The Makings of a Genius Child

by Dr. Dennis Garlick

Albert Einstein, Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates. You don’t have to be a genius to know what these famous names have in common.

Many parents want their children to be geniuses, but what determines genius?

Social commentator Malcom Gladwell has described how circumstances can be important. In the case of scientific breakthroughs, technology might have progressed to the point that a breakthrough is inevitable. Scientists are then racing to apply the technology to achieve the breakthrough. This suggests that genius might sometimes be being in the right place at the right time. However, many people are often in the right place at the right time. Why do some stand out? What separates them from the crowd?

Practice Makes Perfect?

Massive amounts of practice have been identified as another contributing factor.  While “practice makes perfect” seems like a no-brainer concept in parenting, the amount of practice that some high achievers undertake is staggering. For instance, it is estimated that professional violinists will have practiced up to 10,000 hours by the time they reach adulthood. This is a massive amount! Consider how many hours per week you would need to practice to rack up 10,000 hours by adulthood. If you practiced for two hours a week every week for 10 years, you would only have accrued 1,000 hours of practice. To accumulate 10,000 hours of practice, professional violinists can practice up to 30 hours per week over the course of several years. Think of this the next time you listen to a professional violinist.

What about fields in which “practice” isn’t like playing an instrument? What about people like Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft? Gladwell notes that Gates’ success was due to his exceptional programming ability. Gates also had the opportunity to gain programming experience on a mainframe computer while still in high school. At the time, this was very rare. Gates literally spent hours programming every night and every weekend, and had racked up 10,000 hours of programming experience by the time he graduated from high school. According to Gladwell, this enormous amount of practice is what made Gates such an exceptional programmer.

The Makings of a Child Genius

However, there is something missing from the “practice” concept of genius. The reality is that 10,000 hours of practice is not particularly impressive for computer programming. Consider the amount of practice or experience one would get in a typical programming job: 40 hours per week times 50 weeks per year times 5 years equals 10,000 hours. This line of thinking would seem to be considering that anyone who has been a full-time programmer for five years has the same programming ability as Bill Gates. Gates attributes his own success to “… better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time …” Gates was not just saying that 10,000 hours of experience was important. The age at which it occurred also made a significant difference.

The Sensitive Period

Indeed, all of the geniuses identified at the start of this article were interested in their fields from an early age. They were often even obsessed by them. Would they have been the same geniuses if they had only taken an interest in their relevant domains as adults? There is now extensive evidence from both brain science and psychology that they would not have been.

Research has found that a child’s brain differs from an adult brain in its ability to learn. One obvious example of this is language. It has been observed that children can learn language more easily than adults. However, recent evidence from brain science and psychology suggests that the “sensitive period” applies to much more than just language.

Childhood experience can be crucial for learning abstractions in many different domains. These abstractions enable knowledge to be transferred from one situation to another, leading to successful performance through understanding rather than relying on rote memory. A child who understands a domain knows the best response without needing trial and error to try and discover the best response.

What Parents Can Do

What does this mean for parents? It means that you need to emphasize to your child the importance of their childhood years in terms of learning. If they want to succeed in a particular domain, experience in the domain in childhood could give them an advantage over other children. Indeed, recent scientific evidence suggests that a small amount of experience in childhood could make a domain easier than many years of experience in the same domain in adulthood. This is a crucial message that all parents should pass on to their children.

About the Author:

Dennis Garlick received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Sydney. His Ph.D. focused on using the recent advances in the brain sciences to provide a new approach to explaining human intelligence. His approach to human intelligence has been accepted in major professionally and peer-reviewed publications. Garlick is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.