Podcast: When Your Kid Has No Passion
What do you do when your child has no clear passion, or when the things they choose to spend their time on don’t appear to be “educational?”
Today’s parent question is the most common I ever hear!
Help: my child is not interested in anything academic!
When we exhaust typical school-style learning and then take the risk to pivot to our children’s passions—at least for a season—what do we do when our kids pick passions that look pointless?
- Do you wish your child would spend less time on the iPad?
- Are you wondering how on earth whittling wood could be considered educational?
- Wish you could turn the school subjects into their passions instead of skateboarding?
Join me for a discussion about how to wave the magic wand: turning ANY passion into a gateway of learning.
It’s so easy to dismiss what looks like it’s a mere passing craze. But you never know where it might lead!
Listen to the Podcast
One morning, my son Noah — who was 9 at the time — famously said to me: “I hate my life.” At that moment, I realized that I had been dragging him through a schedule and plan that met my needs to see progress and get things done, but I had forgotten to take into account how he felt about it.
At the time, I was a part of an independent study program in California that supported homeschoolers (back in the mid-1990s). I met with my supervising teacher desperate for ideas. I didn’t know how to teach the kind of learner Noah turned out to be. She handed me an article that featured brain research showing that children (and adults, let’s be honest!) learn best in deep dives — bursts. The typical school model of working through several subjects a little bit each day is contrary to how our brains like to learn best.
Brains prefer to immerse in the information—to wallow around, to make connections, to incubate the ideas, and they do it best when they are focused rather than spread thin.
If you think for a moment about how you are learning anything right now, I bet you’ll see the proof of this concept. For instance:
- Aren’t you all-in on homeschooling (or you were at some point)?
- Didn’t you deep dive into learning about pregnancy or adoption or potty training?
- Haven’t you suddenly found yourself obsessed with crafts or gardening or learning to ski or figuring out how to start a business?
I know that, when I am working on a writing project, I don’t say to myself: “I will give 50 minutes to writing and then 50 minutes to the study of art history and then 50 minutes to learning about filing taxes in 13 states and then 50 minutes for research into composting.”
If I am knee-deep in research for tax filings, I am not also writing; it is unlikely to be a good day for writing because researching how to file taxes for employees in other states will siphon off a good bit of my creative energy. If I’m writing, the last thing I want to do is stop when I get in a good groove to tackle taxes. That’s when the best writing comes!
When you are hit with a hunger to know, you rarely schedule it in predictable bite-sized time slots, and you don’t also include things that would be “good to know” but that don’t feel pressing at the time.
Adults typically give their attention to one dominant subject over any given period of time. It’s not that they stop functioning in the world, living up to their responsibilities, but when a topic attracts their interest, they
- read about it,
- perform it,
- learn more about it,
- and develop a little depth until the interest wanes and a new one presents itself.
Kids are exactly this way. When we watch them play, we can see this unfettered devotion to the task, not balanced activity. They want to master, dominate, complete the task (dressing up and role-playing an imaginary story, beating all the levels of a game, creating a tower of blocks that won’t topple, finishing the LEGO set, making an entire house of furniture from modeling clay, practicing free throws).
They may read an entire book series all in a row without rounding out their reading with other titles by other authors. They may be bent on learning all about the revolutionary war or how to perform magic tricks or every single movement of BTS, the runaway global stars of the Korean boy band.
Our brains are curious and they want to be satisfied. When they experience a surge of curiosity, they are most likely to double down and hover there until they have sated whatever hunger they’ve tapped. That’s how the brain naturally operates.
So, after reading that article about the brain, I returned to my family and started observing my kids. With Noah, I ripped up the plan and told him that we were going to learn differently. That for the moment, he could simply play or read or do what he enjoyed while I figured out what we would do next.
Of course, my goal was to watch him—to see what popped into view. I’ll never forget that first day of “no plan.” He wandered the house like a nomad. Do you have kids like that? Where they look bored and restless? You tell them: “Do whatever you want!” and they reward that freedom with aimlessness. Ha! It’s unnerving! And it stops many of us from trusting a process.
Just know: aimlessness is simply space to imagine new possibilities.
I was lucky, however. Noah’s aimlessness lasted about three hours. Later that day, Noah pulled out his pocket knife and found a little stick in the front yard to whittle on our front stoop. Now, lest you imagine that we lived in a pretty-ish little wood like the one in Pride and Prejudice, let me be clear: we were holed up in a three-bedroom condominium in Orange County, California, with drought-resistant shrubs, a lawn, and very few trees. Noah found his twig and began applying the sharp blade to the bark ten feet from asphalt and parked cars.
There he was, whittling away on the stoop, and my mother’s heart soared. I thought, “It’s happening. He’s doing something wonderful with his time that makes him happy. He’s learning.” I let myself feel the wonder of that moment…for a moment.
Because right behind that thought came this one fast and furious: “Are you kidding me? What on earth IS he learning? So he momentarily looks like a page out of the Handcrafts for Boys handbook and that means he’s learning?”
I don’t know what it is about our hearts as mothers, but we are instantly and warmly heartened when we see our kids whittle wood—it’s as though this activity is wholesome and therefore worthy of time. And a minute later, we are wondering why he isn’t doing something more meaningful like calculating percentages from fractions.
My enjoyment of Noah’s momentary passion was crushed by second-guessing.
Do you ever do that? You see something good occur and you immediately wonder why it couldn’t have been this other thing—this better thing like playing the flute or taking up carpentry or learning algebra? The survival instinct must have something to do with this. All I know is that mothers are rarely happy.
When our kids are inside reading books all day, we think ‘Why aren’t they outside playing? It’s a beautiful day!’ When they are outside playing all day, we think, ‘When will they fall in love with reading? Why are they always outside playing?’
And that’s how we are. We trust the schedule more than our children because we get to put things on the schedule that reassure us that the education our kids ought to have is being scheduled into their lives.
When we exhaust the value of the planned learning model and we pivot to our children’s passions — at least for a season — what do we do when our kids pick passions that look pointless? We say that our kids have no passions, but the truth is they will find stuff to do.. It just doesn’t look like the education you feel you owe your kids.
Whittling wood looks benign and harkens back to some nostalgia for a natural boyhood, but is it actually valuable in the scheme of things? How good at wood-whittling would Noah need to be for me to “count it” as worthy of credit? Is wood whittling more educational than a video game? Why am I alarmed by the video game and reassured by whittling? These were questions I had to ask myself right then!
BTS is a global phenom, as is Taylor Swift. Is it enough for a child to be obsessed with a band or celebrity? Isn’t that a waste of time?
What if your child’s passion is to laugh at Tik Toks or create memes to share on social media? What if your child’s passion is to bake cookies or read comic books?
The Continent of Learning
Imagine a blank map of country shapes all joined together into a continent. Now picture your child’s interest (or obsession with a trend) in the center country. Adjacent to that “thing” can be all these other countries of learning adjacent—the school subjects that you want your child to learn.
The truth is that nothing on the planet is isolated from school subjects. Chemists are as likely to work in a medical lab as at Proctor and Gamble improving the power of Tide Detergent. A child who is obsessed with making memes (those ironic images that speak to a current social trend or political reality) requires clever use of language and audience awareness and staying up to date with what’s happening in the news. If you could see the meme-creation differently, you might discover a world of learning happening that you do value.
It’s so easy to dismiss what looks like a mere passing craze. But you never know where it might lead!
When we say our kids have obsessions rather than passions, we are offering a value judgment rather than merely observing. What if we did the harder work of finding the connections—seeing how this topic relates to others of value? If you had a son who loved whittling as a true passion, couldn’t you become fascinated with trees, and wood, and what kinds of wood to use for fashioning items and the history of whittling and wood as an art form and forest conservation and more?
If you dig a little deeper with your kids, you may find that all the subjects you want to teach are right there below the surface. It’s just that it takes eyes to see and a patience to uncover the interconnections. I like to say, ‘Everything can teach anything and anything can teach everything.’
Here are three things you can do to grow a natural learner, guided by passions and obsessions:
Drop the judgment
Start with the belief that if your child shows interest, it must be a worthy topic. Get curious. Ask questions like: “Tell me more about…whittling, baking, Korean films, the Jonas Brothers, Ultimate Frisbee, personality tests, Tik Tok, calligraphy, nail art, playing the electric guitar, recycling, going vegan, cheerleading, the card game Magic the Gathering…”
Resist categorizing the interest into “academic” and “entertainment.” Also, resist needing the passion to be long-lasting. A day of obsession may be just enough for that particular fleeting passion.
Take time to consider all the ways the topic might relate to school subjects. You might note that the Jonas Brothers write songs—that include lyrics and music. How does that happen? You might note that they have fan discussion boards. How much writing is your child reading and contributing? You might note that your child is following the Jonas Brothers’ world tour online. How many cities and in which countries? You don’t have to cover every subject in the interest, but you can open it up to a little more possibility when you value it. For instance, I might bring Jonas Brothers songs to the poetry teatime table and listen to the song and then read the lyrics—valuing them as poetry.
I might watch Tik Tok with my teen. I might ask my daughter to paint my nails. I might bake with my son or watch my daughter whittle. I might purchase the right kind of knife or send her links to videos showing her ways to whittle. I might not want to go vegan, but I might research vegan recipes to include in our menu and shop with my teen who wants to change his diet. The connections come more easily when you are a part of the obsession or passion, when you have a front-row seat. You will find the parts of the topic that are especially interesting to your child. In Johannah’s case, Elijah Wood, the LOTR movies and books were less of her obsession. She was more interested in the human stories of the other fans who were rapidly becoming her friends.
On the days when the passion ebbs, you return to your ordinary homeschool routine until another wave, another surge shows itself. You can fill the days, but do so from a place of flexibility and a desire to deepen a relationship to the subject rather than merely getting through and getting done.
There are times to be concerned about a passion or obsession, though, and I want to talk about that too. If the obsession is one that brings shame or that a child is hiding in secret, you have two questions to ask yourself:
- Is the item something that is truly dangerous?
- Is the child hiding the thing he or she loves because that child knows you will turn it into a school lesson — or, worse, take it away?
Let’s address the issue of safety first.
- Is the child in contact with strangers that have too much access to your child?
- Is the child’s overall mood and demeanor altered by this passion?
- Is there a chance that the child is vulnerable to those who might exploit your child?
If the answer to any of these questions is, “Yes, I am afraid for my child’s safety,” you are a parent first. You can suspend the child’s participation in the interest until you have vetted the content and context. That is your responsibility. If you discover that the context is safe and the content is meaningful to your child, then you want to allow your child to continue. If it is not safe, then you get to say “no.”
Our responsibility to our kids is important—but it’s not always the topic or subject that is dangerous. Many times, we are unaware of danger at the church youth group or in the literature club, while playing a video game at home turns out to be the benign interest.
Now, the second question: is the child hiding the thing he or she loves because that child knows you will turn it into a school lesson or take it away? If the answer to this question is yes, then it is time to go back to my three steps.
Start with “Tell me more about…” and look for connections to things you value and participate with your child. Allow your child to experience you as an ally. Your child should not have to have the same tastes as you. My oldest son is a metalhead. I will never love that music. But I have listened to countless songs now and even have a few I like as a result. His passion for that music enhanced his life. I needed to see that and accept that it could be true! Ha!
The bottom line is that all of us are led by curiosity and passion. Our brains work that way. The passions we feel may be fleeting (a one-hour Google search) or enduring (Jacob works in human rights as his career now, Johannah is a life coach).
Let’s begin by valuing what shows up, trusting that our children can learn what they need while also pursuing passions. Our homeschools are richer when we clear space for that deep-diving that the brain loves so well.
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