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Are Gifted Children Born or Made?


Some say given enough time, money and instruction, any child can develop a special expertise. Others, however, insist gifted children are born, not made.

A rage to master

GavenLargent, 13, has been playing music for five years. He started with guitar lessons at age eight, but not long after, he quit - not making music, just taking lessons. "I wasn't learning anything," he says. "I was just playing those notes on the paper; it was boring."

"Gaven became frustrated that it was sheet music and he was only playing the notes on the music," his mother Melissa says. "He wanted to fill it in and make it more."

She says they knew when he was nine or 10 that music would be his focus. "It became an obsession for him to figure out the sounds that he heard on a CD or the radio or live music."

That obsession is one of the trademarks of a gifted child, or prodigy, according to developmental psychologist Ellen Winner, who teaches at Boston College. "I say they have a rage to master. It is difficult to tear them away from the area in which they have high ability."

Looking back as former child prodigies

Julian Lage, who is now 21, remembers playing guitar for hours as a child."You wake up and you eat and you play music and you sleep."

Lage, who recently released his first CD, Sounding Point, started playing guitar at five. A few years later, he was the subject of a documentary film, Jules at Eight. Still, the title "child prodigy" was something he never felt he could relate to.

"Younger musicians, my contemporaries who have been called child prodigies, they feel slighted because it does undermine the work ethic, the thousands of hours you put in just to be able to produce a sound on your instrument."

That is a sentiment echoed by Rasta Thomas, 27, who was also labeled a prodigy. He made dance history as a teenager, winning the Gold Medal in the Senior Men's Division of the prestigious Jackson, MS USA-IBC at the age of 14. He now headlines his own dance company, Bad Boys of Dance. "I think if you give any seven-year-old the training I had, you will get a product that is at the top of its game," Thomas says. "I have had hours and hours and a million dollars invested into the training that I received."

Enabling talent to flower

But Winner, the author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, disagrees. "You can't make a gifted child out of any child." Winner says prodigies are born with natural talent, but she does believe they "need to be enabled in order to have their ability flower."

Both Julian Lage, who played with vibraphonist Gary Burton at age 12, and Rasta Thomas, who studied at the Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington, say they had that support.

But the success that both Lage and Thomas enjoy today as adults is due to much more. Winner says studies have shown that most music prodigies are unheard of as adults. "The gift of being a child prodigy is very different from the gift of being an adult creator," she says. "To be an adult creator means you have to do something new, which means taking a risk."

Both Lage and Thomas took that creative risk early, composing and choreographing while they were still in their teens. Gaven Largent is headed in that direction as well. "I do write," he says. "I haven't written too many songs with lyrics, but that's something I'd like to work on." Right now, he adds, he is working on a gospel song.

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