Kids’ Interests Are Their Own

Experiments Family GeekMom
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Image by L. Weldon

Snake wrangler, computer geek, vintage auto restorer. These are a few of the identities one of my sons tries on as he masters areas of interest to him. He used to patiently stalk alongside our creek and behind the woodpile to find snakes. He didn’t hurt them or even keep them for more than a few minutes. I’m not sure even now what the object was other than a pursuit of something that fascinated him. He brought many of his captives up to the house where we marveled at them before he released them. Personally I prefer to marvel at snakes from a healthy distance but I can squelch the shivers when necessary. He didn’t just wrangle snakes, he also studied huge reference books about snakes, drew pictures of snakes, talked about snakes. Then one day he moved on to other interests.

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Image by L. Weldon

Mostly out of necessity he put together his first computer from cast-off parts. That started a new fascination: improving computer operations. He became particularly intrigued by the cooling systems. I listened, or at least kept my head swiveled in his direction, as he explained excruciatingly in-depth explanations about cooling system modifications and the resultant effect on computer efficiency.

He taught himself so well that he’s still paid to fix our friend’s computer problems, both software and hardware. Sometimes he shakes his head sadly at how poor cooling compromises these systems.

He became interested in auto restoration before he was old enough to drive. Using money earned by shoveling manure from horse stalls, he bought a 1973 Opel GT. He clearly relished the time and mess it took to carefully tear nearly everything out of the car. Now he is in the rebuilding phase, his progress limited to what parts he can afford. He shares details with us at the dinner table and tracks each step with friends on forums. The day his little Opal is roadworthy I know that acclaim will come from friends, family and forum pals all over the world.

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Image by L. Weldo

My husband owned his own computer business and has always fixed our cars, but he recognizes (sometimes to his chagrin) that our son prefers to go his own way as much as possible. In fact, when a question about computers or cars comes up it doesn’t always stay in the realm of consultation. It may become a spirited debate. That’s the nature of teens as they prove themselves, and we try to understand.

We’ve noticed that eager parental encouragement doesn’t always translate to more eagerness on the part of our kids. Sometimes we like a hobby or activity much more than our kids do. Sometimes, even when they’re winning awards, they don’t want to continue. Or perhaps our excitement has put a damper on the pursuit. As our kids get older this becomes more evident.

We’ve learned our kids’ interests are their own. There’s no real value in forcing, cajoling or otherwise pressuring a young person to stay with an endeavor that has lost its allure. Kids in our house have to stick with chores and other work obligations, not interests.

Child development expert David Elkind notes in The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally it’s a misperception that children should “stick” to a pursuit once they’ve started in order to build better staying power for adult challenges. As Elkind writes, “The common assumption that commitment transfers from one activity to another is wrong.” Making sure that a young person pursues interests for his or her own reasons, not the parent’s, keeps motivation alive and passion genuine.

Recent research backs this up. Sure, we can foster our children’s enthusiasm with our approval and guidance when necessary. But we can also show them by example. We can pursue our own interests with the kind of joy and fervor that can’t help but inspire.

That’s my newest excuse for my own art projects. I’m not making a mess, I’m providing a good example!

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4 thoughts on “Kids’ Interests Are Their Own

  1. You are providing the BEST example!
    I’m having a great time imagining what the Tiger Mom might have to say about this post; the views on encouraging devotion to learning are so radically different. Thank goodness!

  2. Studies continue to show that true passion can’t be coerced. Recent research indicated parents often force kids to pursue “hobbies” such as music and sports even when the child actively resists, which teaches the child that parental love is conditional. It also fosters obsessive rather than passionate interests.
    Sounds like Tiger Mom to me.

    1. Love this, but I would like more details! HOW do you encourage this? Did you buy a bunch of computer parts and leave them laying around? Buy him his own to experiment on (yikes, $$$!)? Just get a stack of books from the library?

      My son (also a former snake wrangler!) has recently become interested in small engines (specifically, of the gokart type, natch.) I’m not sure how to support his interest. He’s a non-traditional learner. Should I look for free, broken engines on Freecycle and let him experiment, Frankenstein style? Just suck it up and buy him a ready made gokart (or at least the motor)? I don’t want to hand it to him on a platter (where’s the fun in that?) but I don’t want it to be impossible for him either.

      What did you do? How did he get from “interested in cars” to “fixing up one he bought”?

      1. Encouraging kids to pursue their own interests is a big topic (I wrote a book about it). In part it has to do with allowing them to do meaningful, useful work from the time they’re very small rather—-for example letting preschoolers help prepare real food in the kitchen rather than giving them plastic play food and plastic dishes This boosts development in all sorts of ways that translate into active learning.

        In part it also has to do with the adults in their lives acting as facilitators rather than instructors. That means the child self-regulates his or her interest level—seeking adults to answer questions, provide access to resources, and demonstrate skills. This keeps motivation high while putting the focus on the child’s exploration and mastery.

        But to answer your question more specifically, we don’t have money to buy parts or equipment for our kids. When my son was small he loved to take apart old machinery and appliances. Friends and family saved broken things for him. We cut off the cords, made sure there wasn’t anything dangerous, and let him go at it. I think deconstructing helped him grasp some principles of design. A few people gave us cast off computers, which is how he got the idea to build his own (he was about nine or ten). He consulted his father occasionally but went ahead and worked on it mostly on his own, making mistakes and asking for manuals from the library and looking up YouTube videos.

        He wanted to fix up a car in order to know how it worked from inside out (which he will if this hulk ever gets finished). He has the sense that knowledge and self-reliance is power. Again, he’s really taken on a lot of the work independently while also getting a lot of help from online forums His father and I never pushed this or any other interest, in fact my kids are fascinated by things far from my interest/ability area. I take them to the library to get information, help them find adults in the community who are experts, and basically go about pursuing my own goals while trying to keep from lapsing into unconsciousness when one of them talks at length about insect behavior or welding techniques.

        If I were you, I’d hop on this small engine interest. Let him work on discarded lawn mower engines or other fixable engines you (or better yet, he) can find on Freecycle. Let him check out forums where people talk about small engine repair. Get out some books on the topic, let him look at procedural videos, and step back (while of course setting limits about safety and tool use and all that jazz). His interest may stick around or may wane, but when our kids actively pursue their own interests they aren’t just learning a set of skills. They’re seeing themselves as capable learners. That’s of lasting value.

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