What happens to child prodigies?

It may feel particularly gratifying as a parent if your child displays an unusual academic or artistic talent, and some parents make a concerted effort in coaching child prodigies to the extreme. Too often, though, the achievements and awards don’t acknowledge the emotional costs involved when a child skips certain developmental milestones. This may even come with tragic consequences.

Some child geniuses simply enjoy amassing their knowledge and putting it to good use, but others may find themselves with overbearing parents who establish grueling regimes and force them to participate in competitions with adults. Their “gifts” may see them being removed from a formal schooling system to be tutored in the home and therefore limiting their social development with peers.

Parenting the gifted child

Parents with an understanding of holistic development will also monitor the emotional development of academically or artistically advanced children, and make a concerted effort to provide a social environment for such kids.

One challenge for parents of a child prodigy is that the child may not show an interest in social activities or playing with children of the same age. Even when not reading up about chosen fascination or practicing scales, the child may be a natural introvert or become withdrawn.

The obsession with awards may lead to a false sense of achievement for a child, so parents should be cautious of placing too much emphasis on these as an outcome of hard work.

If you suspect your child is extraordinarily gifted, regular assessments will help in ensuring that the child’s emotional and social growth is growing apace. Should your child be academically advanced to the point of skipping years of schooling, ensure that an educational specialist is engaged to advise on the wisest course of action for your child. As the parent your interaction with the specialist will help you to make the best schooling choices for your gifted child.

Occasionally there are children with such brilliant minds that they are sent into an adult environment such as a university in order to specialize in a given field. This isn’t necessarily the wrong option, but there have been some cases of whizz kids who have struggled to adapt and given up despite their academic potential.

Here are the stories of some former child prodigies via the Daily Telegraph:
  • “Ruth Lawrence: Graduated aged 13 from St Hugh's College, Oxford, with a first-class degree in 1985. Now lives with husband and two children - whom she is determined to allow to "develop in a natural way" (without overbearing parenting). She teaches maths full-time at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
  • John Nunn: Went to Oriel College, Oxford, in 1970 aged 15. Got a first in maths at 18, a doctorate at 20 and became a chess Grandmaster three years later. Lives with his wife in Surrey and makes a living writing books about chess.
  • Adam Dent: Started reading chemistry at Oxford in 1994 aged 14. Left the following year, having been accused and then acquitted of sexual assault on an older pupil. Did an Open University degree and got a job stacking shelves at Iceland. Later went back to Oxford graduating with a first in chemistry in 2002. Is now an IT consultant.
  • James Harries: Presented himself on television in 1990 when he was 12 as an entrepreneur and child prodigy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of antiques. Had a sex-change operation in 2001. Now called Lauren, she is a counsellor and drama teacher.
  • Terence Judd: Made his first appearance as a classical pianist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra aged 12. Won the British Liszt Piano Competition at 18. He committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 22 by throwing himself off Beachy Head.”
Encouraging children to achieve is part of parenting, but your gifted or unusually skilled child will need extra care as they negotiate social or emotional roads other children may find unremarkable. Being the parent of a child genius requires possibly even more responsibility in helping the child grow up rather than simply basking in the praises of family, friends and strangers.

Do you monitor your child's social and emotional development?
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