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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, February 18, 2011

The silence of the gifted.

The gifted are, in my view, a remarkably silent bunch. By this, I mean, that they don’t seem to speak out, enough, to seek what they need from society. Nor do they speak enough of how they view and experience the world and what the issues might be that they face. In general, it seems, the gifted suffer in silence. They do little to help themselves compared to what they could be doing to help themselves. At least, that is how it looks in Asia, to me.

Yet, as I look around on the internet, I get the feeling that the gifted, everywhere, are a rather subdued bunch. By this I mean, they don’t seem to be as vocal or as visible as most minorities are. There, I have said it, I have called the gifted a “minority” group…and that is just what they are. What surprises me is that all other minority groups seem to have a greater presence in society, a greater voice. The gifted just seem to disappear. It is as if they are hiding in a corner, somewhere.

Now, there is a very clear reason for this. The reason is very clear to me, because I have experienced it quite a bit, on this blog. If a gifted person ever speaks out, and I mean EVER speaks out, they will note something that might surprise them, at first. There are people out there, who will try to shout them down. There are people who will write highly offensive, even profoundly deranged, letters, that are so over-written, that they seem to scream abuse. There are, quite simply, a lot of people who seem to wish that the “gifted” just didn’t exist at all. So, to speak out as a gifted person, or on gifted issues, is to open oneself up to attacks from those who seem to oppose the gifted.

This makes life difficult for the parents of any gifted child. Parents who are aware of the way some people react to the gifted, must, therefore, try to proceed, very discretely, to seek help for their child (or children). They proceed, almost invisibly, to reach out to education providers. They try not to draw attention to themselves. They try to achieve their aims, without anyone really noticing. This is, of course, all very well. The problem, however, is that, if one is invisible, the very same education providers may easily choose to ignore the parents and their gifted children. It is easy to get stonewalled. The alternative, is, however, even more perilous. If one steps out into the open, as a parent of a gifted child, to try to seek an appropriate education for them, it can be rather hellish. There are people out there who will, essentially, hurl abuse at the parents of the gifted child – and sometimes even at the gifted child themselves, as if offended by their very existence. Others, not so violently, but equally damaging, will decry the “special treatment” of the gifted child and call for nothing to be done, for it would not be “fair” to do anything for the child. Thus it is, that stepping out into the open, may not, in fact, improve the child’s educational chances, but will court negative reactions, from all sorts of quarters.

Gifted parents seem to know this. If you read forums on giftedness and message boards, you will note something very strange. The parents, there, usually use pseudonyms for themselves and codenames for their children, or simple letters. They never identify themselves. They obscure personal details. They try to communicate to other parents of gifted children, without ever letting themselves be known. They proceed, in some ways, like spies: ever secret, ever cloaked, ever mysterious. To my mind, they behave like a hunted minority. It is rather saddening to observe, actually. All one has to do, is to watch not what they say, but the way they say it. They are ever disguised. You would think you were reading the words of a persecuted minority – perhaps the Jews in Nazi Germany, for instance. No-one ever seems to step out into the open. Those who do are rather brave, in this context because, clearly, the others seem to think there is something to fear, something to be avoided, in such openness. Though, I must point out, I have never seen anyone openly identify themselves or their family, on such boards. It is only the occasional one who appears in the media, who is identified. The rest of the gifted world proceeds in total anonymity.

This behaviour of the gifted community cannot have emerged without reason. The fact that they behave as if they must hide themselves and their nature, from general view, does show that the gifted are not entirely understood, or accepted, or perhaps, even welcome. Perhaps they face envy or incomprehension in their own communities. Perhaps they don’t want their children to be known as gifted, in case it makes them outsiders, or makes them victims of jealousy. Perhaps they act as they do because they have experienced genuinely unpleasant situations in their own lives, because of their giftedness. One, or several of these reasons must apply, for it is strange that a whole community should behave like this. They would not do so without concrete reason.

The silence of the gifted is a symptom that the gifted are not universally welcome, tolerated or accepted. It is not evidence, as some might argue, that nothing is wrong – it is proof that something is not right. If the gifted felt secure in their position in society, many would feel comfortable to identify themselves on forums and message boards. That none do, is a worrying sign. The gifted clearly feel marginalized or insecure, in some ways. This is not how it should be. Now, the irony of this situation is quite clear – for there is only one way that the gifted can ever truly be accepted, by all and take their fullest place in society: that is if some among them, speak out, consistently, over time, so as to educate the public that there are such people in their community, that they are different, but that these differences are good, acceptable and helpful for the society around them. The gifted are able to contribute significantly to their communities. However, not all of them shall, if they grow up feeling a need to hide themselves away. Some gifted people never contribute in the way that they could, because they learn that they should “dumb down” to “fit in”. No-one should have to do that, just to be accepted. Everyone should feel free to be themselves, without risk of censure. Sadly, many gifted people don’t feel free to be themselves, openly, in public. They fear what people will think and how they will react to them. So, they learn to appear dumber and more ordinary than they really are. They pretend not to know when they do. They live lives false to themselves, just so that others will like them. They fear that to show their true thoughts and feelings, would be to lose them all these “friends” they have won by their pretence. What they fail to realize, though, is that no-one can live a life of fulfillment, if it means that one’s true self must be hidden and denied. These people will only be truly happy if they are honest and open about themselves. Should this cost them “friends”, then so be it. The friends that remain will truly be friends and that is what counts. The others are just a waste of time.

Many people have written to me, since I started blogging. Many of them are very pleasant, interesting and interested. Their words have been, at times, comforting, enlightening, refreshing. I have, in turn, tried to help them, with my own advice, in whatever ways I can. Sometimes, however, I receive comments from people whose very sanity I could not vouch for. Their words are harsh, aggressive, offensive, cruel, frequently paranoid, and consistently incomprehending. They simply don’t “get” my blog. They don’t understand why I write it. They don’t see the value in it. Sometimes, they don’t even believe a word of it. They seem to think I am making it up. They cannot accept that there are people in the world like the ones I write of. Not only that, but they are angry that I should write of such things and such people – as if, their existence, would somehow be threatening to them, or personally offensive. Some of these comments are so unpleasant, that they put me off writing for days on end. They are sickening to read. Yet, through receiving them, I understand why the gifted are often so secretive on the internet – and why they are relatively silent in society. They have reason to be. To step out into the open, is to discover that the world is filled with madmen, whose agenda appears to be to deny the existence of the gifted – or, at least, to taunt them, decry them and frustrate them in any way that they can.

All of this behaviour calls to mind how geniuses have so often been treated in history. Most people recall the names of history’s geniuses, but few people know the details of their lives. Too often, these lives were filled with much conflict, much hostility, little welcome and much incomprehension. These geniuses often spent their lives battling against those who opposed their every thought. Their lives must have been far from comfortable, or even pleasant at times. It is that kind of life, perhaps, that the gifted are seeking to avoid, by adopting their habitual secrecy and discretion, and living lives of relative silence.

Yet, such secrecy, discretion and silence prevent the fullest expression of a gifted person’s gifts. None of history’s geniuses won out by being as they are. So, the gifted must choose a quiet, but not entirely fulfilled life, though a safe one, or a more open, potentially more fulfilled one, with all the risks attendant on being out in the public. That is a choice that each individual must make. Only those of a particular type of personality are likely to be suited to the more public life. All others would find it uncomfortable. I am not about to advise which one should choose – for that is up to each individual, or gifted family. However, everyone should be aware of the consequence of those choices and act knowing, beforehand, what might happen as a result. At least, then, one’s decisions can be informed by knowledge.

I intend to continue to speak out on all issues related to giftedness – even if this is uncomfortable at times. I have made my choice – and I feel it is a necessary choice. It is also one which can be helpful to many people, whether they realize it or not.

Do you know what is particularly ironic about this situation, however? Some of the gifted have written against me and my open approach, on the internet. They think I should be like them, and just keep quiet. That is truly sad. They just don’t understand how valuable it can be to have someone speak out, and raise awareness and understanding of the issues facing the gifted. By providing one public example of the situation, many people come to be better informed of the needs of the gifted – and, therefore, more likely to meet those needs. I have, whether they know it or not, done my detractors a service, by speaking out (or writing out, in fact!) as I have. Perhaps, on a more reflective future day, they might come to understand that.

There is a need for me to write, until such time, as the gifted forums, are filled not with people in hiding, but people in the open, people who feel safe enough to identify themselves, people who feel comfortable living open lives, fully revealing of themselves, in a world that accepts them, as they are – and welcomes them for it. Until that day, I shall write on. After that day, perhaps there will no longer be a need.

(If you would like to support my continued writing of this blog and my ongoing campaign to raise awareness about giftedness and all issues pertaining to it, please donate, by clicking on the gold button to the left of the page. To read about my fundraising campaign, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2011/01/fundraising-drive-in-support-of-my.html
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If you would like to read any of our scientific research papers, there are links to some of them, here: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2011/02/research-papers-by-valentine-cawley-and.html

To learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 7 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html

I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, megasavant, HELP University College, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, Malaysia, IQ, intelligence and creativity.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:09 AM 

8 Comments:

Blogger Pam Lim said...

Mr Cawley, I am not your fan, but I must say this is an excellent article. I have some profoundly gifted children, and two went to universities before they reached 14. And another with an IQ measure 1 in a million.

To live with giftedness is not to be admired. The world doesn't understand us, it is better to be anonymous. The world understands giftedness to be mildly gifted kind, like top 1%. Most often, severely gifted individuals, especially children are persecuted.

And no, I do not agree with you that the Singapore education is discriminated against you because of your race. It is because they do not know how to handle your child's profound giftedness. They will continue to be oblivious to LOG (level of giftedness) until somebody, perhaps like Ainan, who show them the difference between the gifted and the profoundly gifted.

Here's wishing you well!

11:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Pam, for your assessment of my article. That you are "not my fan", but still like the article, makes your comments all the more valuable.

I am well aware of the persecution the more gifted children face. I was very much a persecuted child, when I was in school. I have done everything I can to ensure that that never happens to my children. So far, I have been successful, by careful choice of environment for them.

Re. Singapore. It is difficult to say whether it was race or LOG, that was the issue. Certainly incomprehension of LOG played a part. The "Gifted Branch" officers had absolutely no idea what they were doing - which is ironic considering that that is their job. I think you may be right that the don't understand the most gifted children. They probably have too little experience of them.

The thing is the Gifted Branch were unwilling to listen to our feedback and our greater knowledge of our child. So, in many ways, the problem is a systemic one: a refusal to absorb lessons from the parents truly prevents them from gaining any insight.

Congratulations on having such a gifted family. I hope you find a way to lead comfortable lives, despite whatever problems you may encounter.

Thank you for your well wishes.

Kind regards

11:19 AM  
Blogger Pam Lim said...

My Cawley, how do you ensure that your children are not persecuted? The world ensures they ARE persecuted. They judge very gifted individuals unfairly all the time, using a yardstick only familiar to themselves. They assume the very gifted have good and easy lives, which is totally untrue.

As such many very gifted, will continue to disguise themselves or become imposters.

Honestly, I don't really think having a gifted family is anything to celebrate, but a task to handle. My job is to ensure that my children's potential is maximized, just like any parent. It really does not matter if they are gifted or not. People do not understand how difficult that is, especially if you have multiple children all with special abilities in different disciplines and areas.

Again, I do not agree with all your views, but I must tell you I am very impressed by your courage to make your views public. I will always have to stay anonymous. I'd rather be an imposter. In my hideout, I find solace and peace. Since I've decided to be dumb and average, I have found a lot more friends. This acceptance is addictive.

Will continue to read your blog and follow your journey. Even though I don't agree to everything, I know I have much to learn from here. Thank you once again.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Dear Pam,

Firstly, I would agree that the difficulties of the lives of the gifted are underestimated. Indeed, to be gifted, is to have difficulties no one else has to face. It is not, in that sense a boon, but a burden. Many families do not cope well with the situation.

Secondly, I would agree that it is hard to handle several children, each with different talents and natural endowments: we have, in our children, to cater to an actor/writer/artist, an artist who loves maths and sports, and a scientist/computer programmer/engineer. It isn't easy. We are torn in different directions by them - and each needs resources of different kinds.

Re. persecution. I am watchful for it. I choose schools with an eye to their warmth of welcome. It is the best that can be done. So far, we are fortunate. I hope to remain so.

Re. society. Yes, there will, most probably, forever be misunderstanding and incomprehension regarding the gifted. I am doing what I can to raise awareness. Until there is full understanding, there will always be prejudices and expectations which are unfair.

I would say that the life of a gifted person, in modern society, is HARDER than the life of an ungifted person, not easier. The gifted face trials of which others are unaware.

Thank you for your kind and appreciative words. It is warming to hear them.

Re. courage. I feel that the communication that I am doing, needs to be done. If no-one does it, a particular type of gifted person will forever be misunderstood. It may take many years, however, before my efforts have the intended effect.

I wish you luck on guiding your children to happy and fulfilled lives, despite whatever difficulties they may encounter on the way.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Dear Pam,

Firstly, I would agree that the difficulties of the lives of the gifted are underestimated. Indeed, to be gifted, is to have difficulties no one else has to face. It is not, in that sense a boon, but a burden. Many families do not cope well with the situation.

Secondly, I would agree that it is hard to handle several children, each with different talents and natural endowments: we have, in our children, to cater to an actor/writer/artist, an artist who loves maths and sports, and a scientist/computer programmer/engineer. It isn't easy. We are torn in different directions by them - and each needs resources of different kinds.

Re. persecution. I am watchful for it. I choose schools with an eye to their warmth of welcome. It is the best that can be done. So far, we are fortunate. I hope to remain so.

Re. society. Yes, there will, most probably, forever be misunderstanding and incomprehension regarding the gifted. I am doing what I can to raise awareness. Until there is full understanding, there will always be prejudices and expectations which are unfair.

I would say that the life of a gifted person, in modern society, is HARDER than the life of an ungifted person, not easier. The gifted face trials of which others are unaware.

Thank you for your kind and appreciative words. It is warming to hear them.

Re. courage. I feel that the communication that I am doing, needs to be done. If no-one does it, a particular type of gifted person will forever be misunderstood. It may take many years, however, before my efforts have the intended effect.

I wish you luck on guiding your children to happy and fulfilled lives, despite whatever difficulties they may encounter on the way.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Pam,

Firstly, I would agree that the difficulties of the lives of the gifted are underestimated. Indeed, to be gifted, is to have difficulties no one else has to face. It is not, in that sense a boon, but a burden. Many families do not cope well with the situation.

Secondly, I would agree that it is hard to handle several children, each with different talents and natural endowments: we have, in our children, to cater to an actor/writer/artist, an artist who loves maths and sports, and a scientist/computer programmer/engineer. It isn't easy. We are torn in different directions by them - and each needs resources of different kinds.

Re. persecution. I am watchful for it. I choose schools with an eye to their warmth of welcome. It is the best that can be done. So far, we are fortunate. I hope to remain so.

Re. society. Yes, there will, most probably, forever be misunderstanding and incomprehension regarding the gifted. I am doing what I can to raise awareness. Until there is full understanding, there will always be prejudices and expectations which are unfair.

I would say that the life of a gifted person, in modern society, is HARDER than the life of an ungifted person, not easier. The gifted face trials of which others are unaware.

Thank you for your kind and appreciative words. It is warming to hear them.

Re. courage. I feel that the communication that I am doing, needs to be done. If no-one does it, a particular type of gifted person will forever be misunderstood. It may take many years, however, before my efforts have the intended effect.

I wish you luck on guiding your children to happy and fulfilled lives, despite whatever difficulties they may encounter on the way.

5:04 PM  
Blogger E. Harris said...

Many parents' concern is not so much the hateful opinions of random people but the casual ignorance and envious retribution of teachers and administrators- it doesn't matter how nonsensical their opinion, nor how harmful its effect, their whim is law; they have virtually total control over the children during the school day.

While parents keeping their and their children's names secret to may due as much to general prudence as to being part of an oppressed group (would you want an account of that humorous incident from kindergarten showing up on an internet search on your name when you are in your forties?) more tellingly, parents also virtually never mention the name of their school system, still less the names of the teachers or administrators who raise ridiculous barriers to their children's education. Parents commiserate about such stories (see Ridiculous Things I Heard Today at the great gifted resources site: "Hoagies' Gifted Education Page") and offer each other advice, but they almost never name the perpetrators. Naming names could result in retaliation: denying education, ridiculing in front of the class, turning a blind eye to or even encouraging bullying of the victim, giving arbitrary bad grades, and requiring repetition of satisfactorily completed units or even whole grades. Those are all so common that they frequently happen without any particular animus - rather, avoiding such treatment requires favors from teachers and administrators.

Higher levels of retaliation against students and parents include: keeping in solitary confinement, classifying as a behavior problem and treating as a criminal or being sent for mandatory psychiatric counseling, forcible drugging with amphetamines, antipsychotics or other dangerous drugs, and even false allegations of child abuse resulting in real abuse in foster care, criminal charges for the parents and family break-up.

Teachers and administrators often view any deviation from the norm, whether positive or negative, as at best an inconvenience, and often an outright threat. When such people deal with the gifted, this conformist predisposition is combined with envy and a feeling of professional offense at any implication that the school isn't doing its job. Such people can be very dangerous. Any suggestion or question, no matter how diplomatic, may be seen as an attack on their authority and professional worth. Shaming them publicly or in front of their colleagues will almost certainly result in as dire a retaliation as they think they can get away with.

Even if these people aren't named, if the school or the student is identified, they will still likely take offense and retaliate. Parents maintaining anonymity are protecting their children from really serious risks.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Enon Harris, you write from an American perspective: the practices you speak of sound absolutely hideous. There is no way we would risk our children being subjected to such things...so there is no way we would bring them to America. The situation is much milder in Asia, as far as I can observe and I have never heard of the more extreme retaliations being practised.


So, from what you say, the gifted are genuinely persecuted the States...in a rather extreme fashion. I think the answer to all of that is homeschooling and to take the children completely out of the school system altogether. Anything less would seem abusive.

Thanks for letting us all know what is going on in the USA.

2:15 PM  

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