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The Boy Genius and the Genius in All of Us A review of The Boy Who Played with Fusion, by Tom Clynes

boy who played with fusion Book-Jacket-copy-199x30In The Boy Who Played with Fusion, Tom Clynes tells a fascinating story about a boy’s pursuit of a passionate interest in nuclear physics, and draws some surprising conclusions about the nature and development of genius-level intelligence. Clynes considers the roles played not only by innate ability and environmental factors such as parenting, teaching, and mentoring, but also by temperament, motivation, culture, and politics.

The Boy Who Played with Fusion chronicles the remarkable childhood and adolescence of physics prodigy Taylor Wilson, now 21 years old. Taylor did his first enormously successful TED Talk at the age of 17, and has already investigated such arcane topics as magnetic confinement fusion, radioactivity, and gamma ray lasers. He has several inventions and patents under his belt, including a specialized particle accelerator that could revolutionize the production of diagnostic pharmaceuticals, at one-thirtieth the cost and one-tenth the floor space of conventional methods; and a portable neutron detector that promises to counter terrorism. He is a young superstar who has attracted attention from Nobel prizewinners, Barack Obama, and the media.

The Boy Who Played with Fusion is also a book about parenting and education in America today. Clynes raises important questions about the nature of genius, and how best to nurture its development. He concludes that parents are the most important catalysts of each child’s intellectual development. “The challenge is to find the outlet that best fits a person’s unique set of interests and characteristics,” he writes. “As a start, give kids lots of exposure to different experiences in their younger years, and pay attention to what they pick up on.” (p. 273) He recommends pulling kids out of school if that’s the best way to give them authentic learning experiences in areas of deep curiosity. He observes that attendance and grades are a lot less important than actual learning, especially in the early years.

Taylor Wilson thrived at the Davidson Academy for highly gifted learners, but his brother Joey, who scores higher than Taylor on intelligence tests, did not. After thinking about this, and talking to a number of gifted education experts, Clynes concluded that gifted education needs to be individualized; a one-size-fits-all gifted program can’t possibly work for everyone. Educators better serve children when they focus on (1) encouraging kids to discover and explore their values, goals, and interests; (2) helping kids develop talents into fulfilling careers that will provide a foundation for a happily productive life; and (3) encouraging the kind of intellectual risk-taking that moves a field’s or a society’s knowledge and practice forward. Specific educational approaches that worked for Taylor at Davidson that Clynes argues should be applied by all educators include individualized learning, targeted acceleration, dual enrolment (high school and university simultaneously), and the acceptance of every kind of diversity.

Amazingly for such an erudite subject, The Boy Who Played with Fusion is a pleasure to read. It’s beautifully written, in an intelligently thoughtful and accessible tone. Clynes enlivens challenging intellectual concepts with personal observations, concerns, and questions. Seamlessly, he weaves into the story informal conversations with all the players in Taylor Wilson’s story, as well as with a wide variety of educational and psychological researchers, including Carol Dweck, David Henry Feldman, Susan Cain, Ellen Winner, Scott Barry Kaufman, Joan Freeman, Barbara Kerr, Dean Keith Simonton,and David Lubinski, among many others. “Take your kids places,” writes Clynes, summarizing the extensive and growing body of evidence that suggests that a lasting capacity for creativity is enhanced by early exposure to unusual and diverse situations. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shapingthe healthy development of brain systems that are important for effective learning and self-regulation, in childhood and beyond.” (p. 75)

Although the subject of this book is extraordinary in many ways, Clynes’s attitude toward talent is not exclusive, elitist, or person-centered. He is aware of the confluence of circumstances required to nurture the development of giftedness and talent, and remarks that “the latest research suggests that nearly everyone has the capacity to achieve extraordinary performance in some mode of expression, if each can discover opportunities in a domain of expertise that allows his or her unique set of personal attributes to shine.” (p. xv)

Clynes makes it clear that talent development is not about money. As Taylor Wilson’s story illustrates, optimal child development experiences do not need to be expensive: “Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualizededucation and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.” (p. 281)

The Boy Who Played with Fusion is an essential contribution to our understanding of the most important underlying questions about the development of giftedness, talent, creativity, and intelligence. It is urgently relevant to every parent, teacher, psychologist, educational administrator, and policy-maker who cares about children’s learning and about the future of our civilization.

For more:

The Boy Who Played with Fusion, by Tom Clynes

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster 

Father Holding Daughter's Hand

Raising Happily Productive Kids in Every Kind of Family The Same Rules Apply Whether You’re Divorced, Single, Gay, or ‘Normal’


Father Holding Daughter's Hand The principles of wise parenting are timeless, and apply across all situations. What works to support children’s optimal development works, whether you’re raising your kids in a traditional family, in the midst of divorce, part of a gay couple, or doing anything else that doesn’t look like ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ Here are ten rules for raising happily productive kids, no matter what kind of family you’re creating.

Yes, alternative family compositions bring unique challenges. Families going through divorce are in a vulnerable and potentially volatile restructuring process. Single parents usually have fewer resources to help them through times of trouble. Gay parents can experience prejudice and criticism, and so can their kids. Adoption brings its own set of challenges. Raising kids across more than one culture or religion can be dicey. But lots of traditional families experience problems too. Abuse happens in every kind of family, as do alcoholism, mental illness, and economic pressures.

Family composition is less important to children’s long-term development than kindness, boundary-setting, and meaningful learning opportunities. A single mother or two gay fathers can provide everything a child needs to become a happily productive adult. Such parents need to find sources of emotional and social support, but so does every other parent, no matter the situation.

I’ll briefly describe some current research on three non-traditional family groupings. Then I’ll outline the ten basic rules for raising happily productive kids, rules that apply to all parents in all kinds of families.

Divorce and child development

As with other changes in a family’s structure, there are many possible effects of divorce on every aspect of a child’s development. Kids can become depressed, suicidal, or angry. They can become antisocial or excessively social. They can become mistrustful of close relationships, or hypersexual. Their grades might plummet, or the child might throw himself into schoolwork to the exclusion of everything else. Kids can develop eating disorders or any number of other psychological problems.

None of these effects is inevitable. In fact, the preponderance of current research shows that most children are beginning to function reasonably well within two years after their parents’ divorce. How the parents handle the divorce makes a big difference in how well children get through it, very much including the support the children get in navigating the inevitable period of disruption.

Divorce can actually bring benefits to children, especially those whose pre-divorce experience included fear, chaos, unpredictability, or abuse. Children can begin to thrive when one or both parents create home environments that are calmer and more dependable. Children who feel loved and supported through the divorce process and whose parents negotiate custody amicably can become more competent and capable. When one or both parents move on to create fulfilling lives for themselves, divorce can help children learn about coping with changes and setbacks in their own lives.

Single-parent families

It’s normal for single parents to experience a sense of overload at least some of the time. They struggle to find enough time, energy, and money to do everything that needs doing. Regardless of the financial situation, it can feel overwhelming when there’s no other adult with whom to share the joys and worries of parenting, as well as the daily tasks of life—shopping, cooking, reading bedtime stories, cleaning, taking kids to appointments, and all the rest of it.

Single parents do best when they develop networks of social support. Friends and relatives who care about the children can ease the burden, as well as providing alternative role models and adult confidants for the children.

Single parents need to pay attention to their own physical, intellectual, and social needs if they’re to do the best possible job with their kids. This is no more or less true for single parents than others, but it can be harder to make it happen when there’s just one adult trying to handle all the tasks of the household.

Same-sex parenting

Same-sex parenting has been controversial for some time, but as the research accumulates, it becomes increasingly clear that gay couples can raise kids just as well as other couples. Researchers at Columbia Law School have launched a project that pulls together all the peer-reviewed studies in this area. They’ve concluded that, in general, kids with gay parents do just as well as others.

Depending on where they live, the children of same-sex parents can experience social pressures that other kids don’t. They can be subject to bullying and prejudice similar to that experienced by mixed-race families in previous years (and in some communities still). There is an additional stressor placed on same-sex parents to ensure their kids feel safe, confident, and well-informed, but at the end of the day, the same factors that apply in situations of divorce, single parenting, and adoption apply in families where there are two parents of the same sex: love, support, and guidance make a much bigger difference than who’s doing the parenting.

Raising Happily Productive Kids: Ten Basic Rules that Apply in Every Kind of Family

  1. Practice loving attunement. Parents in non-traditional circumstances who realize the power of being present to their kids—patient, loving, engaged—are well on their way to overcoming any obstacles their family structure might entail. As frequently as you can through the day, make time to listen to your children, with love.
  2. Set and enforce dependable rules. Kids need reliable boundaries in order to feel safe. This is particularly important in alternative family situations where social and cultural norms don’t apply, and parents are tempted to break the rules in order to compensate for extra challenges they feel they’re imposing on their kids.
  3. Play. Free play nourishes children’s curiosity, self-awareness, and imagination. It also strengthens self-regulation, autonomy, decision-making, conflict resolution, and friendship skills.
  4. Hug a tree. Spending time in nature—even urban nature—reduces stress, increases optimism, improves health, stimulates the senses, frees the spirit, and enhances creativity. It also improves attention and focus, thereby increasing academic and other kinds of achievement.
  5. Discover enthusiasms. Help your kids engage in exploration and discovery activities in as many different areas as possible. Support them in developing their curiosities into passions.
  6. Daydream. The restful neural processing that occurs in daydreaming is essential to self-discovery and self-actualization. Busy kids need downtime in order to replenish their spirits and find their creative wellspring.
  7. Breathe. Mindful breathing helps kids manage stress, sleep soundly, and focus their attention. Mindful breathing helps them concentrate on tests and exams, and cope with challenging situations.
  8. Welcome setbacks. Teach your kids the importance of hard work, persistence, and patience. A growth mindset—welcoming setbacks as learning opportunities—leads to well-being and productivity in every area of life.
  9. Turn it off!  Most kids are spending way too much time on electronic devices. By limiting screen time, you’ll free up time for outdoor exploration, unstructured play, daydreaming, and self-discovery.
  10. Be grateful. People who actively appreciate what’s good in their lives feel better, happier, more energetic, more optimistic, and are more empathetic than those who feel entitled.

These ten parenting practices can help your children thrive, no matter your family structure. Temperament and other personality factors can also contribute to how well an individual child manages alternative parenting situations. Those with growth mindsets and positive attitudes to problem-solving do better at coping than those with fixed mindsets or dependent personalities. And those who seek and receive social support are more resilient than those who feel they can sort out their own problems.

If you follow these ten basic rules, you’re supporting your kids in making happily productive lives for themselves, both now and in the future.

For more on these ideas:

 Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

‘Optimal Development across the Life Span,’ by Dona Matthews in The Creativity Post

‘26 Simple Gifts to Last Forever: An Alphabet List of Inexpensive Holiday Treasures for Children,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Play, Run, Skip: Physically active children are smarter, happier, and healthier,’ by Dona Matthews 

‘Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,’ by Rebecca McMillan, Jerome Singer, and Scott Barry Kaufman)

The Science of Raising Happily Productive Kids,’ a podcast with Dona Matthews, by Scott Barry Kaufman

Is Divorce Bad for Children?Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld Scientific American

‘The Challenges of Single Parenthood,’ Healthy Children

‘Single Parenting and Today’s Family,’ American Psychological Association Help Center

 ‘Single Parent? Tips for Raising a Child Alone,’ by Mayo Clinic Staff

‘What We Know—Really—About Lesbian and Gay Parenting,’ by Nathaniel Frank

‘What Does the Scholarly Research Say about the Wellbeing of Children with Gay or Lesbian Parents?’ by the Public Policy Portal of the Columbia University Law School