Extraordinary children aren’t born that way, they become that way, thanks to the efforts of parents and teachers, says Rafe Esquith, author of the new book Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World. Esquith has taught at Hobart Elementary, an inner-city school in Los Angeles, for the past 24 years. His students score in the top 5 to 10 percent on national standardized tests and go on to prestigious colleges. His secret to success is equipping them with an “intellectual backpack” full of “tools” that range from an ability to concentrate to selflessness. In a conversation with P&C, Esquith, father of four grown children, shares ideas for filling your child’s intellectual backpack.
Parent & Child: Some people argue that schools and parents should focus more on academic subjects than on values and character development. How do you respond?
Rafe Esquith: If your child is having trouble in math, it’s an easy fix. Some tutoring, some extra time, will solve that. But if your kid’s a thief or mean to people, that’s serious. Yet in our schools, and sometimes in our families, we forget to focus on the bigger issues, like citizenship or character.
P&C: Parents already face so many pressures. Is there a way to help them feel less overwhelmed by the responsibility of teaching their children to make smart choices?
Esquith: We live in a fast-food society. I see it in the classroom where they expect everybody to learn everything in a day or two. Parents should know that it’s OK to slow down. Kids don’t have to know everything there is to know right away. It’s a long journey.
P&C: You say that being on time helps a child become extraordinary. Why is punctuality so important?
Esquith: I say to my students, “Show me someone here who is always late who is doing well.” Some laugh, but it won’t be funny if a college doesn’t take your application because you got it in late. We need to talk more with our kids about how we spend our time. It’s too easy to waste and it goes by way too fast.
P&C: You also recommend that parents teach kids to take pride in their work and be humble. How can a parent do both?
Esquith: The first rule of parenting is that you need to set the example. When your kid has gotten an award or has written a great paper, it’s not necessary to call everybody. Tell your child, “I’m really proud of you. It’s fantastic,” and move on. It’s the work that she’s done—what she’s accomplished—that’s the reward, not the adulation.
P&C: What’s a parent to do when kids see so many adults who don’t exhibit values like selflessness and patience?
Esquith: In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his child, “There are a lot of ugly things in this world, and I wish I could shield you from all of those things, but it’s not possible.” I think it’s OK that my students have people yelling “F-U” behind them at a baseball game, as long as there’s an adult saying, “That’s their way. Not ours.”
P&C: How do we recognize and reinforce the good behavior we see in society?
Esquith: We have to put kids in situations where they see the values we want to instill in them. That’s why I have so many references to literature and movies in my book Lighting Their Fires. When you see the values from these books and films in real life, point them out to your kids and ask, “What does that say to you? How does it apply to your life?”
P&C: What kind of encouragement can you offer parents who may not feel like their efforts are paying off?
Esquith: Kids at the age of 10, 15, 18 rarely say, “Mom, Dad, I just want to thank you for your sacrifice and efforts.” Kids don’t know. The good news is these things do take hold. It’s like planting seeds. Kids may not show these qualities but they are in their heads.
P&C: Why do you believe that television can “kill” a child’s potential?
Esquith: TV is not only a waste of time, it sends poor messages. There is good stuff out there, but most of it isn’t. We can’t expect a child to see that. They just get hypnotized.
P&C: What can parents do at home to support their child’s teacher?
Esquith: Have dinner with your child, with the TV off. Ask, “What did you learn today that will make a difference in your life?” Learning about area and perimeter, for example, will help when looking for an apartment. I also love the compliment game. Think of someone who did something nice that day. It’s important for kids to thank the janitor for keeping their classroom clean, for instance, or their mom for picking them up from school. We practice it every day in my class.
Read, Rent, and Learn
Esquith recommends these books and movies to help you impart values all kids can benefit from.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein encourages a balance between giving and receiving.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry inspires kids to wait for something greater than immediate happiness.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss teaches that choices are necessary to move forward, but that taking one path always means forgoing others.
The Karate Kid (1984) shows that we have to earn the things we want, an important lesson in a world where shortcuts and overnight success stories can give young ones false expectations. Rated PG.
October Sky (1999) is about a child who follows his dream of building a rocket ship and discovers that persistence is key to success. Rated PG.
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1994) is about a child chess prodigy whose father learns that winning is worthless if it costs his son’s happiness. Rated PG.
About the Author
Susan Hayes is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is the co-author of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child.