At the age of 6, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart toured Europe to astound audiences with his mastery of the violin, organ and keyboard. At the age of 11, Judit Polgár defeated a Grandmaster in chess, later becoming a Grandmaster herself at the age of 15. By the time he finished elementary school, Saul Kripke had taught himself ancient Hebrew, finished the works of Shakespeare and mastered the works of Descartes and complex mathematical problems.
Each of these people is considered a child prodigy – person who develops and shows extreme talent in a skill at a level far beyond the norm for their age. The term wunderkind (German for “wonder child”) is also used. For some unexplained reason, these people are far beyond the average level of children at their age in terms of intelligence or a certain talent.
Prodigies are actually a subset of a condition known as precocity, where a young child shows unusually early development or maturity, especially in mental aptitude. For example, a German child called Christian Friedrich Heinecken is known to have talked within a few hours after his birth, learnt the key events of the first five books of the Torah within a year, mastered the Bible at age 2 and had a working knowledge of universal history and geography, Latin and French at age 3. Unfortunately, he was struck ill at the age of 4, and shortly after predicting his death, passed away. Heinecken’s case is an extreme example of precocity, but nonetheless most precocious children show at least an outstandingly advanced level of mental maturity compared to other children. Along with prodigies, savants and children with extraordinarily high IQ (over 160) are also considered precocious.
Although precocious children enjoy their extreme talent (for which they usually have deep passion for) and may even become famous for it like Mozart, they are almost always at risk of certain problems. One common issue is that they tend to be placed on pedestals as people constantly praise their ability. This can quickly evolve into narcissism, setting a major expectation that the child battles with throughout his or her life. Children with advanced intellect are often unable to fit in to society as they are far more intelligent than their peers. Not only do other children shy away from them, but they feel too bored and unstimulated by other children and choose to alienate themselves. Furthermore, although they may have the intelligence and maturity to comprehend philosophical concepts, they still have the emotions of a child, meaning they are tormented by the dissonance between the rational mind and their emotions. All of these factors combined lead to a great increase in risk of depression in precocious children.
Essentially, the main conundrum for child prodigies is trying to balance their amazing talent with a happy life in a “normal” society. This could be achieved by parents keeping things real and not placing excessive expectations on the child, and giving the child a way to vent their genius in some way. For example, chess has been a classic way of keeping children with high intellect engaged. Having this kind of vent allows the child to still engage with other members of his or her society (other children), while honing their great skills for an even brighter future. The child must stay engaged and passionately practise and advance their skill so that they do not stay in a perpetual rut all their life.
With great power, comes great responsibility.