Some kids seem to be born with lots of interests; others are struggling to find just one. Here’s how you can help them find things that really encourage them.
My daughter Maggie, 16, would have played CityVille all day on Facebook if left to her own devices. I would have preferred to find a passion to inspire her mind and soul, a non-screen career, but she never seemed to feel the urgency. Whenever I went through a “Do something productive with your life!” rant, Maggie rolled her eyes and said, “Take a chillaxative, Mom.”
I was probably making too much of the passion issue, I figured. Maggie received good grades, had friends, and seemed to be content. I strongly believed, though, that children should have a favorite hobby or passion, a response to the question, “What’s your thing The burning fire of Maggie from inside seemed like a stack of soft twigs, beyond slavish devotion to Andrew Van Wyngarden (singer for the alt-rock band MGMT).
I knew the analogy was incorrect, but there were other kids at her school who were so accomplished. They were karate brown belts, young politicians, and aspiring musicians. Dozens of sports, arts and crafts were sampled by Maggie. I had invested a small amount on lessons and services, and I was afraid it was all for nothing.
I couldn’t help feeling it was time for her to take… something seriously. In my ears, the word ‘follow your bliss’ kept ringing. Maggie was unaware of what her bliss was.
Like author Amy Chua, I’m not a “Tiger Mother” who famously banned her daughters from doing any extracurricular activities other than violin and piano and used criticism, intimidation, and humiliation to get them to practice every day for hours.
I’m pushing, but my intent is not to make me hate Maggie and my other daughter, Lucy, 12. The intention is to discover a fascination that might result in a lifetime of joy or a career (fingers crossed). Plus, every parent knows intuitively that active and engaged are healthy children.
Many facets of a child’s life, now and into the future, benefit from extracurricular participation. Participating in extracurricular activities seemed to feed their greater self-expectations; some research participants who engaged more in activities achieved higher levels of education than children who were less interested. We can also link participation in activities with the development of early identity. Traditionally, adolescents wonder, “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do?” Many interested in activities get more information about what they want and are good at: “Do I like this?” and “Am I proficient at it?” They can build a deeper, clearer image of themselves and what they want to accomplish.
Research indicates that children participating in sports often appear to have better grades, higher self-esteem, and better able to control time, and are less likely to drop out of school, drink, or drop out. Thomas Fritsch, Ph.D., director of the Parkinson’s Research Institute at the Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, connects the presence of teenage behavior with mental agility in old age if you need any more motivation.
Fritsch says, “We studied 349 Cleveland high school graduates from the classes of 1944 to 1946,” In order to see what they did as students, we checked their school records and yearbooks: bands, boosters, teams, other groups.
In order to see what they did as teenagers, we checked their school records and yearbooks: band, boosters, teams, other clubs. Then, at the time of the study, we tested the people, 75 years old on average, for cognitive capacity. The subjects who engaged in two or more activities a year as adolescents were one-third less likely to have dementia as seniors. Playing cello and chess at 14, in other words, might well mean that your child won’t forget the name of his spouse when he’s 75.
Pick a Pair
So, case closed: Children should pursue activities. But how many, and which ones?
Let’s consider quantity first: Two is the magic number. “People often take on too many responsibilities. This eventually leads to frustration. The U.S. Marine Corps and other military services use the ‘Rule of Three’ as a general principle,” writes Tina Seelig, Ph.D, a neuroscientist, in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: Making Your Place in the World is a crash course. They also found that only three items can be tracked at once by humans. To reflect this, the entire military structure is built. In order to help your child live by the Law of Three, a squad leader is responsible for three fire team leaders, counting school as one item, then adding two activities. Surely you wouldn’t expect a teenager to take on more than a Marine would, would you now?
Take the Slow Road
If a kid does not have a red-hot burning passion by age 5, she has missed the train, going through the wisdom of some guidance counselors and helicopter parents. Not long ago, Lucy, my younger daughter, said she wanted to try football. I signed up for a local team with her, Some parents on the sidelines shook their heads at me at her first game and said, “It’s way too late for her to start now.” She was 10. You would have thought she was pulling a cane up and down the field regardless of her age handicap. After a season, Lucy lost interest I half expected the teacher to tell me that she was over the hill at 12 when she auditioned for the school musical later.
How I envy moms whose children at an early age had a marked interest. But this category suits only a small percentage of children. A seven-year study of 12- to 26-year-olds was undertaken by William Damon, Ph.D., director of the Stanford University Center for Adolescence and author of The Road to Purpose: How Young People Discover Their Calling in Life.
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