During a recent family dinner, 8-year-old Theo asked what a Renaissance man was. My husband and I tried to define this in 21st-century second-grade terms, to varying degrees of success:
"It's someone who is good at a lot of different things."
"Renaissance means 'rebirth,' and it refers to a kind of reawakening of humanist values at the end of the Middle Ages."
"It's someone who is interested in many ways of learning and getting good at stuff."
"Your dad; Daddy is a Renaissance man! That's one reason I married him."
"Leonardo da Vinci was one. He was an inventor and a scientist and an artist and an engineer. He lived in Italy a long time ago."
"And James Franco. He's always getting profiled as the modern Renaissance man."
"It's cool to be a Renaissance man. Or woman. You can be a Renaissance woman, too."
Five-year-old Sylvia pounded back and forth across the wood floor in her cowgirl boots with surprising gravity during this conversation. For her, dinnertime means at least five trips to the bathroom, with detours along the way.
Our conversation was likely related to our annual Renaissance Faire attendance. It's the one time besides Halloween when my husband, Adam, wears the kilt he had made for our wedding. Theo dresses up as a knight or Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain; Sylvia is a fierce fairy with a wooden sword intent on collecting glitter for her eyelids. I've settled on skinny pants and a puffy shirt borrowed from my father-in-law—this after realizing the stark disconnect between how romantically medieval I felt in my costume a couple years ago and how simply odd I actually looked. I tell my kids I'm a soldier of fortune, and I wonder what that looks like in the 21st century—whether it's something like a rather unsuccessful Renaissance person.
At the fair-with-an-e at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, we buy root-and-fruit sodas in plastic flagons and corndogs. Popular corndog histories put their naissance between the late 1920s and 1940s, but I bet there was some medieval meat on a stick. Sated—anachronistically or not—we shop wooden swords and handmade chain mail, take in the Clan Tinker family circus show and head to Fairyland. Alas, we have missed the jousting. But huzzah! Bagpipes play, and we're in time to see the unicorn and build fairy houses.
Theo and his buddy spend about an hour on enchanted architecture. They are engrossed in making everything from a bark-slab portico roof to a lamb's-ear bedroll to a fairy slide whose ladder rungs are tied with blades of grass.
Later, they tell the bridge-troll jokes and check out a working blacksmith. We watch Spanish colonial living-museum volunteers spinning wool into yarn, weaving yarn into cloth, and embroidering cloth with colcha techniques. The boys are enraptured. They watch closely and ask the craftspeople questions: "How do you know when do to this? What is this part for? What are you making? How long does it take you?"
The volunteer tells me, "You know, your kids can volunteer here if they're really interested."
I smile enthusiastically—"Oh, really!?"—and cringe at the kind of time investment that would require of me.
But I'm proud of them. I notice how focused these boys are on each different activity, and I think, They're like Renaissance children. This is not because we're at the Ren Faire—and in costumes—but because Renaissance personhood is driven by boundless wonder and curiosity.
These attributes head my Top 10 list of qualities I want my kids to enjoy. I have not actually written any such list, but I like the idea of wide-ranging, curiosity-driven ways of understanding the world. Perhaps, in the centuries before David Letterman, the legendary Renaissance men were simply walking versions of their own Top 10 lists.
Of course, there was no "Renaissance Man" label in the Renaissance time period, identified as roughly as between 1300 and 1700. Even the type's precursor, "polymath," someone with a broad interdisciplinary span of expertise, postdates its Renaissance exemplars. But the enlightened humanist concept was alive and well: People can pursue their nearly infinite potential by embracing all kinds of knowledge.
As a liberal-arts fan, this sort of Renaissance "leaning in" appeals to me. Its translation to parenting is that I want my kids to be well-rounded, to be exposed to and enjoy music, art, athletics, math, science, poetry, languages, and on and on. There is such joy in engaging with our natural and cultural worlds, and the kinds of questions and discoveries they hold.
There are antagonists to this parenting goal. Apparently, there's something called the Renaissance child syndrome, an online diagnosis aligned with childhood narcissism and overdeveloped senses of entitlement. "Don't go there!" say the anti-narcissist-raisers…in their blogs about their lives with their children. Many of them simply warn against over-scheduling children according to polymath checklists. This is an important warning, and it raises good questions.
How do we expose our children to a variety of fields without overwhelming them? How do we invite them to explore talents without signing them up for exhausting activity schedules? How do we keep fostering curiosity, wonder, imagination? For young children, it seems important to keep the focus on exposure, invitation, experimentation, and the fun of making connections. Anything more veers quickly into overkill.
And when they get older? The flipside of the Renaissance ideal is the Jack of all trades and master of none. How does the goal of raising well-rounded children fit into this binary? I fret about being a Jack, and I admire more directed peers. But I also deeply enjoy many different things and how they inform each other. It's fun!
I watch the fun my kids have exploring a variety of activities, too—and I think that variety fuels a sense of wonder that resists getting jaded. Curiosity begets curiosity; perhaps well-roundedness begets compassion and unexpected insights. If so, it will enrich our kids—and their world.
Besides being able to entertain oneself—a very useful skill—the Renaissance person's mind is the kind of creative, critical think-and-make tank that's critical to our communities and the complex issues that arise on local and global scales. These are the kinds of kids we need now and in the future. They're also kids who are just super fun to hang out with.