Freeze Frame: excerpted from Chapter 4: Human Lifespan Development in Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives by Paul Okami
This is Gregory Robert Smith at age nine going on ten. He may look cute, but he’s not playing around at the podium. He’s preparing to deliver an address to the 1999 senior class at Orange Park High School in Orange Park, Florida, where he is graduating with an A-plus average. Four years after this photo was taken, at age 13, Gregory received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Randolph-Macon College. He then went on to doctoral studies in mathematics at the University of Virginia. This would be the first of three doctorates he expected to earn over the coming years. If this weren’t enough, he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize three times for his work on behalf of child victims of war, violence, and poverty. Oh, yes, and he plays football pretty well. Among his plans is to become President of the United States (CBS News, 2009).
As you might suspect, Gregory displayed unusual characteristics from an early age. He spoke his first word at age three months (“dada”), could recite memorized books before the age of one year, and began to read to himself shortly thereafter. By the age of two he was correcting grammatical errors made by adults in his presence. Greg was equally talented in mathematics. He began solving basic arithmetic problems at the age of 14 months, and by age six, he was seriously annoying his school teachers and administrators by flagging errors in his math textbooks with Post-It notes. He skipped from second to ninth grade within a year and finished the rest of his high schooling in two years.
Greg’s precocity was not limited to academic matters—it also extended to moral issues, a tendency often noted in children with exceptionally high IQs (Winner, 1996). At the age of nine, in response to his increasing distress as he learned about the plight of child victims of violence and poverty, he founded organizations called the World Children Awards, dedicated to addressing the needs and rights of children throughout the world; and International Youth Advocates, which promotes principles of peace and understanding among young people throughout the world.
Greg Smith is an unusually extreme example of what has been termed “profoundly gifted” child development. Exceptional children such as Greg Smith are often “spellbinding” to the rest of us (Ruthsatz & Detterman, 2003, p. 510; Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011). They do not merely fascinate—they may actually elicit awe or even reverence, and it is not unknown for religious practices to be built on their shoulders. On the other hand, the abilities of these children may equally elicit cynicism, envy, or outright hostility.
Greg Smith’s abilities seem to stretch the limits of what is normally considered possible for an infant and child to attain. However, research in the field of human life-span development is providing increasing evidence that the abilities of ordinary infants and children in general have been greatly underestimated in the past. This research is painting a portrait of the human infant as emerging into the world with numerous previously unsuspected competencies already in place, or at least primed to develop in short order.