Several weeks ago I wrote about Dr. Ken Robinson, his thinking about the importance of creativity and the fact that it is not sufficiently valued or nurtured in our current educational system. Inspired by his TED talk, I have been reading his book, “The Element.” He defines “element” as the “place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together,” and believes it essential that every individual find that place not only for personal fulfillment, but because the future of our communities and institutions will depend on it.
Robinson writes that because the world is changing so much faster than ever before, our best hope for the future lies in developing new ways of developing human capacity that can deal with a new era of human existence. This means appreciating the importance of nurturing human talent, and understanding the way talent expresses itself differently in every individual. Obviously, this has implications for our educational system which instead has placed its emphasis on moving in a different direction, one that requires meeting more uniform standards.
In his book, Robinson tells many interesting stories about extraordinarily successful people whose names are familiar to us all. Some of these people found and pursued their “element” thanks to supportive parents or teachers who recognized where these people excelled. Others had to struggle against parents and others who thought the pursuit of their interests or abilities would go nowhere, and would be a waste of time. It is easy when reading these stories to conclude that the “element” really relates to unusual talent, even genius, that may not really be applicable to most children.
On the other hand, so much of what he writes has relevance for us as parents and the role we play as our children develop. The challenge we face is not only to know our children, but to trust and believe in what we know. This is not as easy as it sounds, because there are so many pressures operating in a different direction. First, there is a value system that surrounds us that puts a premium on a certain kind of success and a particular route for getting there. Most of us are products of that value system and it influences the way we see our children’s abilities and the expectations we set forth for them.
In addition, our children are constantly being appraised by teachers, school administrators, doctors, and psychologists among others. Sometimes they give us feedback about a child that is disappointing, or worrisome, or doesn’t conform to the way we know our own child. There is constant pressure on parents to follow the judgment of “experts.” Staying in charge of what is best for one’s own child in such situations not only means exercising one’s own judgment, it may mean, at times, disregarding the advice of “experts”.
It is hard to trust your own perceptions when they are contradicted by those who are thought to know better. Also, those who believe they should be in charge often attach too little importance to a parent’s point of view. Sometimes fighting for your child can get you labeled a “difficult” parent. The pressure is to fit into educational institutions and ideas designed to serve large numbers of children rather than individuals. When dealing with numbers it is inevitable that a hypothetical norm becomes the standard against which everyone is measured. It is up to the parent to support her own child’s individuality.
At times this may also mean respecting a child’s own passions and interests, even when they don’t fit our own preconceived idea of what is important. In addition to the examples Robinson gives in his book, the N.Y. Times had a column the other day titled, “From Child’s Play to Dream Job” written by a man who spent hours as a child playing video games. His parents kept telling him that he was wasting his days, but for him, his two loves, animation and video games combined, were irresistible. Today he believes this provided research for his dream job at Disney, developing a video game movie.
This goes back to Robinson’s point about different kinds of intelligence. If a child’s intelligence moves in a direction that differs from the usual academic track, that may be a challenge for a parent to recognize. Here is where both external and internal pressures come into play; the educational system that requires conformity to its norms and our own wishes for our child. As in so many areas of parenting it’s a balancing act. We can listen to the “experts” while making sure that our own point of view is heard. We can listen to our children and support their own unique interests and pursuits while keeping a guiding hand ready.
All child-rearing is a risk in the sense of never knowing with certainty how things will turn out. Not every childhood interest will turn into a dream job. Neither will academic successes. In the end, staying in charge means trusting one’s judgment – even when that feels scary.