Total absorption is a key state of mind for fostering creativity, and in this sense many gifted children are already well equipped. We’ve all tried to get a student’s attention when he or she is either thinking deeply or involved in a fascinating activity.
Though difficult for parents and teachers to deal with, this ability to be consumed by interesting material or a favorite pursuit is important and should be nurtured whenever possible.
How did Lewis succeed in narrowing his interests just enough to be able to develop those relatively few abilities? Because he had the attention to choose the most important ones.
That attention lay within, where all these activities and talent areas called so loudly; all at equal volume. Gradually, through years of listening, he learned to distinguish the loudest of all, and that was when he began to gravitate toward his life’s work.
Gradually, sometime in high school, Lewis began to settle in to a few activities out of the half-dozen or more that had pulled at him for so long. More and more he gravitated toward photographing and writing about his building projects, whether he was working with wood or metal. Thus he synthesized three or four creative areas, and began to earn money selling articles to magazines. This motivated him to continue these activities.
Cello playing, I was relieved to observe, became a much-loved hobby; something he’ll never let go of. He fits in his practicing whenever he can, certainly not every day, but often enough to stay in shape and enjoy it.
As I watched the fortunate metamorphosis from the child who was overwhelmed with too many interests to the young adult who had begun to meld several of these interests, I began to realize how this had happened.
When my son Lewis was in early grade school, I thought he’d never be able to settle down to anything because he was good in so many areas. He wanted to play the cello and the piano, build shelves and tables, study microbiology, invent things, do math, read, draw, and write. Later on he developed a serious interest in metalworking and photography.
It was impossible for him to do it all, and in dismay I watched his cello playing and writing slip far down the list to make way for the design-and-building activities his mechanical mind needed. I had to let go of my expectation that he would practice the cello and write every day because I finally realized that I shouldn’t work against whatever was calling him the loudest.
That letting-go turned out to be the key to the focus he eventually achieved.
When a gifted child is good at many things, he or she may have trouble deciding what to focus on. This is especially true in early childhood.
Abilities develop slowly under these circumstances because it isn’t humanly possible to pursue eight or ten activities and do them all well.
Parents and teachers worry about these children: how will they ever be able to settle on a career? How can they choose among all their areas of talent so at least a few can be developed?
Less than a week after we stopped, Lewis began begging to resume cello lessons. I wasn’t surprised; neither was I all that surprised by my own eagerness to start up again.
I sensed that in the depth of my giving-up, I’d found a better way of dealing with Lewis, and that he too would change. He knew that if I were going to teach him music, he’d have to become more flexible and open to at least some of my instruction.
When we sat down to our first post-meltdown cello lesson, the change in both of us was amazing. We could work together.
Bumps and rough spots still lay ahead, yet they never derailed us again. Somehow we’d learned to cooperate, and this give-and-take, though it arose out of a discouraging, miserable episode, helped us from then on.
For days after discontinuing Lewis’s cello lessons, I was so miserable that I could barely drag myself around the house, and Lewis was, too. We both missed his cello lessons, yet I just didn’t see how to resume them in a productive way.
The only good thing I could detect in my total giving-up was that it felt absolutely genuine. It was not a ploy to get Lewis to change his ways. I’d simply reached the end of all possible effort in his cello lessons and saw nowhere to go.
After too many years of struggle, I finally told Lewis, “I can’t give you cello lessons anymore. You seem unable to use any of my information or advice; therefore there’s no point in continuing.”
I don’t recall his reaction except that he was upset. So was I, only it didn’t hit until late that evening after Lewis was in bed. Then I sat on the couch with my husband, Ellis, and cried and cried.
“I tried as hard as I could,” I sobbed. “Lewis and I both did. What went wrong?”
The day arrived when I could no longer tolerate cello lessons in which Lewis pushed away all my advice and teaching. I knew he couldn’t help it; I knew he had to learn independently. Yet this left me wondering just what my role was.
After five years of trying to figure it out, I finally gave up. I’d tried everything: total hands-off; observation-and-questions; sneak in information where and when I could; and teaching by stealth. The latter was mostly in watching for opportunities to bail him out of the tight spots he inevitably worked his way into. Nothing helped.
When my son Lewis was about seven, I should have been able to predict my meltdown over his cello lessons. He’d been playing since age two-and-a-half, and even though I’d achieved considerable insight into his learning style, I still felt too often stymied.
Why, for instance, did he have to learn everything his own way? This single trait puzzled me and tried my patience more than anything else.