Charlie was about 9 months old the first time his parents found him standing in his crib after a nap. "Oh, look at you!" said his mom, while his father applauded. Charlie grinned and chortled, coming as close as he could to taking a bow. All three were in sync — appreciating and celebrating Charlie's accomplishment. And it was an accomplishment, for it had taken extraordinary patience and effort to finally stand upright after many tries. The urge to keep trying had come from somewhere inside him.
If only philosophers who deliberate over the eternal question "What is happiness?" could watch a toddler waddling as far as her parents will let her go. When her legs give out and she lands on her padded bottom, she is ready to do it again and again. Healthy young children show intense determination to accomplish their goals, and their urge for mastery thrives with our encouragement and respect.
By age 2½ or 3, children begin to enjoy spontaneous pretend play — building a block tower, "baking" a cake, playing house, or becoming make-believe plumbers, policemen, ballerinas, builders, pirates, mommies, and daddies. Preschoolers are as intensely concentrated on their pretend games as they had been as babies on peek-a-boo. The content becomes richer and more revealing of preschoolers' individual interests, thinking styles, and desires. It might seem like hard work to stay this focused on their play, but it's not — because they love what they are doing.
It All Begins With Passion
From babyhood, children are driven from within to learn, focus, practice, and accomplish personal goals. It is noteworthy that the most intriguing activities for young children are not passive. For example, Charlie loves music, but not just as a listener. He dances, sways, and "sings," so that he and the music are one. His pleasure is enhanced further by the presence of his admiring parents, who share the thrill of the experience with him. That is true for every child at every age.
But what happens to a young child's passion for learning and exploring over time? Later on, in formal learning settings, we may wonder what has become of this early single-mindedness — the eagerness to get it right. What can we do to prevent our children from losing interest in or giving up on what they love to do? Findings from the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's research might offer some clues and help us preserve the drive for mastery seen in healthy young children.
Csikszentmihalyi, author of the acclaimed book Flow, studied why some adults and adolescents, rather than give up, pursue their passions at great personal cost. His research reveals a direct link between the pursuit of a passionate interest and personal happiness. Early on, he studied adult artists' determination to pursue their art, despite terribly difficult personal circumstances; and he found that each one experienced a total absorption in the activity of painting or sculpting. He calls this single-mindedness "flow" and he equates it with happiness.
The researcher's descriptions of those artists' intense focus, pleasure in involvement, and hard-won mastery is reminiscent of the persistence young children show when they are learning to walk, talk, and make sense of the world through rich imaginative play. In addition, flow usually occurs when the challenges one takes on are at or just slightly above one's current skills. This provides just enough challenge to occupy attention, without overloading the person.
Csikszentmihalyi concluded that, at any age, the most dedicated people in arts, sports, business, science, or any endeavor are drawn to the activity for its own sake. They do their thing because they love doing it. So above all, for flow to occur the activity needs to be personally gratifying.
The implications for parents and teachers seem clear: We would be wise to tune in to our children's individual interests and temperaments from birth on. That doesn't mean that children's tastes may not change; they will evolve — all the more reason to stay tuned in.
Take note that imposing our own dreams on our kids can take the magic out of their personal discovery, creativity, and learning. A child's enthusiastic focus can't endure if his parents' expectations are at odds with his own interests and abilities. I made the mistake of giving my son saxophone lessons, since he was already a good clarinetist and I love jazz. He didn't want to play the sax, and I risked killing his love of music. Pushing our own passions can compromise the foremost goal that most parents have for our children: Happiness.
How to Encourage Your Child's Interests
So how should we introduce our children to potential areas of interest, knowing that we can't create a passion for any particular endeavor? Take your clues from your child. Keep these strategies in mind:
- Observe him at play. Really tune in to the themes he is drawn to and the activities that make him happy. These will change. Trucks, trains, or tools may entrance your child at 3 and 4, but take a back seat to sports — or even science and reading — by kindergarten.
- Expose her to a diverse range of cultural events, museums, sports, and activities. But allow her to decide if and when those things speak to her. Timing is everything. For example, one father complained that at her first baseball game, his 3 year old was only interested in going up and down the stairs. Years later, she became a passionate baseball fan, but at 3, the rules just couldn't captivate her. Don't be disappointed if you drive an hour to see exotic and rare animals at the zoo, only to find that your preschooler would rather watch the squirrels running freely, as they do in your own backyard!
- Keep in mind his individual strengths and interests. In a family with multiple children, rather than start the same lessons at the same age for every child — ice skating at 5, piano at 7, tennis at 9 — allow individual choice and experimentation. That might mean the drums for one child, soccer for another, and drama or woodworking for yet another.
Know that the interests and passions expressed in a preschooler's pretend play are likely to be transitory. What really matters is that young children thrive on the pursuit of their own passions, bolstered by the gentle encouragement of parents who wisely show interest, resisting any temptation to take charge. So, if your 4- to 5-year-old daughter invites you to several tea parties a day, attend as many as you can — and do so enthusiastically. Be sure to let her pour. Admire her princess gown and jeweled crown, as would any loyal subject. If she has a passion for playing school, squeeze willingly into a small chair while she performs her role as your teacher. Go along with your 4-year-old son on his pretend ride to the moon, cheering when he announces, "Lift off!"
The key is to tune in to and accept your child's uniqueness and enthusiasm. Doing so promises the rewards of a life enriched by the happy pursuit of genuine passions and meaningful accomplishment.