How Young Is too Young to Start Studying?

Like most 3-year-olds, Adrian loves to swing, eat ice cream, ride his toy car and watch videos, but there's something Adrian does that most other 3-year-olds don't — he can reel off the names of the 50 U.S. state capitals and he also knows the capitals of more than 100 countries.

The television show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" challenges adults to match wits with grade schoolers. Well, forget fifth-graders. Are you smarter than a 3-year-old? Many adults probably wouldn't be able to answer the questions that Adrian's father, Manny Aivaliotis, throws at his son.

Aivaliotis: "Hey Adrian, what's the capital of Argentina?"
Adrian: "Buenos Aires."
Aivaliotis: "What about the Bahamas?"
Adrian: "Nassau."
Aivaliotis: "Canada?"
Adrian: "Ottawa."

Lilly Gaskin, who just turned 2 last month, is not old enough to really talk yet, but she knows where more than 78 countries are located on a map. Ask her where Malaysia or Ghana is and she'll point it out with her finger. She started doing this at 16 months.

James Gaskin, Lilly's father, says his daughter blows people away with this skill. "They think it'll stop after about three countries," he said, "and then it goes and goes. And 10 minutes later, she's still going and they're tired. Yeah, it blows 'em away. It blows us away."

Keeping Up With the Kids

Lilly certainly blew away Rachael Ray's studio audience when she recently made her national television debut. So do Lilly's parents use the G word to describe their daughter?

"Our little genius?" said Gaskin. "Yeah. She's just really smart."

Gaskin and his wife, Nikki, worry about their responsibility as parents to offer Lilly the best education possible. "I think it's going to be very difficult to keep up with her," said Gaskin.

This was also a point reiterated by Adrian's mother, Carrie Aivaliotis. "I kind of feel a pressure to see what we need to do for him to make sure he's not bored or getting into trouble. People warned us if he knows everything already for the first few grades, he's gonna be a discipline problem because he's not gonna be learning anything," she said."

Really gifted children fascinate us. How can someone so young know so much? Their feats of memory are huge hits on the Internet and a staple of TV talk shows. Abby Julo has been on the TV circuit since she was 3. She's been a guest on "The Tonight Show" four times, where she loves to talk about her passion: politics.

Jay Leno: "Abby, how many states did it take to ratify the Constitution?"
Then-4-year-old Abby: "Nine. Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina and New Hampshire!"

Abby's also been on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, not once, but three times. Now, at the ripe old age of 8, Abby is something of the grand dame of child prodigies.

Abby can name every U.S. president, in order, in less than a minute. "20/20" took her to the president's room at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in New York City. She was so inspired that she recited, by heart, President Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address from start to finish.

"My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country…"

'Wired to Learn'

So are these kids really geniuses? Certainly what Abby and Lily and Adrian do is unusual. Most of us can't do it, but just how remarkable is this?

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, who studies child development, says memorization is not a sign of genius."Children come wired to make these associations to learn," Dweck said.

Dweck, the author of "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," agrees that the kinds of memory skills demonstrated by these kids are impressive and unusual.

Dweck cautioned though that "it's not what you would call a prodigy. A prodigy is someone who has a deep precocious understanding of something — of numbers, words, music. They think in new ways, invent things."

A true prodigy is someone like Picasso or Mozart who was composing by age 5, or Tiger Woods who shot a 48 on a nine-hole course by the age of 2.

Don't worry, though, if your 2-year-old isn't showing signs of being a prodigy, says Dweck. And parents certainly don't need to tap into the $3.5 billion educational toy industry to make their youngsters smarter.

"We don't know who the future geniuses are," said Dweck. "Edison was not a genius as a boy. His passion made him a genius. Even Einstein wasn't a genius as a child. It's true — he was rather slow. People worried about him. But he had this passion for learning. He made himself into a genius."

It's funny to imagine that Einstein as a child may not have been able to successfully master all the Baby Einstein games named after him!

Proper Parental Praise

And what about telling your kids they're smart? Virtually all parents — 85 percent, according to a Columbia University poll — say it's important to tell kids they're smart. But even that can be harmful, according to most studies, sort of like telling a little girl how pretty she is. Experts say it's important for children to learn that it's not looks or brains that really matter. It's what you do with your talent that's important.

So, whether your child is a future Einstein, or just like the rest of us, here are some things parents can do to spark their children's inner genius.

Teach children that setbacks and mistakes are our friends. Work through them and learn from them.

Tell children that their brains are like muscles. The more you use it, the stronger it grows.

Praise them for their effort and improvement, not just their final results.

So for example, when Lilly learns a new country, we shouldn't applaud her, even though that's what Lilly clearly enjoys. Instead, say the experts, we should tell her, "Great job — you found it because you worked hard."

Finally, it's not enough just to memorize. Context and meaning is what marks real intelligence, say Dweck and others. For example, if you're learning the presidents, try also learning about each president. That's what Abby's done.

"There are some things that are really funny," she said. "Like Thomas Jefferson — he was trying to impress a girl so he jumped over a fence, but he tripped and damaged his right hand permanently, trying to impress a girl!"

Abby and Adrian and Lilly are, in many ways, just normal kids. Their parents say that is by design. But prodigies or not, we love to see them in action.