#102. Become an expert on something

IDEA #102: Become an expert on something: ball bearings, the moons of Jupiter, the manufacture of lip gloss, the art of Renoir. Learn as much as you can about the science or engineering or art behind your topic; offer to give a presentation on your subject to your class at school or to some other group.

At some point many children become at least temporarily obsessed with something, and parents or guardians can nurtures the idea of obsession and expertise. Even so, many other children have a difficult time latching onto something that is truly of great interest, and so it is the combined job of the family and the child to try to identify something that has the potential to become, if not an obsession, at least the center of a strong, deep interest.

Sometimes the subject can be elicited through a kind of Socratic dialogue with the child, trying to draw him or her out on some apparent interest, past of present. The interest might be related to sport, to family, to nature, to the arts, to a pet or a hobby—it does not matter. What does matter is that child begins to see value in amassing more than a superficial knowledge or skill and to reach the point where one piece of information invites the discovery of yet another, and so on, until the youngster’s knowledge may exceed that of those around and even become a source of pride.

Many school projects are designed around the idea that the student should find an interest and develop it, and the best of such projects succeed admirably in inspiring children. Sometimes the student may carry the interest forward with him or her, building upon it until true expertise is obtained.

There is of course a danger that a narrow and passionate interest will somehow run counter to the exigencies of mr-peabody-and-sherman-tv-showschool learning, or that the individual will indeed run the danger of boring friends and family with recitations of facts and figures. With regard to the former, a well-developed interest is regarded as the sign of a capable and disciplined mind, while it may be up to those friends and family members to help give the young expert some perspective on where and when a demonstration of mastery might or might not be appropriate. But the child who possesses the curiosity and the discipline to develop a strong interest has acquired intellectual character of a fundamental and important sort.

More on the Interested Child Mindset: On Doing Things Badly and the Cult of Expertise

We live in an age that venerates expertise and success, when children specialize in a single sport by puberty and when family cars accumulate miles transporting kids to and from lessons and tutorials, workshops and competitions. Ten thousand repetitions and probably as many tears are rites of passage for children bred to ambition by ambitious families, and mediocrity is viewed as failure.

We occasionally worry that The Interested Child may in some way contribute to this exhausting program of accomplishing. This regimen frames too many American childhoods and adolescences, starting far too early and ending too often with a hollow emotional thud! barely audible beneath the applause as college acceptances roll in or similar external rewards pile up. I’m not sure what values this promotes in the end, but I have my suspicions.

My grandfather, a reflective educator whose own library was filled with how-to books on subjects that interested him through his life but on which he was no expert, used to cite G. K. Chesterton’s contrarian take on the adulation of expertise: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” (We referred to this adage in a post a few months back.) I have tried to take these words to heart in my own life and parenting, and we are pleased to remind our readers here of their profound wisdom.

My interpretation of Chesterton’s maxim: If someone truly enjoys doing something, then let the pleasure of doing it take precedence over doing it perfectly or even particularly well. Enjoy the doing as an end in itself. It’s okay to let go of the mantra that failure is only a step on the road to success; enjoying something that we don’t do all that well is just fine—contrary to cultural messages that a thing is worth doing only if it yields an impressive line item on a c.v. or a profit.

I can think of only one area where Americans seem to allow themselves wide latitude in performance: golf. Duffers may strive for years to be better, but shooting par remains a distant goal for all but near-professionals. Most golfers are surprisingly philosophical about being average, or a bit worse, but for most golfers (at least the ones I have known) the camaraderie and perhaps the scenery seem to be adequate recompense for “a good walk spoiled” around 18 holes.

Our task is gently to urge our children to try new things and then support them in engaging more deeply with the ones they seem to like. But we must not, in our parental exuberance and our own embrace of the Cult of the Expert, push them where our hearts and hopes, and not theirs, are leading. If they enjoy something, take something away from an experience, then that might be as far as it goes. We can dangle carrots to entice and encourage, but we must not resort to even the most metaphorical of coercive sticks in our quest to help kids learn to identify, follow, and build upon their own interests.

I’ll offer myself as an example here. I have played the guitar for going on fifty years, but I’m not very good and unlikely to get much better. I own a nice instrument and early on I really did practice for the requisite hours to achieve “expertise,” but about thirty years ago I hit a plateau, and now I mostly play when no one else is home. But my limitations as a musician don’t limit the pleasure I take in making music.

We like to think of The Interested Child as a mindset, not a checklist or a roadmap—as a compendium of ideas that might intrigue, not an enumeration of imperatives.

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