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How to Support and Nurture Your Child's Passions

Advice from ‘The Happy Kid Handbook’ author

Charlie Normals/
Source: Charlie Normals/

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when parenting became so difficult and intensely competitive. Parents work exceedingly hard to point their children in one direction or another to help them excel. In doing so, we have taken much of the fun out of being a parent and lost sight of what might make our children truly joyful.

One of the most significant elements of childhood that often gets crushed in the pursuit of raising “star” children is passion. Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, tackles the critical issue of passion in The Happy Kid Handbook.

Her words and advice are so personal, it feels as if you are talking to a friend who has your and your child’s best interests at heart. In this guest post, she explains the benefits of allowing children to develop and pursue their own passions.

Passion—The Gift of Self-Discovery
by Katie Hurley

My six-year-old son has a lot of passion. He is equal parts passionate about soccer, piano, memorizing football standings and playing with toy cars. You might think I’m confusing idle pastimes with something much bigger, something that dreams are made of, but I’m not. That’s the thing about passion, after all. Passion doesn’t mean following a singular pursuit with all of your might until Harvard finally comes calling. Passion occurs when enthusiasm is present.

Merriam-Webster defines passion as a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something. Passion isn’t a trajectory for a successful life. It isn’t the thing that guarantees a college acceptance or a six-figure salary. Passion is a source of interest and excitement and it’s unique to each individual, but passion isn’t a life sentence. It can shift and change as kids grow. And it can’t be forced. Passion is the greatest gift of self-discovery.

Sadly, passion and specialization are often confused when it comes to parenting. In effort to figure how their kids will stand out in the crowd, parents attempt to guide their kids toward a specific area of “passion” and then center their lives around that passion.

Passion pushing is the new normal, it seems, when it comes to raising college and career-ready kids. In fact, the pursuit of pint-sized passion is so big that it often comes at the expense of downtime, playtime and self-exploration. This is a mistake. Psychologist Peter Gray makes a case for that coveted self-education time in his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

In discussing the importance of allowing children plenty of time to explore without pressure or limits, Gray explains, “That time is needed to make friends, play with ideas and materials, experience and overcome boredom, learn from one’s own mistakes, and develop passions.”

Passion, by design, depends upon the individual. My passions are not yours, and mine have evolved over time. To push kids in one direction or another with the hope of finding the golden ticket is to deny them the opportunity to figure what really makes them tick. To encourage kids to specialize at a young age, to say this is it for you, is to limit the possibilities that life has to offer.

Courtesy of the Publisher
Source: Courtesy of the Publisher

In my book, The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, I encourage parents to step back and zoom out in an effort to explore a wide range of interests. When parents support instead of push, kids find their passions and interests and learn to follow their own paths toward success and happiness.

4 Strategies to Support Children’s Pursuit of Passion

Try a few of these strategies to support your child through self-exploration and the pursuit of passion.

Know your child’s unique interests.

In the race to the finish line, kids are often plugged into the same sports and activities as their peers. The competition to succeed is fierce, and many kids experience anxiety as a result.

Instead of doing what every other family is doing, take the time to get to know and understand your child’s interests. Observe your child at play, ask open-ended questions and listen when your child shares her dreams.

Think outside the box.

Passion exists everywhere, not just on the playing for field or in a music room. Parents have a tendency to lean on organized sports and highly structured enrichment classes, but passion can play out right in your own home. Building, knitting, cooking and writing can all be done without structure and guided instruction.

When parents worry less about resume building and focus on what makes kids thrive, children find their unique interests and are happier for it.

Nurture optimism.

We live in a competitive world and kids experience a significant amount of pressure to perform. When they fall short, they feel deflated. We all fail at times, that’s part of life. If we want to raise “can-do” kids who can work through failure and come out stronger for it, it is wise to nurture optimism. Optimistic kids are more willing to take healthy risks, better problem-solvers and experience positive relationships.

You can nurture optimism in your family by starting each day on a positive, teaching them to view setbacks as temporary, modeling optimism and confronting negative self-talk. When kids feel confident in their abilities, they find their passions.

Avoid judgment.

You might really love baseball and you probably couldn’t wait for your little boy to reach Little League age, but he might really want to stay home and work on his rock collection instead. Resist the urge and avoid judging your children’s choices. When kids feel judged by their parents, they feel rejected by the people who are supposed to love them the most.

It’s important to step back from our own needs and let kids be kids. The rock collection will probably come and go and in a few years your child might be really passionate about the violin. We can’t predict where our kids will end up and pushing them toward a certain passion won’t guarantee happiness or success, but we can support them in the present tense and allow them the freedom to pave their own road to happiness.

Copyright @ 2015 by Katie Hurley

Related: Raising Star Children: The Pressure May be Too Great and
Curbing Too-High Hopes for Children’s Success

Resource: Hurley, Katie. The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2015.

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