As a mother, I often dwell on my role and that of my husband in influencing our children. I also think about the roles their peers and their environment play in affecting their growth.
Are our children being challenged enough? Are they being taught responsibility, gratitude, and manners? Should they be focusing on one activity or many? Are they over- or under-scheduled? The list goes on and on.
Recently our 14-year-old daughter Maggie has been questioning me about her talents. Specifically, she has been wondering what those talents might be. My response most often has been to tell her that she has time to figure them out, and that, as a 47-year-old, I'm a bit behind the times. While that brings a smile to her face, I can tell she still wonders.
This line of thinking has led me to examine the roles of focus, practice, and talent.
While I believe that hard work matters and that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything (Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" comes to mind), I also believe that innate talent, God-given ability, comes into play as well.
Think of the extreme: No matter how long a tone-deaf person may practice the violin, she is not going to be able to play first chair with the Washington National Symphony. On the opposite end of the spectrum, extreme hard work does matter, because a talented lug who does no work will not go far, no matter how talented he may be.
Some parents seek to identify their children's talents or interests early in an attempt to help them focus their learning and practice and get an early start on the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert. However, an article I read this week in New Statesman concludes the opposite: that children do best if exposed to a variety of learnings and activities.
"The message is a happy one: The fad for encouraging obsessive ultra-specialization among children is not only misplaced, it is actively harmful. Sampling and diversity — not premature narrowness — are far more likely to underpin adult success. Childhood is good for children after all," wrote Ed Smith in "If you want a child prodigy, crack the whip early. But for longer-term success, parents should back off."
Smith argues that, while a few child prodigies go on to excel in their fields as adults (Tiger Woods and Serena Williams), they are "unicorns" — exceptions to the typical pattern of elite achievement. Many child prodigies burn out before we hear of them.
This raises the question of nature over nurture. Much of the recent political/education debate has focused on the correlation between socioeconomic status, or SES, and children's educational attainment, particularly at an early age.
A study published in the January-February edition of "Intelligence" concludes that, when genes associated with children's IQ's are identified, the same genes will also be likely to be associated with family SES.
"In summary, genetic influence is significant and substantial on family SES, on children's IQ, and on the association between family SES and children's IQ," it concludes.
While SES is correlated with early learning (nurture), it is also linked to children's IQ (nature). What does this mean? Both appear to be important. More importantly, this revelation might get us to expand the idea of intelligence (IQ, in this instance) to include other types of aptitudes.
While nature might provide each of us with potential, our environment gives us the opportunity to develop and enhance the talents given to us by God, and our own work is required to reach the highest level possible.
As for talents, our daughter has — in addition to physical grace and presence — a keen ability to read people, interact and teach others, connect through empathy, and think and plan strategically. Her ability to focus, stay on task and study for long periods of time will result from a combination of nature and nurture. In any event, it will serve her well when she decides how best to put her talents to use.
For now, Smith's idea of a variety of activities and experiences sounds appealing.
Jackie Gingrich Cushman is the co-author, along with her father, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of the book "5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours." Read more reports from Jackie Gingrich Cushman — Click Here Now.