Thursday, September 13, 2007

A child's potential

Over the years I've totally abandoned the idea of potential in any practical sense. I believe that human beings, all of them, have almost boundless potential. My area of expertise is music. Back in the 1950s, children were considered too young for formal music instruction until the age of 9 or so, and then they began to study (usually piano first) using an approach rooted in sight-reading. These days if you took almost any young Suzuki student and transported them back to 1950, they'd be considered exceptionally gifted. I mean, even the "slower-learning" 4-year-old Suzuki beginner will be playing Gavottes and Minuets in tune and with a nice tone years before a typical child of the 50's would be considered capable of learning to play an instrument. So I think that music is an area where we've become considerably more adept at nurturing potential ... and that for all those many generations before the Suzuki approach took root, children had orders of magnitude more music-learning potential than anyone suspected.

As I was watching my kids grow through the early years, I faced many of the same issues you raised in your post. At ages 3-10, as basic pre-academic and academic skills are being laid down, everything has a 'benchmarky' feel. Does he tell time yet? Can she write cursive? Does he know his timestables? Long division? As parents who are sensitive to the enormous potential that our children have, who know that our children are capable of learning almost anything, it's tempting to get caught up in the idea that there's some merit to hurrying our children through those benchmark skills.

But those benchmark skills are so superficial. When a child is 15, no one is going to care whether he learned to tell time at age 4 or 7. What will matter will be whether he's confident, optimistic, creative, a good problem-solver, open-minded, interested in the world and in learning, empathetic, persistent, responsible and with strong personal values. That's the 'potential' I want my kids to live up to. And really, the more I think about it and the more I observe, I see that a parental focus on accelerated transit through particular academic skill sets can actually work against that type of deep, abiding potential. Why? Because it puts approval and attention preferentially on shallow, intellectual achievements. Because it puts the parent more in the driver's seat of education. Because it focuses on areas where things are right or wrong, with no grey areas, no subtlety. Because it puts the mastery ahead of the meaningfulness to the child and its connectedness to real life.

I think there is value in the some of the things that can be exercised by the pursuit of accelerated learning -- the development of persistence, diligence, tolerance for mistake-making, problem-solving skills and a good work ethic. I know that when I was in school I found the academic work easy and it took me many years to develop the personal resilience, persistence and resourcefulness to cope with things that I couldn't instantly do well. But with my own kids I much prefer to nurture those traits in ways that don't put preferential emphasis on the speedy mastery of superficial academic skills. Learning to play a musical instrument, growing a garden, caring for animals, helping a sibling grow and learn, grappling with the organization and work of running a household, working long-term to develop a community resource. Things like that are of more lasting value, and more worth emphasizing to me than, say, "doing Grade 4 math at age 5."

I've only ever pushed my kids in academic areas when I sensed that they were becoming demoralized by their inertia, or frustrated by their inability to do something they badly wanted to do. Not necessarily when they were "behind" or "stalled" by any conventional measurements. Just when they wanted very badly to be somewhere that they couldn't manage to get without support and/or structure.

copied & pasted from a message board post


  1. You make some very interesting points in your post. For me, especially, because starting Josie at suzuki piano at age 3 made some people think we were pushing her as parents. But the people thinking that, were people who grew up with piano instruction in the 1950s, which I would never subject a 3 year old too and probably not an older child either. But working with the child's inner motivation can make for great accomplishments later. I read an article about a young person who could be radically accelerated because of his giftedness but his father wanted to build his baseknowledge, kind of like a pyramid, the foundation has to be wide. I like that picture of education, that instead of going straight forward like the educational institutions, to go wider, to broaden, and to allow exploration in depth, without curtailing the exploration because it is above or below the childs grade.

  2. Anonymous12:41 am

    Oh my, how succinctly you write. It is exactly that "deep abiding potential"" that we are interested in in our family but we do have to pull ourselves up at times. Not even with what we are in fact doing but our/my thinking about our interactions during the day at times takes on a schoolish flavour-being a teacher in my earlier life doesn't help! I catch myself focusing on the possible lack rather than the obvious abundance of opportunities to learn, expand, give, wonder, relax and grow. I guess it comes back to trusting your children thoroughly and, of course, yourself.


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