What Does It Take To Produce An Exceptional Child?
A wag might remark that it's not all that difficult - just take a gander at the competition. A statistician argues that parents as a whole can't control for the result. A public school educator demands parents not try because "ability status" is pernicious. A psychologist insists that parents are only burdening their children with their own unresolved issues. A social worker claims that a home study is needed first.
But if you're a mother or father, even a prospective mother or father and excited about your new role, you're not listening. Instead your mind's eye already sees your children as more caring, brighter, informed, talented in some dimension like music, harder working, focused, reverent, loyal, honest, happy in their own skins than other children.
Although maybe you're not all that sure you know how to make that happen?
But the how turns out to be very simple. You produce an exceptional child the same way you produce an unexceptional child, by shaping their spirit in a manner calculated to produce that outcome. Because in the end it's all about a child's spirit isn't it? All about get-up-and-go, a child's vision of what's exciting, interesting and important, where they want to be some day and what they believe can be achieved? How hard they're motivated to work on relationships, their studies or improving themselves.
And how is a child's spirit shaped?
Well the evidence seems to be that it's produced by the inevitable hard knocks and hopefully a lot of Christmas mornings, with the affection they hold for parents, siblings, their grandparents. With some fears - often irrational. Later on sexual stirrings. But by and large what shapes a child's spirit from the earliest days are the morals they absorb from the stories they're offered. Indeed it's little understood in today's world but as a parent it's your job to feed their spirit with good stories as much as it is to feed their body with good food.
Sounds a bit silly though? Who has the time to fill a child's head with stories? When they're little you read to them at bedtime and it's a pleasurable interlude for both parent and child, but when a bit older shouldn't a child be gradually introduced to real life lessons instead? Real people and real situations.
We've lost sight of the fact that by and large it's stories which teach humans how to deal with real people and real situations in any meaningful way. Indeed stories are practice for life, for the game of life. And that may be their only purpose. Like football is first sketched out on a blackboard and then rehearsed on the field so that players can see their own position to relative to others and know what to do, stories step the child through various life situations in advance. Then sends them away with a plan for action we call the moral of the story.
And because they've had that had that practice, indeed in a very real fashion lived the role of the protagonist in the story, children remember the moral. Much better than anybody can remember a list of rules on a refrigerator door or what was said in one of the interminable lectures all too many parents inflict on their children.
Think back to your own childhood - for the average adult there are dozens maybe a few hundred incidents, little stories, you remember the moral of with great clarity, that is the lesson you learned from them, but at the same time have to struggle to remember names of the people involved or how old you were sometimes even where you were at the time.
That's the way it is with all of us; lists and rules fade in the mist of years but the morals of stories, the lessons we learned from our stories are with us forever. And forever nudge us in one direction or another, reminding us of what's right and what's wrong, what's good and what's evil or simply - what's smart and what's stupid.
Stories are the one common denominator among people. Everybody likes stories, good ones with an arc and moral that is, and that affection, even we could say our yearning for a good one, seems to be genetically hard-wired. Especially when we're younger and trying to figure the world out.
Stories as simple and illuminating as what someone did when their car broke down far from home at night or as complex and inspiring as a people's or a nation's struggle for freedom. Great stories don't even have to be true do, they? Think Shakespeare or Aesop's Fables, Robinson Caruso, Treasure Island and a thousand others.
Very important as well, perhaps more important, are narratives which unfold in real time as the child watches. Your striving or the moral you or some current event in your family offers. Because a story doesn't have to be read to a child out of a book, it can be acted out in mime over a lifetime or an afternoon and most often is, told in a play, a poem, a child's own independent reading, a movie or a ten second joke as long as, and this is vital, it makes that point. Offers that moral, that teaching or practical lesson about life.
It's why when we accuse someone of im-moral-ity we don't mean he or she is breaking some law, although it might be the same thing, but instead means they're not obeying to morals of the stories they listened to as a child. Which we assume, everybody listens to as a child.
And so stories are the basis of all conduct. Indeed every time anybody says something is right or wrong, they can only say that because there is a story and its moral supporting that point of view.
But it's a tragic fact of modern life that most of us have forgotten just where and how the morals are child will carry forward into life originate.
The good news for parents is that most of us are wonderful storytellers in the sense that we are usually acting out a good story in our own individual lives and so passing on one good moral after another to our children. And so you're more than half way on your way not only to a much more joyful and gratifying relationship with your children but with the additional of some other tales for your offspring to chew on, shape some really exceptional human beings.
The bad news is that parents are not the only ones feeding children stories and for many years now America has been grievously damaging its children with the specious morals embedded in in an endless and inventive series of stories masquerading as science. Stories with the intent of radically circumscribing the authority of parents while facilitating greater control of them by educators, psychologists and social workers - and their common agenda.
A program which at the end of the day doesn't allow for exceptional children, higher standards of scholarship or for that matter the exuberant embrace of one's life and loves which is the hallmark of the exceptional child.
Luckily the stories being foisted on our young in public, in college, in the media and by certain talking professions are not good stories because they don't excite the human spirit or much interest. They're boring, boring, boring. Just ask public school children about their textbooks, or about their teachers.
Yet for all of that these stories are still accomplishing their dreary mission. In great part because the system they operate in has excluded any others and because whenever one of these stories turns out to be the amoral fairytale it is, as they all invariably do, society rarely backs up and repairs the damage. In part because the practical result takes a while to fall to earth and poison the drinking water and busy parents, medical doctors or clergy usually have their attention engaged by the next weird story coming along but also because the storytellers producing these tales have so insulated themselves in certain institutions protected by law that it's almost impossible to shut them up. Plus there's the fact that the ideas these stories promote are always sold as reflecting a more caring or "progressive," more fashionable or modern point of view. And a lot us are cowed by that.
And so parents in quest of a better outcome for their child have a choice. Do nothing and hope that the twice a week violin lessons you send them to after school and the one hour of Sunday school make the difference, or scrape these people and their noxious stories off your shoe once and for all. Put your child 24-7 in way of much better, joyful more productive stories with better morals.
Happily if you do that, if you find a better school or home school, you'll find there are any number of healthy American stories which like grizzly bears dozing out of sight in the grass are ready to wake up and come in on your side. On your child's side. Stories which bite, of adventure and laughter and goodness, bravery, loyalty, competence, erudition and success. American stories, stories of the western enlightenment and the centuries long development of the concepts of unalienable rights, freedom, of people being the most you can be. Stories with morals you'll be anxious to arm your child with.
And see each of them on their way to becoming an exceptional human being.
Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most, Random House, BDD. The father of six children he lives and writes in the colonial era hamlet of Stone Ridge, New York. He blogs at richardfminiterblog.com and can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org