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Inspiring children to be ALL that they can be

After 18-20 months, we've all had, even the idea of 'potential' feels overwhelming. Since March 2020, there's been the potential that we would be locked in our houses, there's been the potential that our children would be banned from going to school, the potential that we would lose our jobs, the potential that we could get a fatal virus.

But what if we had multiple potentialities that were inspiring not scary, exciting not terrifying. A while ago, I watched an inspiring TED talk by Emilie Wapnick. In it, she describes a type of people she calls ‘Multipotentialites’ – those who have a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime. I watched it with great interest as I have always been one with multiple interests and even now am embarking on a change in a career I trained for years to obtain.

You can watch this highly engaging talk here (click on image):

Wapnick begins her talk by asking her audience if they have ever had to respond to the question: ‘What do you want be when you grow up?’

She highlights that this question had been the cause of anxiety for her and others, noting their concern comes from an idea that there is something wrong with a desire to try multiple subjects and hobbies. She went on claim that the question of ‘"What do you want to be when you grow up?" inspires kids to dream about what they could be, it does not inspire them to be ALL they could be’

As teachers and parents, we are preparing children for an unknown employment market and as Covid 19 has proven, unknown events, therefore asking children to provide us with a static idea of what they want to be when they grow up is both misleading and futile. Instead, it is more useful to encourage children and young people to identify their, possibly many, passions and interests.

Reject the singularity complex

The question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ evokes answers such as ‘a gymnast’, ‘an astronaut’ or ‘a teacher’. As Wapnick notes ‘you can’t reply with twenty different things, though well-meaning adults will chuckle and be like “Oh, how cute, but you can’t be a violin-maker and a psychologist. You have to choose.”’ She then displays the image of Dr Bob Childs, a violin-maker and psychologist.

Asking children what one thing they want to be when they grow up limits the multiple possibilities that could easily be afforded to them. Wapnick asserts that this singular thinking of ‘our one true calling’, where we need to figure out the one thing that we are meant to do and ‘devote our life to it’ is highly romanticised in our culture. I found this part of the talk relatable because, as a child, I remember telling people I wanted to be a "fashion designer and a psychologist, who worked in advertising" and being incredibly frustrated when told this wasn’t possible. Straight away, I was restricted – I either had to be one or the other. The impact our words have can either hold back or encourage an individual.

Allow them to embrace their many passions

Encourage children to do anything that interests them. This not only introduces them to all that the world has to offer but also places them within this world and helps to identify their values. By offering the chance for your children to engage in many activities, you’ll enable them to identify their passions. Some children may have one interest that they want to delve deeper into without distraction and this is perfectly fine. Yet, there may be others who want to try multiple things.

Wapnick believes that multipotentialites have an ‘ability to morph into whatever [they] need to be in a given situation’- adaptability is a valuable skill for children to learn. Our unpredictable economic world is changing at such an escalated rate that the only for our societies to do is change with it. Embracing your child’s many passions and activities encourages their adaptability. Furthermore, being supportive of all your child’s passions and interest your love and your willingness to assist them in whatever activities they pursue.

Still explore commitment

In her talk, Wapnick is not suggesting that multipotentialites should flit from one subject to another in a non-committal manner. Instead, she suggests becoming ‘well-versed in multiple disciplines’. This cannot be achieved without absorbing or fully explore a subject.

Children and young people may consider giving up when a subject becomes challenging. This is different to no longer finding a subject interesting. It may indicate self-esteem issues. By teaching your child or student persistence, you can help them to stay focused on their goals, no matter the obstacles. For this, they will need to learn self-belief by prioritising their values and analysing where these fit in with what they are doing and how they view themselves. Help them to learn what is important and what isn’t. Let children try out new opportunities while encouraging them to see the activity through any difficulties and not quitting just because something is too difficult.

Teach them that no learning is wasted

Your child may legitimately lose interest in a subject or area they have previously taken a great interest in learning and this is okay. They may have spent an hour learning how methods of Capoeira or honing their musical skill by learning an instrument, only to no longer feel passionate about it. This is a waste of their time and possibly, your money. Not necessarily. Believing that you are wasting your time by not dedicating your life to one skill or career choices reduces your world to restricted prospects.

On my thirtieth birthday, while driving to work at a school with a toxic headteacher and uninspiring career trajectory, I realised that I could not see myself in that role for the next thirty years until I retired. The accompanying disappointment and feelings of failure over the ‘years wasted’ in a career that I have since decided to change were debilitating. Yet, as Wapnick notes that ‘many skills are transferable across disciplines’. I had gained years of teaching experience in primary schools that I felt would be wasted when I realised that I couldn't be a primary school teacher anymore. Yet, I now find myself in a role where I get to share those experiences and the knowledge I have gained with other people who want to be teachers. As Wapnick claims; by bringing everything I have learnt to the new area I am pursuing, I am not learning from scratch.

I, like Wapnick, feel that, as parents, educators, and a society, we have ‘a vested interest in encouraging multipotentialities to be themselves’. The complex, ever-changing world we live in is dependent on the adaptive future generation. Instead of aiming for children and young people to achieve their potential, we should be aiming for them to achieve their multiple potentials. We should inspire them to be ALL that they can be.

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