child development

‘Our Little Engineer’: Are We Cultivating Natural Talent or Limiting Growth?

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As an infant, my daughter was obsessed with buckles. She could spend hours figuring out how to open and close them. At a year, she could manipulate a five-point harness. Even back then, we used to say, “That girl is going to be an engineer, just like her Poppa.”

Then, around eighteen months, she got very involved in blocks. Except before she could build anything, she has to sort the blocks by shape, color and size. Only once they were all organized could she build her masterpiece. Around that time, our friends and family started saying, “She’s so analytical!” And they weren’t wrong.

Everywhere we look, our daughter likes things organized and logical. If they aren’t the way she likes them, she’ll put them that way. She enjoys taking things apart, almost as much as she likes putting them back together. She’s curious and extremely observant. Honestly, if I wasn’t watching her grow up in front of me, I would never believe that a child could be so naturally-inclined in a specific area.

My natural inclination, when I see the way that my daughter enjoys problem-solving and analysis, is to encourage her. I like to find toys that she’s interested in or set up things for her to figure out. Most of the people who know my daughter have realized the way her mind works. The phrase “our little engineer” has become a common one when she’s in view.

So my question is this: when I buy my daughter lacing cards (she’s currently very frustrated by not being able to tie her own shoes) instead of art supplies, am I helping or hindering her? Should I be trying to help my daughter branch out into new areas or developing the skills that she’s already shown? With young girls, we often worry about directing them towards princess toys or conversations that only deal with their appearance. We don’t often speak about focusing on math too much or the dangers of too much instructional play. But do we need to make sure that we’re keeping a balance between the imaginative and the analytical?

My daughter and her left-sided brain also tend to be perfectionists. In fact, we’re having a hard time working on writing because she gets so frustrated that her letters don’t look like mine. That whole shoe-tying thing I mentioned, she gets so angry that she can’t wear tie-shoes right now because she can’t tie them all by herself yet. Directing some of her energy to creativity could help her better problem solve. It could increase her ability to think outside the box. And it could be fun! She could learn to enjoy it.

Imaginative play is extremely important. But so is constructive play. I’m not really trying to argue the merits of either, because I think we can all agree that they both have a place in children’s development. However, if our children gravitate towards one area naturally, should we, as parents, try to make them balance their interests? For answers, I turned to an experienced early childhood educator, Denise Cross. Yes, she’s my mother and yes, it is extremely helpful to have such a knowledgeable resource at my fingertips.

“It’s important to provide a mutlitude of experiences but allow your child to choose their area of interests. And with a pre-school age child, those interests could very well change. You have to give them space to decide what excites them. It’s like putting a child in soccer at age 4. If they start to show talent in that sport, then you continue to put them on soccer teams and in soccer camps. They play soccer for fifteen years and never explore any other sport that they might be interested in, like gymnastics. You need to have readily available materials to let your children try different things and explore other areas.”

The truth is that right now, my daughter does behave like a little engineer, but that might change. And no matter what she’s interested in, I want to help support her and encourage her growth. We don’t need to force our children into activities that they don’t enjoy. But we shouldn’t be shocked or disapproving if our little engineer suddenly wants to be the next Degas.

(Photo: Thinkstock)