Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be…

April 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m entering the last quarter of Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, and one of the themes throughout the book is the importance of parenting. Innovation is not fostered solely by schools; it starts with how a child’s imagination and playfulness are shaped in the home. Based on his experience with innovators and discussions about their young life, Wagner says that innovative children are more likely to develop when they are encouraged to explore various interests and activities as they progress through childhood and into adolescence.

The parents of the people that Wagner profiles didn’t drive their children to specialize; they didn’t encourage them to be only a volleyball player or only a basketball player or only someone that plays video games. Kirk Phelps, one of the early designers of the iPhone, said, “They [his parents] didn’t care all that much about what I was interested in; they were far more interested in the process of my finding out what it was that I was interested in.” The father of Shanna Tellerman, the founder of Sim Ops Studios, a company that developed a web platform for 3D design, said, “We basically let Shanna show us where she wanted to go. We had a sense of trust that she’d figure out what she wanted to do and would be happier for having made her own decisions. We never said she can’t earn a living with art.” Brad Anderson, former CEO of Best Buy said, “Creative problem-solving comes from being engaged with what you are doing. What I want most for my kids is that they care about and are engaged in something that matters to them — that their life is authentic.”

This isn’t to say that specialization is bad or that a really talented athlete or musician should not or cannot focus on a particular instrument or sport. Dedication can develop hard work and loyalty. It can also lead to mastery, to that excellence that we detect in any great composition, be it in art, drama, or sport. Taking a buffet-style approach to life can lead to an overly selective mentality that diminishes persistence, loyalty, and persistence through struggle.

Moreover, children need leadership. They cannot make these decisions solely on their own. Parents, after all, are there to parent. Having said that, Wagner’s book confirms how unwise it can be to weave a child’s identity around one thing only. Students are not omniscient; they don’t always know what they want. In high school, priorities evolve. But I’ve known some parents the last few years, some who are very well meaning, who rearrange their lives around their son or daughter’s sport, and it’s not clear at all that the child prefers that (one former student hated volleyball but marched on through club teams because of her father’s will). Other parents deter their children from pursuing passions in the arts under the belief that those paths will not make money.

The more I watch parents do this, the more I cannot defend it. We have one life; we get one chance to do what we are born for. Why would we do anything else?

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