Review: Making Child Prodigies

This is  a (rather rambling) review of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s new show, “Making Child Prodigies ” which aired this week.

Text: Review - Making Child Prodigies Image: Used paint brushes in a clay pot

“Making Child Prodigies” follows a number of families and charts their struggles, triumphs and life. It is (thankfully) very different from the “Child Genius” series.  It also seems, at least from episode 1, to be more interested in understanding the lives of the families, rather than playing to stereotypes, which is nice.

NB. I am aware that this show may be hard to access for non-Australian viewers, but Gizmodo describes one option here. You can also see clips here, here, here and here.

I actually rather enjoyed watching the story, and I know my kids got a kick out of seeing kids doing things similar to themselves. My daughter was particularly taken with the young artist who is home educated.

But it wasn’t perfect. Here is where I thought it could have done better:

Prodigy, Genius and Gifted are Not Synonymous

The lack of clarity between the definitions of Prodigy, Genius and Gifted was a problem. They are not at all the same.

Prodigy

A child who has reached an adult level of performance in a particular field, usually before the age of 13. Prodigies do not necessarily have high IQs. From Dr Ruthsatz and her team at Ohio State University, artistic prodigies have average IQs (that’s around 100), and mathematical prodigies have IQs around 140, on average. All other prodigy types fall somewhere between the two. The one trait they all share is an extraordinary working memory – in the top 1% of all people. (Working memory is like the blackboard where you can figure out stuff.)

Genius

Is based on output. These are people who have made an extraordinary contribution to human knowledge or our world. These are the Einsteins, Newtons, and Mozarts. They are not necessarily prodigies, or gifted, or have a high IQ.

Gifted

There are actually a number of different groups of people who are called gifted – they each have a different set of characteristics and needs (See here for more details). From what I saw, the show seems to be using the high IQ model of gifted (a score over 130).

There are also different levels of giftedness – Moderately, Highly, Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted. Each of these groups also have their own different set of characteristics.

NB. Modern IQ tests have a hard time distinguishing above the Highly Gifted level as kids generally will run out of questions to answer.

Why does any of this matter? Mainly because the actual help and interventions necessary to maintain good mental health change depending on which category a child fits into.

Now, back to the review!

I can understand why a short TV show wasn’t interested in talking through the nuances of these different words. But I hope they take time to go into them in later episodes.

Where are the Twice-Exceptional Kids?

There was a lack of twice-exceptional (gifted + disabled) children. These are often the children who most confuse people, particularly educators. As a result, accessing disability and gifted services at the same time is very difficult for these families.

It would have been nice to have a twice-exceptional child in the show. Possibly this will be touched on in the next episode.

Where are the Indigenous Gifted Kids?

I was rather irked by the lack of Indigenous prodigies. As Australia’s most famous prodigy and genius is David Unaipon, it would have been nice to include some current  Indigenous gifted children. As there are actually programs (such as A.I.M.E.) that mentor kids like this, they should have been not hard to find. That was disappointing.

The Education System Works?

All the children have wonderful educational options in place: the young maths/physics prodigy three years grade accelerated in primary school; the young musical prodigy was Juilliard, etc. This is not typical – not even for gifted kids or prodigies.

For most families, even getting one grade acceleration is pulling teeth. This is one of the (many) reasons I home educate my two children – it was easier to do it myself than fight the system while my kids suffered.

These Families are Very Brave

One last point: for anyone who is watching this series, please remember that these families have done a very brave thing. Australia invented the phrase ‘Tall Poppy’ and we are, sadly, very good at making sure children like these do not get what they need to thrive.

There is also a long and unpleasant history of exploiting gifted children in the media, starting in modern times with William Sidis. Families rarely have any control over how a show portrays them, which makes them wary. For every child and family you see on screen, there are hundreds who ran in the other direction.

Conclusion

This show is definitely worth the watch. For families who rarely see their situation portrayed even marginally accurately, this was a breath of fresh air. It’s a not bad introduction, though far from perfect.  And it’s lovely  to see these children and the parents pulled along in their wake.

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