“Is My Child a Genius?”

I am thrilled to introduce my first book, The Genius in Children: Bringing Out the Best in Your Child. It represents forty-some years of helping parents and teachers educate children. Since education is a science, there are principles to follow and disciplines to practice; the book identifies many of these. However, in so far as education, like living, is also an art, this book and this blog are attempts to spark creative thinking about education rather than attempts at definitive solutions.

“Is My Child A Genius?” is the wrong question. Your child has a genius; every person does. The question is: How can I help this genius lead my child out into the world gracefully and effectively?

First, we must return to the original meaning of genius: “The tutelary spirit of a person, place, or institution.” There are many other words for this spirit. To the ancient Greeks kharakter was the imprint that the gods put on the soul at birth. I stand with James Hillman who says that muse, psyche, soul, calling and character are all different manifestations of the same thing: the you that is becoming. Elizabeth Gilbert thinks of genius as “out there.” I like to think of it as inside us. It doesn’t matter. Maybe it lives under the bed. Our job is to act as if it exists.

This is what education is all about and schooling is one of the many things children do to become educated. It is the obligation of parents and teachers to make sure that schooling occurs in the context of education.

What can we do to help? See their academic struggles in a long term context—they will learn how to read, you know. Support them through all their struggles without owning them. Avoid rescuing. Respect the challenges they choose. Value mistakes and conflict as some of the best sources of learning. Maintain boundaries tirelessly as they make their decisions and suffer the consequences. Cultivate the courage to face fears—your own especially. Play position. Love unconditionally. Most of all, believe in the untapped complexity and power in all children.

I wrote The Genius in Children with the hope that it will help each of us notice—or at least catch glimpses of—that beautiful, brilliant, ineffable, unique genius that each of us has. My dream is that we will all come closer together in respect for the infinite variety and complex diversity that make us all the same.

I am deeply grateful for the students, parents, teachers and other educators of Children’s Day School who unknowingly helped me write this book. I am indebted to all the great educators I have known as well as to all the enlightening conversations I continue to have with so many people. A special thanks to my family, my children, and my wife Victoria, who knowingly helped me write this book.

Please join in the conversation and have fun raising children; it’s the only way.


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Graduation Lunch with the Eighth Grade

Our graduating class went to lunch with me last Friday. I can’t imagine a more delightful group of 14-year-olds to be caught in a restaurant with. You’d think that after all these years together they might have run out of things to talk about, but of course not. The intensity

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Learning Disabilities: diagnosing what’s wrong or discovering what works?

Nancy’s art classes were famous for helping students of all ages discover their creativity, and in the process, become proficient at using a variety of media to express their artistic visions. But, Harry, age 10, was a challenge for her. He plunged into each project energetically and worked quickly with great focus, but after fifteen minutes would lose interest. Encouraging him to stick with it did not work.

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Are the Frills Essential?


Only connect… —E. M. Forster

As spring begins and the tiny yellow-green mulberry leaves start bravely out from their branches, students begin picking them. They pick them with the same care their parents use when making breakfast. In the classroom they feed the leaves to silk worms. The worms raise tiny faces to look into the children’s eyes, clinging to hands with hind feet. Pulling them off feels “weird.” The students’ reverence is akin to awe. By May the silk worms are spinning their cocoons and the art department has a box full of pure white silk amulettes as light as two raffle tickets and as big as your thumb. Students dye the cocoons turning them into all manner of marvelous creations, and make thread which they use in other works of art.

Cute, but is this activity really essential? Is this the kind of thing that should be going on in school?

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Are You Overparenting?

Are you an over-involved parent, or are you a “slow parent?”  Do you make yourself known to the teacher on the first day of school or do you think it is better to just watch and wait? How involved are you with your child’s homework? Are you pushing your child too hard or not enough? These days parents are criticized for being “helicopters” or “snow plows” on the one hand, and on the other criticized for being “unengaged” in school–sometimes in the very next breath. These questions all reflect that our eye is on the wrong ball.

The question isn’t: “Is your parenting slow or fast,” but “Whose foot is on the accelerator?”

Last week, a proud mother wanted to show me how beautifully her fifteen-month-old daughter was progressing. “Show Mr. Rick how you can walk,” she said. When the child refused, the mother said, “She doesn’t do it when we want her, too.” That’s right, I thought, and that is something for you to be proud of and nurture. She is on a mission, and it comes from within, but pleasing you is not it.

There is a natural tendency for parents to want to have their children meet or exceed the benchmarks of “normal” whether it is walking, talking, reading or learning algebra. This is often taken too far. In many of our schools it is taken for granted that more, faster, sooner is better. Those who are “below average” are examined for some sort of dysfunction.

As a parent, grandparent and long-time school principal I am happy that many parents are feeling the need to stop pushing their children and are attracted to movements like “slow parenting.” But we are still asking: How slow should we go? How hard should we push? Those aren’t the right questions. What’s this “we?” It’s not about us; it’s about them. Carl Honore‘s titles distract us from the real issue. His son has it right: “Why do grownups have to take over everything?”

Children naturally to want learn? Schoolwork is play for them. Ask most kindergartners what they looking forward to in first grade and they will say: “Homework.” We take their love of homework away from them by owning it. It’s their homework.

Our children’s success is going to be a function of their comfort with and self-discipline in pursuing goals, not how fast or slow they move through the curriculum. Overparenting is forgetting who the chief decision maker is

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Kids Online: How involved should parents be?

“Children need people in order to become human…. It is primarily through observing, playing, and working with others older and younger than himself that a child discovers both what he can do and who he can become—that he develops both his ability and his identity….”Urie Bronfenbrenner

CommonSenseMedia tends to go over the top in trying to motivate parents to use common sense when addressing the dangers of new technology to their children. At a recent gathering of over 200 parents and other educators in San Francisco, they opened the evening with a movie which communicates: “Watch out, or OMG will happen to your kids.” Although the video was NR, I would have rated it X for all the sex and violence it portrayed.

Is technology a force for evil or a force for good? What’s a parent to do? Although the scare tactics are unnecessary, the question is good. One parent, for instance, emailed me: “I’m concerned with the intrusion on schoolwork, the exposure to sex and violence, the creation of jaded kids instead of enthusiastic, inspired, and pro-active kids. And I’m equally concernedwith the health risks of not getting enough sleep, not getting enough time outdoors.”

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Taking Responsibility

The Story of The Three Little Girls has generated a great deal of conversation (on and off line) about the role parents play in getting their children to take responsibility. More than one parent has talked to me about the difficulty of trying to be fair and listen to both sides of a conflict.

While it is true that each party in a conflict usually bears some responsibility, our job as parents and educators is to teach children how to take full responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, they can give themselves a pass, and not do the hard work of learning new behavior. They can’t control what other people do, but they can gain mastery of self.

I like to use a trip to the principal’s office as a place where students can learn those new behaviors and develop their social skills. When a student is sent to my office for disrespectful behavior the conversation often goes something like this:

“Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Mr. Soandso sent me. It’s not fair.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“Well, Mr. Soandso…”
“Wait, I don’t want the whole story, I just want to know what you did that caused you to be here.”
“Well, Johnny…”
“No. First you say ‘I’ and then there is a verb.”
“I threw the ball over the fence.”
“That doesn’t sound bad enough for you to be sent here. Why would Mr. Soandso send you here?”
“Because he told me to put it away in the ball bin.”
“Well, that makes sense. Do you think that makes sense?”
“Yes, but…”
“Don’t go there yet. First I want you to tell me what was wrong with that and then what you are going to do about it.”
“He said it was disrespectful.”
“Well, do you agree?”
“Yes, but…”
…and so on until he gets it.

I don’t allow the conversation to drift to the faults of the other party. I don’t concern myself with what is fair or unfair. I simply insist that the student identify the part he played and then take full responsibility for his behavior. That’s a teachable moment.

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The Story of the Three Little Girls

Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.

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