Growing limits

At the end of last summer we brought a little fuchsia inside with low hopes.  I picked up the diminutive plant early in the season expecting that it, like the one I bought the summer before, would thrive in the gentle morning sun where I hung it, spilling over the sides of the basket like fuchsia are wont.  Instead it grew about two inches in two months and produced a single tiny pale blossom. In the spirit of Arnold Lobel’s Toad, I spoke to it occasionally.  I may have been more insistent than Toad, but I’m sure at least once I said simply and perhaps ever so impatiently, as he did, “Now, plant, start growing.”

Once inside, the fuchsia maintained its low stature until December or so, at which point it finally started to grow.  Straight up.

I found this frustrating.  I wanted it to grow like I’ve come to believe and expect a fuchsia plant should, with graceful trailing symmetrical vines.  And to bloom.  It seemed to have no intention of that.

But then a few weeks ago, a pair of buds began to swell at the end of the tallest stalk, a precarious two feet above the surface of the soil. I was less encouraging this time. “No way can you handle the weight of blooming,” I said.

But as the flowers grew, so did the diameter of the stalk.  Soon there were two more pairs of blossoms. The stalk listed slightly but held up.  Other stalks followed suit, and soon the plant was an unlikely display of top-heavy splendor.

“Point taken,” I replied. Apparently it would succeed in pulling this off.

I’m sure there are all sorts of simple botanical reasons the fuchsia grew and bloomed this way, but when something like this happens in my house I have a hard time not taking it as metaphor. I’m constantly asking people to consider that this may be how growth works, when it comes to children who show their greatest potential in areas or directions that seem odd or unlikely to produce results or success. When they don’t read right away because they’re busy perfecting their climbing or they’d rather be on the phone with a grandparent than go to a birthday party with classmates or they don’t care about learning to throw accurately but they’ll pore for hours over architectural drawings.

Children, like plants, often don’t abide by our wishes for the timing or content of their development.  But if we make it our job only to offer the steadiest support we know how, and trust kids to find their way to whatever unique expression and contribution they may be capable of, we may well be surprised and delighted at how they turn out. We may find, for example, that the avid climber wasn’t trying to get out of learning to read but knew she did her best thinking when she was in motion.  Perhaps she later leads outdoor adventures, or restores ecosystems.  We may find that the party-avoider was not anti-social but simply preferred the quiet company of one person at a time. That the fascination with architectural drawing was the beginning of a capacity for visualizing and solving complicated technical problems.

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote “Man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” We can keep doing that, keep holding back the human organism with static hope and prediction, or we can watch each new person with the expectation that we have absolutely no idea how much is possible, and what the limits of the world, the limits of human potential and growth, might actually be.

Table, brother, geography

I’ve been doing some grappling lately with the notion of genius, and in the course of it came across Matthew Syed’s Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.  I’m only several pages in, and I’m not sure yet how or if the book is substantially different from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, but Syed’s account of and commentary on his success as a table tennis player does what none of Gladwell’s examples do, because he tells the story in the first person.  (Now that I think of it, it’s been long enough since I read Outliers that I’m not sure Gladwell doesn’t tell his own story; either way it’s not one of the prominent lengthy examples in the book the way Syed’s is.)

More soon on genius, potential, etc., but in the meantime, I recommend having a look at the table tennis story from Syed if you’re interested.  (You can start with the free sample at amazon; it’s a good lengthy one that includes the whole section I’m talking about here.)

Travel advisory

It’s snowing, finally.  Big fat flakes you can really see, filling up the air.  We’re supposed to drive today, so my first thought was uh-oh.  The online forecast assured me the snow would let up by ten, though, so I dialed back the worry and let myself watch for a few minutes.

And then, of course, my thoughts turned to child-rearing.  When children are very very young, we indulge ourselves in wonder.  We watch them reach for the learning they want and need, we delight in their exploration, we see them becoming entirely unique, we receive them.

And then, very quickly, within a few years, we start to worry about driving in the snow.  The unemployment rate and college admissions.  We put our faith in compliance, in sameness, in toeing the line, because we’re promised that that is what will get our children the wins they need to survive.  We begin to see only what’s lacking in them, what might impede them in a dangerous world.

Is it possible to continue to parent from a place of wonder and delight at the uniqueness of a new person we’ve brought into the world, without disregarding the potential challenges?  Is it possible to stay fully alive and engaged with what’s best, brightest, most fulfilling while navigating the perils with care and intention? Might it be possible for the two to support and even enhance one another (a sustained recognition of and appreciation for the inspired and inspiring, alongside an ethic of practicality)?

I don’t know. As I said, my first thought this morning was of the slippery roads. But I’m certain, certain that it’s worth a try.

The limits of our vision…

Often when we talk about how we want kids to meet their potential, what we mean is that we want them to do well in school, or at academics – at things that we have come to believe/understand/know to be predictors of success.  And we have operated according to the well-meaning and equality-driven commitment that every child can meet the potential they have in those areas.  We strive to make it happen.  We pour ourselves into it.  We even, astonishingly, sacrifice our relationships with them for it. Continue reading

More than one

It’s been a lot of years since I first read Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences; I’ve started reading again from the beginning, with Frames of Mind (1983).  It amazes me that such a compelling argument for widening the scope of what we consider worth recognizing, acknowledging, developing in young people can have brought us such a short distance from where we were when he first published this book.  If you haven’t read it, especially if you’ve got a kid who doesn’t seem compatible with the traditional school offerings of our time, I’d recommend you have a look.