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Child Prodigies through the Ages

Abbey Smithee By Abbey Smithee Published on August 24, 2016

Though it’s impolite to admit it in public, we all flatter ourselves in thinking that we’ll raise a troupe of child prodigies. We hope that our progeny will scale the heights of human genius before the age of ten and rise to composing mathematical formulae or renowned poetry in their early teens. And who knows, maybe you will be the exception. Maybe your offspring will perform their first successful brain surgery when other children are still learning to use cutlery, but if that’s to be the case, you’ll need to raise them in an environment that can nourish their particular brand of genius early on.

That might seem like something of a crapshoot. After all, what are the odds that the activity your child is exposed to at a young age will happen to be the same activity that they are spectacularly gifted in? We’re afraid you’re just going to have to take your chances on this one; it seems as though child geniuses tend to be exposed to their chosen area from a young age, so all you can do is pick a couple of activities and hope your child is predisposed to a life in one of them, then narrow the focus accordingly.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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A young Mozart at his clavier

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may be one of history’s best known child prodigies. Born in 1756, Mozart started paying attention to his older sister’s music lessons at the age of three. Indeed, his facility with the instrument was so impressive that, by the age of seven, he was touring Europe with his family, playing for the public and being presented as a child prodigy.

According to Piero Melograni’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography, the young Mozart’s vaunted abilities included,

“He could read any piece of music at sight, improvise on a theme suggested to him, and name any note produced by any instrument or even a bell, a drinking glass, or a mechanical clock. What is more, he was an elegant child, self-assured and charming.”

Of course, the young Wolfgang had the good fortune to be born a son of Leopold Mozart, himself a career musician and a violinist in the service of the count and ruling-archbishop of Salzburg. Leopold did more than just gently push his son into the life of a composer, he also took responsibility for teaching him reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Now, you may not be lucky enough to have a tutor of the same calibre as Leopold Mozart to take over the care of your children, but the skills and talents of the Mozart children certainly speak to the power of a strong education at home. If you want to nurture your child’s talents, it may be best not to wait until they start school.

HP Lovecraft

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The looming face of HP Lovecraft

Born in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft is best known for his revolutionising of the horror genre and the ineffable terror of the Cthulhu mythos. What fewer people know is that Lovecraft’s talents manifested long before he wrote The Call of Cthulhu (and any number of other fantastic short stories that are sadly not as well remembered).

It is said that Lovecraft was already reciting poetry as a party piece at the age of two or three (depending on whose account you believe). Like Mozart, Lovecraft was largely schooled at home, though in his case that schooling came not from his father (who was institutionalized when Lovecraft was three), but at the hands of his maternal grandfather. His grandfather, Whipple Phillips, instilled in him a love of poetry and horror that would go on to shape the rest of his life. The young Lovecraft also read extensively from his family’s library.

Unlike Mozart, who was charming, elegant, and self-assured, Lovecraft was said to have been a wan and sickly child. His schooling was scattershot and informal. Instead, he taught himself largely from forays into the household library while sick at home. This practice of studying alone at home all day continued into his adult life. 

Many have attributed his retiring nature to his mother, who encouraged her son to stay indoors wherever possible, avoiding the outside world. Lovecraft himself later commented,

“... I am essentially a recluse who will have very little to do with people wherever he may be [...] My life lies not among people but among scenes–my local affections are not personal, but topographical & architectural.”

It seems fitting that there is an element of almost Lovecraftian horror to the idea of this sickly infant, reading everything he could get his hands on and reciting poetry from such a young age, then avoiding public life. Still, it's perhaps not something to aspire to if you find yourself raising your own child prodigy; make sure they get some time outside in the fresh air.

Ruth Lawrence

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Ruth Lawrence in 1991, image courtesy George M. Bergman

Jumping forward another century and changing discipline once again, Ruth Lawrence was born in 1971 and is generally considered to have been a child prodigy in the field of mathematics. At just nine years old, Lawrence was awarded an A grade A-Level in pure mathematics. She continued from there to pass the entrance exams for Oxford at 10, and entered St. Hugh’s College at 12. At 13, she became the youngest person to graduate from Oxford.

What is, perhaps, most fascinating about Lawrence is the extent to which her father was involved in her education. Like Leopold Mozart, Harry Lawrence dedicated himself to teaching her at home, leaving his teaching career when Ruth was five so that he could tutor her at home.

He insisted that other attitudes to parenting encouraged pointless frivolity, commenting that:

“The idea that it's a time to mess around and do whatever they like is absolutely wrong. Childhood's not a time to be playing around, but a time to be developing.”

Indeed, just as Leopold Mozart went on tour with his son and daughter, Harry Lawrence attended university with his daughter. He is said to have attended all of his daughter’s lectures.

Lawrence’s biography is less complete than Mozart’s or Lovecraft’s, not least because she’s alive and working in mathematics today, but the story of her early years still has a lot in common with the stories of our other child prodigies.

These three child prodigies may be spread across three centuries and three different disciplines, but their childhoods are more similar than you might expect. They all share a general lack of formal schooling, each having been taught more or less at home. Moreover, each was taught at home, and in every case by a family member who took a pronounced interest in their education, rather than a tutor. In every case, they seem to have found their respective strengths very early in life.

Of course, the other point to note is that these wunderkind seem also not to have had too much time left over for a normal childhood. Between Mozart’s touring Europe, Lovecraft’s days spent indoors reading, and Lawrence’s near-exclusive relationship with her father, there doesn’t seem to have been much time left over for the business of just being a kid. 

Perhaps it’s best not to bother trying to raise a horde of incredible infants. Perhaps some of us are better off just being ordinary...

Abbey Smithee works as an English teacher and in her spare time, volunteers with children with learning disabilities as a tutor and reading assistant.