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It may be hard to admit but, as any parent knows, there’s a big difference between having a kid who’s semi-interested in an activity, whether that’s the cello or chess, and one who lives, breathes and dreams of being a cellist or professional chess player.
Take it from a single father of five who spent years shepherding his kids to football and lacrosse games as well as to violin and karate lessons.
“If your child is super talented, the first thing you’ll notice is how badly he wants to do the activity on his own,” says Matthew Sweetwood, whose kids range in age from 19 through 27. “If you’re forcing them or they’re frequently unwilling to do it, chances are they’re not going to be the superstar you hoped for.”
Read on for more on how to nurture your child’s interests, how to make it through endless swim meets, travel soccer games and piano lessons and what to do if one day your kid wakes up and says ‘I quit.’
1. Observe your child within the context of his or her peers. “Parents often drop off their kids at an activity and race off,” says John Mayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago who specializes in families and teens. “This is a huge mistake and a missed opportunity to observe and evaluate your child.” Look specifically at his behavior. Ask yourself if he appears to be a leader and whether he seems truly gifted at that activity, sport or artistic expression compared to others his age.
2. Prepare to invest time—and money. If your kid truly wants to follow this dream, make sure you can commit to it as a family (and don’t hesitate to start your kid on a trial period of classes or practices before promising to paying for them). “I watched my middle son become an all-state soccer player, win the high school state championships and get a scholarship to play in college,” Sweetwood says. “I always tell parents to be prepared to spend way more money than you think it will cost, to travel all over the place, especially on weekends, to deal with overly competitive parents and politics all for something that will consume a lot of the entire family’s time.”
3. Let your child be the teacher. “To nurture your child’s interest, be intrigued by what he or she is doing, whether it’s learning a new piece on the violin or a new stroke on the golf course,” says Gretchen Hirsch, co-author of Helping Gifted Children Soar: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachers. “This is one time when you, as a parent, don’t have all the answers.”
4: Keep in touch with your child’s coach, teacher or mentor. “That person shouldn’t be in total control of your child,” Mayer says. “You want to be sure that coach has the same integrity and social skills as you do. Observe how that person interacts with your child: Does he yell or punish? You want to be sure you’re in on those behaviors.”
5. Get on board. By participating in what your child is doing, whether it’s attending their games or recitals or expressing interest in their interests, you’ll help your child stay motivated. “If you don’t, you’re sending a huge message that you don’t care, so why should they,” Mayer says. “This will inevitably lead to apathy.”
6. Accept it if your child wants to quit. Before it’s a done deal, however, try to find out why. “Ask your child if the activity has become too difficult,” Hirsch says. “Perhaps this is just a temporary bump in the road where your child’s motivation is flagging.” If he or she is determined to quit, remember that childhood is a time of experimentation and you should never force a child to remain in an activity (though you should be sure that they see it through to the end of the season or term so as to not let others down). And, whatever you do, don’t force your child to do something to fulfill your own dreams. “Just because you wanted to be a concert pianist doesn’t mean your child does,” Hirsch says. “Let your children follow their own passions, however much they may diverge from your own.”