What Is a Child Prodigy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A child prodigy is a person below the age of 18 who possesses one or more skills or talents that far exceed those in the normal range of children of the same age. Often there may be a notable pattern to the way children of this type acquire special talents. Another area of interest within this topic is the positive and negative parenting of prodigies, and the degree to which these kids are mentally well and socially connected to peers. Additionally, special gifts of children with normal intelligence may be compared to savants and to the phenomenon of autistic splinter skills.

Beethoven was famously pushed to succeed by his parents for their own gain.
Beethoven was famously pushed to succeed by his parents for their own gain.

It’s easiest to attach the label of child prodigy to younger children because, as children age, many of them evolve talents or special skills. There may be thousands of older teens that can do very advanced math or offer beautiful solo violin performances. Identifying younger children with special talents is less difficult because few of their peers will be equally adept.

A child prodigy may perform an advanced ability with little formal training.
A child prodigy may perform an advanced ability with little formal training.

Some features of the child prodigy may be generally noted. These children are likely to learn things in their area/s of advanced skill with very little formal instruction. They also quickly advance, progressing from simple to more difficult operations in short periods of time. Some prodigies have multiple areas of strength. For example, a student could be so scholastically strong that he or she is suited for the academic rigors of college by age 10 or 11, but other prodigies may only have one particular skill or gift.

There are both good stories and bad ones about the demands of parents on the child prodigy. The worst involve parents using the child for personal gain, such as occurred with Mozart and Beethoven. Pushing a child to be a prodigy is also considered unwise.

It is, perhaps, in Hollywood that pushy or self-interested parenting effects have been so devastating for many talented child prodigy actors. Judy Garland, for example, left the set of The Wizard of Oz addicted to stimulants and tranquilizers given to her by her mother, as advised by studio executives. She was never able to escape substance addiction and her life was cut short by it.

The many parents who find ways for children to explore their gifts and passions without placing them in high pressure or child-unfriendly environments provide a needed contrast to such difficult parenting stories. Children with families like this may do better emotionally because their lives are similar to those of other children, and they are more likely to regularly interact with peers. Nevertheless, there is also a powerful argument that creativity is genetically tied to conditions like bipolar disorder. Therefore, a conscientiously parented child prodigy may still be susceptible to mood disorders, and parents should be aware of this risk.

When autistic children have special talents they may instead be called savants or are said to possess splinter skills. Some of these skills like advanced calculations are quite amazing: more so because the children who possess them can be severely impaired in other ways. Like the prodigy child, the autistic savant doesn’t necessary learn the skill, but develops it very rapidly. There are few universally accepted explanations for how or why these skills or talents develop in any child.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- Gosh, how sad. I knew Judy Garland had problems, though. I think Liza Minnelli inherited a few of them, too.

I wouldn't want to have a true prodigy as a child. I can't imagine the tremendous pressure parents are under to help the child achieve his or her potential, plus still allowing the kid to be a kid, and have kid fun, playmates his own age, etc. That has to be an awesome responsibility and I don't know that I'd be up for it.

I was a gifted student, and probably something of a word prodigy, but my parents insisted I have a very normal childhood. I didn't go to a special school or anything like that. I had to do my homework like everyone else. Plus, I struggled in math.


One small clarification: Judy Garland was addicted to stimulants masquerading as weight-loss drugs. The studio execs thought she was pudgy. One story says that, during the filming of "Oz," Louie B. Mayer, chief at MGM Studios, which produced the movie, ordered that Garland only be served salad and chicken soup in the commissary, no matter what she ordered. It wouldn't surprise me.

This is a tale played out over and over with precocious child actors, usually resulting in tragedy. The stories are legion. Paul Peterson, who starred in the "Donna Reed Show," went wild and has battled addiction. He started a support network to help former child stars. He has reached out to numerous actors over the years to offer them help.

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