Starting young

Child prodigies are children first, geniuses later

In Roald Dahl's Matilda, readers are meant to marvel at a tiny three-year-old who reads Les Miserables and can move objects through sheer force of mind. It turns out fact can beat fiction. At two years and five months, Adam Kirby, a toddler in Britain, is the youngest boy ever to become a member of Mensa, though not the youngest person that distinction belongs to Elise Tan Roberts, who was two years and four months when she joined. Young Adam, said to be smarter than both Barack Obama and David Cameron, reads Shakespeare, understands Japanese and knows his tables.

Prodigious toddlers are quite the dernier cri again. Three-year-old Alice has an IQ that rivals Stephen Hawkins's, five-year-old Gus taught himself to read on the toilet and three-year-old Arnav does complicated world map puzzles. In Britain, prodigy spotting has become a national sport, with Channel 4 airing a Mensa contest show titled Child Genius . The IQ test that determines entry into the hallowed Mensa was originally known as the Binet-Simon scale, formulated in the early 20th century, after the French government passed laws making it compulsory for all children to go to school. The test was meant to judge which children would have more trouble with learning. It ended up creating a fetish for genius. Child prodigies were paraded before an admiring public, who saw them either as prophets of a brave new world or curiosities who belonged in Ripley's "Believe It or Not!". But the prodigies of the last century mostly faded away, choosing to become recluses, or ignored once their feats were not spectacular enough.

Binet himself had pointed to the limitations of his test, saying intelligence was too complex to be pinned down to a single number. So while nothing is more captivating than a number-crunching two-year-old, parents and audiences should remember she's a toddler first and a genius later.

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