Intellectual Adult, Emotional Child: Balancing the Growth of a Child Prodigy

Entering Harvard University at age 12, as Fred Safier Jr. did in 1956, sounds like an automatic happy ending, but it’s really only a beginning. Child prodigies face heightened public scrutiny, unrealistic expectations, and emotional isolation that can wreak havoc on their growth into adulthood.

A boy speaking to college students.

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In October 1956, a photographer taking pictures of Harvard’s incoming freshmen noticed a young boy in the middle of one shot. He assumed the youngster had simply wandered into the registration process at Memorial Hall. He later discovered that the 12-year-old boy, Fred Safier, was not there by accident; this child prodigy was part of the class of 1960.

LIFE magazine heard about Safier and ran an article about him. The story led with the line, “At 12, Freshman Fred Safier is tops at calculus and reads Hegel for fun,” and like most LIFE articles, it was long on pictures and brief on text.

The next year, The Saturday Evening Post ran the article below about Safier. Early in the article, the boy’s father dispels the sensationalism offered by the LIFE article: “Fred is not a walking brain. He does not read Hegel for fun, and he has a long way to go before he can hope to become a whiz at calculus.”

LIFE’s inflation of Safier’s talents is not unusual. People seem to have a natural tendency to ascribe incredible and strange behaviors to exceptional children. Some grown-ups are willing to believe that prodigies are capable of all sorts of fantastic accomplishments.

But that sensationalism can contribute to a prodigy’s perception that the world regards them as a sideshow attraction, leading to feelings of isolation from peers and a malformed sense of self-worth and self-determination. Like all children, prodigies react to these social and societal pressures in different ways, resulting in wildly different outcomes in adulthood.

The only two students ever to have been admitted to Harvard at a younger age than Fred Safier are prime examples; they were William Sidis, in 1909, and Cotton Mather, in 1674. The lives of these two Harvard alumni show how unpredictable adulthood can be for exceptional children, and how poisonous constant public scrutiny and expectation can be.

A Harvard student by age 12, Cotton Mather became the most famous preacher in New England, a man whose judgment was sought in all sorts of matters both civil and spiritual. Although he is remembered more for supporting the witch trials in Salem in 1692, he was also an early proponent of science in the colonies. He studied crop hybridization and encouraged the use of inoculation to control smallpox.

William Sidis is another matter. This genius was reading The New York Times at 18 months, wrote a treatise on anatomy at age 5, and by age 8 had mastered eight languages and invented a ninth. That year, he applied for admission to Harvard. The admissions board convinced him to take off a few years to gain experience, so he enrolled at age 11.

The press could not get enough of this precocious man-child, but their stories were often riddled with errors and exaggerations. He began to feel like he was being represented as a freak. After graduation, the 17-year-old Sidis took a teaching position at Rice University, but he was unhappy at the media’s continued tracking his career. Less than a year later, he returned to Harvard to study law but left before graduating.

For the rest of his life, he tried to disappear from the public eye, supporting himself with undistinguished jobs and menial tasks. In 1937, the New Yorker discovered him, surreptitiously gathered information, and published an article about him.

Sidis sued the magazine for libel and invasion of privacy and, after a long battle through numerous courts, eventually accepted a $600 settlement from the magazine in 1944. He died later that year at the age of 46. The press represented him as a child of promise who’d lived “a futile life,” a lonely, neurotic, obscure eccentric whose genius was replaced by the mundane hobby of collecting streetcar transfers.

Many children stumble over the high expectations set by their parents, but prodigies can have impossible expectations built for them not only by their families, but by the public and the press. Trying to live their own lives and ignore the careers that others make for them is an imposing challenge, one that can’t be solved by genius alone.

Prodigy at Harvard

By Al Hirshberg

Originally published September 14, 1957

When Fred Safier Jr., of Berkeley, California, became a Harvard freshman a month before his 13th birthday last fall, he was quickly hailed as a combination of prodigy and genius, a walking brain, who, presumably, read Hegel for fun and was a whiz at calculus, a sure candidate for jackpot honors in the highest television-quiz circles. But after this initial flurry of attention, he dropped out of the public eye. Now entering his sophomore year, the youngest Harvard freshman in nearly half a century and the third-youngest in the long history of this country’s oldest university has slipped back into the realm of anonymity from which he had come.

It didn’t happen by accident. Fred’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Fred Safier, do not think that a high concentration of publicity lends itself to the healthy development of normal children, and they are determined that their son shall enjoy a normal childhood. They shudder at descriptions of Fred that include such terms as prodigy or genius, and congeal at the thought of exploiting his unusual mental capacity on television or anywhere else.

“Fred is not a walking brain. He does not read Hegel for fun, and he has a long way to go before he can hope to become a whiz at calculus,” says his father, a former philosophy professor, who taught at George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico. “He is simply a normal little boy with a high capacity for learning.”

Fred, a handsome child with a ready smile and a mischievous glint in his hazel eyes, is pretty much like any other American youngster of 13. He likes sports, movies, dogs, and mystery stories, is fascinated by scientific problems of almost any description, and is proud of his stamp collection. He enjoys being a Harvard man, but he missed his mother, who was unable to join him and his father when they moved to Cambridge for the first college year. And he will miss her again this year.

“It’s lonesome without her,” he said, one day last spring. “But I write her long letters every Sunday, and we hear from her all the time. She was here right after Christmas, and she could see for herself how much I like Harvard. If it weren’t for her not living with us, it would be perfect. I’m having a wonderful time. I like my work and my professors so much that I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else to school. And I’m having lots of fun too.”

When, clad in a tweed jacket, with his necktie neatly knotted and his trousers sharply pressed, he mingled with other freshmen in the Harvard Yard last fall, he looked like a small boy who had wandered into the wrong place. But he had every right to be there, for he was a full-fledged member of the Class of 1960.

There have been other children at or near Fred’s age who entered Harvard in past years, and most of them did well in later life. Cotton Mather was an 11-year-old freshman in 1674, and he lived to a full, productive, useful maturity. Adolph A. Berle Jr., a freshman at 14, later served as Assistant Secretary of State under Franklin D. Roosevelt; and Norbert Wiener, a Harvard student at 13, is now a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the world’s leading mathematicians. Only Willie Sidis, an 11-year-old freshman in 1909, failed to live up to his early promise. He was a college lecturer at 14 and a full professor at 19, but he grew up to become an embittered malcontent who died in obscurity at 46. Sidis, Berle, and Wiener were all at Harvard at the same time, although in different classes. And only Sidis and Cotton Mather were younger than Fred Safier Jr.

Fred’s parents do everything possible to keep their boy’s life on an even keel. Since the youngster, who will turn 14 October 6, studies and works among boys four and five years older, this takes some doing. Fred’s father, a scholar who is inclined to live in an ivory tower, is surprisingly realistic about his son. He goes out of his way to help Fred develop a child’s social life while pursuing a young man’s college career. He sees to it that Fred plays as often as possible with his chronological contemporaries while working with his intellectual equals. He encourages the boy to relax as much as he can. He enthusiastically approved an arrangement made by Harvard for Fred to take part in sports with the boys at Browne and Nichols, a nearby prep school.

“This,” said Doctor Safier, “is typical of the many ways in which Harvard has generously accommodated itself to Fred’s special needs.”

Naturally Fred couldn’t be a member of any of the school teams, but he played soccer there in the fall and tennis in the spring with boys of his own age. However, he did not confine his exercise only to contemporaries, since he often played squash last spring with a Harvard friend of 17. He also made other friends while writing for the Yardling, the Harvard-freshman newspaper.

One of Fred’s closest friends is an 18-year-old Harvard junior, who likes to take him to shows, movies, and symphony concerts. “Fred is such a nice kid,” he said. “I like having him around. And I never think about his age. He has wonderfully good taste, and his comments on everything are bright and mature. When he’s with me he seems 18, not 13.”

Fred also plays with a 14-year-old prep-school ninth-grader whom he met at Browne and Nichols. He indulges in childish horseplay with the same enthusiasm he applies to a tennis match or an evening at a symphony concert. This makes for a gratifying combination of man and boy, for Fred is capable of concentrating on higher mathematics one minute and looking forward to a Christmas party the next.

His room at home in Berkeley is the room of both a child and a man. There he keeps his tennis racket, his chess set, his stamps, his puppet theater, his books, and many of the toys and games with which he grew up. When he is at home, he loves to play with the two family dogs, mother-and-daughter dachshunds named Heidi and Sieglinde.

“We are trying to build a man as well as a thinker,” his father said in the three-room Cambridge apartment which he shared with Fred last year. “And we know you cannot build a man until you have permitted him to be a boy first. At the same time, we feel that Fred should be given every opportunity to take full advantage of his capacity for learning.

“We’re convinced that, in spite of his years, our boy leads a richer life in college than he would if he were still in high school. He has friends of several different ages. The older ones like to talk to him, and the others like to play with him. Meanwhile, he has enough to do to maintain keen interest in his studies. In high school he would be bored with his work and isolated from his fellows.”

Fred’s mother is in hearty agreement, although at one time she was a little fearful that the child was being pushed too fast. “As Fred kept skipping grades and shooting far ahead of other children his own age, I sometimes wondered if we ought to try to hold him back a little,” she said. “I didn’t quite understand where we were heading with him during those early years, and I was a little uneasy about it. But now all my fears are gone. Fred is a happy, well-adjusted child who loves to laugh and have fun. I no longer worry about his social life, since he has plenty of friends. He’s not a bookworm. He can forget books and studies and enjoy himself. All his life I’ve tried to make sure he’s happy in what he’s doing, and my husband has been the same way. Fred’s very happy now, and growing intellectually at the same time.”

Mrs. Safier is a medical-social worker in San Francisco. When her husband and son went to Cambridge, she had to remain with her elderly parents, who live with her in Berkeley. The enforced separation of mother and son was unavoidable if Fred was to go to Harvard. The university agreed to accept the boy only on condition that one or both his parents establish a home for him in Cambridge, as he could not live in a dormitory at his age. His father, a writer of philosophical plays, essays, and parables, had supervised Fred’s education from the beginning. Since he could do his own work as well in one place as another, he, rather than Mrs. Safier, took Fred east.

Fred knew his letters at 22 months, had a reading vocabulary before he was 3 and a working knowledge of addition, subtraction, and simple fractions before he reached kindergarten age. By the time he was 4, he had read the Iliad and the Odyssey in translation, and Alice in Wonderland.

Even at that point in his life, his parents saw him only as a fast learner, perhaps considerably brighter than the average, but certainly not a budding prodigy. When he was 4, they sent him to nursery school, where he shared the simple fun and games of other children his age. Later that year, he went to a kindergarten in Oakland, two blocks from the family home, which is just over the city line in Berkeley.

The Safiers’ first inkling that they might have to face a problem in the education of their son came after they entered him, at the age of 5, in the first grade of public school. When the child seemed bored and restless, his father visited the school to see what was going on.

“The children were copying numbers off the blackboard,” he recalled, “and Fred was going quietly mad. I talked to the teacher, but there wasn’t much she could do. After all, she had a whole class to consider, not one child. It was obvious that we’d have to send Fred to private school. It meant a financial sacrifice, but we felt it was worth it. We were very fortunate to find Bentley School nearby. Not only was it good but both the principal and the teachers understood the need for Fred to strike a good balance between his work and his play.”

Fred started in the second grade at Bentley, after having spent only a few weeks in the first grade of public school. A month or so later he had absorbed all the second grade had to offer and was moved into the third. Now he was two years ahead of his own age group, and his parents became more concerned about his play than his work. If something weren’t done quickly, he might lose contact with other children.

Doctor Safier asked the school authorities if there was some way in which Fred could be affiliated with the same group of children without being held back in his work. They decided to keep him with his third-grade schoolmates, no matter how fast he advanced in his studies. So, for the next 4 years, he had the same classmates and the same outside interests as children near his age.

One day when Fred, then 9, was still in the seventh-grade group, his father received a call from Mrs. Gerald K. Branch, principal of Bentley’s upper school.

“Do you mind if we graduate Fred with the ninth-graders?” she asked. “He’s completed all his work.”

“It’s all right if you think he’s ready,” replied Doctor Safier.

“He’s not only ready,” said Mrs. Branch, “but I’m afraid there’s just nothing more that we can teach him here.”

Now the Safiers had to face squarely the problem they had always known was inevitable — what to do with Fred when he had outgrown his friends and school intellectually. They decided to ask the child what he’d like to do.

“I don’t want to leave Bentley yet,” Fred said. “I’d like to stay just one more year with my friends there.”

Mrs. Branch was willing to keep him, but the Safiers had to make their own arrangements for Fred to continue his studies. They solved that problem through University of California extension courses. They hired a tutor to help the child at Bentley. In the meantime Fred continued with his old familiar pattern of going back and forth to school every day.

Fred’s curriculum during his last year at Bentley included English, Latin, physics, analytic geometry, calculus, and trigonometry. He also played a great deal of tennis, discovered jazz music, and spent many happy though unsuccessful hours trying to learn to ice-skate. He worked hard on his studies, but never at the expense of his play.

When he was 10 years old, it was time to leave Bentley. His parents entered him in Drew, a private school in San Francisco, which specialized in helping children with special talents or problems. It was a happy arrangement. His mother drove him to and from school every day. His mathematics teacher, Mrs. Bertha Hunter, who had no other calculus students that year, took a close personal interest in him. She led him through some of the further intricacies of analytic geometry and calculus. He also took Latin, French, and chemistry. He was not a straight-A student, but he piled up sufficient credits to enter the University of California.

Once again, the Safiers were faced with a major decision. Fred was only 11 years old, yet, from the standpoint of studies alone, he was ready for college. He didn’t need another year at Drew, but his parents wanted him to have it because of his extreme youth. If they had had the money, they would have taken him to Europe. It was at about this time that they came to the conclusion that Fred should apply for Harvard. Doctor Safier had obtained his Ph.D. there, and his wife, a Boston girl and a Simmons College graduate, was well aware of the opportunities Harvard had to offer a boy like Fred.

Fred went back to Drew for another year. There, he added history to a curriculum which included more advanced courses in the subjects he had taken the year before. He did well enough to win prizes in French, Latin, and history and, in fact, satisfied all of Harvard’s language requirements for a degree.

When the time came for him to fill out a Harvard application, Fred, for the second time in his short life, was given a chance to determine his own course of action.

“What shall I put down for my major?” he asked his father.

“You always put down biochemistry whenever you filled out a college application,” Doctor Safier reminded him.

“Dad, biochemistry was your idea, not mine.”

“What’s your idea?”

“I’d like to major in nuclear physics,” the child said.

“Well, put it down then,” said his father.

While Fred studied hard his last year at Drew, he still had plenty of time for recreation. His favorite outdoor sport was tennis, and he often entertained himself and his friends with his puppet theater. He also enjoyed a Japanese game, similar to chess, called Go, which he later introduced to some of his Harvard friends. His reading habits were somewhat staggering for an 11-year-old, but he was quite capable of enjoying light reading, too.

One day, shortly before Fred graduated from Drew, his father commented that the boy seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in the public library.

“I have to do a lot of reading, dad.”

“I know that, but you’re doing more than usual. Is it all necessary?”

“Well,” said Fred, “pretty necessary.”

His father looked at him, then, with a smile, asked, “How many Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries have you read in the last month?”

“Forty-two” was the laconic reply.

But last fall, when he spent his birthday money in a Cambridge bookstore, his purchases were a far cry from whodunits. Permitted to buy whatever he wanted, he came home loaded down with some of the world’s great works. Among them were such titles as Plato’s Republic, Virgil’s Aeneid, The Venerable Bede, and Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple.

One of Fred’s major problems at Harvard last year was trying to synchronize his work-and-play routine with a proper sleeping schedule. The average college freshman, often on his own for the first time in his life at the age of 18, can get by with astonishingly little sleep. Between studies, bull sessions, and a multitude of new-found pleasures, he can stay up until the wee small hours and still arise in time to make early morning classes, with apparently little ill effect. One long sleep will usually bring him back nicely after a cramming siege at exam time that might find him working from midnight until dawn several nights in a row.

For Fred, of course, this sort of thing was impossible. He needed two or three hours’ more sleep a night than his classmates, yet carried just as heavy a work schedule. His sleeping requirements placed a big burden on his waking hours. Yet, perhaps for that very reason, the boy grew physically, emotionally, and mentally. He was not only one of the busiest members of his class but one of the happiest. Once he got into a steady groove, he thrived on a work schedule that included the humanities, physics, advanced calculus, and chemistry.

His father, who worried constantly that Fred was trying to do more than he could handle, was surprised one afternoon when his son told him about a fine arts lecture he had just heard.

“How did you have time to attend a fine-arts lecture?” Doctor Safier asked.

“Oh, I sometimes audit the course when I have nothing else to do,” the boy replied airily. It developed, on further inquiry, that he also audited courses in astronomy and advanced mathematics as well when he “had nothing else to do.”

Actually, Fred’s adjustment to a college study program was no easier than anyone else’s. He did not sail through his courses in the manner of a whiz kid. On the contrary, he had so much trouble with some of them that only a great deal of concentrated effort on his part pulled him through early snags. Later, he leveled off so well that his marks carried him beyond anything his parents had expected. “His age helped carry him over those early setbacks,” said Doctor Safier. “If Fred were 17 or 18, he would have been afraid of flunking, and his morale would have suffered so badly that the results could have been disastrous. But young children have defenses that help them through such difficulties. An older boy might have brooded and worried. Fred hasn’t developed far enough emotionally to do either. Instead, he simply goes ahead and tries to solve problems in his own way.”

Except for his studies, Fred was blithely unaware of the potential problems that worried his elders. As far as he was concerned, there were no problems. The fact that he was five years younger, nearly a foot shorter and some 40 pounds lighter than most of his classmates — he stood four feet eight inches and weighed 75 pounds when he entered Harvard — was nothing new to him. He had been the smallest student in his class at Drew, and he didn’t mind being the smallest at Harvard. He felt he belonged there, and he enjoyed every minute.

Because his parents have always been careful to keep him from assuming the attitude of arrogant superiority which often makes unusually gifted children insufferable to others, Fred gets along well with children of his own age. When he is with them, he acts as they do. One night last winter, he and a prep-school friend fenced and wrestled and made so much noise that their elders had to tell them to quiet down.

His friend’s mother later said, “The thing that amazed us most was that there was nothing amazing about Fred. We thought we’d meet a miracle child. Instead, we met a normal youngster full of life and fun, and quite as capable as our own boy of making a nuisance of himself at times.”

On another occasion, while his mother was visiting him in Cambridge, he went with her and his father to the home of friends who had a 12-year-old daughter. The little girl was apprehensive about meeting Fred because she couldn’t imagine what she could say that would interest him. “I don’t know anything about physics or college or things like that,” she wailed. “And he won’t want to waste time talking about anything else.”

The natural shyness of children kept the two at arm’s length when they first met, and they sat for long minutes saying nothing and carefully avoiding each other’s eyes. An offer of candy on the part of the host helped break the ice. They began talking about sweets, then moved to other subjects. By dinnertime, they were chatting like old friends. After Fred and his parents had left, the little girl exclaimed to her father, “Why, daddy, he’s no different from the other kids!”

While he realizes he is not yet old enough for dormitory life, Fred hopes he’ll be able to go to Cambridge by himself before he graduates. He would like to live in one of the Harvard houses, as the dormitories there are called, by the time he is a junior or senior.

Since his parents want Fred to enjoy a complete college career, his grade-skipping days are behind him. He entered Harvard with the Class of 1960, and he will not graduate before then. Even if he shows he can satisfy the requirements for a degree in less time, he’ll be a four-year undergraduate student.

“There’s no good purpose to be served by letting him rush now,” said his father. “It made sense when he was younger, because he could learn all that was available so fast. But now it would be just a stunt. There’s no limit to what a student can learn in four years at Harvard. Besides, Fred needs those years to help him mature outside the classroom.”

As it is, Fred will be a college graduate at 16. He still wants to become a nuclear physicist, although he reserves the right to change his mind. His present hope, however, is to go to graduate school, possibly somewhere on the West Coast, after he has completed his work at Harvard.

In the meantime, the Safiers are under some financial pressure since they are temporarily forced to maintain two households. Fred had a tuition scholarship, but no other source of income last year. He had several opportunities to take part in national television quiz programs, which might have eased the problem, but his family was afraid that such an appearance might create new problems.

“It’s pretty hard for anyone to keep a level head when he is lionized as a genius throughout the country,” his father says. “And I would say it’s almost impossible for a 13-year-old. We’ve spent too many years making sure that Fred keeps his feet on the ground, and we don’t want him to lose his equilibrium now. In any case, it is unfair to burden a child with the responsibility of genius, or even future genius. No one will know whether he is a genius or not until he matures and does something that stamps him as one.”

The Safiers like Fred the way he is. They feel that up to this point they have avoided mistakes which might have had a ruinous effect on the development of his personality, and they hope to continue to do so. They have never pressed Fred to do anything against his will, never demanded too much of him, and never made a move with regard to him without closely examining all its phases.

“We want Fred to be happy,” says his father. “We want him to grow up into a well-adjusted man capable of living a full life. We don’t care whether he achieves anything outstanding or not. All we ask is that he enjoy life. We have tried to give him the tools by setting him on what we think is the right path. As parents, that’s all we can do. I’m sure we’ll have no regrets. We don’t think Fred will either.”

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