4 Ways To Kindle Your Child’s Genius

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Unknown

Genius, commonly defined as “extraordinary intellectual and creative power”, is a term we probably wouldn’t use to describe ourselves or our children. We may believe we’re smart or talented, but most of us don’t think we’re all that extraordinary. Even if we are “a person who has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient, typically above 140”, we don’t typically imagine ourselves geniuses.

Far more exciting and productive is the definition of genius that educator Rick Ackerly subscribes to in an inspiring and informative book I highly recommend, The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity, and Creativity in Children. His perception of  genius: “…a great science teacher I know called it ‘the teacher within,’ and we all have it. According to James Hillman and Thomas Moore, it goes by many names: soul, muse, calling, psyche, and destiny. It is the you that is becoming. It is our inner author and the source of our authority in the world.”

Recognizing genius as our child’s unique essence leads us to approach parenting as an opportunity to discover, explore and encourage this “teacher within.” The sparks are already there. Our job is to figure out how and when to stoke the flames, and when to let them be. Mostly, it’s about letting them be.

We kindle genius by fostering our child’s innate desire to explore and experience her world independently whenever possible. What begins when an infant has the opportunity to choose to spend a few moments gazing peacefully at patterns of light on a wall, clouds in the sky, or a crack in the ceiling later becomes a toddler discovering a unique use for a puzzle – stacking the pieces instead of fitting them — no one interrupting to show him what he ‘should’ be doing.

Here are more ways to encourage genius…

Make boredom a friend, not an enemy.

Offering our children crafts, art projects and science kits, games and other activities, entertaining them with songs, books and outings encourages creativity (and can be precious time together), but our children are most creative and expressive when they come up with ideas all on their own. And although creative ideas sometimes come to us while we’re busy, they usually materialize in a relaxed, but not always comfortable, “bored” state in between activities. If adult-initiated activities are too close together, or passive entertainment like TV is always on hand to fill the void, children don’t have enough “blank” time and brain space to hone their inventive powers.

Infant specialist Magda Gerber didn’t believe it possible for babies to be bored unless they were conditioned to rely on entertainment and stimulation. She believed that what parents perceive as boredom is usually tiredness or other discomfort (and I’ve found this to be the case with my own children) and should be responded to as such. She taught parents to provide a fertile ground for creativity by 1) providing plenty of time for uninterrupted, independent play each day with simple, versatile, open-ended toys and materials; and 2) turning off the TV, at least for the first few years.

Less is more creative — thinking inside the box.

I recently had the pleasure of lunch with a highly creative couple, Lilly Bright and Evan Cole, RIE parents with a young toddler.  The conversation soon turned to one of my favorite subjects, children and play. Evan shared memories of a childhood mostly spent at his father’s pharmacy occupying himself for hours with nothing but empty boxes. When I asked if he thought there was a link between his rather minimalist, but highly imaginative childhood play experiences and his career choices, Evan (creator of two hugely successful home design stores) admitted, “I like making something out of nothing.”

I’m certainly not advocating doing away with toys. But our fascinating human tendency to create more and engage longer with less is something to keep in mind. The water balloon “babies” my sisters spent hours imagining stories with in the neighbor’s pool; the games like “Shoes”, one of many my sisters and I invented, which entailed struggling to be the first to find a matching pair of shoes among those hidden in my mother’s bedroom in the dark; the rolls of craft paper an artist acquaintance described entertaining herself with all day as a child, not just creating paintings and drawings, but making hats, skirts and scarves… These are all examples of genius at work.

Wait (the hardest part).

Encouraging genius means trusting, which often means waiting instead of directing, helping or teaching — talking a “bored” baby through the few moments of griping she has before switching gears and finding something new to engage her interest; waiting while our toddler repeatedly attempts to climb up and down the porch step, allowing him to discover how to do it rather than showing him. It’s waiting for an older child to express an interest in tennis lessons before we sign her up. When we go ahead and make decisions for our children in these situations, we risk taking their attention away from the guidance of an inner voice, and train them to be followers rather than original thinkers.

As Magda Gerber advised, “Be careful what you teach the child, you may interfere with what he is learning.”

In child we trust.

As their interests and talents manifest themselves, our children need our whole-hearted support and encouragement to continue to follow their inner guide, keep doing what they love. Our children’s dreams and aspirations may seem illogical, impractical or impossible, but to encourage genius we must trust them anyway.

Like many children, my daughter wanted to hold her parents’ camera and take pictures. So, on a camping trip with my husband at age 7, she asked and he said yes. Rather than photograph the people or beautiful scenery, she aimed her camera towards the ground and photographed rocks in a small stream. These turned out to be the most interesting photos of the trip, and the beginning of an unflagging interest in photography. A few years ago when she was 14, a friend took her photos to the owner of Diesel, A Bookstore who was impressed enough to invite her to exhibit them on his walls. We had them printed on canvas, and several were sold (including the one above) for hundreds of dollars each. We were flabbergasted.         

Trust the genius in your kids. They’re onto something.


(Leaf photo by char!lotte on Flickr. Photo of baby genius at work by Jude Keith Rose.)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Another fantastic post, Janet! The advice you’ve given has helped me become a much more relaxed, peaceful parent who is able to really enjoy her babies. Before I was so concerned about filling up their days with enriching activities (and also keeping them from fighting), and I just couldn’t keep up.

    I’ve implemented a much simpler schedule with lots of open blocks for the kids to play independently, and we haven’t turned on the TV in weeks. It’s so liberating for me, and I’ve seen a change in the boys as well: fewer meltdowns, more excitement about upcoming activities, and some serious creativity!

    1. Thanks, Suchada! And that’s great news. I think many of us are under the impression that it is a parent’s job to entertain. I certainly was orginally.

  2. I love this post! It was so important to me as my kids were growing up that they should be comfortable with thinking and dreaming time. I didn’t want to hear them say “Mom, there’s nothing to do!” in between activities. I always had plenty of ideas – but their ideas were often better than mine so I had to resist the urge to think for them! I agree – that starts with honoring the discoverer in every baby.

    1. Karen, thanks! There are two things I realize when I try to give my children ideas: 1) It’s hard for me to come up with them on cue. I need time and space, too, and 2) They say no to all of them anyway! So it’s pointless. I think they just like having the opportunity to reject me.:)

  3. Sue Ann Chilcote says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been reminded so often to sit back and observe during the care I’m providing for a 3-month-old baby. From the day she was born, there have been many, many times that I’ve had to “chain” myself to my seat, as I SO wanted her to look at me and interact with me, when what SHE was interested in, for example, was to gaze for long periods of time at the shelves along the wall. Those shelves have been a great source of fascination and joy for her; she sometimes looks at them for over 10 minutes at a stretch.

    I’m so grateful to have RIE training and to be able to catch myself when I’m about to interrupt the little genius while she is finding her own interests, without any help from me. With the care of this baby, I’ve become more aware of my own tendency (still) to want MY agenda to prevail at times–unnecessarily.

    When the baby finally looks my way, it’s truly because she wants to interact at that moment, after she’s finished (for now) her study of shelves and all the shadows, angles, objects, and probably more than I could ever get out of looking at shelves. I’ve long ago taken shelves for granted. She keeps reminding me about all the wonder there is in the simple things of life.

    1. Sue Ann, wow! Thank you for sharing this insight. I still feel the push-pull you describe when observing babies of all ages. It’s a challenge to let go of worries or agendas and trust a baby to communicate what they need and when, but a worthy one (as you are noticing!)

  4. I love this post! Sitting in RIE class just watching my son and his friends play, I saw that genius in each of the children. I incorporate this into my teaching as well. Let them discover, give them time to learn – I think this is applicable to kids of all ages. Thank you Janet!

  5. Our four-year old’s vacation photos are awesome. She takes them at her eye level and of things of importance, the drawers next to the bed, her stuffed animals on the turned down sheets, and the obligatory shot of the toilet.

  6. I love this post. I do daycare and it really makes me think about our day and how it is spent. Sometimes its ok to have some “lets create time” and not always a set craft or activity. Thanks for your information and well written post.

  7. Janet, I love your recent post to the effect; when you are considering an “enrichment” outing for your child, ask yourself who you are doing it for. Often the value of a activity has more to do with the motivation behind it that the actual activity itself. The limbic systems need to be aligned (I just made that up; I wonder if there is any scientific basis for alignment of limbic systems. Hmmmm sounds like possible PhD thesis) Anyway, I have anecdotatl data that limbic system alignment is crucial.)

    1. I believe your hunch is right on and I encourage the thesis… Go for it, Rick!

  8. Janet, I endorse every piece of advice in this post, but I find Rick’s teacher’s definition of genius a little troubling.

    While I can understand that using the word ‘genius’ might help attract ambitious parents to read your excellent advice (eg the Baby Einstein crowd who really do need to hear this), I guess as one of those people who actually does have that above-140 IQ, I’m aware that being tagged a genius (using the original meaning) is a very mixed blessing. I wonder whether acquiring that word for another purpose implicitly understates the many down-sides of actually having that sort of IQ.

    Being a genius is a form of special need; we would never use other special need labels out of context, and so I think we should be careful of using this one too.

    Which is not to understate the absolute value of what you say! I’m just uncomfortable with the misuse of the label.

    1. Agreed. Having seen the struggles many “gifted” children and their families have gone through, and having many friends for whom being bright has been a decidedly mixed blessing, I really do not want that for my child, even if she turns out to have a high IQ.

      I’d rather focus on things like resilience and perseverance, than being “a genius.”

    2. While I agree that “genius” is an idealized concept in no way does high IQ correlate with special needs. Also pointing out your IQ in this humblebraggy way just makes you look silly. IQ or “g” predicts academic success and people with higher IQ’s are more likely to be successful, end of story. There is an annoying subset of the gifted population that bemoan their intelligence to garner sympathy and be quietly boastful in the same turn. High IQ does not correlate (more than the average) with special needs, learning disabilities, or mental health issues. So really, who is co-opting the word here? I’d say it’s you

    3. Regardless of how difficult being a genius may or may not be, certainly changing the definition of genius is misleading and unhelpful. It is nothing more than hyperbole to use the term “genius” for things that are not that, and it does not serve parents or children to claim there is a “genius within”. There is no such thing. That is not to say that children don’t have unarticulated impulses that help them learn and act and feel throughout their development. Indeed they do, and can demonstrate quite a bit of insight. Parents and caretakers are wise to recognize this. Calling it genius may be just a matter of link-baiting, or simply misguided. For the basic operational definition of 140 IQ, that is between 1/4 and 1 percent of the population. Obviously not all children or most children are genius, rather hardly any children at all. Genius is by definition rare. Please don’t distract from the insights you have by using terms such as genius in ways that are misleading, or wrong.

  9. Thank you for another wonderful post! Your writing has really inspired my parenting style. My 4-year old daughter has been fascinated with ballet since she was three but I have not enrolled her yet to ballet classes. I really feel that the magic of ballet, in her imagination, will be taken away by formal classes. Right now, I just buy her books on ballet, we dance to classical music, we pretend we’re on stage (with a lamp as our spotlight), we tie ribbons around her ankles, etc. We’re having a great time but I’m also wondering if she’s missing out on anything (except recital make-up which I don’t like at all) by not taking ballet classes.

    1. Mariel, I love what you are doing! I totally agree about protecting the “magic” for your daughter. She is not missing out, quite the opposite, in fact. When you do finally deem her ready (I’d say to wait until at least 5 or 6 years old) she will have so much joy and creativity to bring to her dancing. These passions are far more likely to disappear with “lessons” than they are without them…

    2. Wow! That sounds fantastic for you both. What a wonderfully open, free way to develop your child’s interest. Plenty of time for formal classes! Thanks for inspiring me!

  10. I love what you have written here. I also (as a teacher/facilitator) feel that the best learning is done when the child initiates it. By all means supply a wide variety of open-ended resources and thoughts on what resources could be but if it is the child’s idea they gain so much more from it. I also love what you have written about the genius in each child. To me, the genus of the child is the thinker within and when children verbalise and materialise that thinking and those ideas, those are some of the most fantastic moments for the child and the adult! Thanks for inspiring me today!

  11. Great thought here, specifically about signing hem up for programs. My son is almost 4 and he is the only one of our group that isn’t enrolled in gymnastics, dance, etc. He’s currently running around (barefoot) in the front yard and playing in the dirt, I won’t take that away from him until I absolutely have to.

  12. miriam blau says:

    Thank you so much Janet.
    I feel like the great seeds of respectful parenting that was planted almost 75 years ago by Emi Pickler are growing so beautifully in today’s world in which it is so greatly needed.
    I feel that it is a puzzle of many pieces and every article that you send out is yet another piece fitting in and making me see what a beautiful picture it is.
    In the name of the parents of my daycare centers in Israel please accept out wholehearted thank you.
    G-d bless you and yours with many years of health and happiness. Keep on with your great work.

    1. Dearest Miriam, Thank you so much for kind, encouraging words. It is a pleasure and honor to be able to share the teachings of my mentor Magda Gerber, many of which came from her mentor Emmi Pikler. I could not be more thrilled to discover that others are finding this approach as helpful and rich as I have. Again, thank you for your lovely comment, Miriam, I really needed that boost today! With love, Janet

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