As parents we all want our children to be interested in and curious about the world around them. Some children develop deep and abiding interests early in life and others seem to never get beyond mildly interested in any one thing. I want my children to have interests that they find engaging and in which they can learn deeply.
In the course of my parenting, my children have exhibited different tendencies and interests. For some, it was merely a matter of encouraging a given interest. For others, it was playing detective and helping the child figure out their own interests and then giving them the tools to explore those discovered interests. And then there is the fine line between enough and too much parental involvement.
I thought I would share some of the things I’ve done over the years to discover and encourage my children’s interests. There are really two groups of children, with each child falling somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes and sometimes the same child will move through different places throughout their childhood.
The first group are children who naturally have deep interests. This is certainly the easier group because the children who fall on this end of the spectrum evidence strong interests all on their own and pursue them, often with single-minded interest. My oldest daughter certainly falls on this end of the spectrum. At age two she evidenced an abiding love of amphibians, particularly frogs, and it has remained strong to this day. I could not have dissuaded her from this interest even if I had tried. My role was merely support. I helped her check out books, found her adult-level magazines on her topic of interest, and suggested things or projects she might like to try. But for the most part, I really left it up to her. (I also allowed her the space to do projects and keep frogs. Many, many frogs.)
But there is a danger with this group as well that parents need to be careful about. For a child with strong interests, it is very easy for that child to then be defined by those interests and not given tacit permission to alter them. This is where parents can play an important role. We need to be aware if an interest is waning and behave appropriately. This means we don’t assume a child will always choose the same thing or make excessive comment if the child chooses something different. We need to give our children the freedom to change if they desire to. That child with all those frogs? When she was in grade school, I would have bet good money that she would become an amphibian biologist. Now that she is 20? Well, she spends a great deal of time making three dimensional art, with large scale dinosaur puppets being her current project. She still loves frogs, but it is not where her current engagement is.
And sometimes with this group, I will push a little bit for the child to branch out to discover other interests. I would never try to tell a child that they cannot be interested in something, but I will try to expose them to other interests in an attempt to broaden their world. Nothing may click, but they have a wider exposure to what is out there.
This leads nicely into how to support and encourage the group of children on the other end of the spectrum… those that seem to show little true interest in anything. Parenting this group can be challenging. This is especially true if you are also parenting a child on the other end. It is very easy to start to think that there is something wrong with the child, and that’s not true. Different is just different, not better or worse.
Often a child’s age will be a factor. As the child grows and matures, deeper interests will develop. This is more likely to happen if the child has been exposed to many things when they were younger. I routinely wander through the non-fiction children’s section of the library, and pretty much at random pull out a wide variety of books. Some of these books get looked at and read, others don’t. Sometimes I’m asked to read them, at other times I volunteer, but these books are purely optional. I like to have them around for people to look at. Children are more likely to pick-up a book if there is no pressure to do so. (Anyone else notice that the minute you tell a child to read a book, even if it is one for fun, that it is the exact book the child avoids?) Field trips to a wide variety of places as well as appropriate documentaries would also fall in this area of wide exposure.
Next, sometimes a parent just needs to put on their detective hat and observe the child carefully. Some children are naturally more reserved than others and usually these children are not going to make a huge fuss over what they like. I have one child that I have to be particularly observant with because she is not one to share much of anything. Any hint of an interest from her is huge and I need to treat it the same way I would a child who is constantly mentioning something to me. For this child, I am more likely to do more of the legwork… find the books and give them to her, suggest the class, buy the supplies… for what she would need to pursue her interest. Being so reserved, it is more difficult for her to express her wants and needs and I need to be attune to that.
And often these children may be interested in different things, but either don’t recognize the interest or don’t know how to go about pursuing it. (This is why age is such a key ingredient. Children often gain self-awareness as they mature.) Modeling can be an extremely useful tool in helping these children develop their own interests. As an adult, I need to have deep and abiding interests myself and pursue them even as I am in the intensive parenting years. My children need to watch me learn new things, figure things out, fail, try again, and not be perfect. If we are modeling pursuit of our own interests, our children are much more likely to pursue their own.
There are several things to develop in your household as well if the children living in it will be free to pursue and develop their interests. The first is to have a very broad definition of interest. We parents are more likely to see and encourage interests that line up with our own. A parent with an interest in the arts is far more likely to acknowledge their child’s interest in artistic pursuits. If that child shows an interest in say, football, the parent may not even see that as a genuine interest. Remember that your children are not clones of you and may be very different people.
The second is to allow your child the freedom to explore. This means that a child feels secure enough to try new things. We cannot expect perfection or express disappointment with first (or second or tenth) tries. Focusing on the effort and not the product helps with this. Is your home a safe place to explore and discover and express ideas? All of these things will help a child be confident enough to develop their interests.
Lastly, make sure that the interest remains with the child. If it is genuinely your interest as well, that’s fine, but be careful of too much adult involvement. Things that we work hardest for usually hold for us the most value. If a parent makes something too easy for the child, takes away all of the effort and struggle, than they have taken the benefit away as well. Let them fail. Let them make mistakes. Let them struggle. This is how we learn and discover what we really love. If an interest is an abiding one, not only will it survive the setbacks, it will be all the stronger for them.
Elizabeth Curry is on year 15 of homeschooling. Nine are still at home and her oldest is off to college. Devoted bookworms all, it’s not surprising that much of the learning that happens centers around whatever chapter book is being read. When she isn’t taking care of children or reading, she enjoys sewing, cooking, and writing. Her life of following Jesus with many children in the Big, Ugly House is chronicled at www.ordinary-time.blogspot.com .