What Are Child Geniuses Like As Adults?

ByABC News via via logo

Nov. 12, 2005 — -- Child prodigies fascinate us. But what happens to a prodigy when he or she is no longer a child? "Good Morning America" Weekend Edition visited with Michael Kearney, whom we first met 10 years ago with Meredith Vieira on the ABC News program "Turning Point."

Back then, Kearney was the youngest college grad ever at age 10, earning him a place in the "Guiness Book of World Records."

"We put him in college to keep him normal," Kevin Kearney, Michael's father, told "Turning Point." "He needed to be in high school when he was 5 to be normal, and he needed to be in college when he was 6 to be normal."

There's a lot of debate about whether pushing a prodigy through school early is the right thing to do. But Michael's parents were convinced he needed the mental stimulation. And they didn't shield him from the public spotlight, even putting him on the "Tonight Show."

Kearney's goal was to become a game show host, he told "Turning Point."

"I've learned all of Bob Barker's mannerisms, all of Alex Trebek's mannerisms," he said.

The Kearney family packed up all their belongings and moved to Hollywood so he could shoot a pilot for a game show. That didn't work out. When we last saw him, his future was uncertain.

On "Turning Point," Viera asked him where he thought he would be in 30 years.

"Do you think about it all?" she asked.

"Not really, because you can't really think about it, you know?" he said.

Gifted children are more likely than their peers to become successful adults -- look at Mozart, Pablo Picasso and Bill Gates. But exceptional intelligence doesn't guarantee happiness. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski is the most glaring example of child genius gone wrong.

Psychologists say the teenage years are often the toughest.

"The tension between what you've been able to do as a child and what you're starting to become as an adult can mean that that's going to be a quite turbulent kind of period of time for a child prodigy," said Dr. David Feldman, a professor of child development at Tufts University.

Michael Kearney, 21, is living in Tennessee with four undergraduate degrees, in anthropology, computer science, geology and chemistry. He'll earn his doctorate in chemistry next May.

"Most people, they get into school when they're 6, and they get out of school around 22, 23," Kearney said. "That's what I'm going to do. But I just happened to be in college that entire time."

He teaches a chemistry class to students of all ages.

"I was really worried that I would fail somehow, and be one of those sad ex-prodigies," Kearney said. "I realized that I can't fail because I set my own standards and my standards are pretty low."

Michael's goals are modest.

"You have to be focused on the things that make you a human and not a golden god," he said. "You have to focus on just living."

Making it in Hollywood? Maybe not. Now all Kearney wants is what he calls a "normal" life.

While his family now lives in Alaska, Michael has someone new in his life. The boy who was too young to go to his high school prom now has a date to take to the college ball.

"He's told me before that I'm something that keeps him kind of grounded," said his girlfriend, Megan Clancy.

But not all child prodigies mellow with age.

You may remember Greg Smith from numerous TV appearances a few years back. He finished college at 13.

"I believe that all of us are here for a special purpose and that is to learn," Smith has said.

Now 16, Smith is more intense than ever, studying for four doctorates -- in math, aerospace engineering, international relations and biomedical research. He has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and travels the world promoting nonviolence.

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