Turning Old Clichs into New Maxims:
Children are Like Lumps of Clay, and Parents are the Sculptors

By Richard Eyre

Note: This column appears every two weeks . with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column. Click here to go to the Cliches archive.

I read this in a parenting book! And it was an impressionable time for me because I had just become a parent. This general message seemed to be that children are so impressionable and pliable, especially in their early years, that parents can mold or fashion them into whatever they choose.

This notion is not some bit of traditional wisdom that has grown outdated and doesn’t work anymore. It was never accurate, never even remotely true.  It must have been born either out of ignorance and inexperience or out of a gross lack of respect for the individuality of children.

Oh, it certainly is true that children are impressionable and adaptable.  The attitudes and example of parents do have deep impact. And there is no question about the enormous capacity of small children to learn, to assimilate, to adapt. They can learn to play the violin at two, to read at three, to do square roots at four.

But to say they are lumps of clay that can be molded according to adult whims is to ignore the most important and most beautiful fact that parents can understand about their children ? namely that they are each marvelously unique individuals possessing a particular set of gifts, potential, and attributes that is theirs alone and unlike that of any other!

The reason the clay-molding metaphor is so dangerous is that so many parents have the inclination to make their children into themselves ? or into what they wish they had been.


When our first son was born, the first comment I remember making was something like “Look at those hands! He’ll be palming a basketball by the time he’s ten!” A few weeks later I put a basketball in his crib because it seemed more appropriate and more practical than a doll or stuffed animal. He’ll get comfortable with it, I thought. Little Josh didn’t show much interest in the ball as the months passed, but I kept tossing it back into the crib anyway.

When Josh was three years old, we were living in England, and I began to grow concerned that the future NBA star was being culturally deprived ? there weren’t any basketball games to take him to! Everyone played soccer, which didn’t fit my grand design at all.

One morning a little ad in the London Times informed me that the Harlem Globetrotters were coming to Wembley Arena, across the city from where we lived. I called and got two good seats and spent the next week trying to psyche Josh up for the great experience he would have.

I assumed he would love basketball because I assumed he was a junior version of me ? a sort of new and improved model of his dad, who would enjoy sports as much as I did but of course be much better at them then I had ever been!

Josh was impressed with the huge Wembley Arena and the noise of the crowd. And when the game started, he was very attentive and quiet ? almost absorbed, I thought. But sometime midway through the first half I noticed he was not actually watching the game. He was looking above the court, and his eyes were focused on somewhere up in the air.

“What are you looking at, son?”

“Those numbers Dad ? up on that big thing.  The two numbers on each side keep going up by twos, and the number in the middle keeps going down by one!”

Josh liked the scoreboard!

I remember thinking, during the second half, maybe this boy is different from me. Maybe he’ll have his own unique set of interests and abilities. Maybe it’s a mistake to try to turn him into what I was or wanted to be.

That was the day I quit thinking of Josh as a lump of clay.

As a teenager, Josh’s room was filled with computers and quantitative software. He gave m e programming lessons. Today, he is literally a computer genius. He sees the world of data and information and numbers that is nearly invisible to me. Best of all, we admire and appreciate each other because of our differences. 


What we need to do as parents is to watch and perceive as closely as we can ? and to find out as early as we can who and what each of our children really is. They come with their own particular and unique sets of attributes, interests, gifts, and potentials, and the sooner we find out what these are, the better we can help them maximize what they can become.

A new maxim can serve to remind us of how special and unique each child is ? and of how important it is that we try to find the reality of what is there rather than make it over into some preconception of our own.



Tiny seedlings often look the same ? like green shoots ? but one is an oak tree, one an elm, one a walnut tree, one a currant bush. No amount of manipulation or grafting will transform one into another or change their inner nature. The sooner we see who and what they are, the sooner we can tailor our gardening and nurturing to help them become the best of what they actually can be.

Good gardeners know that every tree, every bush, every flower is different, and caring gardeners watch each plant and know its nature well enough to know when to water, when to fertilize, when to prune.

In another fortnight (the next column in two weeks) we will address the parenting subject one more time by suggesting that methods and techniques of child rearing are not the most important thing.

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