Research Links

Advice for the Gifted Child

"We should remember that there is genius in every healthy, normal child." "What at present is considered 'precocity,' and hence as an abnormality, may really be the foreshadowing of the future. The apparently precocious may and will turn out to be a normal phenomenon (Dr. Boris Sidis)."

Home Page

"Extraordinary children occasionally receive extraordinary attention. Magazines, newspapers, radio, and television have portrayed the plight of highly gifted children in various ways since the turn of the century. From the vicious press attacks on celebrated child prodigy, William James Sidis, in the century's early decades to "Doogie Howser, M.D.," ABC television's sensitive and well-written weekly series about a highly gifted 17-year-old doctor, both press coverage and dramatic portrayals of this population reflect the consistent ambivalence Americans feel toward highly gifted children."

Life Magazine, Parade, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, CBS News 48 Hours, and a host of national and local talk shows and newspaper articles have all featured stories about highly gifted children and child prodigies within the past year. This American phenomenon of prodigy-watching is nothing new; as early as 1911, American Magazine featured the Victorian era's latest crop of prodigies, including such celebrated children as William James Sidis, Winifred Stoner, and A. A. Berle (Bruce, 1911).

But what if it is your child the press wants to interview? In the last column, we discussed some of the difficult questions families face as they confront media attention, including the conservative and safe response - just saying no. However, for those families who find themselves in the midst of media attention either by chance or by choke, this issue's column provides a number of specific suggestions.

Remember that you can always say no. You are not obligated to talk to the press. In many cases (perhaps most), it will be better for you and for your child if you do not. Press attention has a way of getting out of hand, even under the best of circumstances, and highly gifted children often cherish their privacy (Hollingworth, 1942).s.

[A bibliography of studies of gifted children.]

"There was a time when all precocious children were thought to burn out the same way that Sidis did. The man most responsible for changing this belief was Lewis M. Terman. Between 1900 and 1920 he was able to carry out a study of about a hundred gifted children, and his observations convinced him that many of the traditional beliefs about the gifted were little more than superstitions. To confirm these observations, he obtained a grant from the Commonwealth Fund in 1922, and used it to sift a population of more than a quarter of a million children, selecting out all those with IQs above 140 for further study. That group has been monitored continuously ever since. Many of the previously held beliefs about the gifted did indeed turn out to be false. The gifted are not weak or sickly, and although the incidence of myopia is greater among them, they are generally thought to be better looking than their contemporaries: They are not nerds."

[A bibliography of studies of gifted children and related subjects.]

"Home Environment Research on Highly Gifted Children...Up to the present time there has been little research into the part played by parents in the education of profoundly gifted children. Much of what has been written has centred on the exploitative tendencies displayed by what Montour (1977) terms "creator parents." These parents of young prodigies such as economist John Stuart Mill (Mill, 1924; Packe, 1954), mathematician William James Sidis, Norbert Wiener (1953), Edith Stern (1971), and the remarkable family of Welsh children described by Deakin (1972) reject the idea that superior ability may be innate and believe that their child's genius is uniquely a function of the educational program they have designed and supervised. As Montour notes, this egocentric belief is often accompanied by an eccentric social or educational ideology that the parent attempts to express through exhibiting the child.

"There is little doubt that creator parents comprise an extremely small minority among parents of profoundly gifted children; they are, however, highly visible because of their compulsive publicizing of their child's genius. More research needs to be undertaken on what I would call "nurturant parents" such as the Taos who become keenly involved in the design and development of their profoundly gifted child's scholastic program but who see their role as guides and facilitators, rather than originators, of their child's exceptional abilities."

Infant prodigies, too, seem to be a problem for scientists. Some of medical men are of the opinion that prodigies are the out come of abnormal glands, especially the pituitary, the pineal and the adrenal glands. The extraordinary hypertrophy of glands of particular individuals may also be due to a past kammuc cause. But how, by mere hypertrophy of glands, one Christian Heineken could talk within a few hours of his birth, repeat passages from the Bible at the age of one year, answer any question of geography at the age of two, speak French and Latin at the age of three, and be a student of philosophy at the age of four; how John Stuart Mill could read Greek at the age of three; how Macaulay could write a world history at the age of six; how William James Sidis, wonder child of the United States, could read and write at the age of two, speak French, Russian, English, German with some Latin and Greek at the age of eight; how Charles Bennet of Manchester could speak in several languages at the age of three, are wonderful events incomprehensible to non-scientists. Nor does science explain why glands should hypertrophy in just a few and not in all. The real problem remains unsolved.

Heredity alone cannot account for prodigies, "else their ancestry would disclose it, their posterity, in even greater degree than themselves, would demonstrate it."

The theory of heredity should be supplemented by the doctrine of karma and rebirth for an adequate explanation of these puzzling problems.

What do Karma and Rebirth Explain? 1. They account for the problem of suffering for which we ourselves are responsible. 2. They explain the inequality of mankind. 3. They account for the arising of geniuses and infant prodigies 4. They explain why identical twins who are physically alike, enjoying equal privileges, exhibit totally different characteristics, mentally, morally, temperamentally and intellectually. 5. They account for the dissimilarities among children of the same family, though heredity may account for the similarities. 6. They account for the extraordinary innate abilities of some men. 7. They account for the moral and intellectual differences between parents and children. 8. They explain how infants spontaneously develop such passions as greed, anger, and jealousy. 9. They account for instinctive likes and dislikes at first sight. 10. They explain how in us are found "a rubbish heap of evil and a treasure-house of good." 11.They account for the unexpected outburst of passion in a highly civilised person, and for the sudden transformation of a criminal into a saint. 12. They explain how profligates are born to saintly parents, and saintly children to profligates. 13. They explain how, in one sense, we are the result of what we were, we will be the result of what we are; and, in another sense, we are not absolutely what we were, and we mill no absolutely what we are.14. They explain the causes of untimely deaths and unexplained changes in fortune. 15. Above all they account for the arising of omniscient, perfect spiritual teachers, like the Buddhas who possess incomparable physical, mental and intellectual characteristics. (C) Watpa {Satipatthana Peace Center} June 1999 Created by : Buddhisaro Bhikkhu......F o r e s t M o n k s...........

Exceptional individuals to whom the label "genius" applies, are the focus of much public fascination and stereotyping. During a lecture, ask the students to describe geniuses (or the brightest peers they have known). Mixed results often occur, but you will probably receive a stereotypic portrayal similar to the one presented by Townsend and Gensky (1978). Geniuses are expected to have straight A's; to be in special programs; to enjoy science, music, reading; to be nonconforming; to be physically inept; to be harmed socially and emotionally by academic acceleration; to lack physical attractiveness; to present difficulties to parents and teachers; and not to live up to early predictions. On the contrary, in general it is found that geniuses are actually well-adjusted, physically adept, and socially accepted individuals who attain high achievements. Public opinion has been much influenced by the unfortunate publicity concerning a child genius, William James Sidis (1898-1944), who apparently exemplified the stereotyped genius (Montour 1977).

Both of Sidis's parents (Russian immigrants attracted to the land of opportunity) believed that genius is a product of the early home life and education. Pushed especially by his father, William was able to spell and read before age three, type at age four, devise a calendar to predict what day of the week a date would fall on at age five, and read Russian, French, and German at age five. After age six, he mastered Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. On his own, he became able at age six to pass a medical school student's examination on the human body. In six months, young William passed all seven grades in grammar school. Home education and self-study made him a specialized math expert by age eight. By age 10 he had mastered math through integral calculus. After refusing for two years, Harvard enrolled the 11-year-old William. As a 12-year-old, he gave an original mathematical lecture to Harvard professors that "remains the nonpareil of achievements by a child prodigy" (Montour, 1977, p. 269). Numerous magazines and books about him made his feats famous. During his adolescence, William seems to have lost his direction and dropped out of graduate school. He was arrested for being in a radical demonstration and lost a teaching job. He then dropped out of sight, refused to attend his father's funeral, and apparently became a cynical eccentric holding minor clerical jobs. Bad publicity and libelous misrepresentations abounded even after he died of a brain hemorrhage, destitute and unemployed, at age 46. Rumor spread that he committed suicide.

This spectacular example has been repeatedly used to prevent school acceleration, special programs, and acceptance of exceptional children. Apparently adolescence is a critical time for these individuals to prosper or flounder, as is the case with any adolescent. Numerous documented accounts of geniuses have later demonstrated that "genius" does not burn out or cause the problems of William James Sidis. Geniuses do not conform to stereotypes any more than other individuals do.


Montour, K. "William James Sidis, the broken twig," American Psychologist, 1977, 32, 265-279.
Townsend, J. K., and Gensley, J. T. "The experts react to stereotyping gifted children," The GiftedChild Quarterly, 1978, 22, 217-219.

Article entitled, "Estimated IQs of some of the Greatest Geniuses" says,

"With regard to super-high childhood IQ scores [derived from: (MA/CA) x 100]:

It is clear from Hollingworth's work and the work of others that there is a

marked "regression to the mean" with maturity. It has been suggested that

childhood "ratio" scores have a natural standard deviation of 24 (cf. the Cattell

Scale), so it is necessary to multiply the excess above the mean by 2/3rds to

convert a childhood score to an adult score with the conventional SD16. That

would imply the following adult scores: IQ 200+ for Sidis, and IQ 185 for

Savant. Still, extremely high, but more probable."...

Article about IQ wonders if, "...wonder children," such as...Sidis...owe

their precocious intellectual prowess to superior training (as their parents

believe) or to superior native ability. The supposed effects upon mental

development of new methods of mind training, which are exploited so

confidently from time to time (e.g., the Montessori method and the various

systems of sensory and motor training for the feeble-minded), will have to be

checked up by the same kind of scientific measurement...

"One such prodigy was William James Sidis. In her biography Amy Wallace describes William James (Billy) as the world's greatest child prodigy. His father Boris was extremely influential in his upbringing, and he believed in teaching people to reason rather than to memorise, and to think of learning as play. His advice was simple: ‘Don’t try to memorise. Just try to understand, and then you can’t help remembering. Boris Sidis was an inspirational father and one might be forgiven for thinking that the father figure is vital in developing giftedness."..

[A bibliography of studies of gifted children.]


Sidis FAQs and Facts

How do we know he didn't 'burn out'? Firstly because of his considerable productivity throughout his life (at least a dozen books, as many articles, the invention of the simplified perpetual calendar, and other contributions); secondly the testimony of persons who actually knew him; and finally the fact that not one of five widely held beliefs about him can possibly be true. The first is contradicted by the practical fact that very few psychologists, if any, would claim that genius can be created, let alone with the methods of psychology. The second, 'prodigies burn out', has been disproved by abundant research which shows that the vast majority of them go on to lead productive lives. As did Sidis. The third, 'all-work-no-play', is a merely a hybrid of the second, this time with poor nurture rather than nature seen as the cause. The fourth, that his working at low-paying jobs was yet another sign of burn-out disregards the fact that many great scientists and artists throughout history--and today--supported themselves with unrelated jobs. Sidis did another thing: he personally paid for the publication of his books through his labor. The fifth, that Sidis's fatal cerebral hemorrhage at 46 was caused by 'thinking too much', rested on a popular confusion of brain with mind. His father Boris died at age 56 from the same cause.

See also: The Failure Myth 




Home Page