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A Child’s Genius: From the Principal’s Office

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When my daughter, Brooke, was one, she decided to take a walk. She opened the screen door to our summerhouse, stepped down to the flagstone walk, and headed out the dirt road that led into the woods. She walked with a purpose, as if something had called to her. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. In fact, it was as if I wasn’t even there. She just got up from her toys and made for the door.

As you can imagine, my first reaction was to stop her. “I can’t let a child that age, who has barely learned how to walk, just walk out the door without even checking with me. Where could she be going? What is she thinking? She should not be taking off into the woods. All sorts of things could happen to her. A responsible father does not let his one-year-old daughter take off into the woods on her own. It’s just too dangerous.”

But, also, in that first second another thought was forming: “Wait, there is no immediate danger, let’s just keep an eye on her and see what happens. I don’t have to act, yet.” I just watched. 

As these thoughts collided, I had the barest flicker of yet another thought: “She is acting as if she knows what she is doing!” Now, when people act as if they know what they are doing, I hesitate to interfere with their decisions. And Brooke’s whole demeanor communicated, “I don’t need your help.” So, I decided to follow her.

By the time she reached the edge of the woods, I had something of a plan. Somehow, I had to do four things at once: let her go, watch her, keep her safe, and keep out of the situation. A voice from deep inside told me that her decision to do this on her own needed to be honored. She did not look around for me, so I didn’t call her attention to my presence, but instead followed at a careful distance, hiding behind trees and sneaking around corners in such a way that I hoped she wouldn’t see me. And she didn’t.

As she walked the turnaround shadows of leaves played on her hair. Around the first corner she skirted the mud puddle. Around the second corner she looked up at the giant paper birch. She followed the driveway all two hundred yards of its length, winding through the woods. She walked with a purpose, almost marching. When she came to the place where the driveway meets the main road that goes around the lake, she looked to the right and looked to the left. Then, she turned around and started home again.

When she got back to the house, she went back to her toys as if nothing special had happened and, still, as if I weren’t even there. She did not come running up to me to let me welcome her home. She did not tell me about her adventure. It was something she did, and it was complete. 

What inspired this adventure? I don’t know, but I have learned to trust it. In fact I know that trusting that something is the bedrock of all effective work with children—and for that matter, all people. The ancient Greeks called it kharakter; the Romans called it genius; a great science teacher I know called it “the teacher within.” It goes by many names, and we all have it. I have learned that looking for it, encouraging it, and letting it work its way out into the world is the secret of education.

Brooke didn’t get into trouble on her walk, but that is not the norm. Often there is trouble. Life necessarily presents our children with dozens of challenges a day. In fact, guided by their genius children often bring difficulty on themselves. They get notions, they set goals, they design paths toward these goals, they take risks. These challenges are the engines of growth; their goals represent how they need to develop at the moment.

Missteps, mishaps, mistakes on this journey are vital to growing up strong. If their true genius is engaged, the trouble can strengthen them, and the child will often persist through failure. We should not (and cannot) protect them from setbacks, conflict, disappointment, and loss. When they fall, we need to help them bounce.

Helping properly is tricky business. Parents and teachers can get distracted as a child fails to measure up to the requirements of the environment. We evaluate performance, analyze behavior, diagnose disabilities, and design remediation in our efforts to address problems. This is often necessary. Helping them see and master the requirements of the environment strengthens their ability to guide themselves on their journey. But we mustn’t take our eye off the ball.

If education is leading a person’s genius out into the world to function effectively and gracefully within it, our children need to be noticed more and analyzed less—more delighted in than worried over. Our most important role is to believe in the child’s genius, and to study it with our hearts.

From the Principal’s Office: Lessons on Learning, Life, and Parenting is published bi-monthly. Each column is written by Rick Ackerly, a distinguished educator with thirty years experience in middle and elementary school education, who is currently the Head of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco.

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