Ideally, all able children should be capable of reaching their potential, whatever that might be and in whatever direction the pursuit of that achievement takes them and this should be particularly so for the highly intelligent. School should work for them all and an ideal school situation should provide them with all the academic stimulation necessary to point them on their way to career success. A perfect, model home environment should offer them all they need to ensure emotional and intellectual health for the rest of their lives. It does not always work that way of course I told the worried parent with whom I had an elongated early morning conversation.
When reading of the upbringing and childhood experiences of many of those who grew up to be outstanding men and women an extraordinary and fascinating body of information can be uncovered. If only the Edisons and Tolstoys were still here to regale us with the problems they encountered and give us the benefit of their experience.
For many a long year we have been told that everything of consequence begins in the home and the way you shape your child’s life will ultimately define what kind of adult he or she becomes. If your child doesn’t shape up then you know that somewhere along the line you went wrong. But it isn’t always quite that easy as we are all aware. Parenting, by its very nature, demands an impossible amount of time and tolerance and often the outcome is not quite as rewarding as one might have hoped. You produce a fearful, insecure son with all the resulting raft of behaviour problems and from all you are told, believe all too easily that his insecurity stems from deprivation – you did not distribute enough of your love, you were not always kind, you were quick to criticise, were sarcastic occasionally and in any case you’ve always preferred his well behaved sister! You can’t win.
We worry about whether the home we are providing is a happy enough one. Is our child being held back by a gloomy atmosphere when she comes home from school?
Well…..possibly, but on the other hand the brutality and lack of care documented below would suggest that despite all this, most able children can still rise to dizzy heights of prominence and celebrity. So possibly my telephone enquirer should try not to worry quite so much. She hadn't heard of John Ruskin but then to be perfectly frank I hadn't heard of him myself until I began to delve into the childhoods of the later-to-be-illustrious.
John Ruskin’s mother, I told her, was a strict evangelical puritan and did not allow little John many toys and even refused to let him play with a puppet theatre a kind aunt bought for him. No books except the Bible were allowed on Sundays. His mother was overprotective and when he went to Oxford she went with him, taking rooms nearby. Now you could say she was just a concerned, loving parent, but according to her son she was the trigger for all that later went wrong in his life.
General Gordon (she did know of him) claimed in adult life that he could never get over the fact that as a child he was urged to believe that every word of the Bible was literally true and for that reason he totally rejected all forms of faith. He was clearly a very tough critic. Even worse was the plight of poet Edmund Gosse who came from an Exclusive Brethren family and never ate a meal away from home or received visitors. His parents liked to discuss Theology after tea and did not allow Edmund story books – even fairy tales were denied him. He, too, did not forgive them easily although as a clearly able boy he could have learned much from all those after tea discussions.
You might imagine that completely chaotic homes would be somewhat happier. Not so! Sir Patrick Hastings` father was frequently on the verge of bankruptcy, drunk most of the time, and regularly disappeared for months at a time leaving his family without any means of support. His mother was an artist, totally absorbed in her work and a hopeless parent although she seemed to have an abiding love for her children. Young Patrick felt he had a miserable childhood. The home of George Bernard Shaw was similar and he claimed that most of the time his parents abandoned their children to care for themselves under the occasional supervision of the servants. He felt that he would have had a better deal had the family been too poor to afford servants and later described his childhood as `eccentric to the point of anarchy’. He strongly believed that his mother in particular should have taken greater care of his diet for example, rather than leaving him to eat and drink whatever he pleased. There are children out there in today’s world who would envy him!
Lord Clive, later of India, also suffered from lack of guidelines. As a toddler he was sent to relatives in Manchester to be out of the way of his arthritic father who was prone to violent rages. The couple who became his caregivers loved him dearly and could deny him nothing. Young Clive became rude, arrogant, impetuous and dominating. He was expelled from one school after another as posses of parents descended upon Headmaster’s offices to demand his removal within a very short space of time after each enrollment. He apparently led bands of young hooligans through the environs of greater Manchester, breaking into toy shops, stealing from market stalls, and generally terrorising the locals. As an adult he blamed this delinquency on his family.
Dramatist and writer Anton Chekhov, was a victim of a despotic parent. His father was badly educated and irrational; he is said to have had a woeful ignorance of how to bring up his children and was brutal in the extreme. The adult Chekhov frequently referred to his father as a vicious despot who beat him regularly for minor misdemeanours such as not attending properly in church, playing instead of doing his lessons, and taking too long to carry out errands. In later life he claimed that this early lack of love made it impossible for him to love others. He would have enjoyed being kind to others, he maintained, but found it impossible to do so.
Frederick Delius was one of twelve children. He was another deeply unhappy boy whose parents were tyrannical. When Frederick achieved fame they showed little or no interest and never went to a single one of his performances.
Rudyard Kipling never got over his parents taking him to England from India when he was five or six and leaving him there without any warning. His guardians were not ideal and he got frequent beatings. They took away his books when they found he was reading for pleasure and made him learn long passages of the Bible by heart. As a result of this his eyesight deteriorated and he began to do badly at school. So badly in fact that he systematically destroyed his school reports instead of handing them over. His mother returned to rescue him some years later but he was never able to come to terms with the unhappiness of those years or forgive her for them. Though to be fair, in spite of his bad eyesight didn’t he do well?
Some who were later to achieve greatness grew up with a different kind of insecurity and deprivation. Leonardo da Vinci was illegitimate, taken from his mother and raised by a foster mother. He was not treated badly but he felt that his whole development was damaged by this separation from his birth mother. Lawrence of Arabia was also illegitimate His father was a baronet married to an unpleasant woman known as the Vinegar Queen with whom he had five daughters. He had a long affair with his children’s nurse and eloped with her. The outcome of the union was five sons, one of whom, Lawrence, was severely emotionally affected by the family situation. Jonathan Swift’s father died shortly before his birth and his distraught young mother handed him over to foster care when he was a few days old. He did not see her again for three or four years. He always felt that his life had been `poisoned from the start’ and he never emotionally recovered. Samuel Johnson grew up in a home where conflict was ever present between his parents which caused him great distress. Froebel’s mother died when he was a few months old and he was left largely in the care of neglectful servants. He never came to terms with the fact that his father remarried a few years later and apart from teaching him to read, took little interest in him. Rousseau was also a motherless infant. When his mother died after his birth, his father immediately left for several years and went to Constantinople. His older brother, a boy of twelve or thirteen, disappeared at about the same time and Jean was handed into the care of an aunt and uncle who were dutiful but failed to love him as he felt he deserved. Toulouse Lautrec grew up in a house that resounded with hatred. His parents held no love or regard for each other at all and tried to exist as strangers. Nevertheless Toulouse was spoiled by his mother who lavished all her attention on him..........all very fascinating, and more later!