On passions and prodigies
Many homeschooling parents are living with a vague sense of unease in their hearts. Even after they’ve gotten past the “I’m going to ruin my child” phase, the “grass is always greener” syndrome (at school there are never dirty dishes on the table with the math books and the science experiments) and the “everyone else has their kids in school--why can’t I clean/shop/work/exercise in peace?” pity-party moments, there’s still one thing left--one source of anxiety that they may not even be able to articulate. It goes like this: what if there’s hidden genius in my child, and I’m not savvy enough to pick up on it? What if a wonderful mentor at school would see a gift in my child, and they would develop it and become rich and famous--the next Mozart, Gauss or Pascal?
This unease can be especially nagging if you believe, as I do, in delayed academics. Despite all the evidence that early academics is a waste of time at best, and damaging at worst*, it is still considered essential by the average person for young children to be made to write letters and numbers each day. Even if those letters and numbers are meaningless to the child. Even if that activity is displacing a different one that would stimulate creativity and problem-solving. Even if it’s developmentally inappropriate, and the child gets so frustrated with it that he breaks every pencil that is handed to him, and gets suspended from kindergarten (true story).
Delayed academics works because an older child can learn the same content in much less time than a younger child, and with much less stress and frustration.
But if you don’t formally teach things to young children, how would you know if they would have eaten it up, would have run with it, would have been a child prodigy in that subject? If they don’t know a thing exists, how can they even begin to fall in love with it?
Here we have an internal contradiction: a paradox. What is the solution to this paradox?
Exposure. Expose young children to new things all the time: sports and dance, music and drama, poetry and literature, arts and crafts, puzzles and games, plants and bugs, machines and devices--the beautiful and the practical, the strange and the horrible. Let them poke and prod them, try them out at their own speed. No pressure, no expectations, no “disappointed face” if they’re not interested--just move onto something else. If you keep it up, something is sure to spark their imagination, and you will know what you need to do to help them develop in that area. As Maria Montessori famously said, “Follow the child.” When they develop a love for something, it awakens a need to have the skills to explore that something--skills such as decoding words, quantifying, and being able to record their thoughts about it.
The world is a fascinating place, and it doesn’t need to be spoon-fed to kids. School is an artificial environment that separates kids from what is real, presenting instead a pre-digested version of the world served up in neat little portions. My foster daughter who is in public school had exactly one field trip during her first grade year--to a nearby lake that we’d been to as a family many times (if they’d given me the $15,000 they spend per-pupil in my school system, we could have gone on a field trip around the world!). There was very little that was “real” in her school days, and it’s hard to be passionate about a worksheet. But kids can get passionate about even abstract things such as math if it is presented as a story filled with heroes, with ups and downs, with leaps of imagination. And if they adore it, if they develop an obsession--fantastic! Obsessions** are your child’s brain signalling to you, the parent, saying, “Here’s something that’s a good fit for me. Now get me some resources to develop this gift.”
But what if you see that the obsession is enduring and is leading your child in a positive direction? You may want to consider finding out just how bright she is. While only one or two children in a million are true prodigies, and giftedness is between two and five percent of the population, it is worthwhile to be able to recognize it if you see it. There are two brain functions that are present in nearly all children who are gifted: high levels of visual-spatial abilities, and great working memory capacity***. In other words, if your child is good at Rubik’s cubes and other 3-D logic puzzles (which skill often accompanies high levels of math ability), and if she is also good at remembering certain things while other information is coming at her that needs to be processed (Have you ever played the party game Curses? Just like that.) chances are you’ve got some unusual talent living in your home. You may want to get an assessment, and start looking around for some professional help in your homeschooling efforts (and, yes, homeschooling is the perfect setting for a very gifted child, allowing as it does the freedom to zoom ahead in one subject while coming back to pick up the other ones as they are needed). Good luck!
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