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Special Talents

For Julia Kurtz, the first hint came in the shape of a bug. She was ironing one day while her daughter, Naomi, was sitting quietly at a nearby table, playing with paper and markers. Then she glanced at Naomi's work.

Sketched in orange, the bug was seven inches long, and had a clearly defined head, thorax, and abdomen, as well as wings and nine legs. A simple drawing. But extraordinary in one respect: Naomi was 2 years old.

Kurtz was stunned. Until then, she'd hardly paid attention to Naomi's pictures, thinking they were just scribbles. "There must be some mistake," the Evanston, IL, mom remembers thinking.

But Naomi kept drawing, again, and again, and again. So Julia and her husband, Frank, alerted to Naomi's ability, provided her with plenty of art supplies  -- paper, crayons, markers, paints  -- and gave her ample praise.

Once Naomi started first grade, though, and her passion for drawing continued unabated  -- and an art teacher commented on it  -- the Kurtzes wondered what they should do. It's a dilemma that confronts many parents, even if their child doesn't display a precocious ability but has a powerful interest at some point, whether in art, music, or a particular sport. Would her passion be best served by lessons or simple encouragement? Gentle pushing, or hands-off detachment? Experts say it's important to strike a balance among all of those things. To find out how, it's helpful to look at how extremely gifted adults got to be that way.

Frank Clancy, an award-winning writer, is a frequent contributor to USA Weekend.

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