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Empowering children’s interests without excessive interference

Alexa began creating a village when she was seven years old.

She liked to build tiny houses out of sticks and leaves in the backyard, something she particularly enjoyed doing when her friends came over. Together they made up stories about the tiny people who would move in. Alexa was frustrated when wind and rain knocked down her creations. Gradually she learned how to make the structures sturdier. She carefully cut sticks to even widths and stacked them log cabin style using wire to hold them together.

When her grandfather came to stay for a week he was inspired to explain a few principles of masonry. Before leaving, he bought her tubes of all-weather silicone caulk and bags of river rocks. She began making stone houses with doors, windows, and roofing out of cast-off metal or wood.

Her friends lost interest, no longer eager to believe that elves or fairies might inhabit the growing village. But at nine years old, Alexa is still enthralled as she creates a village of ever more sophisticated buildings, each one no taller than her knees. She finds time for construction when she’s not practicing dance moves with her sister, playing with friends, or working on 4-H projects. Her parents are pretty sure she also continues to pretend that magic folk are in residence.

It is pure unadulterated joy to be wrapped up in a pursuit generated by our own interests, especially one that fully engages our abilities. For Alexa, as for most of us, the experience is the focus rather than the result. That’s true whether we’re backpacking or bicycling. When we connect deeply with what we do it’s a continual process of growth, learning and awareness. And when we’re not invested in the judgment of others the satisfactions are much richer.

True engagement can’t be pushed on us nor can we impose it on children. A study at the University of Montreal affirms that children and teens build rewardingly passionate interests when they are able to explore activities without adult pressure and interference. Free to nurture their own pursuits, they’re more likely to continue the activity. When pressured, they’re more likely become obsessive about their performance, in part because the outcome is linked to parental approval.

The research emphasizes the importance of autonomy: the drive to express our will and direct the course of our actions. We all have that drive whether we’re two years old or eighty-two years old. As one author of the study noted, “Passion comes from a special fit between an activity and a person. You can’t force that fit; it has to be found.”

Of course it’s our place as adults to keep introducing children to wonders they may not encounter on their own. In fact those new tastes, challenges, experiences, and responsibilities may result in whole new areas of interests.

But it’s easy for adults to get over involved when children are engaged in music or sports or any other promising hobby. Contrary to our best intentions, adult focus often feels like coercion to children. As Wendy S. Grolnick explains in The Psychology of Parental Control, research shows that rewards, praise, and evaluative comments actually tend to undermine motivation and stifle learning. This is also true when it comes from adults other than parents, including teachers and coaches.

The distinction lies in letting young people self-regulate. This way children and teens can seek out adult guidance when they want questions answered, resources accessed, and skills transmitted. This approach gives them the ability to control the input given in proportion to their level of interest. For example, a child initially requests time at the skating rink to have fun; then wants skating lessons; then starts a relentless drive to find out about figure skating choreography, the physics of skating maneuvers, the biographies of Olympic skating medalists; eventually advancing to personal goals for high achievement in the field. Adults are true facilitators when they respond by giving this, or any child, the time and resources needed (within boundaries that fit a family’s abilities) without pressuring the child to engage well beyond his or her level of interest.

It’s also important that adults don’t pressure children to continue when interest dissipates, as it normally does. Child development expert David Elkind notes in The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally, it’s a misperception that children should “stick” to a pursuit once they’ve started in order to build better staying power for adult challenges. As Elkind writes, “The common assumption that commitment transfers from one activity to another is wrong.” Motivation is more likely to persist when a young person pursues interests for his or her own reasons.

Few children are destined to become star athletes or world class musicians. Instead, they’re likely to go through a series of their own quirky interests. That may be an enthusiasm for sea turtles, an infatuation with performing magic tricks, a love of drawing comics, a fascination with baseball statistics. Interests help a child develop his or her sense of worthiness. There’s an enhanced feeling of being completely present that’s hard to name but easily recognized by those of us who “find” ourselves within a compelling pursuit. When we engage in our interests we know ourselves to be completely alive. That feeling doesn’t go away afterwards. It helps us recognize, at any age, that fulfillment doesn’t come from popularity or possessions. It has to do with being completely present.

Alexa’s grandfather thinks she might grow up to be an architect. Her parents don’t make predictions. “Making the village is a way of teaching herself,” her father says. “To me it’s more about learning how to solve problems. Tomorrow she may lose interest. But she’ll know how to make her visions a reality. That’s what the world needs, really, people who find creative ways to make something work.”

Photo by Ken Heyman. Martin-Pena area of Puerto Rico. April 1972.

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