A Child’s Innate Gifts
Each child is unique. Parents come to know their offspring as highly distinct individuals soon after birth. In part, that’s because babies arrive with traits and talents waiting in a raw state of potential.
Young people have an inborn drive to explore their possibilities. Sometimes this leads them in directions that don’t meet with approval. What we often don’t recognize is that these exact idiosyncrasies or problems may indicate a child’s gifts. As James Hillman explains in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling,
I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into. The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.
It can be difficult to recognize these gifts. Sometimes they unfold in mysterious ways. Often we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. Sometimes we can’t see our own gifts either, even though they have whispered to us of destiny or wounded us where they were denied.
A little girl creates chaos with her toys. This child won’t put blocks away with other blocks, nor will she put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she groups things together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, plastic spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them out of sight to avoid getting in trouble, until the phase passes when she’s 9 years old. Now, as an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. Her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.
A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, and even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen, he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock climbing, and, reluctantly, his parents let him get involved. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports, but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.
Few young people have clear indications of their gifts. Most have multiple abilities. A single true calling is rarely anyone’s lot in life, as it is for a legendary artist or inventor. Instead, a mix of ready potential waits, offering a life of balance among many options. Education emphasizing the child’s particular strengths allows that child to flourish, no matter if those gifts fall within mainstream academic subjects or broader personal capacities. Traits such as a highly developed sense of justice, the knack for getting others to cooperate, a way with animals, a love of organization—these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.
A learning situation that nurtures each child’s unique abilities must leave ample space for these gifts to unfold. This takes time and understanding. The alternative deprives not only the child, it also deprives our world of what that child might become.
Acknowledging that each person is born with innate abilities ready to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are waiting to develop their own personal greatness. This unfolding is a lifelong process for each of us as we work toward our capabilities for fulfillment, joy, health, meaning, and that intangible sense of well-being that comes of using one’s gifts.
Left to their own devices, children act quite a bit like geniuses. What are traits associated with geniuses?
They don’t learn in a straight line.
They are highly individual.
They may not be all that interested in what others think of them and don’t necessarily apply common sense to their pursuits.
When their concentration is interrupted they may react with frustration.
Notice these traits are more common in the youngest children, before we “teach” them.
Although society confuses genius with IQ scores, such scores don’t determine what an individual will do with his or her intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that specific personality traits are better predictors of success than IQ scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology, each man was seen as having a genius within (and in each woman its corollary, a juno) which functioned like a guardian of intellectual powers or ancestral talent.
What today’s innovators bring to any discipline, whether history or art or technology, is a sort of persistent childlike wonder. They are able to see with fresh eyes. They can’t be dissuaded from what they want to do, and often what they do is highly original. Sometimes these people have a difficult personal journey before using their gifts, either because of their strong ethics or low tolerance for frustration. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to a certain strength of character. A brief look at two innovators provides inspiration for those of us raising today’s children.
Unable to engage in strenuous play, a sickly French child named Jacques-Yves Cousteau developed an interest in photography. Cousteau was a mediocre student who was expelled from high school after throwing rocks through the school windows. He was sent to a military boarding school and later entered the navy. His lifelong fascination with the sea led him to develop the Aqua Lung, a revolutionary method for breathing underwater. Cousteau’s films of sea life became documentaries seen around the world. This former hunter’s efforts stopped pet food companies from using dolphin meat and helped foster the early environmental movement.
R. Buckminster Fuller’s early years were marked with struggle. As a college student he hired an entire dance troupe to entertain a party, and in that one night of excess he squandered the tuition money his family had saved to send him to school. In his 20s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and naval commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died just before her fourth birthday, he began drinking heavily. Contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out how one penniless individual could benefit humanity. He called himself Guinea Pig B. Without credentials or training, Fuller worked as an engineer and architect, inventing such designs as the geodesic dome and advancing the concept of sustainable development. He wrote more than 30 books. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”
We don’t intentionally deprive anyone of manifesting his or her gifts. Yet somehow many people end up long after formal schooling has ended without using or even understanding what their gifts might be. There are many reasons why this is so. One reason may be a limited understanding of equality. It’s a given that we have equal rights. But the concept of equality is educationally misapplied, muffling many students’ abilities and strengths in a misguided effort to build areas determined to be “weaknesses.”
Children are expected to attain certain measurable outcomes in all subject areas at each grade. This negates the uneven and distinctly individual way that children develop. This also stratifies them by ability and willingness to conform, inevitably impacting their personalities. No matter whether at school or at home, if children are held accountable to this limiting version of uniform achievement they will judge themselves harshly. No one is an intellectual jackof- all-trades in each subject at every age. This expectation can cause a once-trusting child to hide the true self within because his or her emerging potential doesn’t conform to the sameness these standards impose. All that focus on leftbrain, outcome-based standards can squelch a child’s unique form of expression. Even children who love the subject being taught may find their interest dimmed. As Henry David Thoreau said, “What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”
In the quest to educate equally, we have simplified who students are. They are not empty fields to be planted and sowed with seeds of knowledge. They are living ecosystems unto themselves. Some savannahs, some deserts, some woodlands, some oceans. All with unique capacities, needing a unique balance of nurturance and guidance to flourish. We are equal, yes. But nature teaches us that diversity works. Imagine a world in which each child’s gifts are allowed to manifest in their own time. One in which we teach mutual respect while celebrating differences. One where we let our children awaken fully to their potential in body, mind and spirit. In this world, the highest expressions of equality could indeed flourish.
It blesses all of life when Earth’s young people are lovingly and wisely nurtured. The specific gifts our children are born with may awaken slowly or in ways that are difficult to recognize. This is one aspect of childhood illuminated in Laura Grace Weldon’s book, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, which the above article is excerpted from.