Enter Your Child’s World
Sometimes in our eagerness to see our children become independent, we leave them to their interests. We see them happily listening to their favorite musical artists over and over again, we notice them reading an entire series on the universe and star systems, we watch as they perfect a trick in gymnastics or a move in lacrosse, or we try not to be disturbed by how enthusiastically they play an online game.
Sometimes their hobbies and interests create pride in us. For instance, I’ve never met anyone who would be ashamed to see their child mastering chess and entering tournaments, or practicing violin 4-5 hours a day. Kids who learn foreign languages with Rosetta Stone, on their own, because they want to, cause parents to brag about them. Parents are regularly proud of kids whose favorite subject is math, or the history of warfare. They love it when their kids show prowess in “prestige” interests.
Other times, though, our kids get obsessed (our negative word for their passions) with stuff that makes us cringe:
- role playing games,
- online video games,
- coloring books,
- a television series,
- a popular book series read over and over again,
- electric guitar,
- learning Klingon,
- decorating a bedroom,
- talking online to friends at all hours of the day and night,
- coding new versions of computer games,
- learning all the statistics for a favorite baseball team…
It’s easy to put a child’s interests into containers (the “good” interest box, and the “bad” interest box). When you do that, your face changes when you talk to your child. You light up when your daughter tells you she learned to play the difficult passage in the concerto, but cringe a little bit when your son tells you he finally beat a level in Halo after hours of playing.
Your response to how your children express their interests generates trust or creates distance between you. For a moment, suspend judgment and think about what your child is learning about learning. We call this “going meta.” The “meta” level of reflection works like this: To have a meta conversation, means you are now talking about talking. To discover the meta-theory means you are developing a theory to discuss theory.
Applied to the idea of learning: the “meta-layer” of learning is examining how learning is happening, not what is being learned. You get up on a high perch, above your child and your child’s interests, looking down at the signs and symptoms of learning rather than the content (what he or she is studying).
When you do this, you begin to see that the features are similar whether studying violin or how to blow away your opponent on a screen. Certainly the skills are different (and we can argue some other time about what is more difficult). But the process—
- deep immersion,
- expanded vocabulary in the field,
- complex sorting of information,
- discovery of how to apply what one knows to how one practices,
- sustained interest that leads to achievements when challenges arise,
- curiosity about tangential skills and facts related to the original field,
- breakthrough insights about the nature of the field itself, + a sense of prowess and power that comes from expertise and evolving skill,
- mastery (awareness that this area of interest is now under the learner’s control and that there is unlimited possibility within that sphere)
—can all be gained in any subject area.
When we’re tempted to dismiss a child’s passions, we may be short-circuiting their development as learners! In other words, what matters more than the specific field is the child’s development as a skilled autodidact (self-directed learner).
The skill of learning transfers to any field of endeavor. But it can’t transfer if a person has never experienced the way passionate interest generates sustained growth and commitment to overcome challenges. These are the tools of learning that create lifelong learners (of the sort we all say we want).
To facilitate this growth, it helps if you wade into the waters with your child. You don’t have to become an expert at World of Warcraft or episodes of Dr. Who or even how to play chess. What you need to be is curious about how your child sees the world when immersed in this field. You want to find out if he or she is “good” yet (as far as they can tell), and what “getting good” looks like, and how they measure themselves. You want to understand what compels their interest (how did they get hooked and why?). You want to know who the community is that is invested in this world (and if at all possible, you want to value it!).
The world is a huge place with so much to explore. It’s not surprising that our kids might find passions in places we never thought to look!
Become a part of the conversation—hold back judgment. Go “meta” and look at the skills that are related to being a learner, and validate those (to yourself, especially—your kids already know they are learning, you need to know that too). You also may find out that that world that is so absorbing to them really is as fascinating as they say it is! What a gift to our kids when we can genuinely say about their prowess, “I’m so proud of you!” and mean it.
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