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Education Matters

How a Child Can be a Genius

August 26th, 2010

By: Dr. Dennis Garlick, PhD

Albert Einstein, Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates…

You don’t have to be a genius to know what these famous names have in common. Many parents want their children to be geniuses. But what determines genius?

Social commentator Malcom Gladwell has described how circumstances can be important. In the case of scientific breakthroughs, technology might have progressed to the point that a breakthrough is inevitable. Scientists are then racing to apply the technology to achieve the breakthrough. This suggests that genius might sometimes be being in the right place at the right time. However, often many people are in the right place at the right time. Why do some still stand out? What separates these people from the crowd?

Practice makes Perfect?

Massive amounts of practice have been identified as another contributing factor.  While “practice makes perfect” seems like a no-brainer concept in parenting, the amount of practice that some high achievers undertake is quite staggering. For instance, it is estimated that professional violinists will have practiced up to 10,000 hours by the time they reach adulthood. This is a massive amount! Consider how many hours per week you would need to practice to rack up 10,000 hours by adulthood. If you practiced for 2 hours a week every week for 10 years, you would only have accrued 1,000 hours of practice. To accumulate 10,000 hours of practice, professional violinists can practice up to 30 hours per week over the course of several years. Think of this the next time you listen to a professional violinist!

But what about fields where “practice” isn’t like playing an instrument. What about people like Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft? Gladwell notes that Gates’ success was due to his exceptional programming ability. Gates was also special in that he had the opportunity to gain programming experience on a mainframe computer while still in high school. At the time, this was very rare. Gates literally spent hours programming every night and every weekend, such that he had racked up 10,000 hours of programming experience by the time he graduated from high school. According to Gladwell, this huge amount of practice is what made Gates such an exceptional programmer.

However, there is something missing from the “practice” argument. The reality is that 10,000 hours of practice is not that impressive for computer programming. Consider the amount of practice or experience that one would get in a typical job; 40 hours per week x 50 weeks per year x 5 years = 10,000 hours. This line of thinking would seem to be arguing that anyone who has been a full-time programmer for 5 years has the same programming ability as Bill Gates!  Gates goes on to attribute his own success to “… better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time…” So Gates was not just saying that 10,000 hours of experience was important. The age at which it occurred was also important!

The Sensitive Period

Indeed, all of the geniuses identified at the start of this article have in common that they were interested in their field when young. They were often even obsessed by it. Would they have been the same geniuses if they had only taken an interest in their relevant domain as an adult? There is now extensive evidence from both brain science and psychology that they would not have been.

Research has found that the child’s brain differs from the adult brain in its ability to learn. One obvious example of this is language, where it has been observed that children can learn language more easily than adults. However, recent evidence from brain science and psychology suggests that the “sensitive period” applies to much more than just language.

Childhood experience can be crucial for learning abstractions from many different domains. These abstractions enable knowledge to be transferred from one situation to another, enabling successful performance through understanding rather than relying on rote memory. A child who understands a domain knows what the best response is, rather than needing trial and error to try and discover the best response.

What Parents Can Do

What does this mean for parents? It means that you need to emphasize to your child just how important their childhood years are. If they want to succeed in a domain, then experience with the domain in childhood could give them an advantage relative to other children. Indeed, recent scientific evidence suggests that just a small amount of experience in childhood could make a domain easier than many years of experience in the same domain in adulthood. This is a crucial message that all parents should pass on to their children.


Dennis Garlick received his Ph.D. in psychology in 2003 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. His new book, “Intelligence and the Brain: Solving the Mystery of Why People Differ in IQ and How a Child Can Be a Genius” has been lauded as a major scientific advance, finally providing a convincing explanation of how the brain works and why people differ in IQ. He is also available for speaking and consulting. More details about his book and his contact details are available at


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