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Follow Bliss: Should We Step In or Stand Back to Help Kids Find Their Passion?

The science behind what fuels — and hinders — passion, creativity, success and happiness

My son is having a terrible day. At 6, he’s a wide-eyed wallflower, a watchful observer. It’s his first day at basketball camp. We enter the gym, an echoing hellscape of thwacking balls and shrieking players, siblings and moms. My son takes one tremulous look and buries his face in my legs. No amount of cajoling, explaining or insisting will convince him to join in. Irritated, I give in and we leave.

Nine years later, I still think about that moment, and I wish I could send Younger Me a memo from the future: Look at the boy! Really look at him! I knew full well he did not like ball sports — he had proven that season after season, on rainy soccer pitches and dusty T-ball fields all over Seattle.

Like many parents, I was on a well-meaning mission to help my son find his One Special Thing — the trigger for a passion that would propel him to a lifetime of fitness and competitive excellence. OK, maybe not that last thing, but I worried that he wasn’t well-rounded; I thought he was too solitary, too into his Game Boy.

What I was — and am still — seeking for my son is what all parents want, ultimately: the chance to live up to his enormous potential, to live a happy and successful life. It’s an impossibly tall order, so we all get started early, guiding and cajoling our kids from a very young age to discover a passion, a spark of brilliance or talent for something at which they’re good, or — dare we dream it? — even great.

We do this out of love, certainly, but out of real worry, too: If I don’t sign my daughter up for science camp, will she ever love STEM? If my son never plays ball sports, will he know how to compete? If I don’t drop a fortune on the hottest new electronics this holiday, will a nascent glimmer of coding genius go undiscovered? If my child doesn’t find a special passion, how will she stand out, get ahead, get into college, succeed in life? The stakes seem astronomically high. But are they really?

The grit issue

You can’t fault a parent for feeling pressure, even panic. In the past few years, widely publicized and often sensational studies have hammered away at the incredible potential payoffs of maximizing your child’s special talent. In 2007, University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela L. Duckworth set off a seismic shift in parenting when she published her study Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals (and followed it up with popular TED talks). In the study, she and her co-authors assert that people who pursue their passions with grit — strenuously and relentlessly, despite adversity — are overwhelmingly more likely to be wildly successful: “As educators and parents, we should encourage children to work not only with intensity, but also with stamina,” she writes.

We’re so obsessed with happiness and success in our adult lives. I believe in down time, free time and creative play. We all need to take a deep breath and just let kids do that.

-Linda Hartzell, Artistic of Seattle Children’s Theatre.

It’s hard to argue with stamina. Most parents want their kids to be persistent, to hang in there when the chips are down. But intensity?

A few years later, along comes Malcolm Gladwell, as he so often does, with a new zeitgeist theory: the 10,000 Hour Rule. That’s how many hours of practice Gladwell says it takes to achieve mastery, a predictor of all kinds of prodigious success. It’s another nail in the coffin of the casual hobbyist, of the dabbler and the dreamer: Practice makes perfect, and practice you must. Pick a thing and perfect it. The idea of 10,000 hours caught on so hard and so fast that Macklemore wrote a song about it with the same name (and then won a Grammy for it, natch).

For my money, the real issue is that these studies lead parents to believe true genius lies dormant in every child — if they’d only show enough grit or practice enough hours to bring it out. Never mind that, statistically, genius is incredibly rare. How could a good parent expect any less?

Competitive parenting

“It’s no coincidence that when a mother is pregnant, we say she’s expecting — we put such expectations onto our children’s shoulders,” says Betsy Brown Braun, child development and behavior specialist and best-selling author. According to Braun, those expectations aren’t always about what’s best for the child: “This whole issue of passion and expertise is part of the new sport of competitive parenting, and of pushing our children to attain our dreams.” Braun and others fear that many parents see their children’s successes as their own, which can have an unexpected downside: “There’s so much danger in having a plan for your child — including the danger of them having to bear your disappointment if it doesn’t pan out.”

Braun cites another widely acknowledged danger of the pursuit of passion: overwhelmed children and exhausted families. “I have clients who get up every day at 4 in the morning for their daughter’s ice skating and drive 20 miles for practice … then go back after school. She does her homework in the car; there is no family dinner. Talk about ruining family life!”

Whose passion is it?

That’s an extreme example, surely, but even at moderate levels, parental pressure — or even overly keen interest — can squash burgeoning passion in kids. A 2010 study led by University of Montreal professor Geneviève Mageau found that children are more likely to be successful in music, sports or other pastimes when they nurture their passion themselves. “We found that controlling adults can foster obsessive passion in their children by teaching them that social approval can only be obtained through excellence,” says Mageau, and by “obsessive” she means “not good”: The child then does the activity for “self-protective reasons that don’t necessarily correspond with a child’s true desires.”

Journalist and best-selling author (and Lakeside School alum) Po Bronson writes extensively about this issue in his 2002 book What Should I Do with My Life?, which he calls “a portrait of a generation that had spent the first two decades of life ignoring their intrinsic motivations.” Writing on The Daily Beast, Bronson observed that kids “were bright and talented, but had spent so many years doing what was expected of them … that they were no longer in touch with their natural desires. … Learning to recognize their own passions was incredibly difficult and stunted.”

Maybe you have no intention of pushing your child, but are you reserving the right to guide them to an “appropriate” passion? You’re in good company. “When it comes to kids, we often bring moralistic bias to their interests,” Bronson writes. “There’s a pervasive tendency in our society to label things as either good for children or bad for children. Cultivating children’s natural intrinsic motivation requires abandoning all judgment of good and bad content.”

Easier said than done. I can’t tell you how many times I took that Game Boy away from my son, only to realize years later that even that was a legitimate passion. Last month, at 14, he built his own gaming computer from about 27 boxes of parts that he ordered online with birthday money. Independent of my meddling, he has also discovered a passion for Ultimate Frisbee.

The science of passion

If you need further convincing to leave your kids to it, consider what goes on inside a child’s brain when she is pursuing a passion of her own choosing: A chemical called dopamine is released, giving her a feeling of pleasure. According to  Jennifer Larson, Ph.D., an outreach specialist at The Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at University of Washington, that feeling leads to motivation for more of the same, which leads to more practice. “If you are motivated to work hard and practice so that you can win more games, the act of practicing can cause this dopamine release,” Larson says. “This creates a cycle of self-perpetuating reward.”

A child who is pursuing her own passion will want to keep pursuing it; a child who is doing it because it’s “good for her” will not feel that dopamine release — and may, in fact, feel something else, Larson says. “If the child is overwhelmed, either by too many activities or not enjoying the activities that they do, pressure from parents can overwhelm them and cause a negative stress response.”

What you can do

All of this doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t work to expose kids to a variety of activities — quite the opposite, says Laura Kastner, Ph.D. — but maybe not for the reasons you think. Kastner, a clinical psychologist, noted child expert and the author of Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens, says that from about middle school onward, a good rule of thumb for most kids is to participate in one sport and one extracurricular of their choosing at all times. “Rotate through everything from science to art to basket weaving,” she says. Kastner, whose new book on elementary-age kids comes out in the spring, says that by doing so, kids are learning pro-social skills in adult-supervised situations — without being glued to a screen. “Maybe they’ll find a passion; fine, but that’s not our motive. Our motive is pro-social development. Everything that we do as parents should not have an end game.”

“We’re so obsessed with happiness and success in our adult lives,” says Linda Hartzell, longtime artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre. “I believe in down time, free time and creative play. We all need to take a deep breath and just let kids do that.”

Lately, Hartzell says, she’s been seeing a trend away from the (recent) old days of overly scheduled kids. “When things got tougher with the economy, it was like ‘What’s old is new.’ Today’s parents say, ‘We’re going to stay home and play a board game together. Go for a hike together.’ Parents are taking kids to the theater, spending time with them,” as opposed to dropping them off at an activity.

For Seattle mother Tera Schreiber, who lives with her family in the well-groomed Montlake neighborhood, supporting her kids’ interests and passions works best when she stays low-key. “Once I start making it too much about me and calling it out as learning and talking about it from my perspective, it puts a big damper on the flames of their interest,” she says. Schreiber’s 12-year-old daughter discovered a passion for gardening after a family project took off. “When I get too involved — say I plant my own part of the garden — it holds no interest for her. But she starts her own seeds and has her own mason bees and grows wonderful things that are experimental and fascinating to her (popcorn this year!), and if I stay out of the way, she learns more about it than if I were to get involved.”

You can create a family climate that’s conducive to passion by modeling it yourself. “Passion can be infectious,” says Julie Burstein, author of Spark: How Creativity Works, who believes parents should let their children see them pursuing their own interests passionately — but not perfectionistically. “It’s more about what they feel from you than what you’re saying to them. You can’t really push creativity or passion,” Burstein says. “There are some parents and teachers who bring such joy and authentic passion to their subject that even a child who didn’t think they were interested catches it.”

Late bloomers

So what about that big, scary question: What if your child doesn’t discover a passion? “I get this question in my practice a lot,” Braun says. “OK, so he’s not interested in anything now; that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be interested ever.

“Some children are early bloomers, some are late bloomers, some don’t bloom in the way you want them to … and maybe not in an area that brings a college scholarship … but eventually, they will bloom.”

For most kids, that blooming actually doesn’t take place until college, anyway, according to Kastner. My own 18-year-old daughter and I recently attended an information session at the University of Washington. The point was made that most kids enter college with one major in mind, but few actually stick to that major. The best bet is to sample classes from all kinds of disciplines, we were told — you never know where or when inspiration will strike, triggering a lifelong passion (and presumably, a career). One parent, channeling the apparent agony in the room, asked: “What if your kid doesn’t happen to hit on that one special thing?” Counseling is readily available, he was assured.

By then, I was immersed in research for this article, and I sat musing about how it never ends, this insecurity about our children’s paths to passion. I knew that copious research has shown that pushing kids into a parental script is decidedly not in the best interest of the next generation’s future happiness.

But where the rubber meets the road — right here on that road to college — I felt again the twinge; the urge to guide, insist, cajole. One of the students on the panel, a former physics major, was describing how happy she is now that she has switched to geography. I heard a similar story from an economics turned film major at Vassar. Will my math genius discover a hitherto unknown passion for art history? And if she does, will I be mother enough to support her as she follows her bliss?

“So much of this has to do with discovery of self,” Kastner says. “At the end, it’s not about ‘I found my passion,’ but rather, ‘I learned something about myself.’”


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