Public perceptions of giftedness, part 2: Prodigy

We continue a discussion of common views of giftedness held, implicitly or explicitly, by many people. This entry will focus on giftedness viewed as prodigy. The next will examine giftedness viewed as talent.

Giftedness as Prodigy
A child prodigy is a person who exhibits adult-level achievement in some area from early childhood. The prototypical geniuses are Mozart and Gauss.

On the surface, prodigies seem a lot like geniuses, but several important differences exist. If giftedness is prodigy, then only those who seem brilliant from an early age are gifted. Thus, counterintuitively, Albert Einstein was not a genius. After all, he talked late and seemed retarded to his teachers. Neither was Thomas Edison, whose only obvious childhood gift was a gift for trouble. Furthermore, not every child prodigy becomes a genius as an adult.

If giftedness is prodigy, a child's giftedness should be obvious to all. Who can miss a child reading at the age of two or speaking in complete sentences while their peers are still saying “mama” and “dada?” Who could overlook a six year old composing concertos or inventing ingenious ways to add up all the numbers between 1 and 100? A prodigy is impossible to miss; thus, so is a gifted child.

Obviously, only a child can be a child prodigy. Thus, people who at least associate giftedness with prodigy overlook adolescent and adult giftedness. Until recently, gifted adults were overlooked. There were almost no books, support groups, or classes for gifted adults the way there were for gifted children. It was as if everyone assumed that giftedness was a second skin that one shed at some point during the teenage years. It didn't seem obvious then that gifted children become gifted adults--perhaps because, if giftedness is prodigy, then children really do grow out of giftedness.

The process for identifying gifted children is largely based on the idea that giftedness is prodigy: it looks for early and precocious achievement, assumes that a child's giftedness will be obvious to teachers or parents, and overlooks adolescent and adult giftedness.

Most gifted people are identified in school, based on standardized intelligence and achievement tests, grades, observations by teachers, observations by parents, creativity tests, portfolios, and interviews. All of these methods discover children who achieve beyond age level from an early age, but they probably could not spot a “late bloomer” like Einstein or Thomas Edison.

Presently, only very precocious kids will likely be identified as gifted. Observations made by teachers usually play a key role in identifying gifted children. Teachers have many children to pay attention to, and many classroom responsibilities besides examining children for giftedness. A child who is not obviously precocious may not attract attention. Furthermore, in many classrooms, children actually participate very little in class. Unless a child routinely gives unusually precocious responses to a teacher's questions, she will have very little opportunity to demonstrate her abilities. In some schools, parents can suggest that their children be tested for giftedness. Studies have shown that when parents identify their child as gifted, they are almost invariably correct. However, that does not mean that parents will recognize their child’s giftedness. In a family unfamiliar with the idea of giftedness, a child will only be recognized if she is so obviously precocious as to attract attention wherever he goes.

These methods are rarely if ever used to identify adolescents or adults. In middle school and high school, gifted programs may still exist, but fewer people are identified as gifted. Colleges and universities don’t screen for giftedness.

A system couldn't select for prodigies better if it were designed to do so.

Prodigy looks miraculous not because of the level of ability itself, but because of the difference between the ability level and the child's age. The older the child gets, the smaller the age difference and the less remarkable the ability appears. Thus, although the child's abilities do not diminish, his or her prodigy does, disappearing by adolescence.

It's hard to look past a prodigy's seemingly impossible abilities. Other, more normal traits seem to fade into the background. As a result, perfectly well-meaning people see a child prodigy primarily as a prodigy. They end up valuing a child for his abilities. If everyone around a child sees him primarily as a prodigy, the child himself may identify mainly as one. When the prodigy inevitably disappears, the gifted person faces a painful loss of identity. (Gifted children do not have to have Mozart-like, adult-level talents to experience this loss. A merely precocious child may experience the same thing).

How prodigies react to this situation depends in part on how they feel about their area of talent. Prodigies who do things because they think they're good at them will stop doing them when their prodigy wanes, so they do not become geniuses. Often, they lead ordinary lives. Sometimes, they become mentally ill and even commit suicide. Prodigies who engage in their area of talent because they love it are more likely to continue when they stop being prodigies. They may become geniuses. Furthermore, they may suffer less from the shock of losing their prodigy, because they have invested their identities more in interest in a subject than talent in a subect. That leaves them something to fall back on when they can no longer be prodigies.