Every time the Olympics come around (winter or summer) I am thrown into contemplation about the difference in cultural acceptance between finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential athletic superstars, and finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential superstars of the mind. The whole world seems to understand and accept the need for these physically adept kids to have unusual coaching, to be withdrawn from “normal expectations of childhood activities” in order to focus on and develop their gifts, and to find some way to support their passions. Everybody seems clear that you have to “set the bar high” to encourage growth and improved performance, and that the child himself or herself needs real inner drive and passion to flourish in such a work-focused atmosphere.
This is not, of course, to say that the path from discovery to Olympic superstardom (or otherwise) is easy, for kids or coaches or parents. There are emotional prices to be paid all the way around. When we watch a youngster (or occasionally an adult) devastated at getting a silver (only second in the world?) as if they have failed, a twinge of annoyance may accompany the compassion. But we understand the cultural pressure to be “the best,” and its emotional effect. And we celebrate the moments when an excited newcomer says what a thrill it is to be at the Olympics at all, or a driven competitor dances with real joy at winning a bronze.
With every Olympics, as I listen to the stories about how these young or adult athletes are models for younger kids, who watch their heroes breathlessly, imagining their own future possibilities, developing their own passions and sense of personal power, I long for that same story to be told for and about our brilliant kids. NBC focused a moment last night on two kids from North Carolina (the state I live in) who traveled all the way to London to watch Michael Phelps go for more gold. The story celebrated the effect of role-modeling. And I got a little wistful.
But this year, fresh from the week of our most recent Camp Yunasa, I find myself processing this all a little differently. Yunasa is the Lakota word for balance, and we created the camp for highly to profoundly gifted kids in a quite purposeful way to focus on “wholeness.” There is a spiritual focus that pays attention not just to the unusual gifts these kids bring into their lives, but also to the meaning they can find in being and developing who they are.
Like most camps, Yunasa wants the kids to have fun, and like most camps specifically for gifted kids, one of the most important things campers get out of it is the opportunity to hang out with their “tribe,” to make friends with kids who get them, enjoy many of the same things, laugh (amazingly enough!) at their jokes. Yunasa is known for group hugs!
But we structure the experience carefully around five attributes of individual life: mind, body, spirit, emotions and social self and ask the kids to consider the need to give some attention to all of these.
My own hope is that our campers–particularly those who come back year after year–will become mindful of the meaning of their own gifts and passions, resilient in the face of the world’s lack of understanding, and resistant to a cultural message that defines the value of a human life in terms of competition and winning.
The contrast with the Olympics could not be clearer to me this year. The absolute focus on competing and winning is inevitable in these games. Add the national pride issue–which country wins the most medals–and for the first time I’m feeling also a little grateful that the spirit of the Olympics is not readily transferrable to nurturing our brightest minds.
Ideally, in service to the competition, individual passion and effort and skill are celebrated in these games. And teamwork, too. What I would love to see is the best of the spirit of discovering gifts, nurturing passion, effort, skill and cooperation that is exhibited in the training of Olympic champions provided also for young unusual minds–along with real celebration of those gifts! But I would also want for our mermaids/cheetahs a focus on the importance of the whole self and the meaning of that self in the tapestry of life.