Help Your Kid Find Her Passion

If left to her own devices, my daughter Maggie, 16, would have played CityVille on Facebook all day. I'd have preferred she find a passion - a non-screen occupation to inspire her mind and soul - but she never seemed to feel the urgency. Whenever I went into a "Do something productive with your life!" rant, Maggie rolled her eyes and said, "Take a chillaxative, Mom."

Maybe I was making too much of the passion problem, I thought. Maggie earned good grades, had friends, and seemed happy. I firmly believed, though, that kids should have a beloved hobby or interest - an answer to the question, "What's your thing?" Maggie had sampled dozens of sports, arts, and crafts. The passion deficit hadn't bothered me as much when Maggie was younger, but now I was worried that she had drifted too far and for too long. The phrase "follow your bliss" kept ringing in my ears. Maggie didn't know what her bliss was.

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My aim isn't to make Maggie and my other daughter, Lucy, 12, hate me. The objective is to uncover a fascination that could lead to a lifetime of joy or (fingers crossed) a career. Plus, every parent knows intuitively that healthy kids are active and engaged.

"Extracurricular involvement benefits many aspects of a child's life, now and into the future," says Lisa J. Crockett, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, who co-led a team that tracked over 300 kids from age 14 into adulthood. "Participating in extracurricular activities appeared to feed their higher expectations of self; those study subjects who participated more in activities reached higher levels of education than kids who were less involved," she says. "We can also connect activity participation with early identity development. Adolescents typically wonder, 'Who am I?' and 'What do I want to do?' Those involved in activities get more information about what they like and are good at: 'Do I like this?' and 'Am I skilled at it?' They can build a richer, more complete picture of themselves and what they hope to accomplish." Or, in fun flow format: activities, aspirations, achievement.

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Research shows that kids engaged in activities also tend to have better grades, higher self-esteem, and better time-management skills, and are less likely to do drugs, drink, or drop out of school. And, in case you need even more encouragement, Thomas Fritsch, Ph.D., director of the Parkinson Research Institute at Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, links adolescent activity involvement with mental agility in old age. "We studied 349 Cleveland high school graduates from the classes of 1944 to 1946," says Fritsch. "We reviewed their school records and yearbooks to see what they did as students - band, boosters, teams, other clubs. Then we tested the individuals, 75 years old on average at the time of the study, for cognitive ability. The subjects who participated in two or more activities a year as teens were one-third less likely to have dementia as seniors." In other words, playing cello and chess at 14 may well mean your child won't be forgetting his spouse's name when he's 75.

Pick a Pair
So, case closed: Children should pursue activities. But how many, and which ones? Let's consider quantity first: Two is the magic number. "People often take on too many responsibilities. This eventually leads to frustration. The U.S. Marine Corps and other military services use the 'Rule of Three' as a general principle," writes Tina Seelig, Ph.D, a neuroscientist, in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World. "They've found that people can only track three things at once. The entire military system is designed to reflect this. A squad leader is in charge of three fire team leaders...." (When the military experimented with a "Rule of Four," notes Seelig, effectiveness dropped precipitously.) To help your child live by the Rule of Three, count school as one thing, then add two activities. You certainly wouldn't expect an adolescent to take on more than a Marine can, now would you?

Related: Be a Calm(er) Mom

Take the Slow Road
How I envy moms whose kids had a marked interest at an early age. But only a small percentage of children fit into this category. William Damon, Ph.D., director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence and author of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, conducted a seven-year study of 12- to 26-year-olds. "The majority of adolescents and young adults - about 55% to 60% - were searching for a direction in life but had yet to find it. Many of these searchers could be described as dreamers and dabblers." Dreamers had pie-in-the-sky notions ("I wanna be a rock star!"). Dabblers, like Maggie and Lucy, bounced from one interest to the next too fleetingly, as Damon says, for their hobbies "to become the basis of an enduring personal identity." But, he points out, "dabblers and dreamers are great kids who do what's expected of them, practice their instruments, do their homework."

Eventually, these children may find a purpose. It just might take a while. "Parents get frustrated when their child doesn't stick with something," says Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., director of Liberal Arts Career Services for the University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored in What? "Don't worry. I'm an advocate of wise wandering. We wander to find our passions. Do experiences have value only if they tell us what we want? Probably not. You also have to spend time learning what you don't want."

Read on to find out how to encourage your kids' interests.

How have you helped your children to find their passion? Tell us in the comments.

- By Valerie Frankel

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