Giving Children Space To Grow

The other day, a friend of mine gave me a book. The title of the book is not important.* What is important is the story behind the gift.

My friend is a pediatrician and mother of three children. As it turns out, they are all star students. The oldest two are attending famous universities, and the youngest has been accepted to a top school as well. Not that getting into a great college is the only index of success, or even the best one. But it is notable that all three children have chosen to play the academic game, and all are finding success.

It often doesn't work this way in families. There are many families in which one child -- often the oldest -- is a great student, but the siblings who follow aren't. They behave as if the "great student" role has been taken, and they choose different paths. One becomes "the artist," another "the jock," and perhaps another "the clown." Of course, it is possible that these roles really are the right ones for each child. But in many cases I think that what drives children is a fear of competition with a sibling who has already staked out a strong position.

In fact, this dynamic did affect my friend's family. Early on, the eldest son established himself as someone who loved reading and learning. His younger sister, looking up at this budding star, at first shied away from books. How could she hope to compete? And yet, my friend was able to help her daughter get past this fear and develop her own love of learning.

The key, my friend explained, was to find a book that her daughter would fall in love with, a book that was very different from any of the ones that her oldest son favored. The book my friend found for her daughter -- and the one she gave to me -- was a book of poems about colors and flowers. To a girl who loved pretty things, the appeal of this book was instant. Soon, the girl was reading more and more and writing her own poems. With the third child, it was a different spark that ignited the love of reading.

I'm telling you this story not because all girls need to love flowers, and not even because all children need to love books. I am telling it to you because it shows how a gifted parent finds the keys to unlock each child's talents.

A family is an ecosystem, with each organism striving to find a niche. In a family with several children, it takes a tuned-in parent to give each child the space to follow his or her own light. Once that happens, neither competition -- nor the fear of competition -- controls the direction they grow in.

* The book was Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O'Neill