Albert Einstein was one of the greatest minds of his time. He forever changed the field of physics. Much is known about his adult life. But, very little information about his childhood is known. In fact, most of what is perpetuated about his childhood is the stuff of myth and legend, or is plain inaccurate.
What little reality we know about Einstein’s childhood can serve as a lesson to both adult nerds and our children.
If you believe that Einstein was left-handed, failed math, was a mediocre student, had Asperger’s or was schizophrenic, was slow to talk, was dyslexic, be prepared to nod knowingly as you see yourself, or your children, reflected in the truth about Einstein as a child.
While it may be true that Einstein spoke deliberately and was often quiet, it is false to say that he did not speak until he was three. Einstein’s sister was born when he was two and a half, at which point, Einstein vocalized his disappointment that his sister was not a toy by asking, “But where are its wheels?” Einstein’s sister wrote that he was a quiet child, but this is not the same as having an inability to express himself or verbalize. Knowing that Einstein was comparatively late in this area of development is not enough to say that he had Asperger’s. It could be as simple as, he was an introvert trapped in an extroverted world. If you are an introvert, or are the parent of an introvert, then there is a good chance that you can relate to the idea of not speaking unless you think it is something important to share.
Another popular myth surrounding Einstein was that he was left-handed. However, any photos of him playing the violin show that he was right-handed. Same with photos of Einstein holding a pen, or grabbing a piece of paper. While he was born in a time where left-handedness was deemed unwanted, and left-handed children were forced to be right-handed, there is no evidence to show that this was the case with Einstein.
The biggest false myth about Einstein is that he failed at math and was a mediocre student. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. He entered the second grade early, at the age of six and a half. At the age of ten, he started to teach himself math beyond his grade level, thanks to his uncle lending young Einstein a book of algebra, and a medical student lending books on popular science and philosophy. The reality of Einstein’s education is that the way his brain worked and his interests were not conducive to the educational style of the time. But, despite Einstein’s frustrations with his learning environment, and criticism from his teachers, he was able to enter a very prominent and competitive school, Luitpold-Gymnasium.
While it is true that he failed his first entrance exam to Zurich Polytechnic, it is false to say that this failure was the result of any type of disability. The reality of the situation was that he left Luitpold-Gymnasium two years early, at the age of 15, after convincing a doctor to write him a letter stating that Einstein was suffering from “neurasthenic exhaustion.” It is because of an incomplete education, coupled with very different curriculums in Germany and Switzerland, resulting in not having all the prerequisite learning, that Einstein failed his first entrance exam.
However, that didn’t deter Einstein. And it didn’t stop the examiner at Zurich Polytechnic from seeing the huge potential in Einstein. Einstein’s scores in math and physics impressed the examiner such that Einstein was invited to attend his lectures before Einstein’s formal acceptance into his school. Einstein was 16.
In the meantime, Einstein also caught up on all that was required to pass the test, including making up for the lack of six years of French education.
But before Einstein was being invited to math and physics lectures at age 16, before he was teaching himself math and science beyond his grade level at the age of ten, before entering the second grade early at the age of six and a half, but after he wondered why his sister didn’t have wheels at the age of two and a half, he was looking at the world around him and was wondering how it worked.
One notable event involved a compass, shown to him by his father, when Einstein was five. Story has it that he marveled at the fact that no matter what position he put the compass in, the needle always pointed north. At the age of five, he was able to deduce that there must be some invisible force acting upon the compass in order for it to behave in that fashion. Thus began his journey down the wormhole of science and math.
His sister wrote that he would spend hours building houses out of cards. Other stories tell of a young Einstein who would build mechanical devices and models, just for fun. Einstein was creative. He processed information through visualization. Einstein was curious.
Despite not knowing a lot about Einstein’s childhood, and the false myths that are continuously spread about his early years, there are a few things we should take away from what we do know.
Not being verbal is not always a sign of a learning disability or Autism. While it definitely can be a sign, it can also be a sign of introversion and genius. Some people simply choose not to speak unless it is important. This is not a disease that needs to be fixed. Rather, it is a personality trait that should be understood and accepted. If you are worried that your child is three, and still not vocal, yes, you should consult a doctor about it, but keep in mind there are many reasons why your child is not speaking. Regardless of any cause for a speech delay, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It is all a matter of perspective.
Give your child items of science early in life. Feed their curiosity. Thankfully, Einstein lived in an environment that nurtured characteristics that caused him trouble at school. There are still learning environments that try to force children to conform. Being a nerd parent, I probably don’t need to tell you that if your child wants to take apart the broken coffee maker when they are five, don’t stop them. Create for them a safe environment, both physically and emotionally, in which they can dissect the world around them, and see for themselves how things work.
Einstein struggled in languages outside of his native German. Some see this as a lack of intelligence. To put it plainly, this is bollocks. The lesson from this is one with which you may very well relate, we each have our areas of great expertise. If your child is excelling in some areas, but barely passing in others, there’s a good chance that it is because the barely-passing areas simply do not interest your child, or they are being taught in a fashion that is not conducive to your child’s learning style. It does not mean they are stupid or lazy. If you see your child lagging in an area in which they once excelled, maybe they are not being challenged enough and they need extra learning outside of the classroom.
Embrace your child’s differences and nurture their curiosity and interests. While it may not necessarily raise the next Einstein, it certainly won’t hurt.