to tear the pages out of a book, than read them.

I am left with a thought: those boys were pre-NS. I wonder, just wonder, how they will cope with the discipline of NS, when their natural inclination is to riot? I think they are in for a surprise..either that, or the NS people are...

What was sad, for me, was seeing Tiarnan watching these rioting boys huddled around the gravity well table, in utter astonishment at what they were doing, then looking down at the balls in his hands, wondering, I thought, whether he was ever going to get the chance to continue his investigation. He didn't.

(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 @ 11:39 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are morons in every country. Say Ireland. The difference is that in Singapore, cowardice is ingrained in us. So we look away if the morons (in ur case deranged 18 years teenagers with poor upbringing) looks capable of inflicting bodily harm.

Of course, if Tiarnan were to do the same then almost certainly some1 would have restrained\punished him. I say "alomost" because u (the father) are white(I believe) and potentially capable of inflicting much harm to livelihood (via a complaint letter).

Peace. No offense meant to u. Any potentially offending remark is meant to highlight points only.


10:22 AM  
Blogger Indiana said...

I think when boys are forced by "education" to sit, read, and do as they are told, with no recourse to "run and play" they will do just that with wild abandon when left without direction or supervision.

It does not further help that there is a strong push in education circle today to simply medicate boys if they are too "boisterous".

11:01 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

No offense taken.

You are probably right re. the cowardice. Perhaps that is why they do what they do in one ever restrains them.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Medication for behaviour is just abuse...and is a terrible and damaging trend.

Yes. They did seem like they had been let loose from some great restraint. In a way, therefore, one has to feel sorry for them that they feel the need to riot, as a release from whatever else is going on in their lives.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

? What are these boys doing in the Science Centre anyway. They should be playing ball games on the field.

3:24 PM  
Blogger ozob said...

To attribute bad upbringing and behaviour to the education system is really stretching the limits.

The very fact that these boys are unrestrained in terms of behaviour signals a lack of maturity. This is the problem of their parents, admittedly you have done a good job with Tiarnan (sp?) and he takes time to carefully examine the exhibit and appreciate its meaning. Would Tiarnan be as civilised if he came from a family with a background similar to that of said 18 year olds, I doubt so. From your post, I can't help but feel that you are expecting the education system to play the roles of parent and teacher at the same time. This is just unrealistic. Teachers have a ratio of 30 to 1, whereas unless the parents are birth farms, I suspect the ratio would be more like 2:1. The issue at hand here is bad upbringing, not the education system and it is important to differentiate that.

Nurturing of children is the job of parents, not the teacher.

PS: moderating comments? Seriously?

6:29 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Ozob, for your comment.

I feel,though, that my intention has been a little misunderstood. In commenting on education, I am referring to the repressive aspect of it...these boys perhaps feel repressed in their daily school lives and so burst out at the first opportunity. It is not about the schools being substitute parents, therefore, but more like actual prisons, of a kind.

10:54 AM  
Blogger ozob said...

Valentine, going by your logic, are you trying to imply that prisoners will have a high tendency to reoffend given that they have been repressed and will "burst out at the first opportunity"?

That is quite an interesting analog, but yet quite unsuitable.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Actually, Ozob, my logic is just fine. You see that is exactly what former prisoners do, in fact, do. Imprisonment, contrary to what most people think, as long as it is not for the entire life of the prisoner does NOT reduce the lifetime load of crimes committed. What happens is that the crimes are "stored up" to be committed after they are released. I found this information in some economist's work...though I can't recall which economist so I can't quote it here.

However, the point was clear: the output of crime, in a lifetime, does not seem to be affected by less than lifetime periods of imprisonment. They start to reoffend once they are released. This is an unfortunate truth that many legal systems overlook.

Thanks for your comment.

10:30 AM  
Blogger ozob said...

I present Exhibit A, from the UK's Justice Department.

Reoffending rates are approximately 40% as stated in the article, hardly the catch-all that you're implying. Admittedly, reoffending rates are going up, but that is a result of policy changes and redefinition of statistical indicators. Prisoners are still held in prison and not allowed to gallop free in the fields of freedom. I suppose Singapore's method - the death penalty - would be more appealing to you as a solution for dealing with crims then wouldn't it.

On that note, it would be nice if you could put up a reference to the economist's work when you do remember who did it. I would like to have a look at his work.


5:34 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

There is an obvious flaw in any study which says that only 40% of offenders reoffend...what it is saying is only 40% of offenders are CAUGHT reoffending. They could ALL be reoffending, but only 40% are noticed and caught. The figure, itself, is, therefore, meaningless.

The work I read was most solid on the issue. What is happening is that you can model the lifetime crime output - and note that a spell in prison merely DEFERS criminal output. It doesn't prevent it at all.

The figures from the UK justice system are motivated to prove the worth of the justice system...the figures from the outsider I viewed have no such motivation.

When I find the research again, I will post it.

By the way, I haven't had the chance to look at your link, yet...but the flaw in such figures remains and is obvious. They only know someone has reoffended if they catch them at it...and the police, everywhere, are not particularly good at that, since most crimes go unpunished, since most criminals go uncaught (just compare the figures for recorded crime and convictions for those crimes, ANYWHERE).

Thanks for your comment.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Alex P said...

Well you must also understand that children, all children, look at new concepts with amazing longing for knowledge, and attention spans.
As they become teenagers, most children do rebel against the social norms for a few years, to test the waters if you will. Those loud boys could one day be quite intelligent, or at least one of them, the one who follows along to maintain friendship.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These teenage boys are behaving simply like yobs, there are some in every culture. They are more a reflection of upbringing (the amount of parental involvement) Another major reason is that they've reached an age where their hormones are raging with no constructive outlet for it. Given the chance, some of these 'yobs' might make something of themselves later on!

1:58 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would agree that yobs are widespread...but I just didn't expect to see them in Singapore - and in the Science Museum. It was most surprising.

As for their futures: the witnessed behaviour didn't make them look too promising.

11:17 AM  

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