Archimedes. Omar Khayyám. Leonardo da Vinci. Maria Agnesi. Thomas Jefferson. Goethe. Steve Jobs. All of these people have something in common: they have been described as “polymaths” – people who are experts in multiple fields. Nearly synonymous with the term “Renaissance Man,” a polymath is unconstrained by narrow fields of study and finds virtually everything interesting and worth of study and mastery. Sound familiar?
Parents of gifted children often find that they are raising miniature Leonardos and Jeffersons, struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of interests and passion. Parents can find their children’s interests traveling from paleontology to history to space exploration to Impressionism and back, all before lunch. It can be daunting, intimidating, and even paralyzing. And it can also be thrilling and rewarding, invigorating, and even fun.
Here are five tips for raising a Renaissance kid.
This doesn’t necessarily mean yoga; it means that you’ve got to develop some flexibility, and to do that, you need to stretch. If you were raised that once you start something, it must be finished (and done well to boot), parenting a rising Renaissance kid will come as a shock. They change interests like they change shoes, and the insistence that they stick with something that no longer interests them will not be welcome.
A good practice is to treat commitments like a freeway: once you’re on, you can only get off at approved exits. There may be turn-arounds for emergency vehicles, but in general, you stay on until it is safe to get off. The same is true of sports, specialized classes, or other extra-curricular activities. Once involved, the child needs to remain until the next logical exit (end of the season, semester break, etc.). Disengagement is not a problem as long as it doesn’t leave anyone else in the lurch unnecessarily.
Read the groundbreaking study on the idea of strategic goal disengagement here.
2. Don’t Over-schedule.
This applies to both parents and children. Parents whose schedules are so busy that the least ripple in the pond capsizes the time boat need to dial back. Even though it seems like nothing can be eliminated, it must be done. When parents are overscheduled, the stress of it makes them unable to easily handle the fluidity of a child’s interests.
Flexibility and schedule rigidity are mutually exclusive because when your schedule has a little wiggle room, you can afford to be more flexible. Keep in mind that just because something interests a child, formal instruction or participation is not required, at least not right away. Wait a bit before you sign your child up for something to give it time to see if it is a lasting interest.
Read an important study on the effects of overscheduling teens here.
One of the most fascinating things to examine is the record that experts kept of their thoughts. Authors, artists, inventors, journalists, chefs, and scientists all tend to travel with notebooks in which to record their ideas, musings, and thoughts.
Give a child a quality notebook (bound, not loose-leaf), such as the ones made by Moleskine. Provide good quality pens or pencils as well, and let him/her write down the musings of the mind. You can find an interesting article about the notebooks of some famous men here. The British Library has interesting information about Leonardo’s notebooks here.
4. Keep Alexandria in Mind
Although the Library at Alexandria is most famous for its written treasures, it was actually a part of a larger museum that contained myriad rooms for the study of virtually every subject, and even an exotic animal zoo (note: do not be surprised if your child wants a literal zoo). Help your child develop a library that includes, but is not limited to, books. If the item is too large to feasibly keep in the home, record it digitally. You can create a document or PowerPoint, save it as a pdf, and upload it to create an online flipbook for free at FlipSnack.
PowerPoints can be uploaded to sites like Slideshare to create an online library of projects (tip: if your formatting messes up, save the PowerPoint as a PDF and upload that). Even sites like Pinterest can be used to organize learning. Use sites like Goodreads or Library Thing to allow a child to create a virtual bookshelf for those books he/she actually owns, as well as those that had to be (reluctantly) returned to the library or a rightful owner.
Organizing is often a hobby of gifted youth, and organizing the library is often a favorite hobby. Using a formal structure such as the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification protocol can actually be fun for young scholars.
5. It’s All in the Agar.
Agar is that jelly stuff that you put in Petri dishes to grow bacteria and other wonderfully intriguing things. Often, parents will contact Mensa worried about how to make sure their child is learning. “But how can I teach him?” they ask. The answer is as simple as agar: just make sure the environment is right for growing.
You do not need the latest educational toy or gadget. You do not need to invest in tutors and expensive summer programs. Just make sure the home is a an agar-rich environment, full of reading material, access to appropriate creative materials, and, the most precious resource of all, time to explore.
Be sure to read the work of Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek for more on the importance of play in brain development here.
Recently, my mother was speaking with a seven-year-old neighbor named Alex, who was explaining his newest venture – an import/export business. My mother inquired as to where he learned about import/export businesses. Did he learn that at school? “No!” he responded instantly. “I’m in second grade. You don’t learn anything in second grade. I read!”
His passion-filled voice carries the most important message we need to remember when parenting a budding polymath: don’t worry that one avenue is not providing everything the child needs. Allow him/her the time and materials to explore, and the mind will soar.
For more information, tips, and resources, I recommend visiting Mensa for Kids, or the Mensa Foundation’s fab Pinterest boards. Note: In the event that I become famous, in order to avoid future embarrassing accusation that I plagiarized myself, I originally wrote this article for the PAGE newsletter.
Are you raising a Renaissance Kid? Is something great working for you?