Child Prodigies

Child prodigies are characterized by extraordinary ability in a given sphere of human endeavor often creative, quantitative, spatial, or lingual in composition. Their mastery, usually evident well before the age of ten, can appear without assistance, or in spite of it, and their achievements can provoke wonder and at times disbelief and are generally viewed as amazing for a person of any age. Through the nineteenth century, the traditional Western view of prodigies held that they were exclusively phenomena of nature, a view largely revised over the twentieth century through findings in the behavioral and biological sciences, which argue for a synthesis of both natural and environmental factors in shaping prodigies. In JAPAN and CHINA, where Confucian ideology is widely influential, exceptional accomplishments in children are linked more directly to motivation and hard work, with less emphasis placed on innate ability.

Child prodigies tend to emerge in fields that are ordered and integrated, where components can be manipulated in unambiguous ways, and where outstanding achievement is readily recognized and measured, such as in music or mathematics. The internationally competitive game of chess is another forum where prodigies have made their mark, and they frequently find themselves called upon to demonstrate in some public way the range and depth of their gift. In 1958 American television audiences were introduced to a supremely talented thirteen-year-old, Israeli-born violinist, Itzhak Perlman, on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The intermittent historical record of child prodigies includes THE BIBLE, with its portrayals of David in the Old Testament and the young Jesus Christ in the New Testament, to medieval tales of human calculators displayed as public oddities, to the life of visionary Joan of Arc in the early fifteenth century. The medium most famously pursued by prodigies in recent centuries is music, and the most celebrated exemplar is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who in the eighteenth century performed in European capitals and composed symphonies before the age of nine. Noted twentieth-century child prodigies include violinist Yehudi Menuhin, visual artist Pablo Picasso, and chess player Bobby Fischer.

Institutional support for child prodigies begins with the family and often a master teacher. Prodigies have also been known to enroll in colleges, universities, and at music conservatories before adolescence, though sociocultural impediments coupled with the rare nature of their ability make for unpredictable outcomes. As child prodigies mature, their attention often becomes more dispersed, which may account in part for why their developmental trajectory can plateau in later adolescence and adulthood. Gender bias and related factors appear to have slanted the identification of and limited research on child prodigies in favor of males. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that this trend is changing, as evidenced by the emergence in the 1980s of Japanese violinist Midori, in the 1990s by Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang, and the success of Welsh soprano CHARLOTTE CHURCH in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The accomplishments of Hungarian chess player Judit Polgar were revealingly chronicled in The New York Times in a 1992 front-page headline, "Youngest Grandmaster Ever Is 15, Ferocious (and Female)."


Feldman, D. 1991. Nature's Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential. New York: Teachers College Press.

Feldman, D. 1994. "Prodigies." In Encyclopedia of Human Intelligence, ed. Robert J. Sternberg. New York: Macmillan. vol. 2: 845–850.

Gardner, Howard. 1997. Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of our Extraordinariness. New York: Basic Books.

Smith, S. B. 1983. The Great Mental Calculators: The Psychology, Method, and Lives of Calculating Prodigies. New York: Columbia University Press.