How to raise a two-year-old genius

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Pete and Ilona Pretorius suspected from an early age that their son, James, was special, particularly when he came home from his first day of kindergarten.

"Mom, Dad, I think I'm in the wrong class," he said. "Why?" his parents wanted to know.

"Because the teacher and I are the only ones who can read," he told them.

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The Pretoriuses, who live in Surrey, B.C., recount such stories with pride and a fair degree of amazement. The same sorts of stories will surely be told by the parents of Elise Tan Roberts, who last week made headlines around the world for becoming the youngest member ever of Mensa in Britain. With an IQ of 156, the two-year-old girl tested just below Albert Einstein, who had an IQ of 160. She joins such wunderkinds as Georgia Brown, who joined British Mensa in 2007 at 2¾ years old with an IQ of 152, and Mikhail Ali, who joined in 2005 at three years old with an IQ of 137.

Earlier this year, Pranav Veera, a six-year-old boy in Ohio, was reported to have an IQ of 176.

While their stories make all those parents who have helped Baby Einstein videos fly off the shelves green with envy, experts and parents of gifted children say raising them is often extremely difficult.

"It's the biggest challenge in the world," says Susan Jackson, founder of the Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted, an organization in White Rock, B.C., devoted to supporting individuals with exceptional abilities.

Giftedness has traditionally been defined as having an IQ of 130 or more. (The average IQ ranges from 90 to 109.) But in recent years the definition has expanded to include children whose gifts may be different than those of abstract reasoning, the trait most often caught by IQ tests. Experts now agree that a gifted child is someone who "has potential in one or more areas of human capacity placing him or her in the top 2 to 5 per cent of children the same age," Ms. Jackson says.

Push a gifted child too far and there is a risk of burn out. Don't push them far enough and boredom sets in. Either one can see gifted children turn their backs on their possibilities.

"The field of giftedness and talent development is full of people who were identified as extraordinary as little kids and who just sort of opted out," says Dona Matthews, an educational psychologist and co-author of Being Smart About Gifted Children.

Often, experts say, problems arise when gifted children begin school. Not only do they face the risk of stagnating in the classroom, but they may also have a difficult time making friends since it is often hard to find any true peers.

"Alienation is a real problem," Dr. Matthews says.

It is true not just of the children themselves but also their parents, who often clash with educators and other parents. "It's almost like you're a leper," says the mother of a gifted 11-year-old in Vancouver who asked to remain anonymous for fear of aggravating continuing animosities with the local school. "You don't fit in with the parents, your kid doesn't fit in with the other kids."

Otto Schmidt, president of the Toronto-based Educators of the Gifted Organization, tutors several highly gifted children. "I'm usually called in times of great desperation, strife and tension," he says. "The words I hear are, 'Help, I've got a gifted kid and that kid is totally frustrated, doesn't know what to do.' "

At the same time parents of gifted children work to keep them intellectually engaged, there is also the issue of trying to make sure they get to be, well, kids.

"It is a challenge for a parent to find a way to accommodate the cognitive advancement at the same time as they address the social and emotional needs which typically are more age-normal," Dr. Matthews says.

Indeed, there can be a major emotional range from one day to the next when it comes to gifted children.

"You're sitting with a little person in a 10-year-old's body who sometimes has the emotions of a six-year-old and sometimes a teenager, and sometimes he's a grown-up and you have to be ready to visit with any one of them," says Mrs. Pretorius, a systems analyst for ERP implementation.

The Pretoriuses had James undergo a psychometric evaluation before he entered kindergarten. Since James had not learned to write by then, he was only able to complete the verbal portion of the test. On that portion alone, he proved to have an IQ of 158.

For his parents, encouraging James, who is now 10, to pursue his interests has meant doing homework of their own. "Last year, he was very interested in World War II. So Pete and I had to study up on World War II to try and keep up with the conversation," Mrs. Pretorius says.

"He was asking questions at the level of an adviser to Churchill," says Mr. Pretorius, a mechanical engineer.

Like many gifted children, James's intellectual abilities have often made it difficult for him to strike up friendships.

"At school, especially initially, he would ignore his peers," Mr. Pretorius says. "He just knew they couldn't converse with him. He would run up to the teacher and start talking away about black holes and physics and stuff. The teacher would look at him like, 'Wow. Go play.' He had a hard time finding a real friend."

Since then, however, he has made a handful of friends - including a girl he bonded with over Star Wars and several friends with whom he plays RuneScape, an online adventure game.

The Pretoriuses have also enrolled James in tae kwon do for the past two years. Experts say physical activity helps balance a gifted child's overactive mind. And it's one more opportunity to socialize with kids his age and in class in which he is no more advanced than others.

Of course, while the Pretoriuses want James to be a happy, healthy child, they also want to expose him to every opportunity to pursue his intellectual curiosities.

There is, however, one caveat, especially for a kid who can cut other 10-year-olds and even many adults down to size with his off-the-charts smarts.

"There's one thing I actually told him very early on, and I tied it into the whole Star Wars thing," Mr. Pretorius says. "I said, 'Use your power for good, not for evil.' "

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Put to the test

While a child psychologist used the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale test - designed to assess intelligence in verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and abstract and visual reasoning - to measure Elise Tan Roberts, testing children that young is difficult, says Dan Hoch, gifted children co-ordinator at Mensa Canada.

School boards that test for giftedness likely use what's known as the Canadian cognitive abilities test, which is not language-dependent, he says. "It's comprised of a lot of symbols. The kids will have to look at a sequence of symbols and pick out the one that would come in the next position."

Many schools in Canada, however, opt not to test for giftedness. "There's the school of thought that testing kids who are under eight or nine years of age, the results really aren't going to be reliable," Mr. Hoch says.

Mensa Canada only administers its test to individuals 14 years old or older.

Dave McGinn

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Where are they now?

Michael Kearney

Claim to fame In 1995, Mr. Kearney, who was born in Hawaii, entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest university graduate ever. He was 10 years old.

Where is he now? Living in Alaska with his family and no doubt enjoying his game-show money: In October, 2006, he won $100,000 (U.S.) on the quiz show Gold Rush. The following month he won the grand prize of $1-million. Last year he was a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He won $25,000.

Sufiah Yusof

Claim to fame Ms. Yusof was just 13 years old in 1997 when she was admitted to Oxford, where she studied math.

Where is she now? Having complained in 2001 that her father made her life a "living hell" by making her follow his accelerated learning techniques, it was discovered last year that she was working as a prostitute in Britain.

Chris Butcher

Claim to fame Began his first degree in computer science when he was just 10 years old.

Where is he now? Mr. Butcher, 31, lives in Seattle and works as a computer engineer. In 2007 he was hired by Microsoft to work as the lead engineer on Halo 3, one of the most popular video games in the world.

Dave McGinn