Helping Children Identify Areas of Intense Interest

By Kris Imherr
Illustration by Joel Snyder

Parents and significant adults can assist youths in recognizing and developing personal strengths and enthusiasms.

When her son, Justin, was in the sixth grade, one incident told Joan Hamilton that his curiosity about moviemaking had evolved from passing fancy to passionate interest. "I remember walking out in the park with him," recalls the Dallas, Tex., mom, "and he was looking at the sunset." In the same way film directors use their hands to frame scenes, she said, she caught Justin "holding up his fingers, looking at different shots."

In high school now, Justin has progressed from making 30-second animated fight scenes using homemade clay figures to meriting acting, key grip, and directing credits on a direct-to-video horror feature which friends and neighbors can rent at their local video store.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this is what I want to do the rest of my life," Justin says of his moviemaking aspirations.

On the other hand, Justin's younger sister, Jordan, "hasn't found a passion like Justin has," says their mother. Jordan really likes acting and singing, but she is also considering studying to become a veterinarian, "because I like animals."

Joan explains that Jordan "hasn't found a passion like Justin has," but the mother isn't worried. "You know, I feel like, to have a passion at a young age is probably less [the norm]," Joan says.

Psychologist Richard Ryan would likely applaud that appraisal. "We live in a society where parents are pressuring kids a lot at an early age to differentiate, to develop talents, to become outstanding in some field," says Dr. Ryan, a professor at the University of Rochester. A researcher who studies child motivation, he says that helping kids develop interests and build strengths is commendable, but parents should avoid "a lot of the pressures to have kids be No. 1 in one area."

Experts like Dr. Ryan offer these suggestions for ways moms and dads who are eager to foster skills and encourage enthusiasms in their children can serve as useful supporters rather than pushy parents.

Begin early and give them ample choices.

"Start young, even less than [age] six," says psychologist Shari Young Kuchenbecker, an adjunct professor at UCLA and author of Raising Winners: A Parent's Guide to Helping Kids Succeed On and Off the Playing Field (Times Books, 2000). "Parents should provide a diverse array of opportunities."

"First thing," adds Dr. Richard Ryan, "try to pay attention to [your] child's interests, and elaborate, develop, and support any one of them."

Honor differences.

Dr. Ryan is also a proponent of dinner-table family forums that allow every member to review his or her day. "A lot of data shows parent involvement of that kind—knowing what's going on, talking about what's going on—really supports kids' engagement," he says.

Recognizing that competition often exists within families, he adds: "It's important to make sure all your kids feel equally valued, regardless of what they achieve or don't achieve; to know that kids are different, and [to know] that they'll even try to be different."

Let them lead but act democratically.

A strong advocate for weekly family activities and regular exercise for the whole household, Dr. Kuchenbecker says outings should be chosen democratically. Don't always let the oldest or loudest child decide.

"Don't be a tour guide," Dr. Kuchenbecker tells parents. Whenever possible, "Step back. Enjoy [your children's] journey and look at the world through their eyes."

Listen along the way to what your offspring ask, rather than telling them what you know, she says. "Be willing to be wrong. Better to say: 'I don't know. Let's go find out.'"

And do go find out, she adds. "Get your kid his own library card...So when you run into something you don't know, you can go [to the library] and find the answers."

Pay attention if roadblocks occur as a child follows his own path, Dr. Ryan says. Obstacles may point to problems with how competent children feel or to troubles with interpersonal relations. And sometimes, missteps can indicate that a child isn't really interested in that particular path.

Embrace their explorer curiosity and encourage a can-do attitude.

More than just allowing children to try new things, says Dr. Kuchenbecker, offer encouragement that helps to reinforce resiliency and that shows children it's O.K. not to succeed all the time as long as they keep trying.

A child with a can-do attitude then "embraces life with wide-open arms," she explains. They become the kind of explorer who says: "'Oh, I can try that.' 'Something I'm going to do is going to make a difference.' 'I can find what I need to do.'"

Ask, "Whose interest is this?"

In trepid as young adventurers may be, mom and dad often trip them up by unintentionally undermining their interest, Dr. Ryan says. They do this by overemphasizing youthful pursuits, demanding too much, or failing to let children follow their curiosity at their own rate.

Children naturally try to find out what's going on in the world and try new things. But "we can't make someone grow," he says. "That happens on its own."

To keep expectations in check and to avoid getting into "a controlling place," Dr. Ryan recommends that dads and moms periodically ask themselves, "Is this really about [my child's] interests or about mine?"

When "you start to feel like it's you who's being the motivator," he says, then "you have something to wonder about."

Strike a balance.

But parents do need to monitor activities for overload, Dr. Kuchenbecker warns. Preteen children who excel in a sport, for example, may get entrenched because their coach wants strong athletes and demands total dedication to that one sport. "The fact is, cross-training is fabulous," Dr. Kuchenbecker notes. "So I empower parents to say: 'Uh-uh. You need balance. I don't want you to just do [one sport] at 12 years old.'"

Not getting stuck in one mold is how Dr. Ryan refers to this type of situation. "Childhood is a time for exploration, for trying on different identities and casting some off," and parents need to be aware that there will be "setbacks, failures, and disappointments" but also "victories, and joys, and growth," he says.

"And we want to be ready for both those things to occur, because that's what growing up is about."

Dallas freelance writer Kris Imherr also wrote the November-December 2004 Family Talk column, "Managing the Year-End Whirl."

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