Ethan Bortnick of Hollywood was just shy of 4 when his parents, Gene and Hannah, noticed him playing tunes by ear on his Elmo keyboard. Soon he had memorized more than 200 songs and was composing his own music.
Now, Ethan, a recognized child prodigy, has at the ripe old age of 8 shared a stage with the likes of Beyonce, Santana and Celine Dion. He has performed on Oprah, Good Morning America and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Next year, he will enter third grade.
Child prodigy: What does the term mean, really?
The difference between a child prodigy and one who is gifted is the scope of their ability, said Dr. David Henry Feldman, a psychologist who has studied prodigies for some 30 years and is credited with defining the term.
"When you're talking about a prodigy, they have potential in one specific area, where a gifted child has a broad spectrum of academic areas in which he can excel," Feldman said.
Think Wolfgang Mozart in music, Dominique Moceanu in gymnastics or Tiger Woods in golf. A prodigy is defined as someone who has mastered a specific skill at an adult professional level by age 10.
Often parents take a talented baseball player or gymnast and push them to achieve, with dreams of college scholarships and professional careers in their future. Experts say to step back and get a realistic picture of the child's talent before pushing them in any one area.
Feldman reminds doting moms and dad that while every child has special gifts and talents, not every child is going to make a name for himself with one particular talent -- and that's OK.
Gene Bortnick said he and his wife have tried to let Ethan's natural ability and drive steer his music. This often flies in the face of the prodigy world, which is often very competitive.
"We know it's different from lots of parents who have prodigies, but we refuse to sacrifice his childhood," Gene Bortnick said. "He'll never be 8 again, so we make sure he plays on the playground and gets to be a kid."
ADVICE FOR PARENTSHere are some tips for parents who think their child may have a special gift. REMEMBER THAT HE IS A CHILD FIRST: "They are real kids that do amazing things, but that doesn't mean that they will be amazing in all things, and that doesn't mean that they are not kids," Feldman said.
SEEK ADVICE: "There's a problem getting good advice because it's often tainted with conflict of interest," Feldman said. "Try to seek advice from people who won't benefit from your child's talent."
CONSULT AN EXPERT: Confirm that your child has a special skill with an expert in that field.
DON'T BE DISAPPOINTED: If your child is not considered a prodigy, don't be disappointed. He will feel like a failure.
DON'T DELAY: "It's critical that those abilities be tended to earlier, especially in music," Feldman said.
NURTURE TALENT APPROPRIATELY: "Don't push it too early, or too fast," Feldman said. "Early performance that isn't supported by the rest of their development may get them to win contests, but may stymie future development of their talent."
FIND A TEACHER: Find someone who your child likes, Gene Bortnick advises.
DON'T OVERHYPE: When Ethan was about to appear on Oprah or Jay Leno, his parents played it low key. "We didn't want to stress him out," Gene Bortnick said. Meanwhile, other children on the show were very nervous because their parents were so strict about their expectations, he said.
LET THE CHILD ENJOY HIS TALENT: Ethan is not required to practice piano, and on some days he doesn't play, and on others he may compose a song, Gene Bortnick said. "We see other parents push their kids and stress them out," he said. "I believe if a child really does have a special gift it will come out without pushing."
Feldman offers a different perspective. World-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma tells of his father, Feldman said, who required him to practice his music as a child, even when he didn't want to. "But look at the result," Feldman said. "You can't let your child do whatever they want, because he won't know what he needs to do to cultivate his talent."
KEEP THE CHILD GROUNDED: "Don't set your child up for failure, keep him grounded, because one day another child may come along who is better," Gene Bortnick said.
KEEP THEM WELL-ROUNDED: Make sure they keep up their studies, try a new sport and keep their room clean. Don't make their special talent their whole life.
IF THE CHILD IS NOT ENJOYING IT, DON'T PUSH IT:F Ethan was participating in, and winning, a lot of competitions before he came home crying one day, Gene Bortnick said. Ethan said it bothered him that other parents yelled at their kids when they lost. Gene said they haven't done a competition since.