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The key to depth learning is intensity. We hear about passion, immersion, delight-directed learning, deep-dives, talent, intelligences, curiosity, and other language around self-education that all attempt to create an image of focused attention and sustained interest in any number of subject and skill areas.

While each of these terms and phrases has a place in the self-education conversation, the key factor that creates the retention of what is studied or explored is intensity. The most talented, sharpest mathematics-whiz kid will not go beyond what is easily attained through natural aptitude without it! A physically gifted athlete cannot progress to the first string or select teams without it.

Intensity creates clarity of focus, the drive to work hard and struggle through the challenging parts, and serves to magnify the importance of the material or skills so that the child is motivated to master them. Intensity in learning is what is missing in most traditional school settings. Kids are introduced to subject matter in the least catalyzing ways, and then are asked to master it without any “hook” – no intrinsic reason, no obvious benefit to them. They learn to passively work on homework or take notes for the sake of passing tests, rather than the deep dive into the material because it compels them to know!

Intensity in learning, then, is the “compelled to know” ingredient to an education. When I was in high school, I became obsessed with theater (all sides – acting, stage managing, lights, set design, PR, directing). By the time I was a senior in high school, all of my classes were in the theater and I used time outside of class to read plays, to diagram the sets, and to set the blocking as a kind of enjoyable exercise for my own self-instruction.

You know intensity when you meet it. These kids are driven to know and to create time to find out. Sometimes we demean the chosen passions (video gaming, shooting free throws, studying fashion and make up). Still, you can tell what your child cares about by the level of intensity that shows up with it.

Sometimes intensity looks like a child walking through the house with a full length original novella and red pen in hand, editing it at all hours of the day.

Sometimes intensity looks like a boy cradling his lacrosse stick in the car, at the store, sleeping with it by his bed.

Sometimes intensity is marathon DVD viewing of the same LOTR trilogy over and over again, while reading the books and visiting fan sites online.

There’s a persistence and an insistence in intensity. The child keeps at it without being nagged. The child cares about it without being convinced. The child acquires the vocabulary of that world, without workbooks or lectures.

Intensity in children is not always attractive, however. It can look like throwing stuff, and shouting at the computer screen. It sometimes manifests as taking a swing at a sister or crumpling up the paper so carefully written and stuffing it in the waste basket.

Angry comments come from intense children:

“I hate it. You can’t like it. It’s ugly.”

“I’ll never be good at ___________.”

“Leave me alone. I’m trying to figure it out!”

“I don’t need your help. Quit telling me how to do it.”

“This book is stupid!”

“I was just getting to the good part. I can’t stop now!”

“I’m not tired (hungry, dirty, angry). I have to finish.”

Euphoric comments come from intense children:

“I’m the best speller in the world!”

“I figured it out WITHOUT your help!”

“I’m going to read every JRR Tolkien book in order and learn elvish.”

Make you feel stupid comments come from intense children:

“You’re wrong!”

“Actually, that’s not true. The truth is…..”

“You don’t know anything. (Expert person) says _________.”

Intensity shows engagement, even if the expression of intensity from an immature person comes across harshly or brashly. Being cocky is the privilege of expertise and while adults learn how to be cocky without offending everyone in the room (at least, some of them do), your kids may not yet have been “socialized” to discover that they need to reign in their “lording it over others” disposition.

The only thing you need to do around intensity is to admire it. It’s intrinsic to the person. You can’t “drum it up.” Disposition is not what I’m talking about. You don’t have to be loud or bug-eyed to be intense about an interest. Rather, intensity is measured through the raw commitment of your child to that one particular area that lasts longer than a moment in time.

When you see it, please support it. Intensity around a video game could well lead to intensity in other areas. I watched one of my kids spend an enormous amount of time on an Elijah Woods fan site that led her to discover the wide range of lives other girls her age led. She is now a social worker. Another child loved the Internet so much that when he discovered Google could be rendered in other languages, he switched his Google page to Klingon and that led to a fascination with linguistics (which he studied for two years in college!).

I read a book about a homeschooled child who became a conductor of a symphony. His passion in life began not musically, but with blocks. He became obsessed with building them, arranging them, moving them into new configurations. When he finally studied piano, this deeply held passion for arranging parts led to his fascination with conducting music. Who could have known that blocks would lead to music in that way?

You can’t know how the intensity in your child will morph into a long term interest that has value that you understand and appreciate. All you can do is admire it! Enjoy it. See if you can look behind the intensity that worries you to a possible benefit.

My online gaming son has become quite the chess player. Funny how we all admire his endless fascination with mastering opening moves and watching international contests for chess, but are put off by his endless love of specific online video games. Strange, isn’t it? We approve one intensity and the other we want to call an “addiction.” I’ve had to learn what those games mean to him and am trusting that they will lead to the next thing—that next intensity.

It would be fun to hear all the ways your kids show you their intensities. Please share what fascinations are showing up in your household. Also, of course, feel free to post questions. One of the challenges of raising an intense child is what to do when that child becomes belligerent or excessively arrogant.

Here’s to intensity!

Cross-posted on facebook.

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