I went into my son’s room today to retrieve some long-lost item, and found myself hit by a wave of nostalgia. Esai is in the process of moving out and into a house with 9 (9?!? Don’t say it, I know) other second year students. I’m entitled to a bit of momma sadness, aren’t I?
Anyway. I was looking at the bookshelf that takes up an entire wall of his room. It is in a state of disrepair at the moment, as he sorts what needs to go with him and what he can leave behind. But, even in its messiness, it struck me that there was a lot of diversity of artifacts to be found on its shelves.
There are books, of course. Everything from Tolkien and Kogawa to Chris Hadfield, guides on the Anatomy of the Brain and Guinness Books of World Records. There is no shortage of books in our home, and I am proud of Esai’s range in interests, genres and knowledge.
But beside the books are other bits and pieces of his 18 years of life. His baseball trophies sit alongside of his work ties. He was a mediocre baseball player at best, which was heartbreaking for his baseball-loving coaches of a dad and a grandfather, but something I was secretly glad of. Esai is one of those kids who found ways to be successful at almost everything. Baseball and visual art are the two things he struggled with growing up, and I am glad he had those challenges. The work ties make me smile; I love the irony in the fact that this teenager has to wear a tie to work every day (as a manager at a fast food restaurant) while my husband avoids them like the plague. Irony aside, I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to go out and work, and learn how unpleasant it can be sometimes, requiring perseverance, and how proud you can be of a job well done, requiring celebration.
Then there are the other reminders of his life. His Robotics trophies sit beside his Royal Conservatory of Music exam results and on top of a picture from his 3rd birthday. The picture is a reminder of when he got his beloved kitchen set, so he could be a famous chef, just like Emeril Legasse. I remember his daily (hourly, sometimes) cooking shows he would put on for us in our living room. At the time, he wanted to be two things when he grew up: a tv chef and a midwife (he was strangely addicted to a reality tv show A Baby Story).
I read an article recently about the perils of early specialization in sport by John O’Sullivan. You can read it here
In brief, he uses a variety of sources to explain why our recent trend in North America to train up children in a single sport from a very young age can be detrimental to the intended outcome: making him or her the best in the sport. I smiled when I got to the part that mentioned the only exceptions he could find were training in figure skating and gymnastics, two sports I am quite intimately aware of, and know all too well the dangers and pressures of early specialization in them, but also the sad necessity for that.
It got me thinking beyond sports, though. I wondered if we – parents and educators – were doing too much to create specializations for our children in school. I wondered what factors contributed to this. Does giving numerical grades for subjects before middle school force children (and parents and teachers) into thinking they are “good” at one kind of learning while not so great at something else? Does cutting secondary school down to four years (from the previous possible five in Ontario) force students to abandon learning opportunities that would broaden their scope of experience rather than focus it down into only exactly what they will need for post-graduation? Do we treat some students differently because we don’t believe they will ever cut it as a …. fill in the blank here with your choice of labels – mathematician, athlete, writer, musician, reader, explorer.
My son is not likely to be a famous chef. Or a midwife. Or a baseball player. Or a professional musician. Or a lifetime burger flipper. Or a Guinness World Record Holder. But if he hadn’t tried out all of those skills along the way, I don’t know if he would be the kid I’m proud of today.
Some of the structures perpetuating this specialist thinking are bigger than any one of us. Although I am skeptical about giving of grades to 6 year olds, I can’t change that. But I think there are things that we can reflect on and change individually to better the lives of the children we support. How do we, educators, ensure that our students have a wide range of experiences on their bookshelves? How do we build that diversity into our learning opportunities and the willingness to try them into our young charges? How do we, as parents, convince ourselves and other parents to let go of the parent guilt-traps that drive us to want to have an NHL draft pick candidate by age 10? How do we, parents, encourage our kids to experience things they aren’t great at, and then sit back and let them struggle through it?
Growing up isn’t easy, and it doesn’t fit into nice little boxes. It should be messy and unpredictable. Sometimes it will be frustrating and sometimes cause pride and elation. All, of course, with the goal of preparing us for adulthood, which is just as messy and unpredictable. Sometimes a bookshelf isn’t just a bookshelf; it is a jumbled collection of life. And what is better than that?