The surgeon on the TV show has just had his hand badly damaged in a plane crash, and he’s taken to a hospital staffed with unfamiliar doctors who swarm around him and his hand, discussing the best course of action. He’s unconscious when he arrives, but wakes up long enough to whisper “I’m a surgeon.”
The scenario may be typical far-fetched television drama fare, but the plea is perfectly believable. This man’s most important commitment and contribution depends on a certain degree of functionality in his hand, something that not every patient would need. His situation might merit more aggressive treatment than would another patient with a commensurate injury. If he’d had the time and stamina for more words he’d likely have said “Please do everything you possibly can to restore function to my hand. Give it any resources you have. Take risks you might not otherwise take. My hand is the most important thing.” He wasn’t trying to tell them he was special. He was letting them know who he was.
Kids start doing this when they are very young (without the dire circumstances). They don’t always use words; often their clarity about what their best contribution and purpose might be begins to show itself before they’re able to communicate effectively in words:
Perhaps they find themselves fascinated by the inner workings of machinery and most engaged and well-used when they’re taking things apart. The adults around them will tolerate it to a point but then we’ll want them to sit down and study something on paper, and they’ll resist, one way or another. “I’m an engineer,” they’re whispering.
Or they’ll find that the place they’re at their best is outside, doing most anything, and so they strain to be there as much as they can, even when adults want them inside to eat lunch or to read them stories or to play with their brothers and sisters. “I belong outside,” they’re whispering.
Or they’ll love stories, have voracious appetites for being read to and for audio books and films. They love making up and enacting elaborate tales, but they’ll resist any teaching advances when it comes to writing or reading text from a page. “I’m a storymaker,” they’re whispering.
They’ll seem more upset than we’d like them to be when someone else is sad or hurt; put aside their own concerns to comfort and support another person. “I want to help,” they’re whispering.
Or their favorite parts of the day will not be the times when they’re busy with their own personal activities but when they’re with a group of friends, watching and listening and negotiating and then later synthesizing and reporting on the goings-on. “I’m a diplomat,” they’re whispering, “or a mediator or a social scientist.”
I don’t mean to suggest that kids showing these preferences and commitments are trying to declare lifelong careers. Only that they’re letting us know what they have recognized themselves to be suited to and captivated by. They are asking us to recognize that there are parts of them, as with the surgeon’s hand, that call for more attention and respect and support than others. They’re giving us hints about where to start – hints about who they are and what they have to offer. They’re saying “Here’s when I’m at my best; here’s what it makes sense for me to start with, here’s something I can commit myself to.”
The way we often respond is like this: “That’s nice, and you can do some of that, but you’re getting older and it’s really time for you to learn how to ____. You can [be with your friends/go outside/take things apart] when your homework’s done.”
Even if there’s enough time in the day for both, such that one doesn’t have to shut out the other, many parents find that kids eventually stop doing those things we’ve designated extra-curricular, even if they’re still drawn to them. We tend to chalk this up to age, but that’s often not it. We’re sending the message that whatever it is that kids have identified as uniquely or specifically them is not as important or valuable as what we have identified as urgently critical for them to learn and know. Even if they do master the things we tell them to, they’re doing so against a backdrop of believing that what makes them unique – what shows itself as the basis for their individual contribution and participation – is of only peripheral value and not deserving of priority.
This, unfortunately, is a very effective way of preventing the thing many adults actually want for kids – for them to find a way to be comfortable as themselves in the world and to make the best, healthiest possible use of their capacities.