Genius & Giftedness

Is my child a genius?

Certainly every mom blessed with a precocious toddler has asked herself that once in awhile. When your fifteen-month old astounds everyone because he knows the alphabet already, your two-year old can do 100 piece puzzles, and your three year old can memorize a two-hour movie with all the voices and gestures, you start to wonder…

What if…?

The thought is thrilling so I hate to say it but, your child is probably not a genius. It is part of parenthood to consider it, though, so go ahead =) This doesn’t mean your child isn’t brilliant. They may very well be developing quickly, have above average intelligence, or possess a gift. But very few children actually qualify as geniuses (about 1 out of every 10,000 to 100,000 according to most studies), even though they can show remarkable propensities in one way or another while they are so young.

That said, you should take note of your child’s intelligence and be prepared to steward them if they are above average. So how do you know?

Other than the I.Q. test, which is standard fare for children suspected of high intelligence and does a pretty good job of locating them… you can observe your child’s interactions with you. One clear sign of above average intelligence is an ability to relate to you and adult situations with ease. This doesn’t mean they understand the significance of the Holocaust. It just means that they can enter adult conversation, even if it is about something they don’t really know a lot about, and can interact with you about it intelligently: asking the right questions, providing appropriate feedback or evaluations, making intelligent guesses, or reasoning with good inference. You can see this even in a two-year old, if they are able to overhear conversations between you and your spouse and enter the dialogue with their own ideas about it. Most children that age still understand adult dialogue very distantly, or perhaps can talk with you about it on some low level when the conversation is finished if it involves a subject they are familiar with (i.e. like when you are planning to go to the playground). But most little children cannot understand or interact with adult dialogue about non-concrete subjects.

Another way you can spot high intelligence is when the child is not hung up on details. Very young children (i.e. 2-5 years) rely on details for information and get fouled up when the details are not right. They can be sticklers for precision, getting upset when stories or routines don’t go the way they usually do. They have very creative imaginations, but still within a certain box. A highly intelligent child is able to flow with changes in stories or routines because they are not relying on those details to provide them with grounding information. They are able to see the reason for changes. They might enjoy the wit of a movie like “Shrek” where the rules for fairy tales are “bent,” or they might be able to work with complex play scenarios like “Goldilocks is on trial for breaking and entering. How should she plea?” Highly intelligent children need mere exposure to fun schemas like these and understand them enough to take and run with them, even though they learned about Goldilocks and court in very different settings (and maybe only one time). Their higher functioning allows them to flex and bend ideas more easily.

This relates to another symptom, which is picking things up from only mild introduction… You put in a penny but reap a dollar. What this means is, you may not have to teach your child very explicitly about anything, or explain much. You read a story to them, and they can answer all the questions you ask without discussing it with you. You read or say a word they don’t know, and their mind fills in what it probably means very accurately. They memorize easily, but not just rotely—they can work with what they memorized and turn it into concepts for new applications in their art, play, reading, etc. Above all, they seem able to produce new things they haven’t seen or heard before—perhaps in language, art, music, or academia. All at the pre-logic ages, tender ages of 3, 4, 5, and 6. Most children these ages are still highly imitative and do not recombine data or create from scratch (at least, not with much accuracy, reason, or beauty). The less explanation you do, and the more novelty you see, the more likely your little one’s intelligence is high.

The ability to learn from mild exposure should not be confused with child prodigies where the child learns without being taught or has abilities that the average biology does not permit. Many children have gifts in specific areas like art, music, science, sports, or math without being geniuses. They learn without being taught, they know before someone explains, they compose without premeditation. It just comes naturally to them, and they produce without knowing how to explain it to others. They may be more talented than other people who have spent years or even their whole lives trying to excel at something. But their aptitude does not cross fields. They might be great in various mediums of art, and say very precocious things about it, but in all other subjects they are just like a student their age. This can be difficult for a child because they are halfway like their peers but halfway not.

The term “genius,” however, usually refers to cognitive or academic capacity—knowledge or mental facility. So there may be overlaps in genius and giftedness (i.e. Leonardo da Vinci), but there may not (i.e. Bobby Fischer). Extremely high intelligence is certainly correlated with talent, but they are not exactly the same. A gift in cognition, where high intelligence leads to above average abilities to comprehend, synthesize, evaluate, manipulate, and create new information is a little different from giftedness in a particular area where the individual needs merely facilitation to express or grow his talent. But both need to be guided and cared for with much love and discernment. To help a child with above average giftings fit in with their peers, have a childhood, enjoy their talents, feel safe from exploitation, develop good character, respect their parents and tutors, feel loved, and stay psychologically healthy can be a real challenge. It is not for the faint of heart. Most children with extreme abilities still feel insignificant, stupid, or powerless. They may have very adult ambitions but with the immaturity of a child. They may say offensive things, have unnatural fears, or be ostracized by others because of wisdom in one area but not in another. This must be handled deftly by parents, who may or may not understand their child much better!

This is not to paint a negative picture of genius or giftedness; certainly these children have the ability to make the world a better and more stunning place. But it is also to paint a realistic picture of the baggage that can come with talent, and the caution light it should give to parents before they fall into the ego trap because of their children’s abilities. All children are extraordinary, and their presence in our lives is a humbling experience in many ways. Let us always act in their best and highest interest, whatever their intelligence, and stir them up towards love, being loved, and good deeds.


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