One of the most fascinating things I love as a Mom is watching my children find their interests and passions. Helping my children explore activities to see what they like and what they don’t care for at all is part of seeing their personalities unfold. We have no idea when they are born what a child’s innate passions and talents will be. Honoring their evolving interests, what seems to intrigue them, rather than what we think would be great for them to do, is key to helping them develop a strong sense of self.
When they are toddlers and preschoolers, help them explore different skills that you think would be fun and useful from art and music to swimming, dance or tumbling. As they get a bit older, everything from sports like soccer or karate to youth theatre may pique their fancy. I love how obvious it usually becomes what is going to be their “Thing” vs. what is clearly just not meant to be.
Here are tips from my Mom experience:
1. Test the waters with short term, low commitment options. I like signing up for a short number of sessions. Some places offer a free or low cost trial session to give your child a taste of whatever the activity is. This helps avoid the reality of the child or you thinking they’ll LOVE soccer or ballet only to find them in tears absolutely HATING it and you gulping thinking about the hefty amount you plunked down for their four months of classes.
2. Similarly, minimize investment in equipment, clothing, accessories until you are confident your child loves an activity and will stick with it. Even then, I try to plan my purchases for not more than 6 months to a year at a time because the reality is the activity they adore this year may be the one they are sick of next year. For example, rent a musical instrument, buy sports equipment at a discount store or warehouse or used sporting goods store, borrow or buy from other parents whose children have moved on to other activities.
3. Find opportunities to expose your children to different kinds of activities to see what resonates with them. Many orchestras have short concerts or meet an instrument events geared to young children of different age ranges. When he was 5 years old, my younger son discovered the violin at a “musical instrument petting zoo” held by the Cleveland Orchestra before a family concert. He started violin lessons at 6 years old and now plays in the middle school orchestra. Art museums often have fun free or low cost events or classes. Many preschools bring in different specialists ranging from yoga to little scientists. Ask your preschool teacher or caregiver what seemed to interest your child most.
4. Check out different options and places to pursue your child’s interests based on their needs and your priorities. Balance key issues like cost, child-friendly teachers/coaches, safety, and nurturing environment. Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean “best” for your child, but ratio of teacher to child is an essential factor. Many recreation departments, community centers, and preschools/schools offer a broad variety of cost-effective, fun activities with excellent staff or volunteer parent coaches. A shy child or a child with a learning disability might have particular needs; be sure to discuss those ahead of signing up to make sure you feel the center can meet them.
5. Learn what you can about the activities your child particularly likes. Be aware that some take more time, patience (yours and your child’s), or financial commitment. For example, my younger son’s passion for the violin is wonderful but turns out that it’s one of the most complicated musical instruments to learn. This means you and he/she will be listening to a lot of screeching sounds before it becomes the vibrant sound they’re imagining. Drums will take another kind of patience (‘nough said). Many sports and hobbies have special lingo or expectations of parental involvement than others. We have loved the Destination Imagination creativity challenge, but is totally dependent on parent involvement, so only fair to enter into it knowing we will need to play an active role.
6. Watch for how some activities and events may evolve over time as children get older. The pee wee soccer or t-ball league that welcomes children of all abilities, gives every child an award at the end of the season, and celebrates everyone just playing regardless of their level of success is great for all. But that often leads to early elementary teams where the kids themselves become more judgmental about ability because of their desire to win the game even if the league is supportive…which leads to the competitive leagues of older children. My sons played soccer until around second grade when the more competitive nature of the league didn’t fit their interests and abilities, which was fine – they’d had that earlier experience and then moved on to other activities they love.
7. Follow their muse not our own. Sometimes we get very excited thinking about a particular hobby or sport we would love to see our child excel in, only to find that they really don’t like it. It’s important to ask them open ended questions and watch how they are interacting and behaving in an activity to see if this is what they want to do so they don’t feel they have to please us.
8. Every child will find things they love to do, but not every child is meant to be an athlete, an artist, a dancer or a musician. Most of us have innate talents that will start presenting themselves given gentle encouragement.
9. The delicate balance of when to let a child quit an activity. If after a trial run my sons liked an activity I signed them up for a session aiming for around 6 to 8 weeks worth. Mid-session if suddenly they weren’t so thrilled, I said they needed to finish out the sessions I paid for and fulfill their commitment, especially if they were part of a team. But then I let them quit and move on to other activities.
10. Each child develops their own passions, what one loves a sibling might dislike. My older son loves robotics and technology, and did every possible JCC Youth Theatre program and camp possible, my younger son had zero interest in theatre, preferring to pursue his fascination with the violin and karate. That’s what makes them unique people, and I love watching their personalities evolve.