Autonomy Fuels Kids’ Passion for Sports and Music
Parents who want their children to discover a passion for music, sports, or other hobbies should follow a simple plan: Don’t pressure them.
By allowing kids to explore activities on their own, parents not only help children pinpoint the pursuit that fits them best, but they can also prevent young minds from obsessing over an activity, a new study finds.
“Passion comes from a special fit between an activity and a person,” said Geneviève Mageau, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal. “You can’t force that fit; it has to be found.”
That’s according to an article by Michael Torrice called “Want Passionate Kids? Leave ’em Alone,” over at LiveScience. It’s an article from 2010, but it came to my attention because of a blog post Laura Grace Weldon just wrote, “What’s the Perfect Age?” about Laura’s idea that there is “an ideal age floating around in our collective unconscious.”
Covering an interesting topic in its own right, Laura’s post linked to the “Passionate Kids” article, which relates to a question I’m often asked about how homeschooling parents “get kids to do stuff.”
The assumption is that kids won’t have internal motivation without pressure, such as an institutional approach to using grades and privileges as rewards for performance and productivity, or parents’ insistence that kids practice and practice. I’m not saying external motivators won’t ever work, or that parents shouldn’t sometimes set an agenda that encourages kids to try something new or work a bit longer to push through a challenge. I’m just not that black and white.
But the evidence in the article confirms what I’ve observed in my own family and hundreds of others as I’ve worked with homeschoolers over the last fifteen years or so. Stuff like this:
After five months, the psychologists found that one major variable that predicted whether children developed a passion for music was if their parents allowed them the freedom to practice on their own schedule. The passionate kids on average scored 9 percent greater on the autonomy scale than the non-passionate kids, which is a big effect in a psychology study, Mageau said. (Read more)
If you follow my blog, you know our youngest son is a dedicated youth soccer player and a dedicated musician. I can’t say we have ever made him practice either discipline, though between the ages of 11 and 13, he went through extended periods of playing guitar as much as six or seven hours a day. He brings similar focus to his athletic pursuits, having chosen to spend a lot of time practicing, both on his own and with teams.
His dad and I provided encouragement and opportunity, but no ultimatums, no required minimums, no schedule. Different from requiring practice, and really, this is beyond semantics, we have always provided time to practice.
As much as it might be tempting to feel we were getting behind on something else, when the mega-focus was on the music, I let him be. We could still manage academics (homeschooling is nothing if not efficient), but I could never replace passion-driven practice. And, additionally, the kind of focus he was learning to harness as a late elementary/early middle schooler turns out to be applicable to the more challenging academics he’s encountering at 15, so it was good preparation.
I’m not naive enough to think that Nick does not feel some expectation from us; certainly he knows I enjoy my role as a soccer mom and that his dad–a musician–loves hearing the fruit of his focus and practice. And vice versa. I think we will always have to work on being aware of what our enthusiasm communicates, just as we did with our older sons, who had their own distinct interests.
Autonomy over sports, music, or other interests can be a hard thing for parents to give to kids — especially when there has been a financial, emotional, or time investment. I understand how hard it is. I can’t say we’ve always gotten it right.
But here are a few ideas I’ve gathered over the years that may help kids have the autonomy that seems to fuel passion:
- Get into new activities cheap. The first guitar we bought was just good enough not to be frustrating. Our first soccer experiences were inexpensive rec leagues in our community. An interest in ice skating meant borrowing skates, then buying used skates. Just yesterday, I bought a used racquetball racket at a consignment store for $10.
Eventually, a little better guitar was procured, and rec soccer morphed into travel soccer. If racquetball takes, we can get a better racquet. But there is less inclination to pressure a kid’s continuing participation since we didn’t spend a fortune on equipment to get started. Along the way, our kids tried other interests that didn’t necessarily stick, but we didn’t get stuck with very expensive but abandoned stuff.
- Encourage kids to save for their own equipment, instruments, training, or lessons. When kids make their own investment to help pay for upgrades or opportunities, they may be less casual about putting them aside. When one of our kids wanted to try a new and expensive sport, we helped fund a single initial experience, but after that, it was up to him to find a way to pay for future outings. This only added to his passion for the sport. Frankly, we could just not accommodate paying for it in the family budget, which already included activities that kid did not want to give up at the time.
- Think about whether your child needs time, a schedule, or both. Some kids do flourish on a structured schedule. Not making a kid practice does not mean not providing the structure he may need, like a specific time and welcoming place he or she is offered to practice.For kids who are less enamored with schedules, protecting time in general may be the key. If you are a homeschooler with every moment scheduled with academics, lessons, field trips, and homeschool group activities, your child may not have the downtime at home necessary to practice an instrument or sport.
- Encourage kids to apprentice in connection with an interest. One of my sons was very interested in computers. Long before he was old enough to work for pay, we facilitated an apprenticeship at a computer store. Another son wanted a puppy and wanted to get into dog training — so we set up volunteer opportunities with the local animal shelter. Our young guitarist apprenticed at a local music shop when he was 12.
Just last week, when he was trying out a guitar in a different store miles and years away, the store rep commented on the respectful way he handled the expensive instruments.
All of these experiences gave our kids the chance to experience their interests in a world outside their parents’ world, which gave them freedom to learn from someone else. I’m glad my son has other soccer coaches and other mentors; in a homeschooling setting, I have had a lot of real and potential influence, but as he gets older, it’s important to have other people involved who are real experts in their fields — and not just providing encouragement–or pressure–as “the proud parent.”
- Give your kid an out. If a new interest is going to take an outlay of cash or time just to test the kid’s interest, make sure the child understands the expectations and that there is an exit plan you can tolerate. I’ve had young kids literally tell me that they are reluctant to try something new “because my mom will make me do it forever.” Well that’s not exactly a recipe for discovery!
As parents, we need to be realistic that kids will try things and find out they don’t like them–just as we adults do. We need to be careful not to get too attached to the idea of our child’s participation in a particular activity. Often, a workable solution is to say, “If you try this, I want you to complete the season, because your team will be counting on you. But you don’t have to sign up again after that if you don’t want to.”
Then, no matter how much you loved having your child in the sport, even if you’re the coach, keep your word and let him or her quit. “Daddyball” is not a healthy situation.
- Emphasize process not product. Many homeschooling approaches I have been influenced by include emphasizing the process of learning over the end product. If you haven’t already, look into this aspect of Montessori- and Waldorf-inspired homeschooling, as well as the tenets of unschooling, relaxed homeschooling, discipleship homeschooling, eclectic homeschooling, unit studies, Charlotte Mason, and Thomas Jefferson Education.
Rather than focusing on the goal of producing a scholar, a celebrity musician, or a scholarship athlete, we do our best to live with faith in the processes of reading, thinking, playing music, playing ball, and practicing, with the intent to provide instruction within that exquisite gap of “can’t-quite-do-it,-but-with-effort,-it’s-in-reach.”
We emphasize a joy in the present moment’s activity, with the thought that this joy, if accompanied by autonomy and opportunity for further development, will help a kid keep reaching higher. At a certain point, a kid who adopts his or her own goal around a passion will also begin to apply hard work and focus. We provide support, not pressure.
What Happens from Here
I don’t know how our third son’s interests will continue to develop. I know that my two older sons have taken aspects of their hobbies, sports, and interests as kids and continued to benefit from and enjoy them as young adults, and I hope that will be the case for him, too.
Additionally, I can’t stop myself from invoking balance for the future–getting a wrong angle on a passion can be debilitating. This is another reason why the right mentors matter and why it would be nice if homeschooling could guarantee future health and happiness, which it most definitely does not.
Those thoughts will have to be shared in future blog posts, I guess. (I have a whole talk on Homeschooling Reality that I do at conferences!) For now, I will enjoy the music that springs up unbidden around the house, and I will just have to continue to be careful not to trip over the soccer balls in the kitchen.