"Gifted Children: Myths and Realities"
Basic Books/Perseus Books Group
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
Examples of fields (requiring years of training) in
which prodigies aren't usually precocious:
Reading, but not creative writing
Drawing, but not true visual art.
Dr. Winner's Nine Myths About the Gifted.
Interpersonal or Intrapersonal relationships
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.
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.
Marching to their own drummers
A rage to master
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
The Gifted Child:
The highly gifted child:
Is very alert
Recognizes people at an early age
Has a preference for novelty
Is precocious in raising head, sitting up, walking, etc.
Talks early and well
Tends to be verreactive to noise, pain, frustration
Learns with minimal instruction
Is highly curious
Exhibits persistence and concentration
Possesses high energy
Has a metacognitive awareness. Induces rules if reading and math the way
normal children induce the rules of syntax
Has obsessive interests
Tends to begin reading early and voraciously. Reading at 6th-grade level
at 5 isn't unusual.
Is adept with numbers. Mathematically giftedness: numerical, spatial, and
working memory tend to go tegether.
Has a good memory
Is proficient at abstract logical reasoning
Tends to have poor handwriting
Engages in solitary play (by default)
Prefers to associate with older children or adults
Exhibits philosophical and moral concerns
Possesses a good sense of humor
Reports "experiences of awe"
When parents push too hard, the child may rebel or "burn
out". Examples of this phenomenon are John Stuart Mill and William Sidis.
Occupies a special position within the family: often as the first-born,
or only child.
Grows up in "enriched" environments. Adam Konantovich.
Typically has child-centered parents. Yehudi Menuhin
Has parents who are "driven" to support their child.
Has parents who grant considerable independence.
Flourishes in an envrionment of high expectations and stimulation,
combined with nurturance and support.
Social and emotional problems
Is characterized by autonomy, independence of thought and values, will,
Engages in advanced moral reasoning.
Tends toward introversion.
Has heightened sensitivity.
Feels lowered social self-confidence
Does the label "Gifted" cause problems?
May underperform because they are underchallenged, and/or because they
want social acceptance.
Enjoys a challenge
Sets high standards
Generally has academic self-esteem
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.).
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.
Special Problems for Gifted Children
Types of Gifted Programs
Because of their high energy levels and boredom with trivial busywork,
gifted children are often misdiagnosed with ADHD.
It can be difficult to distinguish between boredom, disturbed, or learning
30% show a discrepency between MA and reading achievement.
Dr. Winner has this to say about our current offerings
for gifted students:
Dr. Winner feels that home schooling is a last resort, since these children
can't learn with their peers.
American schools have low standards
Low standards lead to underachievement
School plays litle or no role in the nurturing of their gifts
Gifted chidren from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer most.
In 1972, the Marland Report concluded that:
The Riley Report, a Follow-Up Study to the Marland Report:
Only 4% of gifted students were getting any kind of special services
Half the superintendents said they had no gifted children in their
Gifted are the most "retarded" in their schools because of discrepency
between abilities and what schools could offer them.
Only disabled children have a law mandating that they get special educational
treatment. Only about a fifth of our states include the gifted as special
education students covered by the law for the handicapped.
Again deplored the state of gifted education in our country.
Observed that we offer far more services to retarded children than to gifted
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
Dr. Winner Concludes that:
The Gifted Child Grows Up
We should pull up all school standards.
We are wasting what few gifted resources we have.
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.
Gifted children who drop out. Wiener made it; Sidis didn't.
Gifted children who become experts, but not creative geniuses.
Gifted children who become adult geniuses.( They display not only early
ability but a rebellious disposition.)
Late bloomers. Bill Gates, Edwin Land, Buckminster Fuller
(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
(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.
In childhood, the influences determining IQ are 30%
hereditary, 30% family environment,
and 40% other environment.
In adolesence, they become 50%
hereditary, 10% family influence, and 40%
By the time adulthood is reached, hereditary influences dominate,
at 75%. Only 5%
is attributible to childhood background, 5% is environmental, and 15% is
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
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
(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.