The Fate of Child Prodigies

In the current issue of the Post, Lini S. Kadaba’s “The Eureka Factor” explores the ongoing research into the source of those sparks of brilliant insight that people sometimes experience — those aha! moments when they have a sense of what it’s like to be a genius.

For some people, that sense begins when they are quite young and lasts a lifetime. These so-called child prodigies are children under the age of 10 who display the skills of an accomplished adult. They usually demonstrate their advanced intelligence in fields that work with narrow parameters and repetition, like mathematics, science, music, and chess.

Like the denizens of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon — where “all the children are above average” — every parent wants to believe his or her child is a genius. But only a small percentage — 6 to 10 percent — are smart enough to be classified as “gifted.” True prodigies are even rarer: just one in 5 or 10 million, according to one psychologist.

Parents eagerly look for signs of brilliance in their offspring because they believe that high intelligence, exhibited at an early age, means a promising future for their child. It wasn’t very long ago, however, that parents worried whether their child was too smart. They believed that child prodigies grew into sickly, awkward adults who usually failed in their careers.

According to the authors of “So That’s What Happens to Child Prodigies,” reprinted below, this myth of the handicapped prodigy was born in the 1700s when the idea of universal equality was born. Believing all men were born equal and enjoyed equal opportunities in life, Americans were uncomfortable with the fact that some children were born with far greater intelligence than most.

So a myth began that prodigies were doomed to lives of obscurity and ill health. The myth was still very much alive in the 1950s, when Dr. Lewis Terman released his 30-year study of 1,500 child prodigies. In his conclusions, he wrote that child prodigies not only didn’t develop into sickly, lonely losers, but generally grew into well-adjusted, healthy, highly successful adults. His findings prompted many people to label him undemocratic.

Terman championed the case of prodigies. He promoted the idea of testing the IQ of all American schoolchildren, so the precocious few could be discovered and properly nurtured. He believed prodigies should become the leaders of America’s future.

That belief has persisted among the general public, which believes that children with extraordinary intelligence should achieve great things. Not all of them live up to the high expectations, but they are far from failures. Many pursue and often find their own happiness, even if it doesn’t involve creating a masterpiece or finding a valuable cure. A page on the Mental Floss website even describes “9 Child Prodigies (Who Actually Ended Up Doing Something),” as if most prodigies normally accomplish nothing.

It is probably unfair to set such high expectations for children with elevated IQs. Researchers now see that achieving success as an adult involves more than simply being born smart. According to Malcolm Gladwell, a successful adult genius is the product of habits and personality. Unless precocious children show “curiosity, doggedness, [and] determinedness,” they may never realize all the potential of their intelligence.

The last quality is particularly important for musical prodigies. They must possess a fierce desire to master the challenge of performance. This character trait enables them to keep practicing 6, 7, 8 hours a day, seven days a week. Determinedness may, in fact, be a stronger determinant than IQ of their future success.


So That’s What Happens to Child Prodigies

By Milton and Margaret Silverman

Originally published on February 2, 1952

To many people, precocity in someone else’s child calls for heartfelt sympathy. The typical precocious child, they believe, is the one who learns Greek at the age of 4, calculus at 6, and nuclear physics at 8, is graduated from Harvard at 12, and at 30 is an addlepate who can barely hold a job selling crockery in the local department store.

Recently a small army of workers has been conducting a study to determine once and for all whether infant prodigies really do “get over it” or whether they will maintain their mental superiority in adulthood. These workers — interviewers, mental testers, statisticians, physicians, and psychologists — have investigated some 1,500 of these prodigies and have checked with their parents, teachers, relatives, friends, wives, husbands, and children. They have obtained information which few people will give to their doctor, lawyer, or even clergyman. They have learned what becomes of the typical prodigy, how he grows up, what kind of job he gets, and what happens to his marriage.

Their study — a two-generation, $200,000 research project — actually began 30 years ago, and is just now reaching its climax. It has been hailed as one of the most exciting and significant investigations in psychology. It has yielded data which may eventually bring drastic changes in the American system of public education. And it has upset many of the time-honored beliefs dear to the hearts of parents, doctors, educators, and the public at large.

The investigators demolished one cherished superstition when they found there is nothing to the idea that precocious children — those with high IQs — are pathetic creatures, overserious and undersized, hollow-chested, stoop-shouldered, clumsy, tense, and neurotic.

“It would help our ego to believe that this is true,” one of them says, “but it is entirely false.”

Furthermore, they reported, precocious youngsters are generally not obnoxious little brats; most of them are remarkably free from behavior problems. And the child who learns Greek at the age of 4 and calculus at 6, they discovered, does not become an addlepate. The chances are greater that he will become an executive vice president, make $20,000 a year, and marry the best-looking girl in town.

These and similar findings have brought surprise, disillusionment, and considerable annoyance to some people, and the investigators have been berated for wrecking many popular and comforting misconceptions. Oddly enough, they have also been denounced in some circles as subversive, un-American, and undemocratic.

The Man Behind the Test Behind the IQ 

To the leader of these scientists, sprightly Dr. Lewis Terman, of Stanford University, such charges are the standard payment for exploding myths. Professor Terman is in a position to know. He had already caused a row when he proved he could learn more about a child’s intelligence with appropriate mental tests than a teacher could discover in a year or than some parents could discover in 10 years. He saddened some educators when he stated that too many teachers failed to recognize exceptionally brilliant students. He stirred up resentment when he and his fellow brain testers reported that the average American adult had the mental age of a 15-year-old. He aroused wrath when he denied that any child could be made agenius by intensive mental calisthenics during the first four or five years of life, and when he disproved the widely accepted belief that many if not most of the world’s great geniuses were dunces in childhood.

“It is true that Charles Darwin was rated as an intellectual failure by his teacher,” he said. “This was quite probably due to the fact that young Darwin was addicted to carrying insects and small animals in his pockets — a habit which disturbed the serenity of the classroom.”

The great author Sir Walter Scott was reputed to have been a mental flop when he attended a certain private school. Careful study revealed later that Scott never attended the school, and that in early childhood he was demonstrating remarkable literary skill. Other investigators have noted that Thomas Edison, usually at the foot of his class in school and considered bird-brained by his teacher, was showing an intellectual curiosity and reading books far beyond his years.

“The evidence,” Terman said, “seemsto show that mentally gifted children are most likely to develop into the world’s leaders in politics, science, education, business, and the arts.” Therefore, he suggested, such children deserve particular attention in the public schools and should have special classes, special training, and special educational advantages. This sounded like heresy to some educators, and they assailed him as the No. 1 enemy of democracy.

“These little disagreements have been inevitable,” he observed. “Some of our findings have made some people see red, and when they see red, they do not see veryclearly.”

This year, Terman celebrated his 75th birthday. At an age when most men are content to retire and relax or are too exhausted to do anything else, he is still working 30 or 40 hours a week. His position is assured as one of the foremost psychologists of our times, the greatest living exponent of intelligence testing, and the man who largely popularized — although he did not invent — the phrase “intelligence quotient,” or “IQ.”

He and his cohorts have sold intelligence testing as a valuable measuring tool to almost everybody but the communists. Russia has ruled out the tests as undemocratic and denounced Terman as a vile fascist.

Undemocratic or not, the idea of training and utilizing specially gifted children is not new. “For many centuries,” Terman says, “the youthful prodigy was generally regarded with a mixture of admiration, awe, and hopeful expectation. His parents were envied, and the child was likely to be made the protégé of a prince or a king.”

Then the stock of child prodigies plummeted. This nose dive came in the 18th century, along with the rise of Western democracy and the popularization of the idea that all men are born equal — not physically, of course, but mentally. It was widely held — and is still apparently believed by a substantial proportion of the population — that all men are born with equal native intelligence, and that, with the proper education, any boy can become wise, wealthy, and even President.

Terman entered this emotionally supercharged field with what he termed all the misconceptions obtained from the most illustrious textbooks of the time. Born in Johnson County, Indiana, he was the 12th of 14 children. “My elementary education,” he recalls, “was obtained in a one-room ‘little red schoolhouse’ which could not boast a single library book. … I entered this school three months before my sixth birthday, and at the end of the first term of six months was promoted to the third grade. Habitually, I memorized most of the contents of my textbooks. The school day was long, and the time had to be put in somehow.”

At the age of 15, he went to a teachers college, later to Indiana University, and then to Clark University at Worcester, Massachusetts, where he worked on early mental-testing techniques. He had tuberculosis and during his years at Clark he suffered his third and most serious pulmonary hemorrhage. “It was perhaps fortunate for me that the doctors of that time knew so little,” he says. “Probably I should have been put to bed for from 6 to about 12 months, whereupon I would have gone to pieces from worrying about my wife, my two young children, and my debts. As it was, I merely rested for a couple of weeks until my temperature had subsided, and then went back to work.”

Although other physicians periodically warned him that his habits of intense work would bring him to an early grave from tuberculosis, Terman refused to change his schedule. He followed their advice only so far as to turn down glowing offers of jobs elsewhere and accept the position of high school principal in the reputedly healthy climate of San Bernardino, California. He stayed there for a year, then moved to a state teachers college — now the University of California at Los Angeles — where he worked closely with Arnold and Beatrice Gesell, later to become famous for their studies in child psychology. In 1910 he accepted an invitation to join the faculty of Stanford University.

While he was preparing material for his first lectures at Stanford, Terman became intrigued with the new mental tests recently devised in France by Dr. Alfred Binet. Introduced into the United States a few years before, the tests were still being attacked and ridiculed. Terman found nothing ridiculous in them, but he did see where they might be improved, expanded, and made more useful. In 1916, he and his Stanford coworkers came out with their first of several revisions — the Stanford-Binet test, now probably the best known and most widely applied mental test in the world. Terman’s book on the examination, The Measurement of Intelligence, has been translated into nearly two dozen languages — including Egyptian, Syrian, and Afrikaans — and its sales have passed the 200,000 mark. They are still going up.

The Stanford-Binet tests, like those developed by Edward Thorndike, of Columbia; Robert Yerkes, of Yale; Fred Kuhlmann, of Minnesota; Arthur Otis — a student of Terman at Stanford — and others, were designed to show the mental age of a child. From that, it is simple to get the intelligence quotient, or IQ, a term devised by the late William Stern, a pioneer investigator in the field of individual differences. To calculate the IQ, once you have measured a child’s mental age, you merely divide the mental age by the child’s chronological age, and multiply this answer by 100.

Today it is generally accepted that average children have IQs ranging from about 90 to 110. Most feebleminded score 70 or less. Superior or gifted children usually rate at 130 or higher.

Perhaps the most exciting and certainly one of the most significant investigations stemming from these intelligence measurements is Stanford’s large-scale psychological study of gifted children.

“What we proposed,” Terman says,” was to sift a school population of a quarter of a million, identify about a thousand children with the highest IQs, and study them — find their characteristic physical, mental, and personality traits — and learn what sort of adults they would become.”

He obtained sizable grants, first from the Commonwealth Fund of New York, and later on from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, of New York; the Columbia Foundation, of San Francisco; the National Research Council; the Marsden Foundation, of Palm Springs; and the Thomas Welton Stanford Fund, of Stanford University. In addition, Terman made substantial contributions from the royalties he received from the sale of his tests.

When the task of selecting the gifted children was begun, trained field workers went to the classroom teachers of hundreds of California primary schools and got the names of the brightest and youngest students in each class. These nominees were given standard mental tests, and the ones with IQs of 140 or higher became the first gifted children for the experiment. Others were chosen when their high IQs were discovered during routine mental testing in other schools. Eventually there were some 1,500 of them (857 boys, 671 girls), ranging in age from 3 to 18, and representing the top 1 percent or less of the school population. Their IQs ranged from about 140 to 200, with an average of approximately 150 for the group. The top score was that of a 7-year-old girl with a mental age of 14.

These 1,500 boys and girls soon became known as the “Termites,” although few of them were told of their selection as gifted children until many years had passed. They were also known for a short time as Terman’s Geniuses — a name which the professor strongly opposed. To date, none of them has become a rival of Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless the group has become internationally famous by the manner in which it has upset hallowed traditions.

The Termites first made news in psychological and educational circles when they showed up for their physical examinations. Doctors reported they were not the pathetic, hollow-chested, round-shouldered, colorless, puny specimens supposedly typical of precocious children. Instead the Termites were stronger, huskier, taller, and healthier than their average classmates.

The typical gifted child was the child of parents who had had more than the average amount of education and were enjoying a higher-than-average income. His father was a professional man — a doctor, lawyer, professor, or businessman. His home library contained an average of 328 books. He learned to read easily at the age of 5 or 6. By the time he was 10, he had been skipped one grade beyond his age group; actually, however, careful tests showed that he had already mastered the school curriculum two or three grades beyond the one in which he was enrolled.

At home, the typical Termite read more and better books than did most children, but he was clearly no bookworm. He played and knew the rules of more games than did his average schoolmates, engaged in sports just as successfully, and enthusiastically made collections of beetles, coins, Indian arrowheads, and match covers.

He was emotionally stable, quick in understanding and insatiably curious. He had a retentive memory and a large vocabulary, and was unusually interested in such things as number relations, atlases, and encyclopedias. He was more trustworthy when under temptation to cheat, and less inclined to boast or overstate his knowledge. His tendency to boast about his knowledge was determined by several methods, in one of which hewas asked to indicate whether or not he had read such books as Dickens’ David Copperfield, Alger’s The Boy Inventor, Henty’s Running Away With the Circus, and Mark Twain’s Hobo Stories. Many children of average IQ reported they had read two or more of these; the typical Termite admitted he had read none or only the first. The three other books have never existed.

The investigators emphasized that the gifted children ranged widely in all their personality characteristics and family background. For example, although the average Termite came from a family with better-than-average income, some came from extremely wealthy homes, while others were brought up in families with barely enough money to keep going. One boy, raised in poverty, had started his schooling at the age of 17; within a relatively short time he had become a musical composer of wide reputation, the author of three books and dozens of articles on musical theory, and in the space of three years he wrote a book on melody, composed 60 major orchestral pieces and learned two foreign languages.

“These were our gifted children,” Terman says. “We knew what they were like as children. But how would they turn out as adults? Would they live up to their promise of youth? Or, as the textbooks predicted, would they fail miserably?”

Terman and his associates urged the parents of the Termites to raise their children as normally as possible. “Don’t place your child in a position which practically compels him to play the role of the child prodigy,” they said. “Don’t make him be a show-off. Let him associate normally in play and other social activities with children not too far from his own age.”

They also advised the parents to refrain from hurrying the child through school in the shortest possible time. “Keep him profitably employed and give him every opportunity for normal social development. Give information when it is called for and help the child to help himself. Encourage hobbies. Provide the best books, and provide them in large variety. But remember that books are not everything.”

One mother of a Termite told the investigators she was still dressing and undressing her 8-year-old son, giving him his bath and providing all kinds of assistance which most sensible mothers teach their offspring to provide for themselves at an early age.

“For my boy to do such commonplace things for himself,” she explained, “would rob him of the time he needs for creative thinking.”

“Ye gods!” cried Terman. “Creative thinking at the age of 8? It makes no difference how gifted your child may be, he must be trained to be helpful and to have a sense of responsibility.”

Most parents, he says, proved to be more sensible. As the years passed, they continued to welcome field workers into their homes and answer their questions, and to fill out the questionnaires which were periodically sent to them. Terman pledged to hold secret the identity and exact IQ of his Termites — a pledge which he has continued to keep, although some of the children or their parents divulged their identities themselves. He likewise has kept under lock and key the intimate details which many of the subjects began to reveal to him.

Some of Terman’s questions called for surprisingly intimate information.

“Those questionnaires he sent us every year wanted all the details,” relates Hollywood star Dennis O’Keefe, who recently revealed his membership in the Termite clan. “He kept close check, all right. Even knew who my first date was, and how I made out. My mother did most of it, but when I hit the late teens, the questions got specific. Mother handed over the blank for me to fill out in private.”

By the end of the war, when a major follow-up was under way, it was felt in some circles that the big chance had come too late for Terman himself.

He was 68. Three years before, reaching Stanford’s retirement age, he had become professor emeritus. Cataracts on both eyes had come close to destroying his vision, although successful operations were later able to restore his sight. He suffered second-degree burns when his campus home caught fire. Later he slipped and smashed his hip, and the doctors warned him he might be bedridden for life.

Limping, scarred, wearing thick glasses, but just as perky as ever, Lewis Terman kept on the job. With him were many of the skilled associates who had collaborated in the previous surveys 5, 10, 20, and even 25 years before, and who had taken leave from important and better-paying positions elsewhere and postponed their own researches to work again with their former chief.

When their report was finally published, it had heartening news for the parents of gifted children. The typical precocious child had not become stupid, committed suicide or, as some vulgarians observed, flipped his lid.

The successful, healthy young Termite had grown up into a successful, healthy, well-adapted, versatile, happily married adult with a good job and a good income, many friends, a respected position in his community, and a respectable record of contributing to his nation’s welfare.

In comparison with average men and women of similar age, the gifted group as a whole had a lower over-all mortality rate. The divorce rate and the insanity rate were the same as the national average, but there was less alcoholism and much less delinquency. Roughly 88 percent of the Termites had entered college, and 68 percent had been graduated, nearly half of these with high honors. Surprisingly, however, some 60 of them flunked out of college; investigation revealed that these students were lazy, bored, unwilling to follow a professor’s instructions, or were spending too much time in social life or earning a living.

“It was obvious that a high IQ isn’t the whole story,” one observer noted. “It’s important, but it’s not everything.”

Most of those who flunked out of school returned and were graduated later, and some went on to advanced training.

Of the men who had completed their formal education and were working, a remarkably high proportion — slightly more than 80 percent — had become professional or semiprofessional men or business executives. They were making brilliant records as lawyers, college professors, engineers, physicians, chemists, authors, newspapermen, artists, and architects. The average income of the working Termites was about 70 percent greater than that of average American men of the same age.

“It would have been even higher if fewer of the men had become college professors,” Terman observed. “A professor’s salary always seems to bring down the average.”

By 1945 about 85 percent of both the gifted men and the gifted women had married. When the investigators checked on the spouses, they found that in most instances each Termite had married someone who also possessed a high IQ. In 10 cases, one Termite married another.

“In those 10 cases,” said the professor, “it was usually the man who first told his spouse he was a Termite. The woman more often played it safe by keeping her intelligence a secret.”

The survey likewise showed that the Termites had at least their fair share of military service. More than 40 percent of the men served in the armed forces, rating everywhere from buck private to brigadier general. A hundred or more served in hush-hush military research projects.

Politically, they were about equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Only one member of the group admitted he was a communist. Eighty percent of the eligible voters in the group reported that they had voted in the last national elections, in contrast to about 60 percent for the national average.

Finally, the investigators found, the Termites had made a significant impact on their country. Nearly 400 of the group had published more than 100 books or monographs and 1,500 technical, scholarly, or popular articles. The group had more than 100 patents to its credit, together with numerous scientific and medical discoveries. One Termite, who took his master’s degree in classical literature at the age of 20, had turned to business, and at 27 was chief investment analyst for a $40,000,000 educational foundation. Another, at the age of 32, was coordinator of research in a $10,000,000 aeronautical laboratory. One woman, by the age of 30, had become a successful professional actress, a professional dancer, an illustrator of anatomy and physiology textbooks, a novelist, and a champion ice skater. Another was director of one of the biggest atomic research laboratories in the world.

In contrast, one Termite listed as his major accomplishment, “I have just acquired my fifth wife.”

Some of the Termites had run into trouble. One of these was a brilliant Hollywood director who recently admitted he had been converted at least temporarily to communism. Four of the men had been sent to jail — three as juvenile delinquents and one as an adult offender — for infractions ranging from minor thefts to forgery.

A few others had close brushes with the law. One was a young boy whose zeal for scientific investigations led him to steal equipment needed in his experiments. “After his arrest,” his report reads, “the police department was so impressed by his ability that it gave him a job. His inventions later enabled him to earn $7,000 while in his undergraduate years at college. Today he ranks among the most successful men in the gifted group.”

Among the women, only two were reported to have had encounters with the police. One was arrested for vagrancy and sent to jail. The other, a professional prostitute for several years, was arrested a few times, but never served a jail sentence. “Both of these women,” it was announced later, “have apparently made normal behavior adjustments.”

Although the group varied in extremes from complete business failures to one man now making nearly $300,000 a year, and from a jailbird to a judge, Terman and his colleagues were far more interested in what happened to the average — to the group as a whole. And, they concluded, on the average, the gifted group “is assuming responsibility and leadership in far greater proportion than the general public or even college graduates in general.”

A new survey, being conducted this year, seems to be furnishing further evidence to support this conclusion and, of particular importance, is indicating that the children of these Termites also have high IQs.

For these and his other studies, and for building the Stanford psychology department into one of the best in the country, Terman was awarded what are probably the two highest honors in his field — presidency of the American Psychological Association and membership in America’s “scientific senate,” the National Academy of Sciences.

After winning such distinctions, an ordinary man might sit down and relax for the rest of his life. Terman, however, has demonstrated no ability to relax. He has used his latest findings as ammunition in his toughest battle of all, his strenuously opposed attempt to have mentally superior youngsters given the same degree of specialized schooling which educators sympathetically give to the mentally defective.

Actually a few such attempts have been made throughout the country. Special “enrichment classes” and “opportunity groups” have proved highly successful for gifted youngsters allowed to learn as rapidly as their mental, physical, and social powers permit. These classes have been expensive — yet rarely more so than those for subnormal children — and often were dropped for budgetary reasons. Although it was recently estimated that more than 1,000,000 of America’s schoolchildren have “superior intelligence needing special education,” scarcely 21,000 of these 1,000,000 potential leaders were found enrolled in special classes.

Terman himself has vigorously defended special training, for those who can assimilate it, as being thoroughly in line with the basic ideals of democracy. “It is no more undemocratic or discriminatory to provide special classes and instructors for the mentally gifted at the taxpayer’s expense,” he says, “than it is to provide football stadiums and expensive coaching staffs for the physically gifted.”

He told a recent international meeting in San Francisco, “Surely the school has no more important task than to foster the development of the mentally gifted. Never has our country stood in greater need of intelligence in high places. Our chances of survival in another war may well depend upon the discovery and utilization of highly superior abilities of every kind.”