twinsTrain a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6

Serena Williams, Justin Timberlake, Yo-Yo Ma, Shirley Temple, Tiger Woods, the Olsen Twins, Michael Jackson, and many others are all examples of people who have done noteworthy things in their lives. They were all well on their way to a sucessful career, if not already in one, before reaching the age of majority. Few were necessarily child prodigies —  someone who at an early age masters one or more skills at an adult level. They were simply children who learned early what they were to do with their lives.

I wonder whether it is good for parents to steer their child toward a career at an early age.

What would have happened to these people if their parents had not directed them to indulge that one interest over any other. I don’t speak of parents who force their children into things that they are not interested in, hoping to turn their child into what they could never themselves be. I mean parents, like mine, who noticed something about their child and saw the potential for a life career.

If children whose parents noticed that they were interested in dissecting bugs and science-related television shows (e.g., Bill Nye the Science Guy, when I was little) were encouraged to learn more than the generally required science lessons, sent to science camps and taken to museum exhibits, would they be further along the way to becoming doctors and scientists? If parents of children who liked to draw everything that they see and build houses or cars out of legos and popscicle sticks were encouraged to go beyond average in those things, would they be more likely to become architects, engineers, and graphic designers?

Had my mother, recognizing my naturally analytical mind and tendency to argue my point, encouraged me to develop those skills and expand on that part of my personality, would I have known earlier that I wanted to be a lawyer? Would I have been better prepared for the tasks required of me both in law school and in future legal practice?

I have increasingly noticed middle and high schools geared toward a specific subject matter and even a few toward a specific career. I wonder if these schools are the new apprenticeships — teaching a child early in life a path which they can take in their career. I believe that a child who evidences a special interest or capacity would greatly benefit from clear direction to indulge his or her special interest. 

My mother was very attentive to me and supported me in everything that I did. As a child I wanted to be a dancer, and she guided me as best she could to do the things that would help me toward that career while still telling me that I could do anything that I set my mind to.

This also leads me to another question . . . what if parents send their child down the wrong path? I would assume that the strength of conviction and confidence gained from indulging in something at which he or she excels can only benefit a person throughout life — even if he or she never enters that field or changes careers at some point.

But there is still the question of what happens to the children of parents who attempt to live vicariously through their children, pushing them down a path that the parent, hopefully in good faith, is erroneously convinced  will be good for the child? I don’t know. If it becomes common for parents to steer their child in a particular direction, it would be increasingly difficult to prevent this from happening.

But I guess that I am holding a utilitarian view in thinking that the benefit to the many children who are not left to wander aimlessly could outweigh the, hopefully, small detriment to the few children who would suffer by their parents’ actions.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Jim Mumm

    This is an interesting take on this proverb.

    I’ve always read it to be more on the line of discipline – teach your children to be God fearing, honest, sensitive to others, self disciplined, (and so on) and when they are old these values that you, the parent with the help of God, instill will stick with them.

  2. Ashanti Cook

    Although I do think of this proverb in more than just a disciplinary light, I actually thought of it as I was pondering the questions. It seemed to me to be simply another aspect of life that a parent would have to train their child in along with discipline, personal and fiscal responsibility, etiquette, etc.

  3. Martin Tanz

    I don’t have an opinion about the Proverb, but as a parent, I have thought about the general trend of parents to push and overprogram their children in ways that may not be appropriate.

    It is one thing if you are the parent of a true prodigy, like a Michael Jackson or Serena Williams. In those cases, it seems unfair not to give your child the opportunity to develop his or her gift.

    But for every case of a genius or prodigy, there are many, maybe hundreds of thousands of examples where the parent has deluded themselves into believing that his or her child is “gifted.” Most assuredly, the vast majority of children labeled as gifted and talented are neither, but rather are normal perhaps bright children that have been pushed by parents to excel in one area to the exclusion of other pursuits. Rather than being a source of confidence, the unfortunate child whose stage mom or dad has pushed him or her into a pursuit, whether it be intellectual, artistic, or athletic is at greater risk of burning out prematurely and foreclosing what could otherwise be a source of lifelong enjoyment.

    It is in these cases where parents are more likely than not misdirecting their and their child’s energy in unproductive ways.

    And that is why we have this ideal of a liberal education. As a parent, you can and should encourage your child to explore his or her curiosity for a range of pursuits, from art, literature, history, science, music and sports.

  4. Ashanti Cook

    Martin, I looked up prodigy. Webster’s dictionary defines “prodigy” simply as “a highly talented child or youth.” I thought over common usage I felt that the word prodigy is generally used to say that someone has excelled beyond their peers. I don’t think that someone has to have an extraordinary natural talent to excel beyond their peers. They do have to have some talent, but I think that if there is some talent and some interest a push toward that pursuit is not a bad thing. It is only when a parent sees that a child has moved beyond the level that their child’s abilities allow or that the child has lost interest (not just temporarily as children do, but total loss of interest) and continues to push them is there a detriment to the child.

    The system of education that we currently have is far from ideal, and while giving children general education and options to pursue many things is definitely not bad, one must remember that it is the modern trend. Throught history children, who were in most cultures adults by teen years, were told directly what their career would be. They were either trained in the family business or apprenticed at an early age. There was little thought that one need love hteir work. Although, I think now that the ability to choose work that you love is a benefit of the modern trend of liberal education.

    I wrote this post contemplatively, not as a prescription to the world. I think back on how I showed and interest in dance and a talent for artistic expression, and I remember how my mother put me in all the dance programs that she could get me in. I never lost my love of dance and she never let up on me about doing the things that I needed to do if I wanted to dance. But, when she realized that my phsycial ailments and my curves were making a career in dancing unlikely for me, she pushed me again. This time she pushed me to expand my horizons, to look into things that she had previously allowed me to indulge in, but did not make me focus on because of my previous goal. I think that the youth who suffer from their parents interferance do so because of the delusions that you refer to. If a parent see that their child is losing interest or that their child’s instructors are worried about their abilities in this area or that their child for any other reason will have a hard time with that pursuit and continues to push them to do that thing above any other, then the child will suffer. If the parent does not allow the child to indulge in any other interest but the one chosen by the parent as their child’s potential future, then the child will suffer. If the parent tells their child that they should do more and different things when the child has an interest in only one or a few, then the child will suffer. If the parent refuses to allow the child to do something that the child is very interested in doing, then the child will suffer. In all of these situations, if the parent is not sensitive the realities of life and their child and is deluded about either, then the child suffers the consequences.

    I think, though, that the potential harm from pushing your child to excel in some area that they have the potential to do well in is less likely to cause major harm in a child than the many various other ways that a parent could interact with their child in all aspects of their child’s life. Children want love, and if they feel that coming from their parents, they will reap the benefits of their parents love, no matter how many mistakes their parent make…but that is just my opinion as well.

  5. Martin Tanz


    RE: the issue of prodigies, the notion I had in mind was of an extraordinarily talented child, far beyond the abilities of their peers. Looking back over your original post, I have to think that in at least some of the examples, these children were blessed with talent far beyond that of the average child. There is no shortage of stage moms or dads who really push their children into adult activities like acting, music, and sports.

    For every Richard Williams, Stefano Capriati, or Joseph Jackson, there are no doubt thousands of unknown stage moms and dads whose children, though pushed to their maximum abilities, just didn’t have the talent to succeed at the highest level.

    The problem as a parent is to have a sense of proportion about your child’s abilities and to keep your child’s happiness and well-being in mind (as opposed to the parent’s need for recognition) when pushing an activity, recognizing when you are enriching your child’s life and when you have taken things too far.

    Even in cases where a stage parent beat the odds and achieved fame and fortune for their child and themselves, it is no guarantee of happiness or a normal life. By many accounts, Michael Jackson was pretty miserable for much of his life, and being pushed into the limelight at such a young age had something to do with that.

    To wrap things up, despite our best efforts, most children are likely to wind up pretty much like us.

    If your child is a future Nobel Prize winner, NFL quarterback, or U.S. Supreme Court justice, hopefully those talents will emerge through the course of their normal experiences including school, extracurriculars, summer programs, part-time and summer jobs, and guidance from parents, mentors, family, friends, and clergy.

    And if your child falls short of such a lofty goal and winds up pretty much where you were or worse, you can’t beat yourself up about it if you did what you could to raise them to the best of your abilities and values.

  6. Ashanti Cook

    I begin to think that we are speaking about different things. I do not mean to say that parents should push their children to become “stars” in some field or another. I only say that if a child likes to play cops and robbers, and that is their favorite game, and their favorite TV show is Miami Vice, and they love to figure out puzzles, maybe you should find out what it would take to lead your kid into the law enforcement field. If they ever change their mind about it, of course that is something that the parent will have to be sensitive to, but steering a child toward a career and being a stage parent are not the same in my view. I don’t think the former is bad, and my views on the latter would constitute more than a whole different blog post.

  7. Martin Tanz

    I am sorry if I misunderstood your point. You started off your post with examples of stars, such as Serena Williams, Michael Jadkson, and Shirley Temple.

    In my opinion, the only real difference between a parent steering a child towards a career in medicine, law, law enforcement, or accounting, and a stage parent steering his or her child to a career in music or sports is one of degree, and perhaps the length of the odds.

    If your child has the aptitude, he or she has a greater likelihood of becoming a lawyer, doctor, or accountant if pushed (or as you put it “steered”) in that direction. The odds of becoming a gold-medal-winning skater, Grammy-winning pop star, or Oscar-winning actress are obviously a lot longer.

    Obviously, a parent should provide rules and discipline, perhaps even instill a work ethic. Pushed or steered? IMO, this takes things too far. I would prefer a gentler concept like guided or encouraged.

  8. Screenwriting Books

    Love the Bible verse. But like I was saying. It really depends on what the kid is adept at doing. As a parent, your sorta have to see which way the kid is headed and steer him in that direction by giving him encouragement. Like i do my 4-year-old. As long as that thing is positive 🙂

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