Daniel Kish is blind. And he can see. In a segment from the new podcast Invisiblia, featured on This American Life, we meet Daniel and hear his fascinating story. (For anyone interested in the influence of expectations upon individuals and their communities, this episode is worth listening to in full.)
In short: After surgeons removed his eyes when he was 13 months old, Daniel’s mother made the uncommon choice to allow him to climb and run and navigate the world on his own. Eventually Daniel developed a way to see around him by making clicking noises comparable to bats using echolocation. He learned to ride a bike, went to a typical public school, and developed a love for hiking. MRI evidence shows that Daniel’s clicks activate the visual cortex in his brain just as opening my eyes stimulates my visual cortex. In other words, Daniel literally is a blind man who can see.
His story commands attention, yet Daniel insists his abilities aren’t that remarkable. Raised under the assumption he could function independently, he believes blind people who need significant assistance are the product of low expectations, not the inevitable result of losing vision.
Modern research bears out Daniel’s assertions. When teachers are told ahead of time what to expect from their students (i.e., this student is an “A student” or a “D student”), the teachers’ expectations affect the students’ grades. Similarly, as Stanford Professor Carol Dweck explains in her book, Mindset, students who think that their intelligence is fixed learn less than students who assume they can grow in intelligence.
I’ve seen the same thing with our oldest daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome. Early on, we were told to expect developmental delays. She would walk later. She would talk later. She would struggle to read, to learn math, to become independent. To some degree, those predictions proved true. Penny took her first steps at 22 months. She didn’t speak intelligibly until older than most kids. At age 9, she still struggles with tight buttons and abstract concepts and keeping up in gym class.
But one day when Penny was 16 months old, and we were trying to teach her sign language as a way to communicate in light of the predicted speech delay, I was holding her on my hip and narrating the scene out our window. The rain came down and pummeled the tree. I signed rain. I signed tree. And I saw it happen. I saw the expression on her face as her brain connected the sign, the word, and the object. She signed them back to me. Within a few weeks, she had dozens of signs. By age two, she had hundreds. My mother, a preschool teacher, said to me at the time, “We don’t know how fast it will go. But now we know that she can learn.”
As a third grader, Penny goes to ballet, and she plies and relevés alongside her typically developing peers. She reads the same books as her classmates. She takes the same spelling tests. She gets pulled out of her classroom for math, and with the support of a special education teacher she is learning fractions and multiplication. I wouldn’t say that we had high expectations for Penny, but we refused to have low expectations for her. I suspect that our willingness to consider the chance that she could learn sign language, then spoken language, then to read and write, our willingness to consider the possibility that she could learn how to play piano and do ballet and catch a ball, opened doors of possibility for her.
Low expectations, however well-meaning, can end up confining and restricting both typical kids and kids with disabilities. Of course, the other end of the spectrum demonstrates the negative impact of high expectations. Countless writers have lamented the problem of the pressure-cooker of parental expectations upon kids. The high rate of abortion for children prenatally diagnosed with conditions like Down syndrome likewise underscore our demand for kids who can “succeed” and conform to social norms.
Both high expectations and low expectations have the potential to harm our kids, so what is a parent, or a teacher, a coach, a pastor, to do? We strive to be sensitive to avoid provoking anxiety and too much pressure, but not so soft that we lead kids to apathy and stagnancy.
The solution to the problem of childhood expectations requires our active discernment. Only when this discernment is tethered to a robust theological anthropology—which is to say, a firm faith in the God-given humanity of every individual—can individuals thrive and grow into the people they were intended to be.
The doctrine of the imago Dei must animate our understanding of kids no matter who they are. All human beings, male and female, are created in God’s image and therefore reflect something of God’s nature. God has something to offer the world in and through each child, whether they be phenomenal athletes or kids with Down syndrome or academic superstars or children in wheelchairs.
Our job as pastors and parents and teachers and coaches is to look for the image of God in each child, and to cultivate that reflection of our Creator. Our job is to help kids discover who they are and live into that fullness of life, even when such fullness may involve risk, disappointment, or difference.
This approach bucks social convention. It means we hold expectations loosely, even when the other parents or adults insist upon academic achievement and college admissions as proof of a good life. Christians can hold out a ray of hope that fullness of life comes not because of physical strength, high SAT scores, or corporate salaries, but rather because of an intimate relationship with our Creator.
Daniel Kish’s mom allowed him to flourish, even though it meant he made unusual noises and knocked his front teeth out while riding his bike. Teachers, pastors, and parents alike have the same opportunity with each child who enters their lives. We can constrain them by expectations—high or low—or we can assume their God-given humanity and look for ways to help their gifts shine.