“I’m going to start a car-washing business this summer!” “I’m writing a graphic novel that will be a science-fiction version of ‘The Odyssey’!” “I am raising money for a girls’ school in Iraq!’”
“Let’s get some beer and meet in the park!” “Let’s skip class so we can skateboard on our new half pipe!” “Everybody loves the photo of you in your underwear that I posted on Instagram!”
All of these statements express zeal. By zeal, I mean energy directed toward a rewarding experience, one that may be associated with a particular goal beyond the experience itself — or not. Of course, parents would prefer that their children pursue the first cluster of examples — and prudently avoid the second.
Oh, and by the way, the kids in the first cluster? They are the same ones as those in the second cluster, respectively. Zeal in a child isn’t always directed toward both “good” and “bad” ends, but that is usually the case.
We all know straight-arrow kids who are uncomfortable with anything but painting within the lines and directing their laser-like attention toward lofty goals, such as winning a chess championship or a medal in the butterfly stroke competition. But most kids are like garden hoses. They flail around with an inconsistent flow of energy and focus, drawn to learning how to juggle from YouTube one day, rereading a graphic novel for the umpteenth time the next day and daring to write a poem to a new love interest the day after that.
I believe that zeal is one of the key facets of emotional intelligence. Along with a pile of other strengths, kids with zeal to burn can turn into some of our most spectacular star performers. Zeal is the intense drive that entrepreneurs demonstrate as they blaze their path to success. But as many a mother has lamented to me, “I know Janie will be successful someday — with all her high-voltage enthusiasm — but first she has to live through her childhood … and so do I!”
Here are the questions parents typically ask me about zeal:
• How do I control the “bad” kind of zeal (e.g., breaking rules, acting out in class, dominating siblings) while trying to encourage the “good” kind (e.g., trying new hobbies, developing positive leadership, working hard in school)?
• How will I know if I’m stifling my child’s natural zeal by overscheduling?
• How do I help my child direct her zeal in productive ways so she can discover her true passions?
Parents often wish they could control outlets for zeal, so that their child’s pursuits can be more productive and risk-free. Alas, it is naive to assume we can have dominion over any realm of a child’s desire. Parents guide, supervise and redirect, but we can’t completely control the energy of those garden hoses, especially when they flow as high-pressure jets. In fact, trying to control a child’s zeal too much can even snuff it out. Hurrying childhood and prematurely supplanting play and a natural process of self-discovery with parental goals has been the focus of concern for child development specialists for decades.
When we watch a child play in a park, we witness zeal in action. In play, children explore their imagination, experience joy for joy’s sake, discover creative cooperation with friends and exult in nature. Free play is considered to be an indispensable ingredient for physical, social, cognitive and emotional well-being and development, but it is disappearing from many children’s overcontrolled and media-saturated lives.
Goal-directedness is involved in about half of children’s play if we leave kids alone long enough to let them discover how they want to channel their zeal. Children like doing certain things playfully, and when they experience those things as rewarding, they do them again. (Dopamine is released and the “Do it again!” button is pushed.) Zeal thus fuels exploration, and motivation flowers from there if it has been a pleasant experience.
Among teens, I consider zeal to be the “miracle grow” of selfhood. Whatever teens find pleasurable and exciting will strongly determine their motivations. Some kids will find hip-hop dancing rewarding, others will want to play Xbox nonstop, and others will be driven to maintain a 4.0 grade point average. In psychology, this variety in behavioral motivation is called “individual differences” — a banal-sounding term for the mysterious blend of nature and nurture that creates uniqueness in all of us.
Parents can manage access to the Xbox and pay for hip-hop classes and tutoring, but they can’t control a child’s intrinsic motivation to strive for a 4.0 grade point average. However, parents can and should broker access to Xbox for time spent on homework, and that is where the parenting part really comes into play during adolescence.
Teens and their zeal have always been the rub for parents. Today’s adults worry about the excessive use of devices and digital media the same way parents in the ’60s worried about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It’s been a concern from time immemorial; even Aristotle worried about young men’s overindulgence in wine, women and song in his day. Brimming with such zeal, teens require and benefit from supervision and guidance. A teen’s motivation to indulge in dopamine-rich pleasures should make his parents motivated, in turn, to find and support healthful outlets for his particular expressions of zeal.
By the time their child becomes a teen, parents have usually channeled some of that teen’s time and energy into structured activities, such as sports, talent development and volunteering. Structured activities help teens to be physically active, unplug from media and discover productive outlets for their zeal. These opportunities allow teens to experience positive emotions, develop skills, and profit from character development, beneficial peer influence, and contact with adult role models. Teens with seemingly boundless zeal especially benefit from supervised activities, during which adults other than their parents can do some of the wrangling and negotiating around issues of personal freedom, boundaries and the potential hitches of irrational exuberance.
Downsides of structured activities include overscheduling and restraining free expression of zeal in straitjacketed activities.
The “overscheduled child syndrome” implies an excessive pursuit of programmed activity, which is deleterious to the child’s health or development. A child may be prematurely pressured into sacrificing self-discovery in the service of seeking super excellence in a narrowed set of goals. Children can be pressured to “specialize” by middle school, thereby losing the opportunity to pursue other activities that pique their interest.
Anxiety robs parents of tolerating some of the woolly wildness and aimlessness of zeal.
Eager exploration of one’s internal and external worlds with or without goal-directedness has become a thing of the past in many families. Creativity derives partly from free expression of oneself without worry of evaluation or a particular endgame in mind. I like to think that the countless hours my teens spent listening to music and tweaking their personal playlists were not only a pleasurable focus for their natural zeal for music, but also a respite from the competition and performance pressure involved in other areas of their lives.
Too little structured activity for teens is also problematic. Without opportunities to spark safe and healthful applications of zeal, teens often seek pleasure and excitement in dangerous and growth-stunting diversions, such as violent video games, drugs, sex and excessive shopping, to name a few.
Research has found that the average child between the ages of 5 and 18 participates in only five hours of structured activity per week. Averages are tricky, since some kids surely have too much structured activity and some too little, but the takeaway is that parents probably need to worry more about children who don’t have any activities than those kids with an excess of them.
After-school opportunities are associated with class and culture. Lower-income parents often lack the money, time or resources to support their children’s exploration of their particular interests, and parents in rural, immigrant or traditional communities may lack access to diverse activities.
Providing teens with an outlet, direction and experience of zeal through structured activities may seem like a luxury, but I liken it to the importance of every child experiencing preschool. In most cases, missing these stimulating opportunities is a disadvantage, unless there are rich alternatives available for guiding zeal, growing brains and cultivating interests.
Parents seem to be as anxious about children “finding their passions” as they are about having too many of the wrong kind or not enough. Well-meaning parents who think (and worry) about their kid’s future sometimes expect their child to have already figured out his or her passions by middle school. Some kids have, but it is a minority who do, and most of those kids switch them for others by the time they reach college.
Research has documented that adolescents are involved in a meandering process of identity exploration and formation all the way through their middle twenties. Therefore, to expect that teens in high school should know what they want to excel at in life is unrealistic. It can even be harmful if the teen feels pressured and inadequate.
Most teens experience zeal while socializing, accessing media and learning about the world in their preferred ways. Some might love composing music on the piano; others may be enthralled by fantasy football. Some childhood passions are more impressive than others, but we need to remember how many super-achieving adults were once rowdy or seemingly aimless rascals without a lot of merit badges to their credit.
Anxious parents sometimes quash “free play” or zeal, because they feel as though free time equates to wasted time, compromised schoolwork or risky business. Encouraging time for unfettered zeal is never without risk, but we need to think about the risk of not giving or making time for teens to explore their natural interests, free of worry about being evaluated, overcontrolled or expected to attain some future goal.
I believe that if parents could wave a magic wand that bequeathed a quantum of time for relatively safe, agenda-free zeal and play throughout adolescence, they would. Anxiety robs parents of tolerating some of the woolly wildness and aimlessness of zeal. We need to trust that zeal stimulates seeds of interest that will germinate and produce. Some of those interests will develop into avocations, vocations or even sources of spiritual meaning down the line.
We also need to trust that zeal, like good old-fashioned play in young children, is good for its own sake.
This article, first published in 2013, has been updated for 2019 by the author.