For five days I’m writing about the most interesting methods people have used throughout history to raise brilliant children of all types. Yesterday I wrote A Mad Poet and a Sane Mathematician.
Around this time– a year ago, I longed to walk outside with my toddler or stand by the pond with my five-year-old checking out brand-new tadpoles. I wanted to bake bread or travel to Ethiopia or just drive an hour to visit my sister. But I couldn’t. I could wiggle my toes a bit and shift my weight from left to right, but no more than that– doctor’s orders. If I moved more than that, contractions began immediately. But the tiny person growing inside me needed to swim around in amniotic fluid another 15 weeks.
The slightly-open window behind my chair let in crisp air in waves. I heard swallows swishing around high in the sky and chirping. Birds so happy to have arrived safe from Argentina and ready to build spring nests under the eaves of my house. My toddler wanted to share my chair, but we couldn’t both fit. She cried and begged me to pick her up. Later, she dragged her wicker rocker and set it next to me. I read her books. My 7-year-old and 5-year-old brought me little snacks of oranges or cinnamon toast. My 10-year-old made pasta for lunch.
Several weeks later, resting still, this time in a hospital bed, I couldn’t focus to read. I couldn’t think in complete sentences either. I just lay there, with my uncomfortably quiet mind. Living requires action– and without it you seem barely human, let alone a competent parent of little children. I stared at their photographs taped to the wall in front of me. All those smiling faces kept me company. But I couldn’t touch them or kiss them. They couldn’t tell me the stuff they thought or what kept them awake at night. So still, I drifted in and out of mind for hours. One night, in a moment of both subtle desperation and fierce maternal agency a thought came to me. My mind’s eye followed the thought as it entered and spread across my consciousness. It is time to study my children in the way that thinkers do, with closed senses but open mind. The timing could not be better.
This thought– It is time to study my children in the way that thinkers do, with closed senses but open mind, expanded until it took up so much mental space it squished the limbic helplessness out of my soul.
I’ve wanted to study the lives of sixteenth century Spanish monks or figure out how the Universe really began. But figuring out Creativity from its simplest reduction to viral idea-spreading– that I could study until I die. And here I had time!
Instantly I felt the luckiest woman in the world– with a laptop, speedy internet access and several bright children with budding creative powers to think about and later observe. That night I started Creating-Brains, this blog. I also e-mailed my friends with the link so they’d read my first post and make it all official before I chickened out.
Months earlier, I had read the most interesting book on human development theory– Jean Jacques Rousseau’s classic Emile. Here Rousseau writes the life story of his young aristocratic charge– Emile and chronicles his growth to astonishing mental independence. When Rousseau ends his tutorship (20 yrs. long) he introduces Emile, a virgin thinker, to the world.
So how did Rousseau raise Emile? Here are some highlights:
- Never wore binding clothes.
- Ran around barefoot, even in Winter.
- Took frigid showers outdoors, even in Winter.
- Lived in a bare cottage, alone with his tutor, in the countryside.
- Ate plain food.
- Cultivated one habit– Have no habits (no bed time, no wake time, no set daily schedule whatsoever).
- Knew no books, was not read to and did not know how to read until age 16.
- Had no friends.
- Learned through experience only ( i.e., poking a real skunk to learn it stinks, and not reading about it).
- Led his own life with little human interference.
- Had a tutor who followed him from afar outdoors, but sat with him to discuss humanity’s grandest questions to close a day.
- Could ask his tutor anything and get a question for an answer.
- Ran free.
- Lived happy.
- Thought for himself.
Rousseau’s Emile was an imaginary character (Rousseau was a philosopher, after all). But the methods used to educate Emile influenced Western thinking about childhood development and education for two centuries. The Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, the Idler in the UK and the International Unschooling movement are examples of today’s Rousseau-groupies.
But what does Rousseau’s Emile have to do with me hanging out in the hospital, far from my charges? Plenty (stay with me here). First, disclosure– a host of loving , sometimes fun, but always responsible people cared for the kids when I could not. Also, Super-man (a.k.a.my husband) cut his work days dangerously short to come home. He also spent too many nights awake nursing sick kids (yes, they all got the flu) or warming midnight bottles for our toddler. But back to Rousseau and me: in gist– my children lived a lot like Emile. Rousseau theorized and Emile turned out super human. But real children, I learned by being away, do not thrive cultivating the habit of no habits. Also, real children grow confused, rather than fonder, for lack of gentle touch. But worse of all, the independent life reeks of danger for little ones and free-thinking is small without limits.
I resolved, then, as I began to study my children to also study their broken mama and by sheer mindfulness and consideration, we’d learn to live right. Together we’d learn to live the Creative life, which, as I’ve written often since my first post, is not without habits or discipline.
Several years ago, I would have disagreed with every iota of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother– the book I’ve mentioned several times in this series. I would have suggested Emile’s lifestyle as the enlightened (and opposite) alternative. Not today– Chua’s not totally wrong. Discipline does breed brilliance. But Chua is fundamentally wrong, because disciplined skills without philosophy make for hollow output.
So there it is. I’ve told you another piece of my story and dragged you through contrived concepts. But, stay with me…there’s more to come!
I’d love to hear from you and learn what you think. Leave a comment. I love reading comments!
Filed under: Childhood, Complexity, Constraints, Creative Families, Parents, Philosophers, The Child, The Scientist, What Hasn't Worked for Me Tagged: | Amy Chua, Creativity, Creativity in hard times, Emile, Jean Jacques Rousseau