What kind of adults do precocious children make?

James Harvey Punch thinks about his word at the State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo earlier this ...

James Harvey Punch thinks about his word at the State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo earlier this month. Photo: Janie Barrett

I am a good reader. I know what lots of long words mean. Words that you wouldn't necessarily expect me to know, I do, in fact, know. And I can read pretty quickly, too. Because, as I mentioned, I am a good reader.

At one point in my life, it would have been extremely important to me that you knew what an excellent reader I was. I was reminded of this last week, when I attended the final of the NSW Premier's Spelling Bee and ran into Barbara Ryan, one of my old kindergarten teachers from North Sydney Demonstration School who now teaches at St Ives North.

After we figured out the connection, she recounted a story that has had me laughing and wincing ever since. Apparently when I arrived at kindy, she gave me a standard-issue reader, and asked me whether I read books.

The State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo earlier this month.

The State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo earlier this month. Photo: Janie Barrett

My reply was "I don't read books, I read encyclopaedias."


Yes, apparently that really happened.

Now, there are several things wrong with this. Firstly, clearly, that was utter bollocks. If anything, I occasionally read encyclopaedias alongside books. Books undoubtedly made up by far the majority of my reading diet. I probably glanced at an encyclopaedia once and wanted to boast.

It's also possible I'd been reading Encyclopaedia Brown and thought, incorrectly, that he was a heaps cool role model. Being a guy who was such a know-it-all that he was nicknamed ‘encyclopaedia’.

The broader problem here, of course, is what an arrogant little brat I must have been. While five-year-olds generally get a lot of latitude for cuteness, that is a monstrous little ego on display right there. If I was like that, it's no surprise that the odd bully decided to try to take me down a peg in later primary school years. Frankly, I can see their point.

Of course, anyone who needs to constantly and abrasively assert how smart they are hasn't managed to learn much about how society works. Anyone who's a bona fide genius presumably learns how to dial it down so that the rest of us normal folk don't openly despise them.

Clearly, though, at five I wanted people to think I was precocious so badly that the more important question of whether they thought I was a massive pain in the neck mattered relatively little to me.

What would no doubt have shocked the five-year-old me, though, is that the "good reader" concept is one that really doesn't have much currency beyond primary school. When you're growing up, you're constantly being benchmarked against everyone else who's the same age in events like the MS Readathon. Which I totally crushed, by the way - and, I regret to say, not out of a desire to advance research into a debilitating condition.

But, as I wish I could go back and tell my infant self, after the HSC, that benchmarking thing never happens again. Once you achieve adulthood, you're competing for actual achievements.

That is, if you're competing at all - in itself a fairly pointless and self-defeating exercise, in many respects.

Here's the thing I didn't quite realise - nearly everybody learns to read. Some struggle to achieve literacy in adulthood, which is most unfortunate, but the reality is that the ability to read an encyclopaedia is nothing special in the long term.

What I didn't realise about being precocious, as I so desperately hoped I was, is that it means you have a lead in a race where the only thing that really matters is getting there in the end. It’s like those early leaders in the Melbourne Cup who often fade away - there’s no prize for being the first after 500 metres.

Perhaps I could write stories with long words in them at age eight, but when you're an adult, all that matters is whether the stories you write are any good. And that's a far more difficult, and far more important challenge.

I see some of my friends with young children falling into the same trap of valuing precociousness. Some toddlers can speak in complete sentences remarkably early, but only very few of us never gain the ability to do that. Some kids grow big quickly, some can walk before others. And I know other parents who worry because their own children are behind others in their childcare group with things like toilet training. Well, we have plenty of years of being able to use the toilet by ourselves, and then most of us end up in nappies again in the end anyway.

Being supposedly ahead of the curve can also create extreme, unhelpful pressure ahead of things like the HSC. And being good at school, doesn't necessarily mean you're good at dealing with stress. Some people I know who've been successful in adulthood were precocious at school, but many weren't. And many early, bright stars fade out. I wish I'd known in my own schooldays that 'success' has many definitions, and that achieving happiness on your own terms is a more worthwhile goal than ticking off things that society tells you are important.

For the record, I no longer read encyclopaedias. And of course, in 2013, encyclopaedias have been superseded, and I can tell you that five-year-old Dom never saw that coming in any of his fancy long-worded books.

I do, however, read for pleasure nowadays. And if I see a word I don't understand, I look it up in a dictionary, and draw no conclusions about my own cleverness from the size of my vocabulary.

And when I attend an event like the NSW Premier's Spelling Bee, and it occurs to me that I might have done well at it because I was a good speller back in primary school, I try to slap what remains of my five-year-old ego down, and tell myself that in an era where everybody types on machines with inbuilt spellchecking, one's spelling ability is of extremely limited use.

What ultimately matters in life is which words you choose, and what you try to accomplish with them, not how long they are, or whether they’re spelled correctly. And that’s something you won’t learn in an e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-a-e-d-i-a.


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  • My son, at 4.5 years is IMO pretty good at building with lego and other construction based toys. One of our friends saw his creations the other day and said, “Aren’t you a little genius.”
    “Daddy I’m a little genius.”

    We do our best to encourage him whilst steering him away from being too precocious; as a former smarty brat myself I’d like to steer him away from that path if possible.

    Slim Jim
    Date and time
    November 15, 2013, 10:20AM
    • Dom, what a totally reassuring article! You've managed to help us all to think about re-focusing our parenting onto the things that matter. In our family that's the 3 R's: Responsibility, Resilience and Respect.

      Phil J.
      Date and time
      November 15, 2013, 11:08AM
      • I love your family's core values expressed as the Three R's. What the world needs more than ever is responsibility, resilience, and respect.

        As one of the precocious brats the author writes about, I can attest to how utterly useless it is to be ahead of the bell curve at an early age.

        Reading dictionaries, encyclopaedia and Thomas Hardy in primary school, rote-learning greek and latin roots during the school holidays, and being quick to finish multiple-choice exams means nothing. They are the tricks of a trained monkey who performs to garner the reflected glory for frustrated narcissistic parents, who encourage the brat with not a thought for equipping the child with tools for navigating life successfully.

        Concrete knowledge is such a tiny (culture-bound) part of overall intelligence. So-called 'fluid intelligence' - the stuff of planning, problem-solving, abstract thinking, managing in novel situations - is the real tool for a successful life.

        "Bright" or "exceptional" kids too often end up as cautionary tales rather than inspirational role models. I'd rather have been the tortoise than the hare (do people know Aesop's Fables anymore???)

        Date and time
        November 15, 2013, 12:39PM
    • I relate to this article. Perhaps its a little too close for comfort. Unlike the author I did read encyclopedia's, but unlike the author I never bragged about it. However, my parents and grandparents were incredibly proud that, where others kids would be in the park playing, I'd prefer to be reading my World Book encyclopedia. Luckily, this did not have a negative impact on my social skills either. However, my general knowledge and above average IQ lead to complacency. I felt obliged to pursue a life course that used my intellect rather than make money. Now I am almost 50 and have been struggling financially my whole life, and doubtful that things will get better before my time is up. For any parents with precocious kids, by all means encourage them, praise them, but make sure they understand that talent alone is not enough to get them wherever it is they want to be....

      all bark no bite
      Date and time
      November 15, 2013, 11:14AM
      • A girl I went to school with - easily the smartest girl in our grade - quit two bachelor degrees halfway through and has now commenced her third. She's one of my best friends.

        My other friends and I often marvel at how, this girl who we thought would be the most successful of all of us, can't seem to commit to anything or choose a direction for her life.

        Not that this doesn't mean she won't eventually be successful, I think she will. But the point, like this article articulates, its only a race if you make it one. She's not competing against anyone and at the end of the day, what defines "successful" she seems happy so that's all that matters.

        My nieces bring me a lot of satisfaction. But when I am around them I choose to give praise for being productive or thinking critically. I won't say "aren't you smart" or "such a genius" instead I will see "I'm really proud of how you thought that through" or "thank you for cleaning up after yourself".

        Thanks for sharing this article I really enjoyed it Dom.

        Date and time
        November 15, 2013, 11:15AM
        • I used to read over my kindergarten teacher's shoulder and berate her for reading too slowly. Also used to read Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedias and Guinness Book of Records. For fun.

          Now that I know I'm not the only one, I think we should start a support group!

          Virgin Queen
          Ivory Tower
          Date and time
          November 15, 2013, 11:23AM
          • I found school and traditional learning a cake-walk, and only in adulthood do I sit back in awe of those who struggled through with such tenacity. I can't really recall anything I didn't 'get', just my preference for certain subjects over others. I proceeded to drop out of university because I was living away from home and found the lack of structure unsuited to learning (for me). I'm doing well though, so no harm done.

            I prescribe to the theory that kids aren't that special; after all, where did all us average adults come from? As a non-parent, I can also tell you with some perspective that EVERY parent or carer I have ever met is adamant that their protege is above average at something. They all share developmental benchmarks and how further advanced their offspring are to his/her peers, apparently oblivious to the fact you hear the same things from every other parent.

            Planet Earth
            Date and time
            November 15, 2013, 11:38AM
            • "I prescribe to the theory that kids... "

              Sorry to be pedantic but it's; 'subscribe to the theory' - so I guess there's one you didn't get...

              Couldn't Resist
              Date and time
              November 15, 2013, 2:38PM
          • When I was little I was a little girl, I was always right. I knew all there was to know. Adults found me 'precocious' and cutely annoying. When I grew to be a big girl, my friends thought me the font of knowledge and would call me up to settle arguments. Waaay before the internet came along to prove me wrong were my answers accepted as 'she said so, so it must be right'. Now I am older I can tell you being precocious is a pain in the butt. I have no friends. My family only ever talk to me when they want to know something, or how to talk to a lawyer, whatever. If I do have conversations with people I invariably come across as 'up there with the birds' and not on their level. Difficult to be 'normal' when you always grew up thinking knowledge was important and people needed to know that I knew. They call it Asperger's or Autistic these days, not precocious. I just think I like to learn things, that's all.

            Little girl lost
            Date and time
            November 15, 2013, 12:12PM
            • The trick is not to correct people where you could embarrass them. So if you hear them say silly things like: 'McDonalds use pickles, so they aren't classified as confectionery' or 'It's just stamped 'Made in Australia' because that's the company name. Don't vehemently correct them, just give a shrug and say 'I'm not too sure about that, but if that's what you've heard'.

              Personal relationships are emotional. Don't destroy them with being rational over a silly discussion.

              Date and time
              November 15, 2013, 1:01PM

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