Some people call it preoccupation. Others call it intense focus. My mother called it having a one-track mind. Personally, I call it obsession. Whatever it’s called, gifted kids are particularly prone it it. (Please note: this doesn’t mean regular kids don’t get this way, or that all gifted kids do. I’m just making a generalization based on observation.)
Parental intervention isn’t always required, of course. Johnny’s new interest in trains is just that: new. It’ll wear off in a month, tops. It’s normal and natural for him to be excited about it right now. No harm has been done.
But other times, the obsession lasts months, even years. This is when it becomes that “demon of the intellect” Charlotte Mason warned us about.
Charlotte Mason and Magnanimity
One of the goals of a Charlotte Mason education is magnanimity. I looked through a number of modern dictionaries, and they don’t quite define it the way Miss Mason did. They mainly focus on the magnanimous man as being very generous. He’ll buy your groceries if you forgot your wallet, and you’ll think to yourself, “There goes a truly magnanimous man.”
Another dictionary focused on kindness, especially toward someone you don’t like. If you beat your enemy in a race, for example, and then extend the Handshake of Peace (even after he tried to cheat you), you are magnanimous.
These definitions are good ones, and without them, our mental picture of magnanimity would lose something. But they aren’t really getting at magnanimity as virtue. Magnanimity is more properly understood as a greatness of mind and heart. Aquinas called it “a stretching forth of the mind to great things” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 129, Art. 1). Of course this would include generosity, kindness, and forbearance, but those are more side-effects than the thing itself.
In her book Ourselves, Charlotte Mason contrasts two brilliant men, Charles Darwin and Leonardo Da Vinci. By the end of his life, Darwin’s mind (and, as a consequence, soul) was narrow and small. Da Vinci, on the other hand, was bursting with a lively magnanimity.
Of Darwin, she says:
He lost himself, so to speak, in Science, and in the end he could not read poetry, look at pictures, could not even think upon God, because he could not turn his mind out of the course he had exercised it in all his life.Ourselves, p. 46
How does something like this happen?
It is possible for a person to go into any one of the great fields of thought we have considered, and to stay there with steady work and constant delight until he becomes incapable of finding his way into any other … great fields.Ourselves, p. 46
When Gifted Children Get Obsessed
Just like with the book gluttony we discussed before, this can get complicated, especially when the subject with which the child is obsessed is so good. He shows such promise. People tell us he has a gift. Perhaps he will be such a great blessing to the world that we do not have the right to hold him back.
It helps to remind ourselves of a few essential truths. Narrow-mindedness is the result of vice, not virtue. The inability to move into other great fields of thought is a weakness, not a strength. The lack of magnanimity that results from over-specialization is necessarily a lack of virtue — the child (or man) has underdeveloped potential, he is less than he was born to be.
Miss Mason points us to Da Vinci and his like:
The people who lived when, perhaps, the greatest things were done, the greatest pictures painted, the greatest buildings raised, the greatest discoveries made, were very particular on this point. The same man was an architect and a painter, a sculptor and a poet, and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did, he did well; all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment.Ourselves, p. 46
How is Magnanimity Developed?
If the goal is to develop, as much as possible, the virtue of magnanimity, the necessary question is how this can be done. Thankfully, Charlotte Mason offers us solid answers:
Upon the knowledge of these great matters — History, Literature, Nature, Science, Art — the Mind feeds and grows. It assimilates such knowledge as the body assimilates food, and the person becomes what is called magnanimous, that is, a person of great mind, wide interests, incapable of occupying himself much about petty, personal matters.Ourselves, p. 78
The generosity and kindness — that peculiar lack of pettiness — is a side-effect. We clearly see that here. The virtue is born of wide-reading. It is a consequence of the development of as many relationships with as many subjects as possible. Having a great mind in this sense is inextricably tied to having wide interests.
The question becomes, then, what to do.
What do I do when my child is obsessed with something to the point of rejecting all other subjects and thoughts?
It is one thing to like trains. It is quite another to decide that because trains exist, nothing else on earth is worth thinking about or loving. When we frame it this way, we see how easy it is for a favorite subject to become an idol. The slip into cold hearts and narrow minds is a logical consequence:
The idols of the nations are but silver and gold,Psalm 135:15-18
The work of man’s hands.
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
They have eyes, but they do not see;
They have ears, but they do not hear,
Nor is there any breath at all in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
Yes, everyone who trusts in them.
When we fall into idolatry of a good thing, we become like our idols, incapable of speaking, seeing, or hearing. We see how an obsessed child becomes fractious and unloving, grasping at his favorite while rejecting many good things. We say, “He is gifted; it is hard for him,” but this is not enough. It is our duty as mothers to help him.
We cannot save him. That is God’s work. But let us not forget that as mother’s we do God’s work when we do our duty. God gave him a mother. We must try to remedy the situation.
Once upon a time I had a child who was so completely obsessed with a branch or two of natural philosophy that she decided she despised all else. She rejected history and literature. She hated math. She even refused to engage with other branches of science. She was uninterested in everything else, even people.
I did something very controversial in Charlotte Mason circles. I have never talked about it publicly before. (I suppose I wanted to wait and see if it actually worked!)
I struck nature study and naturalist books from her curriculum.
That’s right. I took it all out.
This doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen. She continued with her obsession, reading and making journal entries in her free time. But during school hours, I added other things in those slots. More history. A different geography book. Some astronomy and some architecture. A number of things appeared as the terms went by. It helped that when I had done our end of school year review, I had specifically asked her what she would like to study that she hadn’t yet. This gave me ideas about non-science relationships she was primed for.
I worked hard during this time. I did everything I could to save or cultivate other relationships. If I saw a book I thought she’d like, I bought it. If there was a place we could go or a thing we could see that I thought might help, I tried to make it happen. I curated podcast episodes for car rides that I thought might open her up to new things. Almost every moment I was with her was calculated to broaden her horizons. I don’t remember exactly how long I did this; it was probably 3-5 terms before I returned the curriculum to normal.
I don’t know if this was the “right” thing to do, but it was the only option I could think of at the time. I wasn’t going to forbid the relationship, and I didn’t want to limit her liberty during free time, so the only way I could lessen the total amount of time she spent on it was to remove it from school hours.
And it worked. While this is still her favorite subject, she spends much time now on other things. She’s become interested in history and literature. She writes journal entries that have nothing to do with biology. She even tolerates math.
Do I have a “magnanimous” child? Time will only tell that truth. She is still young, and Darwin’s idolatry polluted his adulthood more than his youth. But I can pray for her, knowing we’ve worked to set her on a better path.
Is this normative?
Heavens, no! Most children will never need this kind of intervention. Some are more receptive; simply telling them they are off balance will have an effect. And, like I said above, many obsessions pass in time without any intervention at all.
It’s not normative, but it is occasionally necessary. If we claim that education is about virtue, about the development of character, but do not address obvious points of weakness, we are hard pressed to say we are educating. Education is more than a book list; it’s a discipline, not just a life.
Not every child is a Da Vinci, but I think we all admire his greatness (his magnanimity) as a goal, when we read:
Possessed of a divine and marvellous intellect, and being an excellent geometrician, he not only worked at sculpture, . . . but also prepared many architectural plans of buildings, and he was the first, though so young, to propose to utilise the Arno to make a canal from Pisa to Florence. He made designs for mills and other engines to go by water, and as painting was to be his profession, he studied drawing from life.Vasari, quoted by Charlotte Mason in Ourselves, pp. 46-47
This sort of thing is not attained when obsession is ignored or, even worse, coddled or encouraged. We must have mercy on the little ones entrusted to our care. They do not always know what is best for them. This is why God gave them mothers.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.