Viewpoint

Reaching Their Potential - Snags And Snares Along The Way.

Jean Hendy-Harris

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. 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.

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.

Unhappy homes…..

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

John Ruskin’s mother 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 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 enrolment. 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.

Over Anxious Parents

You might blame yourself for being somewhat over anxious about your son or daughter, particularly so in the case of a first child, or an only child where over anxiety almost goes with the job description. Take heart - you may not be quite as neurotic as you imagine.

Feodor Dostoevsky was never allowed out of the house by himself or to associate with anyone outside his immediate family. H.G.Wells was told he must not play with local children because they were rough, vulgar and common. William Pitt was allowed to go to University but his mother insisted that he be accompanied by a nurse in case he should become unwell. Alfred Nobel was desperately loved by his mother who shared his bedroom for years in case he should want something during the night. Marcel Proust was a clingy child whose parents doted on him. Until he was a teenager his mother stayed in his room each night until he went to sleep so that he would feel secure. He hated her to leave his side even for an hour or two and cried bitterly if she did so.

Pushy Parents

Have you ever been described as somewhat pushy by your son’s class teacher, or even by a member of your extended family? Do you sometimes ask your talented daughter to play a Chopin waltz for visitors? Did you once send some of your son’s poems to a publisher on his behalf? If the answer is yes, then it is time to swell the ranks of the ambitious.

Mozart’s father was the archetypal pushy parent, treating him like a performing bear and dragging him across Europe to show him off.

Carl Weber’s father was convinced that Carl was another Mozart, putting him through an intensive musical training and showing him off to all and sundry. Beethoven’s father felt much the same about little Ludwig and forced him to practise for hours on end on both violin and piano, even hauling him out of bed late at night to do so.

Samuel Johnson claimed in adult life that his parents exhibited him like circus animal and were perpetually relating tales of his brilliance to the neighbours. He particularly accused his father and felt that the man had been too old when he was born and that consequently he treated him more like an exotic pet than a child. (Sadly, I have been unable to find the age of Mr. Johnson at Samuel’s birth.)

Early Developers

Babies who meet their milestones early, who crawl around at six months, having already developed several teeth, who demand proper food at one year, ask for French lessons at three, and violin lessons at four are a joy to their parents as they regale all who will listen with a list of their ever increasing abilities. They are well on the way to becoming Rhodes Scholars.

Well, why not? Jeremy Bentham was only twelve years old when he went to Oxford, getting his B.A. at fifteen and his M.A. at eighteen. Picasso could draw long before he could speak. Handel was well known for his musical abilities at the age of six and by eleven was a competent composer. Haydn also developed early and composed a mass at thirteen. Mozart’s precocity is legend. Beethoven first played in public at eight, Rossini was thirteen and Schubert was fourteen. Mendelssohn began to compose and play in public at nine, writing works for violin and piano. When he was fifteen he wrote his first opera. It is said that when Chopin was a pre-schooler he would weep with emotion when he heard music, and he learned to play the piano long before he learned to read and write. His first compositions were written at the age of six. Brahms was very precocious and while still a child he became a bar room pianist.

Home Schooling

You may be considering home education for your child – either to keep up with his growing intellectual needs that are not being met by his school, or to keep him at the educational level considered normal for his age if he is lagging behind.

You may be fearful that if you do so, your child will suffer both socially and educationally. Take heart from stories of the home schoolers of the past.

Blaise Pascal was educated by his father, who gave up his government position in order to devote himself to this task. He particularly wanted Blaise to learn because of an innate curiosity rather than be taught by rote. Subjects like Geography and History were taught via discussion at meal times rather than in any formal manner. He also believed classics to be more important than mathematics. Later when his son stumbled upon mathematics he demanded to know why he had not been taught this exciting subject. He was promised maths lessons once he had mastered Latin and Greek.

Karl Witte’s father documented the home education of his son in great detail. He had unusually strong views about how it should take place and therefore it began at birth. He felt that such a regime would produce genius no matter what the child’s potential. He was a village parson and in order to take on this momentous task he resigned from his parish. Baby talk was avoided and Karl was encouraged to speak early, and properly. The Wittes decided that they must never speak harshly to each other in Karl’s presence and that they should always behave in a manner that they hoped he might emulate. All disputes and discussions about unpleasant subjects were avoided. Karl’s diet was closely monitored to ensure that he ate only those foods that were good for him and avoided foods with too much salt, sugar or spices. He was taken to concerts and operas whilst very young as well as local markets and village fairs. He had very few toys, being encouraged to look around him for playthings. His parents did not like him playing with other children for fear he would learn bad habits and only capitulated under pressure from friends and family. However, Karl quickly did learn bad language and began to tell lies so the friendships were quashed, his father stating that he believed the idea that children needed others of similar age in order to grow up normally was absolute nonsense. The Witte system seemed to work. At nine Karl was sent to Leipzig University after being given a special dispensation. He got a Ph.D at the age of thirteen. At sixteen he was made a Doctor of Laws and appointed to the teaching staff as a professor in Berlin.

John Stuart Mill had an almost identical home education although the Mills believed in motivating their son with little rewards which would have horrified the Wittes. James Mill believed that there was little in the idea of genetic inheritance with regard to intelligence and that given an intensive regime of education, a genius would emerge. Therefore John was taught Greek when he was three and once he had mastered it, mathematics in the form of simple arithmetic was added to his timetable. He was not fond of arithmetic but nevertheless was able to teach his younger sister this subject by the time he was eight. At the same time he was now learning Latin, Algebra and Geometry. At ten he began Astronomy and Physics and at twelve Philosophy and Logic. He was largely protected from the company of other boys until the age of thirteen when he was sent to France to stay with friends and to be introduced to Swimming and Fencing. He found this social experience quite shocking apparently. However, he was able to recover and went on to use his quite remarkable education to fight for social issues such as equality of opportunity, free education for all and women’s rights.

John Wesley was mostly home schooled by his mother who got up before five am each morning in order to do the job properly and continue to run her household efficiently. Hers was a large family and the older children had to help teach the younger ones.

Jeremy Bentham was taught by his father until he was ten years old. It was an intensive routine and there was little time to mix with other children, and when he did so the other children were made to feel like idiots compared with Jeremy, with many jokes and rude remarks made about their academic abilities.

Goethe was also home schooled and private tutors were employed to teach him various subjects. Later he said that he greatly missed the company of other children.

Lord Tennyson was educated at home for a number of years, though sent to school at the age of eleven and so was Anthony Trollope. Until he went to Harrow at fifteen or sixteen, Nehru received all his education at home, mostly from private tutors.

Unrecognised Ability

For long suffering parents, one of the most worrying aspects of parenting is that the child is said to have significant intellectual potential but stubbornly refuses to achieve at any level. Other, supposedly less able children win the maths prize, head the class in spelling and get stars on their progress charts whilst your child’s chart does not even get a smiley stamp for effort! And this failure in life may start very early. Not for you the baby who walks at ten months and speaks in sentences at one year, who sings in tune at the age of two, demands to be taught to read at three, and plays simple melodies on violin or piano at four. You become adjusted to the fact that your daughter’s abilities seem to be dismal and she is never going to cause awe and envy in the community. Never lose hope, however.



Edouard Manet was totally inattentive, showing no interest in anything that went on around him as a child, including art. Leonardo da Vinci seemed to be totally disinterested in what went on at his local school and therefore did badly. Sir Joshua Reynolds was thought to have no aptitude for art whatsoever, neither did he excel in any other area. Gauguin did not paint or draw at all as a child and was a very bad scholar. Picasso’s family were particularly worried about his failure at school and Van Gogh displayed no evidence of artistic ability.

Rossini was described as lazy, Beethoven’s composition tutor thought him hopeless and Verdi was rejected by the Conservatoire at Milan when he applied for entry. Sibelius was inattentive, Delius was lazy and disruptive and Sir Edward Elgar showed minimal promise.

A number of prominent scientists fared no better. Charles Darwin writes that he was considered by both school and family as a little below average in every area. Sir Isaac Newton was in the bottom form at the local grammar school for a number of years though he improved over time. James Watt was considered intellectually dull and as for Edison, he was always bottom of his class and described by one teacher as having an `addled brain’ – whereupon his furious mother removed him from school and taught him herself. Einstein as we all know was regarded as anything but bright and caused his father great distress with his poor school reports. Louis Pasteur was hard working but learned very slowly. Carl Jung’s teachers thought him idle and a trouble maker.

Writers and poets fare no better. Jonathan Swift did very badly at Trinity College, Dublin, failing most examinations. Oliver Goldsmith was described by school staff as `stupid’. Wordsworth made very slow academic progress and Sheridan was described by his parents as `an impenetrable dunce’. Thomas Chatterton was felt to be a dullard and better placed in a special school, Jean de la Fontaine was thought to have a nice nature but to be almost ineducable. At Harrow, Lord Byron only interested himself in sporting activities and Honore de Balzac was described as being `in an intellectual coma’. Thomas Carlyle failed to get his degree and Charles Thackeray was thought to be only mediocre. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is said to have been a bored and fearful schoolboy and Anthony Trollope said that the only satisfying thing that happened during his schooldays was getting into a fight with an older boy and beating him. Emile Zola was a very poor student, scoring zero for literature in one exam and Yeats was thought to be mentally subnormal because he found learning to read almost beyond him. Leo Tolstoy had numerous problems, his teacher saying of the three Tolstoy boys, `Sergei is willing and able, Dimitri is willing but unable – and Leo is both unwilling and unable!’

And what of statesmen, soldiers, politicians and religious leaders?

Napoleon achieved nothing whatsoever at school and Wellington made only moderate progress being placed fifty fourth out of eighty students in his final assessment. Joseph Chamberlain worked diligently but was thought to be only average and Cortez who later conquered Mexico was so difficult he was regularly threatened with expulsion. At Eton Gladstone showed no promise whatsoever. Winston Churchill was generally considered to be stupid, always being at the bottom of the lowest form at Harrow. Franklin Roosevelt was generally liked by his teachers but they did not feel he showed any great promise. Aneurin Bevan was kept back a year when he was nine years old and at his local Sunday school was thought to be such a trouble maker that one teacher said she would resign if she had to teach him. Thomas Cranmer was placed thirty fifth out of forty two in the Cambridge B.A. exam. Warburton was thought to be dull in the extreme and capable of little academic progress. Karl Marx was an average but certainly not brilliant student. Baden-Powell did not stand out in any way, hovering near the bottom of the class always though his conduct was considered to be satisfactory.

Lord Beaverbrook’s parents were told that he would never make a success of life because he had no ability to concentrate.

A surprising number of those who were to achieve greatness were expelled from schools and universities, among them were Hernando Cortez, William Penn, Shelley, Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allen Poe, James Whistler, Charles Makepeace Thackeray, William Rontgen, and Guy de Maupassant.

Parents of the to-be-great expressed considerable disappointment in their offspring. Wellington was thought by his mother to be a moron, Darwin’s father was bitterly disillusioned at his son’s lack of academic lustre. Louis Pasteur’s father miserably proclaimed that the boy would never make anything of his life. Mrs Shaw held low expectations for the future of George Bernard as she thought him incapable. Anxiety as to the future of their children was also voiced by the parents of Churchill, Yeats, Wordsworth, Richard Wagner, Schubert, Flaubert, Samuel Butler, Toulouse-Lautrec and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Dyslexia, & Other Learning Problems

After much searching and lurching from one expert to another you might come up with some sort of diagnosis. Your child has dyslexia – or ADHD – or Aspergers Syndrome. You breathe a sigh of huge relief – at least you now feel you understand why learning is so difficult for her. A little investigation will reveal that some children who went on to achieve significant successes in life had first to struggle with major learning difficulties.

Mathematics proved to be beyond many of them, including Schubert, Gogol, Wagner, Conan Doyle, Ghandi, Alfred Adler, Picasso, Epstein and Jung.

Wellington, Thomas Carlyle, Darwin, Nehru and Churchill found languages all but impossible.

Reading, spelling and grammar caused a number of the students sleepless nights – George Stephenson, Henry Ford, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Napoleon.

A number were very slow to speak or had speech impediments – Alessandro Volta, Einstein, Somerset Maugham, Emile Zola, Michael Faraday for example. Many were also said to be very clumsy – Napoleon, Beethoven, Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton, Leonardo, Branwell Bronte and Baden-Powell.

Poor Health

It could be that physical health problem is causing concern. Asthma, Allergy, Epilepsy, or something more complex and serious.

Many famous men and women had significant physical problems as children or were said to be delicate in some way. A number such as Churchill, Voltaire, Isaac Newton, Charles Wesley, Victor Hugo and Anna Pavlova were very premature and not expected to survive. Others were born after difficult labours and their outlook was considered to be poor - Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Robert Stephenson, Samuel Johnson, Picasso and Thomas Hardy.

Descartes was said to be a sickly boy who rarely left his bed, Blaise Pascal had tuberculous peritonitis as a toddler. Christopher Wren’s delicacy caused his parents much worry but he lived to be ninety. Thomas Gray was the only survivor of twelve children so naturally his parents worried about him. Jonathan Swift was always pre-occupied with his health, as were his family. Horace Walpole’s mother was told that her puny baby would not live to be one year old. The Earl of Chatham was said to have suffered from childhood gout. Mozart’s early years were punctuated by lung infections and fevers and he had smallpox at the age of nine or ten. Sir Walter Scott had poliomyelitis. Chopin and Liszt were both repeatedly struck down with childhood illness. Charles Dickens seemed to suffer from wheezing, possibly asthma and Albert Schweitzer was more often ill than well throughout his entire childhood years.

A number of the children suffered from various forms of epilepsy – Alexander the Great, Pythagoras, Julius Caesar, Peter the Great, Napoleon, Pascal, Paganini, Swinburne, William Morris, Van Gogh, Mohammed, Lord Byron and Dostoevsky. Some were more afflicted than others, Edward Lear having up to twenty fits each day.

Samuel Johnson was deaf in one ear, William Cowper partially lost his sight at the age of eight, Edison became almost deaf at twelve, and Kipling had ongoing problems with his sight. Helen Keller became both deaf and blind as the result of an illness as a toddler. Louis Braille lost his sight as a result of an accident. Both Goldsmith and William Penn were horribly disfigured by smallpox.

Some of the children grew very slowly and never reached average stature – Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Nelson, Wren, Alexander Pope and Lawrence of Arabia. And most people know of the particular physical problems experienced by twins Chang and Eng.

Despite their handicaps all the above children went on to do well. The story of Helen Keller, in particular, being inspirational.

Early Behaviour & Character Traits

When we note a particular personality trait in our two year old (hysterical screaming when unwanted food is presented, refusal to sleep like other toddlers, etc) we comfort ourselves with the fact that the terrible twos can be difficult but they will grow to be perfectly ordinary, reasonable nine and ten year olds. You cannot always rely on this, although many do of course. Just as alarming is the list of individuals whose early idiosynchratic peculiarities remain with them, often for life.

Beethoven was said always to have been headstrong and obstinate, rude and ill mannered. Cezanne was also obstinate and prone to furious outbursts of temper. Van Gogh was shy and had a most unsociable manner. Toulouse-Lautrec was hyperactive and disobedient. Bunyan was easily frightened and suffered from nightmares. Goethe had wild temper tantrums on a regular basis for his entire life. Wordsworth was stubborn and difficult to discipline – and remained so. Lord Byron was unpopular and eccentric. Keats was always in fights with other boys, Alexander Dumas cried very easily, Hans Christian Andersen lived almost entirely within the world of his own imagination. Nietzsche was a quiet, introspective child who enjoyed singing hymns andreading the Bible. Other children thought him ridiculous. He did not like to play games, preferring to sit and think. Oscar Wilde hated games and exercise of any kind all his life and was clumsy and awkward. Conan Doyle was another very aggressive child, given to fighting and argument. Yeats was easily frightened and cried a lot. He was the perfect target for bullies.

Edison was always up to mischief and particularly fond of arson. Saint Francis was a wild reckless boy, but said to be very generous and popular with his peers. Charles Wesley was serious and thoughtful and rarely got into scrapes. Mary Baker Eddy was given to hysteria and often became unconscious which was terrifying for her parents. Bismarck liked to dominate his school friends and was bad tempered when thwarted. Lord Montgomery was also dominating as a child and was said to always have shown leadership qualities and strength of character. Florence Nightingale is said to have been rather eccentric with passionate ideas about right and wrong.

Our progeny can seem almost bestowed upon us and we often find ourselves faced with almost a changeling child, a son or daughter bearing little resemblance to anything we had in mind or could have imagined; a child who seems to have nothing in common with brothers and sisters and to have inherited little from either parent.

We cannot send them back or exchange them for a more suitable model so maybe the only sensible course is to observe the annals of history and do what we can best do with the information we have today. Do whatever we can to help them achieve their potential whilst understanding that we will never truly believe we are doing quite enough!

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