Many roads parallel to academics

Many roads parallel to academics

It takes a different kind of parenting 'to let children be' so as to let them succeed in their own ways, writes Aruna Sankaranarayanan.

Many roads parallel to academics

Nowadays, many urban, middle and upper-class parents chalk out their child’s developmental and career trajectories almost right from birth. The race to the top starts with admitting a toddler to the ‘right’ pre-school. From kindergarten to high school, the child is shepherded to various academic and non-academic classes with the hope of building a versatile champion. An A-student who also wins accolades in music, karate and dance. A go-getter who cracks competitive entrance exams to make it to a premium college.  Then, the job with a lucrative salary follows.

What most educated parents, and we, as a larger society, don’t realise is that this is only one of the many umpteen paths that leads to success later in life. In his 2013 book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman argues that “There are so many different paths to success.” He weaves in autobiographical details from his own life to show that talent or IQ are not the be-all and end-all of achievement. He argues that other factors like “opportunity, perseverance, or motivation” can offset the disadvantage of a “less than stellar IQ score.” Thus, people can make their mark in the world through varying combinations of a multitude of factors.

Kaufman’s own life is a testament of how an individual can defy the odds when the cards of success are stacked against him. As a child, he suffered from around 21 ear infections by the age of three. He was later diagnosed with central auditory processing disorder, a condition that makes it difficult to process auditory input. Understandably, he lagged behind during his early school years, and had to repeat Class 3. He received special education and felt that his teachers generally held low expectations of him.  However, Kaufman felt he was more capable than what he could demonstrate at that point. His desperation is evident when he writes, “All I wanted was a chance.”

When he entered high school, an astute special educator felt that Kaufman was not being challenged adequately in special education, and helped him shift out to the mainstream. Kaufman was elated even though he would not have any accommodations that were provided in the resource room. Given his academic experiences, he became deeply interested in the construct of ‘intelligence,’ and read up on it as avidly as he could. At college, he studied and examined research on human intelligence. He went on to become the scientific director of The Imagination Institute at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania.

While talent, intelligence and creativity are typically understood to be the staples of a successful life, Kaufman argues that there are “many drivers of success.” He argues that other psychological constructs like hope, passion, mindset, self-regulation, grit and deliberate practice can also play an elemental role in determining what a person accomplishes. Instead of focusing narrowly on academic achievement, we should allow our children to blossom in myriad ways so that they may tap their individual, social, emotional and personal strengths.

In a similar vein, Professor Alison Gopnik, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, argues against “prescriptive parenting” in her 2016 book, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children. She advises parents not to have a “goal of sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult.” In today’s zeitgeist, parents feel pressured by social and cultural forces to lead kids towards a predefined goal, whether it is a power-packed corporate job, a stellar academic career or an Olympic gold.

In order to fulfill this quest, parents try to micromanage children’s time so that their wards are always engaged in ‘productive’ pursuits. However, as Gopnik sagely reminds us, the acid test of being a good parent involves having “no control at all over my child’s adult life.” Gopnik exhorts us not to think about the destination but instead to give children the “sustenance for the journey.” 
According to Gopnik, we need to create “a rich, stable, safe environment…in which variation, innovation and novelty can blossom.”  Just as a skilled gardener creates a “whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties,” we, too, should provide a nurturing space that adapts to the vagaries of weather and seasons. 

In his book Emotional Intelligence, first published in 1996, Daniel Goleman quotes renowned Harvard educationist, Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences fame. In an interview with Goleman, Gardner says, “We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them to identify their natural competencies and gifts, and cultivate those. There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to succeed, and many, many different abilities that will help you get there.” If all parents and educators hold this vision, our children are more likely to tap their hidden potentialities and shine in unexpected and refreshing ways.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA, Bengaluru)

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