Protect This Impulse

The famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was a pain in the ass to his teachers. He was bored by what they were teaching in school. He didn’t pay attention. He was always being caught reading something that had nothing to do with his school work, books that were often inappropriate for his age. 

One day, as he was about to start sixth grade, he was caught by the principal reading Mallarmé or Rimbaud, two beautiful French poets. At first, the principal seemed like he was quite upset—like he’d finally had enough. “Let’s have no disorder in your studies,” he barked, using the informal tu. Every other time Henri had been addressed this way—like when our parents called us by our full names when we did something wrong—it had been followed by a beating or a punishment. But then the principal’s voice turned to kindness. “You’re going to read in my office,” he said, and led the boy there, where Henri returned over and over again as a precious, curious reader for the rest of his school days. 

It was this conversation—this little bit of protection of his curiosity—that helped Henri carve out the intellectual foundation and freedom that would lead him to become one of the greatest photographers in history. It is conversations like this that have helped shape thousands of independent, self-driven entrepreneurs, thinkers, artists and scientists over the centuries. 

We have to remember that our job as parents, as educators, is not to keep our kids in line. It’s not to crush their initiative because it’s disruptive or uncomfortable or difficult for us. We have to encourage them. We have to make space for our kids. If they want to read? By god, let them! If they want to skip ahead, or deviate from the conventional path? Cheer them on!

In the end, that’s what you want, isn’t it? A self-starter? A kid who genuinely loves to learn? A kid who tackles tough subjects? Good—start by not beating those impulses out of them.

P.S. This was originally sent on October 14, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Dad’s email and get our popular 11 page eBook, “20 Things Great Dads Do Everyday.”

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