When talking about children’s emotions, it is difficult to avoid saying things that are not already commonly known, or even common sense. Advances in the psychology and neuroscience of emotions, however, now offer us a new understanding of the nature of emotion—and of the importance of emotion, in our own lives and in the lives of our children.

Emotions are not just feelings. In childhood and throughout life, our emotions guide our thoughts and our imagination, our behavior and our moral judgments. 

Periodically, on this blog, I will discuss recent theory and research on children’s emotions. Today, I would like to talk about an emotion that is essential, but often neglected, in discussions of parenting and child development—the emotion of interest.

A Child’s Interests

The 19th century American landscape painter Thomas Cole included the statement I have used as a subtitle for this post as an annotation to his famous series of paintings, The Voyage of Life. Cole was right. Understanding children begins with a child's sense of awe and wonder, and feelings of joy.

Curiosity and wonder, so evident in the enthusiasms of young children and so much a part of their charm, are expressions of the basic human emotion of interest. Many of us may not, at first, think of interest as an emotion. Psychologists and neuroscientists, however, now regard interest as a fundamental emotion—an emotion that motivates and guides our engagement in the world. 

Interest is vital to emotional health in childhood and it remains vital, throughout life. Without interest, there is no curiosity, no exploration, and no real learning. The psychologist Sylvan Tomkins explained that, “interest is the only emotion that can sustain long-term constructive or creative endeavors.”

Interest may be a child’s first emotion. Infants show intense interest in their mother’s face, especially her eyes. Soon, they become interested in objects that are colorful, moving, rhythmic or harmonious (or, more generally, beautiful). Young children are also wide-eyed in their curiosity and interest in the lives of their parents.

And they ask questions.

In a 2007 study, developmental psychologist Michelle Chouinard observed that when young children (between one and five years old) were actively engaged with an adult, they asked an average of 76 questions an hour. Chouinard concluded that “question-asking is not something that children do every now and then—asking questions is a central part of what it means to be a child.”

Interest is also of critical importance to our relationships with our children. As parents, our enthusiastic responsiveness to our children’s interests is the surest way to engage them in some form of meaningful dialogue or interaction, and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.

Therapeutic work with children and families teaches, again and again, this basic lesson: Children respond to our animated expressions of interest in their interests with evident pleasure. They enjoy this interaction and want more of it.

In three decades of talking with children, I have met few, if any, children who did not want to share their interests with their parents—and few who were not deeply disappointed when their parents, for whatever reason, did not respond with enthusiasm.

Children in therapy frequently tell me, “I tried to show this to my mom, but she wasn’t interested.” This leads first to sadness and disappointment and later to resentment and withdrawal.

When parents respond with genuine interest in their child’s interests, most children soon begin to show more enthusiasm and emotional aliveness (and often less stubbornness). They are also likely to recover more quickly from moments of discouragement and frustration. These positive interactions seem to operate as a protective factor in children’s emotional lives, to confer some degree of immunity against the effects of emotional distress. 

Interest and motivation

Many parents express concern about the limited range of their child’s interests and about their child’s inability to sustain interest (and effort) toward important goals. I am often told, for example, “He’s not interested in reading (or writing, or drawing or riding a bicycle).” These parents experience frustration and dismay at their unsuccessful efforts, with any form of cajoling, rewards or punishments, to broaden their child’s interests.

If we look hard enough, however, we will find in every child, no matter ”unmotivated” she seems to be, some interest—and a desire to do well.

I therefore advise parents to engage their child’s interests and then to expand these interests into constructive projects and long-term goals. Make note of moments of interest and effort, and support them. Find out why these activities appeal to him. If he likes playing video games, watch him play. Then play with him. Have him teach you the game. If we want to motivate our children, to build a bridge, we cannot simply meet them halfway.

In his work with autistic children, child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan taught both parents and child therapists this seminal insight: that even the repetitive behavior of a 2-year-old child who is rubbing the carpet is an expression of interest, and this interest can become the beginning of an interaction, then play, and then dialogue. If we dismiss our children’s interests as frivolous or unproductive, we will miss an opportunity to engage them in dialogue.

In his important book, The Path to Purpose, psychologist William Damon offers this wise advice: “Listen closely for for the spark, then fan the flames.”

Copyright Kenneth Barish, Ph.D.

Kenneth Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems. Pride and Joy is winner of the 2013 International Book Award.

About the Author

Kenneth Barish, Ph.D.

Kenneth Barish, Ph.D., is a clinical associate professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University.

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