The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Is education necessary for success?

I am struck by the obsession with education and degrees evident on many boards and sites devoted to giftedness. There is this underlying idea that gift should be manifested as "qualifications" and that, somehow, the more of these one garners, the higher their level, the better it is. They are somehow a kind of medal, or badge of merit. Yet, are such qualifications actually necessary for success, even now, in the modern world?

I would say not. I am thinking of a particular individual, related to me, who grew up in a time and a country when educational opportunities were not readily available. He had no education past elementary school and went into the world equipped with just reading, writing and arithmetic and a smattering of national history and native language (plus English). Many reading this and looking on the prospect of facing the world with so little educational ammunition might assume this background to be a recipe for failure. Not so. He is one of the most successful people I know. He began work as a child of fourteen, learnt his trade, started a business, learnt all aspects of that business, including all necessary law and details of accountancy, and all professions as they related to his chosen business area - and flourished. He is far better off than any of the highly educated lawyers and accountants and other professional suppliers who work for him, on his various projects. He has financial freedom. He enjoys what he is doing. He is making a real, tangible contribution to the world - all without a formal education to speak of.

Could the same background lead to a thriving success today? I believe so, for education is not intelligence. Education is not giftedness. Education does not mark a person as special. Education is a collection of received ideas, the opinions and thoughts of others. Being educated does not mean that you are truly capable of doing anything new or interesting or of being a "success". A man or woman without an education may be more than capable of making their way in the world, in a productive, creative, successful manner. Whether they do or not depends not on what they have been taught, but on their own ability to think for themselves. A truly gifted person should be able to make a success of themselves without a formal education. For a truly gifted person is able to work things out for themselves and learn how to do something from scratch. There is only one caveat to this observation: many professions and types of job, exclude people on the basis of whether or not they have a particular "educational qualification". This is a shame, because it is my observation that the educated man or woman may be no better than the uneducated one, at a particular role or task, or indeed may be far less competent - it all depends on the individual and their gifts.

I think that a society that orders itself too much on the basis of qualifications is one that is setting itself up for being second rate. Why do I believe this? Because many gifted people may not have had the opportunity to obtain a particular educational qualification, even though they are more than capable of doing so, and would be excluded by a society that paid too much heed to qualifications. Singapore is one such society: everything here is about paper qualifications - the entire edifice is built on them. I believe, from observation, that they are profoundly in error in being so obsessed with pieces of paper. Personnel departments in this country, do not look at people, they look at paper. In this manner, they under-utilize many good people, and overlook much talent. It is unbelievable to say it, but Singapore is a country where one can't even be accepted as an artist, without a degree to prove it. It never occurs to them that one might need to look at the art in question, to determine how much of an artist someone is.

What is the answer, for those of gift but without the relevant qualification? If the opportunity to obtain the qualification is not there, going into business for oneself, in a particular line, is the most productive response. Those who are gifted, but untutored, may succeed far beyond those who have an education, but less of a gift. They need only ignore the requirements of the society around them, and go into business for themselves. Just like my relative did - and won.

I should point out that I have received an education up to and including a Master's Degree at Cambridge University. I would also like to point out that everything of real value that I learnt in all that time, was something I taught myself.

(If you would like to read of my scientific child prodigy son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, or his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:41 PM  0 comments

Friday, January 05, 2007

Tiarnan and the uncooperative vacuum cleaner.

Tiarnan is but eleven months old, but already he wants to help his mother around the house: in fact, he has long wanted to.

This morning, he wanted to vacuum the floor. Now, he has seen the vacuum cleaner in operation, but he has never seen it either plugged in by someone, or turned on: he has only been drawn by the noise of its operation and seen it used, after it has been set up. Therefore, he approached the task not actually knowing how it was done.

The vacuum cleaner has a very discrete design, with no obvious buttons or means of operation, to an untutored eye. He had, therefore, no clues to go on.

He took a hold of the long tube of the cleaner head and held it against the ground, ready for use. He had the correct orientation to the floor and, had it been turned on, it would have vacuumed the floor, so his observation, of what to do, had been good. Then, clearly seeing that the cleaner was not doing anything, he said to it: "Get up!" It was morning, so this was a reasonable instruction to give to a vacuum cleaner. Clearly it was still asleep. "Get up!" he shouted at it, again, as it refused to stir. Again nothing happened and Tiarnan's face was beginning to show frustration. He kept at it a few more minutes, with the occasional cry of: "Get up!" until he finally realized it wasn't going to do anything - and he became almost tearful with frustration.

The moment was too instructive of his relationship to the world for me to intervene, so I just watched how he handled the situation - to have done anything would have been to have spoiled the sweet moment. Next time I will show him how it actually works.

(If you would like to read more of Tiarnan or his gifted brothers, including scientific child prodigy, Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 6:46 PM  0 comments

Thursday, January 04, 2007

On being a father of three

Sigmund Freud came from a large family, with many siblings, as I understand it. He was also, in most eyes, "gifted". How did his parents cope with the demands of so many children, so many conflicting needs? Well, from one perspective, they didn't. They made the conscious decision to focus their attentions on young Sigmund, rather than the others - for they felt that he showed the greatest promise. We will never know what would have happened had they chosen to be more even in their handling of their children - but we do know what happened as a result of their decision: psychoanalysis was born and Sigmund Freud, grew up to be a Great Man.

I am the father of a young boy of seven, showing prodigious gift in science. However, I am also the father of two other sons, each of their own character and gifts. Being a father of three presents me with a smaller scale version of the Freuds' dilemma: how to raise my children? Do I focus my efforts on the one who shows so much promise...or foster the nascent gifts of the others, too, in an even handed way. The Freuds made their choice - and for Sigmund, it was a beneficial one - but at what cost to his siblings: what would they have been with a more even approach to their nurture?

I have observed that many gifted children are only children: their parents focus their attention on them solely, without the need for division of their attention. For the gifted child, this can only enhance their chances of making the best of their gifts. Perhaps, from the point of view of intellectual development, that is the best situation. Yet, a parent of several children cannot give that exclusive focus unless they are, to a degree, cold of heart. All my children are deserving of my fullest attention - yet, by definition full attention can only be bestowed on one person at a time. I observe in each of my children, some special character that deserves a father's fullest regard - yet, they pull me in three directions. So what do I do? I have chosen the even path - and give to each what I can each day. Perhaps if Ainan was my son alone, his mind would be that bit more nourished, his gifts that bit more polished - but I cannot help but feel that I would not give up any of my sons for such a thing. Ainan is one of three, today, perhaps more, another day. To each child I give what I can of my time, my effort - and do not think that any other way would be fair or loving.

Those who have but one child, gifted or not, do not have to make that choice, that division of attention between children. When a second child comes along they will understand this quandary that has no solution - for to be fair in attention, is to sacrifice some degree of the development of the "brightest" child. That cannot be helped, however, if one loves all one's children for themselves.

I will have more children, if I am fortunate, and as my attention becomes ever more divided between them, I will not for a moment doubt my choice. I would rather another child, than a situation in which I had but one to focus on. The house would be more the quieter, but it is not a quietness I would choose. Better the hubbub of many little voices: it is a sound which brings its own happiness - and one that I am quite content to know.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, a scientific child prodigy, and his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks).

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 9:03 PM  2 comments

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Back to School

Today, my eldest son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, a scientific child prodigy, returns to school. We live in a country, Singapore, that makes no provision for such a child and so he is returning to Primary Two - his age group. He will attend classes along with all the other seven year olds. There is something sad about this, for at school he will be "learning" the most basic of things, while at home he busies himself with adult level science material of his own choosing and interests. The mismatch is painful to watch. I have resolved to home school him when that is possible but I have to make the necessary arrangements first - in the meantime, we are legally obliged to let him suffer the dullness of the primary classroom, while he dreams of matters rather more complex.

We have asked his vice-principal about the possibility of acceleration if he passed the relevant exams but were brushed off with: "All teaching must be age appropriate." We were informed that, even if he passed the exams he would not be allowed to enter a senior school, for more appropriate instruction (though looking at his scientific interests that is really not high level enough either).

I do not know what the situation might be in your own country, as you read this...but are there other parents of gifted children who have encountered this problem - of a school system that makes no adjustment for children who have an unusual gift for something or in general?

As a father I feel at a loss that the system should show such inflexibility. The resources are there. There are teachers who teach, labs filled with equipment...but no-one is allowed to transgress the holy rule of "age appropriate instruction". What does this mean, exactly? It means that the government has laid down a set of expectations, indeed requirements, for what will be taught at any given age (in the public education system): no deviation is permitted. I don't know if your country is similar in this drive for uniformity of instruction, but it leads to a situation in which the average person gets a suitable education -but someone who is unusual, in any way, will not, for they will be held to the average demands, made upon them. The result, for any truly gifted child, can only be boredom and frustration - and a restricted development of their gifts.

At the end of Primary Three, I understand there is an effort to recognize the "gifted" - but it is too little, too late, and seems to be designed with too narrow an idea of what giftedness is and should be.

We are left, therefore, as parents who want our child to grow in the way he wishes, to alter our lives in such a way as to make homeschooling possible. That means I will have to do the teaching since I am the only one apart from my son with a scientific background. Either that, or he will have to teach himself (something which he does a lot of, anyway). Clearly, difficult compromises have to be made. In addition, legal hurdles remain to be cleared in a country that doesn't encourage homeschooling and seems to have very few who do so. I don't know how it will all work out, at this moment, but that it has to, is evident. No child should be subjected to an education far below his needs: the result is a kind of slow withering of the mind and will. It is, no doubt, a tragic situation being repeated all over the world, wherever there are gifted children in an education system that doesn't make the necessary effort to make way for them.

There is no tradition of acceleration here in Singapore. Indeed, there are statutory barriers in its way. I see no purpose to such barriers apart from appeasing the majority by enforcing educational conformity. Any country which does this, however, is hampering its own development, by preventing the full development of its brightest. Perhaps the system means well but, for the exceptional few, it is not the most supportive of environments. I think that the rarity of the gifted, in the population, in a country that only has a small population, of four million, has allowed those who make educational policy to be unaware of the needs of such children - and of the benefit to the nation of helping them flourish. Perhaps, one day, they will wake up to the situation and its potential.

(If you would like to read about Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, a scientific child prodigy and his gifted brothers, please go to:
I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 5:45 PM  1 comments

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Tiarnan hails a taxi

Tiarnan is eleven months old. Just after the fireworks display at Marina, we had walked to an area of the city that was not blocked to traffic, where we could get transport home. We had booked two taxis for our party - but Tiarnan couldn't have known that.

Our first taxi was already there when we arrived and so half our party went away in it. The other half included myself, Tiarnan, Ainan, Fintan and my wife. We dutifully waited by the side of the road, for our taxi.

Tiarnan evaluated the situation and, on seeing many taxis in the road passing us by, in the slothful queues of traffic, he raised his arm, waved at them and called: "Taxi! Taxi!" It was sweet to hear his little voice, piercing the night air. I very much doubt that even the most attentive taxi driver would have heard it, but that he called so, was significant enough: the moment made the waiting all the more tolerable. When ignored by the taxis, he continued to hail them and call out. I have a photo of it but am having trouble uploading it: I may have to buy a new cable, so it could be a couple of days or more before it is uploaded.

Our cab never came - so Tiarnan's action proved a wise one: we had to hail a cab to get home.

(If you would like to read more about Tiarnan and his gifted brothers, including Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, a scientific child prodigy, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:08 PM  0 comments

Monday, January 01, 2007

Fireworks at Marina, Singapore

It is a tradition in Singapore for people to gather at Marina to see in the New Year, to the deafening sound of a grand fireworks display. The numbers who gather is staggering. It was standing room only for miles around the centre of the display - how many people that might be, I have no idea, but would be unsurprised if it were measured in hundreds of thousands or more.

Amidst this crowd, my wife and I laboured to keep our family together and not get lost in the crowd. We must have made a comical site: I had a child in each hand, dragging them along through the throng - and Syahidah carried our baby on her chest, while accompanied, one in either hand, by two children of relatives (at times). Most of our fellow revellers were unaccompanied by young children and so we garnered an unfair share of stares.

We had booked a restaurant by the bay, overlooking the lapping water, above which the display would take place. It was an ideal location - for, the oppressive crowd, was kept behind a wall, around the open air area in which we sat. Between us and the water was a wedge of solid people beyond that wall. I was rather thankful that we had thought to book a table in advance, for the restaurant - like ALL the other restaurants on the bay, was totally booked - and had appointed staff to perform the rare task of keeping people out, rather than ushering them in. So, from the comfort of our tables, we were able to wait and watch for the celebrations to begin.

When they did, Fintan was asleep. We tried to wake him, by shaking him a little - but to no avail. Not even the artificial thunder, that was much more than any real thunder could be, of the exploding fireworks in front of us could wake him. He sat there through the first two minutes of the cacophony, tangible shock waves from the explosions passing through his body. I suppose it is reassuring to note that he is such a good sleeper, that not even deafening booms can wake him. Finally, we managed to wake him and he thereafter enjoyed the display.

Tiarnan, who had never seen or heard a firework before, was a little scared. He began the display in his grandfather's arms, but, on noting me, gestured that he wanted to be with me. He huddled to me - and I covered his delicate ears to protect him from the thunderous noise. From his place on my chest, he watched every explosion with intense curiosity, mingled with a little fear.

It was Ainan whose characteristic response amused. Instead of just watching the fireworks, as everyone else in this crowd that seemed to comprise much of the nation of four million did, he cried a word aloud at each bang. What was this word? It was the name of the substance that lent each firework its colour. So there we were, watching the biggest firework display of the year, with Ainan shouting out chemical names to each colourful display. It was hilarious, in a way - so very Ainan.

On our way back, it was notable that there was a sense of camaraderie in this usually quiet people. Hundreds sang, or chanted as one, or seemed to cheer simultaneously at causes unknown. It was however, only the Caucasians who actually spoke to each other. With one inebriated white male shouting Happy New Year to me as I passed beneath the balcony over which he leant. No Singaporean spoke to a stranger, although they were quite prepared to join in singing, or cheering: the safety of the group was more their style, than the reaching out, to and by individuals.

That is how our New Year began. I wish you all well in the coming year - may it be as you wish it to be.

(If you would like to read about my scientific child prodigy son, Ainan Celeste Cawley and his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 2:22 PM  0 comments

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Two celebrations

I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year - and for some of my readers, a Happy Hari Raya Haji (which is today, the 31st December).

May the coming year bring all of you greater happiness - and, I believe more importantly, greater fulfilment (which leads the first, of course).

Best wishes all. We are off to celebrate.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:05 PM  0 comments

Ainan and the molecules that may never be

As I have written before, Ainan Celeste Cawley, my seven year old son, likes to design molecules. Yesterday he approached me with the air of someone about to discuss a delicate matter.

"Daddy, you know I like to make up molecules?"


"There is only one problem with my molecules, though they are new, and they have not been made before...there may be no way to synthesise them. Unless, they are found in nature."

Ainan's molecules were often very complex, quite large molecules of a curiously beautiful design: they were proposed parts of nature, designed by an artist. It would be a pity if Ainan's molecules, which are possible in theory, since they obey the laws of physics and chemistry, could never be constructed, owing to practical limitations of man's synthetic ability.

It was good to see that Ainan was not only thinking of molecules with a purpose and a function - but that he was also thinking of the practicalities of how they might be made. His mind was occupied by both the invented molecule and its synthetic route.

I had to agree with him, though...they might be unsynthesizable, by present means, or at least very difficult to synthesize - unless nature had a hand in it, with its more complex ways.

We did an internet search for some of his molecules - but didn't manage to find them. So, we had original molecules on paper, that might have no real world counterpart, at present, in the modern world. Pretty to look at though.

(If you would like to read more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, my scientific child prodigy son, aged seven years and one month, or his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:21 AM  2 comments

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