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Book Review: The Genius in Children by Rick Ackerly

Topics: Thought Leadership Posted By: Carla Silver

At the annual meeting of the California Association of Independent Schools in June, I found myself with a lively dinner companion and conversationalist, Rick Ackerly.  In my years working in Bay Area schools, I had heard about Rick and followed his career as a school head of St. Paul’s in Oakland and The Children’s Day School in San Francisco.  It was a  fortuitous meeting; I made a new friend and colleague, recruited a first-rate keynote speaker for the November Leadership Seminar and discovered that Rick is the author of a new book, The Genius in Children: Bringing out the best in your child.   What follows is a review of this important book.

Don’t let the word “genius” in the title mislead you.  Ackerly’s book is not about children with “extraordinary intellectual power” – the definition you might find in the dictionary. He does not suggest that all children are geniuses.  Instead, Rick returns to a lesser used definition of genius: “the tutelary spirit of a person, place or institution.” He makes the case that each child has a genius, a spirit, spark, or as Rick call it,  “a unique me that is becoming.”  By nurturing that genius, we can help children to “maximize their potential academically, socially, physically, and personally.”

Reading Ackerly’s book resembles a conversation with the author himself. The Genius in Children is full of engaging personal stories from Ackerly’s forty-plus years as a teacher, principal, and parent of young children and young adults.  Each of these stories illuminates the underlying values of the book which include personal responsibility and accountability, self-discipline, perseverance, and resilience.  His primary message is that parents and teachers who display these characteristics and provide children with an environment that offers space for self-discovery will end up with adult children who are also responsible, disciplined, resilient, self-reliant, and who know their own genius.

RIck Ackerly is in the same camp as Wendy Mogul, author of Blessings of a Skinned Knee, and “Free Range Kids” blogger Lenore Skenazy in his belief that children need to be allowed to take risks, make mistakes, chart their own paths, and self-advocate without the constant intervention of well-meaning but meddlesome adults. In addition, he provides clarity on how parents and teachers can divide and conquer rather than duplicate the roles they play in kids lives. Parents should be parents.  Teacher should be teachers. Children should be children with their own authority. Rick adamantly tells the adults to “play position.”

The Genius in Children deserves to be on schools’ recommended reading lists for parents and teachers not because Ackerly shares groundbreaking new insights on children, but because his book is filled with common sense, experience and a deep understanding of the relationships between adults and children. In a world of increasingly anxious, hovering parents, this book reminds readers to back off, give children some space and authority to make their own decisions, to fail, make mistakes, to succeed on their own, and discover their genius.

What about the members of the administrative team? Yes, this is a read for them as well. This book is as much about leadership as anything else. Knowing when to act, when to speak, or when to do nothing at all – these are essential skills for all leaders. Having the self-discipline and insight to know when to take action or when to not engage – these are challenges for parents, teachers or leaders of any sort. But skilled leaders balance this tension.

This week at a birthday party, all of the messages of Ackerly’s book played out before my very eyes. I watched as my son’s school classmate clocked my child, hard, in the head. I didn’t see what had transpired before the punch, but my son is no angel, so I assumed there had been some provocation. My son came charging towards me crying.  The parent of the other child rushed towards us, dragging his son behind him. “Apologize!” he demanded.  There was a part of me that wanted to hear the child apologize, but another part of me that wanted to see what would happen if I “played position” and let the kids work it out – gave them the authority to decide what happened next. I poured them each a cup of lemonade and said, “It seems like you two have been making some bad choices with your bodies. Can you work it out?”  They each whimpered, took the lemonade and nodded reluctantly.  By the time the lemonade had reached their lips, they were back to playing as if nothing had happened.  It might not have been the resolution that most parents would have liked to see, one that included “talking it out” or exchanging apologies or “learning lessons,” but it was the resolution that made sense to them. They were over the argument without needing to exchange messages, hug, accept blame or follow the decorum that adults might impose on them. It was one of many “Rick Ackerly” moments I hope to have as a parent and educator.

Click here to read Rick Ackerly’s blog.  We are thrilled that Rick will be joining the SFLC at the November Seminar as our keynote speaker and guest faculty.