The boy’s father was a large, restless man. He was known for his quick temper and had changed trades many times because he had found it hard to settle down. By the time his youngest son was born, however, he had established a lumberyard and a shingle mill, which had allowed him to build a brick home for his family on the hilltop overlooking the town, complete with white shutters and a white picket fence.
The first thing he had noticed after his last son was born was the tremendous size of the child’s head, and he worried whether or not the boy would “grow into it.”
When the child’s questions started, and never relented, his dad found himself frustrated and worn out by the nature and the constancy of them. Once the mischief started, his father was convinced the only thing that would stop the misbehaviour was firm and frequent spankings. He even administered such discipline in public after the barn burning incident.
He worried about his son’s single-mindedness, even paying him at times to leave the books or experiments, in which the boy was totally immersed, to try something new. When the child failed miserably in school, dad was convinced that his fears were well-founded. His son was strangely different. Perhaps even stupid.
Does this sound like a modern-day family to you? Do you know, or perhaps have, a child who is bright and talented but who doesn’t seem to be able to comform to what is considered “normal”, especially in school?
Then you can sympathize with Samuel and Nancy Edison as they struggled to find the best path for their son, Thomas Alva Edison.
Clearly, these problems are not new ones. The encouraging part is that Edison survived his childhood, obviously, and went on to achieve things that changed the way the entire world lived. Even better, his parents survived to witness his success.
What can we learn from the Edison story?
- When we understand divergent thinking, we can tap into the potential of all those non-conforming, adventurous, unconventional, inventive and highly original children who can’t sit still and who ask endless questions. It is an uphill battle for these kids to concentrate on only one idea at a time (convergent thinking). Instead one idea becomes an explosion of other ideas, much like a tree branching out from a trunk into a million little twigs (divergent thinking).
- Asking these children to give up divergent thinking is asking the impossible and it simply is not fair to deny or try to destroy their nature. How frustrating would it be to be born and raised in the United States and then move to live in France, where it would be essential that you learn to speak French, if upon arrival you were never, ever allowed to speak English again. Ever. Chances are you might always think in English. Children need to be free to think in their “mother style” which should not be discouraged or punished.
- Once we understand and nurture their natural method of learning, we can help them develop convergent thinking skills, which they need to interact with the convergent thinkers they will work with in their lifetime. Edison’s mother allowed him to pursue learning in his own style, but did instill in him the discipline of study, so that he could harness diverse thoughts to produce amazing results.
- These divergent thinkers thrive when they have someone who is accepting and supportive of them, even in the worst of times. Edison often said of his mother, “She was the making of me.”
- While Samuel Edison might have been more comfortable if he could have disciplined Thomas into “normalcy”, he never withdrew emotionally from the son he found difficult. He stayed involved in the boy’s life and the overwhelming message was: I love you. I care about you. This is evidenced by the fact that Thomas Edison said he harbored no resentment nor anger toward his father.
- Historical records show that Nancy Edison would climb an observation tower where her son liked to spend time and talk with him there for hours. Parents need to make that kind of effort to connect with our children on their turf. It would be nice if all teachers had the time and opportunity to know and nurture students on an individual basis. Currently that is next to impossible, which is why it is so important for parents and teachers to form a team. Parents can tell teachers things the teachers don’t know. Teachers can observe things parents sometimes can’t see. Still it is essential to know the child. Because Nancy Edison took the time necessary to know her son well, she was able to help him enhance his strengths rather than just fault him for his weaknesses.
Parenting children with traits like Thomas Edison’s is not an easy task. Neither is teaching them. However, they are gifts to us, and our job as parents is to help them flourish. The sign Edison kept in his office bears a message parents and teachers should strive to put into practice when nurturing divergent thinkers:
There is a better way to do it; find it.