I’ve often claimed that every child is a genius. This is sometimes misunderstood to mean that I think every child could be an Einstein or a Picasso. I mean nothing of the kind. I’m using the word ”genius” in its original meaning, which means ”to give birth” (it’s related etymologically to the word ”genesis”) and ”joyful” (related to the word ”genial”). So, essentially, when I say that every child is a genius, what I mean is that every child is born giving birth to the joy of learning. And that’s exactly what we see when we look at a baby – he’s continually exploring the environment around him, curious, alert, playful, and passionate about learning. But something happens as kids grow up – they lose that intense craving for new learning experiences. Here are four ways to reawaken this joy of learning in your child.
- Reawaken Your Own Genius First. One of the reasons kids lose their inner genius is that they look around them and see a lot of adults who are treating the world as ”same old same old” instead of being curious and passionate about learning. Since you’re one of your child’s main role models, then model for her what a genius learner looks like. Start reading for pleasure (for yourself). Think about the things you did in childhood or adolescence that gave you pleasure and start doing them again (e.g. drama, dance, painting, political activities, being in nature, doing sports etc.). Try to be amazed or curious about at least one thing every day, and communicate this to your child either verbally or non-verbally (kids easily pick up on the non-verbal messages coming from the adults around them). Remember, this is for yourself – you’re not trying to get your child to reawaken her genius at this point, you’re just trying to reawaken your own love of learning.
- Use Simple Tools and/or Experiences to Spark Your Child’s Passion for Learning. Einstein said that when he was a little boy, his father gave him a compass for his birthday and that it filled him with a desire to figure out how the universe worked. Martha Graham’s father took her to a ballet and this event was pivotal in activating her desire to dance. It turns out that the experiences parents give their children that are the simplest, have the greatest impact. For Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, it was walks out in nature that he took with his father and the questions his father would ask him. So, think simple: a toy, an artifact from nature, a visit to a museum, a simple musical instrument (Joshua Bell’s mother noticed when he was a young boy that he had put rubber bands on the knobs of his dresser and was twanging them passionately, so she got him a violin, and now he’s one of the greatest violinists in the world). These experiences are called by Howard Gardner ”crystallizing experiences’‘ and they can have a profound effect on a child’s destiny.
- Create a Genial Climate at Home. When I say create a climate, I’m not talking about stocking the play area with lots of expensive toys and gadgets. I’m really talking about psychological climate here – the attitudes that the adults around a child take toward his own learning and growing. First, give your child the freedom to choose learning activities rather than have them imposed him. Natural genius is self-motivated. Second, allow your child to engage in open-ended exploration of whatever he is most passionate about. Don’t put emphasis on his making a fixed product (e.g. a painting that can be shown to the relatives), but rather support his having fun with the process of creation for its own sake. Third, don’t judge what your child creates or does (e.g. ”oh, that’s such a nice drawing you did!). For the natural genius, doing the activity is its own reward. And finally, honor your child’s experiences even if you think they’re wrong or not ”real learning” (e.g. if your child enjoys making towers from blocks that keep falling over, don’t show him how to do it the ”right” way).
- Recognize that Genius Comes in Many Colors. Take care that you don’t let your own preconceptions about what being a genius means cloud your ability to see your child’s inner genius at work. Some people associate the word genius with being school smart, or being creative with art materials. But your child may have an entirely different way of showing her genius (e.g. an ability to imitate bird calls, a gift for entrepreneurship, a capacity for empathy when a friend is hurt). I’ve found Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences helpful in looking at a broad spectrum of learning capabilities (word smart, number/logic smart, picture smart, body smart, music smart, people smart, self smart, and nature smart). Many people associate genius with word smart and number/logic smart, but there are lots of other ways to demonstrate brilliance.
Perhaps the best thing you can do to reawaken your child’s natural genius is to really BELIEVE they are geniuses. There are so many labels out there for children, both formal (e.g. ADHD, learning disabled) and informal (e.g. unmotivated, reluctant reader), that it can be easy to fall into doubts about your child’s inner brilliance (or mistake it for being ”gifted and talented” which is more about taking IQ tests than anything else). What I’m talking about here is not just lah lah lah lilacs in the sunshine kind of stuff, but rock bottom reality. Neuroscientists tell us that a three year old child has twice as many brain connections as the average adult. The Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould claimed that the central feature of human evolution is neoteny – the retention of childlike characteristics into adulthood. This brilliance is real and should be fundamental to every child’s development. If you don’t believe in your child’s potentials, how can you expect them to believe in themselves? Remember what Einstein himself said: ”It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this, it goes to wrack and ruin.” Every one would agree that Einstein was a genius. Now it’s time for you to really believe in your child’s own genius – and remember, every child is a genius in his own way!
For more information about cultivating curiosity, creativity, imagination, playfulness, and other qualities of genius in your child in a school setting, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.
This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
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