“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s
longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they
belong not to you.” – Kahlil Gibran
When my two children were small, they each had their favorite books. The books that they wanted me to read to them over and over again. They never seemed to tire of the same stories and often memorized many of the passages. My son loved Ming Lo Moves the Mountain, Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like, and The Story about Ping. My daughter, on the other hand, loved biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller, any story about overcoming adversity and service to humanity.
Today my son is a Chinese scholar, while my daughter is a professor and counselor focused on helping people navigate challenges in their lives. I tell this story to emphasize the importance of carefully observing and deeply listening to children, for they will reveal how we can best guide them.
A child entering into the world has so much to learn. Practical skills like reading, writing, spelling, computer technology, but they also have the task of finding their way in the world, their purpose. How can adults in their lives best support and guide them? What skills and knowledge are important for children to acquire collectively and as individuals?
The word education in Latin means “to draw out from.” However, all too often, children are seen as empty vessels that need to be filled with information. I propose that we ask, “Who is this child, and what skills will they need to fulfill their purpose?” Of course, all children need to learn basics, but skills and talent can be applied in many directions. If I had insisted that my daughter learn Mandarin, it would have been frustrating for her and for me and a waste of time.
Years ago, when I lectured about education, I often told a variation of the story The Animal School by George H. Reavis. This allegory is about the dangers of standardized education and the ignoring of the unique qualities of each individual child. My version included an imaginary school whose students were a rabbit, a bird, and a fish. The curriculum in the school included running, swimming, and flying. The rabbit, bird, and fish were all expected to master all three. The rabbit was a great runner, an ok swimmer, but terrible at flying. He spent all his time trying to learn how to fly. So much so that he became a mediocre runner. The bird had to work very hard to learn to swim, weakening her natural ability to fly, and the fish spent all his time trying to run and became a poor swimmer.
Of course, it would be ideal for each child to receive a completely individualized education, but we know that this is not practical in crowded schools, and when teachers are often overworked. However let’s not underestimate the power of perception and words, or even handing a child a single book on a subject that enlivens and motivates that child in the direction of their passion and purpose. My most memorable teachers were the ones who recognized my inner nature and steered me toward knowledge and experiences that helped me to manifest my strengthens.
There is only so much time and energy in a day, and yet our world has become more complex, and with these changes, our expectations of children have increased. In order to lessen their burden, it is important for teachers and parents to be detectives, looking for clues in behavior and conversations that reveal the fundamental nature of a child. When a child is inspired by their interests, he or she becomes a willing and enthusiastic participant in the learning process.