Adora Svitak: What adults can learn from kids
February 13, 2010
Child prodigy Adora Svitak says the world needs "childish" thinking: bold ideas, wild creativity and especially optimism. Kids' big dreams deserve high expectations, she says, starting with grownups' willingness to learn from children as much as to teach.Adora Svitak
- Child prodigy
A prolific short story writer and blogger since age seven, Adora Svitak (now 12) speaks around the United States to adults and children as an advocate for literacy. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Now, I want to start with a question:
When was the last time you were called childish?
For kids like me,
being called childish can be a frequent occurrence.
Every time we make irrational demands,
exhibit irresponsible behavior
or display any other signs
of being normal American citizens,
we are called childish.
Which really bothers me.
After all, take a look at these events:
Imperialism and colonization,
world wars, George W. Bush.
Ask yourself, who's responsible? Adults.
Now, what have kids done?
Well, Anne Frank touched millions
with her powerful account of the Holocaust,
Ruby Bridges helped to end segregation in the United States,
and, most recently,
Charlie Simpson helped to raise
120,000 pounds for Haiti
on his little bike.
So, as you can see evidenced by such examples,
age has absolutely nothing to do with it.
The traits the word childish addresses
are seen so often in adults
that we should abolish this age-discriminatory word
when it comes to criticizing behavior
associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking.
Then again, who's to say
that certain types of irrational thinking
aren't exactly what the world needs?
Maybe you've had grand plans before
but stopped yourself, thinking,
"That's impossible," or, "That costs too much,"
or, "That won't benefit me."
For better or worse, we kids aren't hampered as much
when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things.
Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations
and hopeful thinking.
Like my wish that no one went hungry
or that everything were a free kind of utopia.
How many of you still dream like that
and believe in the possibilities?
Sometimes a knowledge of history
and the past failures of utopian ideals
can be a burden
because you know that if everything were free,
then the food stocks would become depleted
and scarce and lead to chaos.
On the other hand,
we kids still dream about perfection.
And that's a good thing because in order
to make anything a reality,
you have to dream about it first.
In many ways, our audacity to imagine
helps push the boundaries of possibility.
For instance, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington,
my home state -- yoohoo Washington!
has a program called Kids Design Glass,
and kids draw their own ideas for glass art.
Now, the resident artist said they got
some of their best ideas through the program
because kids don't think about the limitations
of how hard it can be to blow glass into certain shapes;
they just think of good ideas.
Now, when you think of glass, you might
think of colorful Chihuly designs
or maybe Italian vases,
but kids challenge glass artists to go beyond that
into the realm of broken-hearted snakes
and bacon boys, who you can see has meat vision.
Now, our inherent wisdom
doesn't have to be insider's knowledge.
Kids already do a lot of learning from adults,
and we have a lot to share.
I think that adults should start learning from kids.
Now, I do most of my speaking in front of an education crowd,
teachers and students, and I like this analogy:
It shouldn't just be a teacher at the head of the classroom
telling students, "Do this, do that."
The students should teach their teachers.
Learning between grown ups and kids
should be reciprocal.
The reality, unfortunately, is a little different,
and it has a lot to do with trust, or a lack of it.
Now, if you don't trust someone, you place restrictions on them, right?
If I doubt my older sister's ability
to pay back the 10 percent interest
I established on her last loan,
I'm going to withhold her ability to get more money from me
until she pays it back. (Laughter)
True story, by the way.
Now, adults seem to have
a prevalently restrictive attitude towards kids
from every "don't do that,
don't do this" in the school handbook
to restrictions on school Internet use.
As history points out, regimes become oppressive
when they're fearful about keeping control.
And although adults may not be quite at the level
of totalitarian regimes,
kids have no, or very little say in making the rules,
when really the attitude should be reciprocal,
meaning that the adult population should learn
and take into account the wishes
of the younger population.
Now, what's even worse than restriction
is that adults often underestimate kids abilities.
We love challenges, but when expectations are low,
trust me, we will sink to them.
My own parents had anything but low expectations
for me and my sister.
Okay, so they didn't tell us to become doctors
or lawyers or anything like that,
but my dad did read to us
and pioneer germ fighters
when lots of other kids were hearing
"The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round."
Well, we heard that one too, but "Pioneer Germ Fighters" totally rules.
I loved to write from the age of four,
and when I was six
my mom bought me my own laptop equipped with Microsoft Word.
Thank you Bill Gates and thank you Ma.
I wrote over 300 short stories
on that little laptop,
and I wanted to get published.
Instead of just scoffing at this heresy
that a kid wanted to get published
or saying wait until you're older,
my parents were really supportive.
Many publishers were not quite so encouraging,
one large children's publisher ironically saying
that they didn't work with children --
children's publisher not working with children?
I don't know, you're kind of alienating a large client there.
Now, one publisher, Action Publishing,
was willing to take that leap and trust me
and to listen to what I had to say.
They published my first book, "Flying Fingers," -- you see it here --
and from there on, it's gone to speaking at hundreds of schools,
keynoting to thousands of educators
and finally, today, speaking to you.
I appreciate your attention today,
because to show that you truly care,
But there's a problem with this rosy picture
of kids being so much better than adults.
Kids grow up and become adults just like you.
Or just like you? Really?
The goal is not to turn kids into your kind of adult,
but rather better adults than you have been,
which may be a little challenging
considering your guys' credentials (Laughter).
But the way progress happens
is because new generations and new eras
grow and develop and become better than the previous ones.
It's the reason we're not in the Dark Ages anymore.
No matter your position or place in life,
it is imperative to create opportunities for children
so that we can grow up to blow you away.
Adults and fellow TEDsters,
you need to listen and learn from kids
and trust us and expect more from us.
You must lend an ear today,
because we are the leaders of tomorrow,
which means we're going to be taking care of you
when you're old and senile. No, just kidding.
No, really, we are going to be the next generation,
the ones who will bring this world forward.
And in case you don't think that this really has meaning for you,
remember that cloning is possible,
and that involves going through childhood again,
in which case you'll want to be heard
just like my generation.
Now, the world needs opportunities
for new leaders and new ideas.
Kids need opportunities to lead and succeed.
Are you ready to make the match?
Because the world's problems
shouldn't be the human family's heirloom.
Thank you. Thank you.
- Child prodigy
A prolific short story writer and blogger since age seven, Adora Svitak (now 12) speaks around the United States to adults and children as an advocate for literacy.Why you should listen
A voracious reader from age three, Adora Svitak's first serious foray into writing -- at age five -- was limited only by her handwriting and spelling. (Her astonishing verbal abilities already matched that of young adults over twice her age.) As her official bio says, her breakthrough would soon come "in the form of a used Dell laptop her mother bought her." At age seven, she typed out over 250,000 words -- poetry, short stories, observations about the world -- in a single year.
Svitak has since fashioned her beyond-her-years wordsmithing into an inspiring campaign for literacy -- speaking across the country to both adults and kids. She is author of Flying Fingers, a book on learning.
The original video is available on TED.com