A child’s gifts can be difficult to recognize, perhaps because they tend to unfold in mysterious ways. What we might consider idiosyncrasies or problems may very well indicate a child’s strengths. Oftentimes we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. It’s worth remembering we can’t easily 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. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, 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 to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains 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, 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. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, 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.
James Hillman explains in his book, The Soul’s Code,
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.
Itzhak Perlman, one of the preeminent violinists of our time, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three-year-old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle when he was four. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room and broke it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”
Then there’s R. Buckminster Fuller, whose young adult 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 all the tuition money his family saved to send him to school. In his 20’s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and Navy commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died of polio he began drinking heavily. By conventional wisdom he’d be considered a total failure at this point. But while contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out if 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 and registered dozens of patents. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”
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. When we emphasize a child’s particular strengths we help 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, a way with animals, a love of organization, a contemplative nature, the knack for getting others to cooperate—-these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.
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 I.Q. scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology each man was seen as having a genius within (and 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. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to strength of character.
We 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 waiting to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are cued 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.