Book Review
"Gifted Children: Myths and Realities"
Ellen Winner
Boston College

Published by
Basic Books/Perseus Books Group

Reviewed by


Robert N. Seitz, Ph. D.

    This book summarizes some of the latest findings concerning gifted and talented children, and child prodigies.
    Dr. Winner begins by defining a prodigy as someone who performs in some domain at an adult level..She observes that the more formal and rule-governed the domain, the more likely it is to be accessible to gifted children.
Some examples of fields in which prodigies usually excel:

Examples of fields (requiring years of training) in which prodigies aren't usually precocious: Dr. Winner's Nine Myths About the Gifted.
Myth #1:  Giftedness, when it occurs, is generally global.
The Reality: More often than not, children are unevenly gifted,often being especially gifted in one area. It's not uncommon to find them quite gifted in a specific area, but average or learning-disabled in another. (She gives the example of adult inventors with verbal IQ's of 60.)

Myth 2:  Talented children face different problems than gifted children.
The Reality: Specially talented children face the same problems as the globally gifted.

Myth 3:  An exceptionally high IQ is required for giftedness.
The Reality: Once the IQ exceeds 90, a high IQ is irrelevant in the fields of music and art.

Myth 4: "Genius will out".
The Reality: Families play a far more important role in the development of gifts than do schools, and are essential to the development of the gifted or talents child. Genius must be nurtured.

Myth 5:  Genius is entirely environmental.
The Reality: The brains of the gifted are atypical. Their heads tend to be larger, their reflexes are faster, and their brains show atypical brain scan patterns. Brain structure, brain size, brain speed, brain efficiency, bilateral representation of language, language-related problems, non-right-handedness, immune system disorders. Programs such as the Japanese Suzuki Method of training students to play the violin can elicit remarkable results in children, but they don't produce musically gifted children. Chinese drawing instruction produces the same kinds of dramatic juvenile output, but doesn't lead to true artistry, or to spontaneous learning of artistic principles. (Driven from within, prodigies are their own taskmasters. If anything, these programs testify to the biological basis of precocity.).

Myth 6:  Prodigies are the result of parents that push their children.
The Reality: Prodigies usually push their parents.

Myth 7:  Gifted children are glowing with psychological health.
The Reality: As with a disability, giftedness can lead to unhappiness and social isolation. With adult minds in children's bodies, profoundly gifted children tend to be persecuted by other children. They tend to find little commonality with their age peers, relating to older children or adults.

Myth 8: All children are gifted.
The Reality: Nobody doubts that some children are musical or athletic prodigies. Nobody expects a small kid to become a tight end, or a short child to become a Harlem Globetrotter. Gifted children are biologically different. If you doubt it, try to raise someone's 90 IQ to 150. Dr. Winner cites the intriguing case of Charles, versus Eitan and Peter. All three boys were obsessed with drawing. However, Eitan and Peter were artistic prodigies, far ahead of their years, whereas Charles, in spite of all the drawing he did, never exceeded the norms for his age group.

Myth 9: Gifted children become eminent adults.
The Reality: Personality attributes more reliably predict what will happen in adulthood than does the child's degree of giftedness.

Child prodigies are characterized by:

    Dr. Winner cites two examples of global prodigies, "David" and Michael Kearney. David began to speak at eight months, and by fifteen months, knew 200 words. David learned to read at three, pushing his mother to show him what the words meant. Then he began to read voraciously, several books at a time. At five, he had reached a fifth grade reading level. At fifteen months, he could count to ten. At four, he could do simple two-digit additions in his head.
    One way to describe David and other super-bright children with a "rage to learn" is that they manipulate their environments in order to render them intellectually stimulating.
    Michael and Maeghan Kearney exemplify these characteristics. (Please see also the Book Review "Accidental Genius" in the Premier Issue of Ubiquity.) Michael began to talk at 4 months and to read at 10 months. He began high school at 5, and graduated from high school at 6, promptly entering San Joaquin Junior College. At 10, he graduated from the University of South Alabama with a 3.6 average in anthropology, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University at 14 with a degree in chemistry. (He holds four academic records in the Guinness Book of World Records.) Maeghan is equally intelligent, although not as far advanced scholastically as Michael. Both Michael and Maeghan are globally gifted, and presumably, at the upper limit of the human register. Both of them exhibited a "rage to learn" and a need to stimulate their minds that was almost like a "magnificent addiction". Both of them pushed their parents. Their parents devoted all their resources to supporting their unique children, moving around the country and making the sacrifices necessary to nurture their children's gifts. The parents have gone all-out to ensure that Michael and Maeghan are as well-rounded and emotionally healthy as possible, and that they have had childhoods that are as normal as children this precocious can have.

The Gifted Child:

The highly gifted child:     When parents push too hard, the child may rebel or "burn out". Examples of this phenomenon are John Stuart Mill and William Sidis.

Social and emotional problems

Gender differences:
    Boys with SAT math scores above 700 were 13 times as prevalent as girls. (However, the ratio is only 4:1 among Asian-Americans taking the SAT.).

Terman Study
    The Terman-Cox Longitudinal (Lifetime) Study of Gifted Children began in 1921-22 with a screening of ~250,000 schoolchildren in California. Nominally, the top 1% were to be accepted into the study, but in reality, only 1,526, or (0.6%) were accepted. To compound the problem, the initial screening for the Terman Study was performed by teachers. We know today what they didn't know in 1921: that the brightest-seeming, best-behaved children may not be the brightest. The brightest may be bored troublemakers or argumentative with the teacher. In reality, the Terman Study selected much less than half--perhaps, 20%- of the children who would later become gifted adults. In particular, it missed the two children who would later become Nobel Laureates in physics--Dr. William Shockley and Dr. Luis Alvarez.
    Dr. Terman laid by the heels the adage, "Early to ripen, early to rot". For the most part, his "Termites" went on to become successful professionals. However, in his zeal to counter the pejorative notions about prodigies that pervaded the public mind, Dr. Terman perhaps went a little overboard. His data actually showed that the brighter the child, the less well-adjusted he/she was. There was a "sweet spot" ranging from IQ 120 to, perhaps, IQ 150 where the individual is smarter than the average bear, but not so smart that they have problems adjusting to a lesser world--like the plight of a 7'-tall man versus that of his 6' 4" counterpart.

Gifted Programs
Special Problems for Gifted Children

Types of Gifted Programs     Dr. Winner has this to say about our current offerings for gifted students: Options: In 1972, the Marland Report concluded that: The Riley Report, a Follow-Up Study to the Marland Report:
  • Again deplored the state of gifted education in our country.
  • Observed that we offer far more services to retarded children than to gifted children.
  • IQ's 2 s. d. below the mean (68) are given special help.
  • IQ's 3 s. d. below the mean (52) are enrolled in partial or full-day programs
  • IQ's 4 s. d. below the mean (36) are given special supervision and are in institutions.
  • Dr. Winner Concludes that: The Gifted Child Grows Up
        Out of 70 musical prodigies in San Francisco in the 20's and 30's, only 6 (including Yehudi Menuhin and Leon Fischer) went on to become well-known soloists. Norbert Wiener, Jean Piaget, and Pablo Picasso matured into highly successful adults. There are four classes of outcomes:     Of Feldman's and Goldsmith's six prodigies, only one chose a career directly related to his or her field of precocity.
    (1) Violin prodigy became a world-class violinist.
    (2) Writing prodigy became a writer for a music magazine.
    (3) Adam Konantovich attended an ordinary college at an early age and had a spotty record.
    (4)  The math prodigy who entered college at 13 went to work at Goddard.
    (5, 6) The two chess prodigies quit by 10or 11. One did poorly in school; the other went to law school.
        Adult "creativity" (genius or near-genius) requires more than mechanical knowledge. Prodigies face an adolescent identity crisis when they realize that it takes fresh ideas to transform a field rather than mere expertise.
        Drawing prodigy Eitan lost his passion for art, and is working in computer graphics.

        One possible explanation for this shockiing lack of adult fulfilment of childhood promise might lie in the regression of childhood IQ's toward the mean. As indicated below, enriched childhood environments can boost childhood IQ scores considerably, but in adulthood, these environmental influences tend to fade away, leaving the genetically-defined IQ as a residue.

        In other words,removing measurement error from adult IQ scores, about 88% of an adult's IQ is hereditarily determined, and only about 6% depends upon one's family of origin.
        A study  by Benjamin Bloom:concludes that not one world-class performer in a variety of fields, including math, art, music, and athletics ever achieved expertise without a supportive and encouraging environment, including a long and intensive period of training, first from loving and warm teachers, and then from demanding and rigorous master teachers.
        A study by Anders Ericsson concludes that levels of achievement reached in piano, violin, chess, bridge, and athletics correlate highly with hours of "deliberate" practice.
        The greatest classical composers tended to have been child prodigies. Prodigies take about three fewer years to achieve greatness, and they tend to achieve greater adult eminence. However, the majority are not child prodigies
       . Writing, the visual arts, law and medicine don't lend themselves to prodigies.
        A number of recent studies like these have reinforced the conclusion that above an IQ of 120, there is no relationship between IQ and genius! Some inventors have verbal IQ's as low as 60. Adult geniuses stand out far more clearly in personality and motivational factors than they do in native ability. To say it another way, native ability may be a necessary prerequisite for genius, but it is not sufficient. Geniuses are hard-driving, energetic, and dominant. They are independent, introverted risk-takers with a desire to shake things up. They are  focussed, tackling their work with attention, interest, and flow. They exhibit confidence, and tolerance of competition.
        Dr. Winner opines that the Terman subjects were too well-adjusted... fat, smart, and happy.

    Marilyn vos Savant. IQ tests tell nothing about social skills, intrapersonal skills, "practical" intelligence, and resilience. (Quotation about high-IQ societies.)


         The news that I find perhaps the most disturbing is that most child prodigies don't mature into adult leaders in their fields. Once the IQ reaches or exceeds a level of 120, there is no correlation between adult intellectual output and IQ(!).On the other hand,
    (1) There is a tremendous change in capability going from IQ 80 to IQ 120,
    (2) The average IQ of Ph. D.'s is 130;
    (3) The average IQ of Ph. D. physicists is 140.

        Obviously, you have a better chance of becoming a Ph. D. physicist if your IQ is 160 than you do if it's 120.
        This conclusion of flat performance once the IQ exceeds 120 flies in the face of common sense. If this is true, what are we doing wrong?

    Says only 2 or 3 in 100 have IQ's of 130 or above. Only one in a hundred has an IQ of 140 or above. 1 in 10,000-to-30,000 will score 160 or higher, only 1 in a 1,000,000 will exceed 180. Highest Termite score was 196; average was 150. Average Ph. D. is 130; average Ph. D. physicist is 140.