My clinical interview with 15-year-old Daniel was routine until I asked him what he enjoyed doing. A somewhat introspective young man became instantly animated as he began talking about his passion for professional basketball. We bantered for a while about various NBA teams, as I strongly had to defend my lifelong interest in the best NBA franchise in the history of sports (i.e., the Boston Celtics). Daniel realized he had little athletic ability, but he loved watching, reading, writing, and talking about basketball.
Daniel’s parents felt his focus on basketball was a waste of time, and symptomatic of his lack of interest in anything academic. I have a different perspective. I worry most about young adults who don’t seem engaged with anything. Kids like Daniel generally turn out pretty well.
Our passions help define who we are and give meaning to our lives. In the pursuit of those interests, kids learn about self-control, problem solving, persistence, and all kinds of good skills.
How can you raise passionate kids?
1. Adults matter. Children don’t develop passions on their own, but are usually affected greatly by grown-ups. Eleven-year-old Xavier developed his passionate interest in acting as a result of a teacher who selected him for an important role in a first-grade play. Xavier had a great experience, and his interest in acting became more intense with each successful experience. Xavier admitted that “I like attention … and thought acting would be good for that.”
2. Expose your kids to different types of activities. While it’s impossible to predict or control a child’s interests, expose them to varied activities, and see if anything sticks. One of my friends does a “Something New” event with her family once a month. The parents and kids plan an event, experience, or local trip that they have never done before. This could be as simple as attending a religious service of a different faith, or taking a tour of a local factory.
3. Accept your child’s individuality. While parents remain the most important influence in our kids’ lives, children often develop interests that are so different than our own. That can be hard to accept, particularly when kids show interests in pursuits that appear unrealistic, such as being a professional football player. Should you tell your kids that only 0.08 percent of high school football players end up being drafted in the NFL?
It can be tricky to be supportive of your child’s interests, while not encouraging unrealistic fantasies. Xavier’s mom admitted she “struggles with supporting his passion” about acting as she tries to gently guide him to something more realistic. Go ahead and encourage your child’s passions, as long as your child is willing to develop an alternative plan if things don’t work out.
Daniel will never play professional basketball, but I wonder if someday he’ll be an analyst for ESPN doing an analysis of the Boston Celtics championship series.