Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Wandering the halls of the high school I’d attended 25 years before, I was flooded with an enormous sense of gratitude. I remembered all the opportunities I got to lead, to serve, and to learn as a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio. I recalled the people who’d animated the classrooms and corridors of Case Elementary School, Litchfield Middle School, and Firestone High School. I remembered the experiences and relationships that made me. I thought, too, of my parents, who’d bought a home in the district in the 80s because of the good schools and who tirelessly shuttled me to and from every enrichment program known to man—for years. 

I’d spoken to Stephanie Malia Krauss, the author of Whole Child, Whole Life, just the week before about how parents can help their kids find their passions. She made the point that parents’ investments in kids’ interests can be crucial for the children’s lifelong health and happiness. And she said that when parents are intentional about “allowing our kids to be exposed to and explore things that interest them, things that feel really good and enjoyable, we not only support their health, including their mental health and healing, but their learning and development.” Yet it took a stroll down memory lane to really bring home the point of how much exposure, exploration, and experiences matter. 

Back in my hometown for my high school reunion, I remembered who I was in those formative years. I saw my present self anew, as a culmination of all that nascent becoming. I remembered memorizing and reciting poetry, writing art criticism, MCing the Green and Gold Revue, researching women’s undergarments for a senior project, starting a spirit team, plastering the school with posters declaring No Payne No Gain / Maya Payne for Student Council, joining PEACE (People Encouraging the Acceptance of Cultures Everywhere), and so much more. In retrospect, it’s clear that the freedom to pursue eclectic interests contributed immeasurably to the purpose—and wellness—I enjoy today.

Now, the question became, how should I let that realization inform my approach to my daughter’s interests, knowing that the trauma of Covid and the specter of tech and social media make her generation’s childhood experience considerably unlike my own?

Help Your Child Find Their Interests

Krauss advises that parents should follow childrens’ leads, while also keeping in mind that they need a certain level of exposure to different potential interests in the first place. Interests don’t fall from the sky, they grow from the seeds scattered about the rich spaces at home, in schools, in the community, in books, in media, and (yes!) online. Parents have to facilitate the circumstances that give kids a “chance to feel and see what they might be interested in,” she explains. “Kids can only lead to what they know is possible.”

Nurturing interests takes time and attention. Krauss offered the example of the years-long unfolding of her son’s passion for baseball. When he was just a few years old, his family noticed that he was drawn to stadiums and thought they might have a budding architect on their hands. They filled his arms and head with books about stadiums, and he developed a particular fondness for baseball stadiums and the sport they house. He took the interest in hand by building LEGO replicas of favorite venues and diving into historical fiction about baseball. Now 12, he plays baseball on a team and is drawn to baseball commentary, which he listens to via transistor radio. His parents, still attentively investing in his ever-evolving passion, are working on ways to get him into a broadcast booth.

Observing, listening, providing access, and practicing patience with curiosity and exploration are all the name of the game.

Ways to Invest in Your Child’s Interests 

Krauss believes that young people learn constantly and that the adults in their lives should foster learning wherever and whenever it occurs—at home, at school, in the community, even online. And while it may take some time to research the options available to your child, cost often doesn’t need to be a barrier, thanks to public-service missions, community access days at cultural institutions, fee waivers, and sliding payment scales.

Embrace enrichment. “What we call the extras are often the most essential,” she says. A lot of the best learning around kids’ interests happen in music, art, or other activities outside of formal school instruction. Programs at libraries, museums, and other sites ignite and sustain kids’ interests.

Leverage literature. Libraries are the ultimate space for exposing kids to potential interests, because they offer space and time to explore new things. Built to foster curiosity, they house books and magazines that introduce kids to people, ideas, and places they might not otherwise come across. Plus, she says, they can let kids see people who look like them and who have a shared interest (e.g. chess, anime), geographical location, ethnicity, or other resonant trait. 

Value virtual experiences. Access to libraries, museums, and other community spaces varies widely, so it’s important to count online spaces among those available to nurture kids’ interests. Parents can help guide kids to carefully access articles, videos, podcasts, online courses, and other content online. As Covid taught us, there are even virtual clubs, camps, and music lessons.

Treasure downtime. As we spoke, Krauss referenced play and rest as a part of this process as well, gesturing to some of her son’s LEGO creations, which sat just feet away from her desk. “Allow them that downtime to kind of integrate what they have been exposed to, what they might be interested in, and to literally and figuratively play it out,” she advised. Kids need a chance to reflect on daily activity, as well as to rest and recover from it.

Help Your Child Find Their Passions & Meet Their Potential 

As parents, we often have an end in mind when making decisions about our children’s activities. We may enroll them in soccer to get them outside, get them moving, and let them experience being a part of a team. Or, we might thrust a book in their hands to deepen knowledge of a topic they’ve shown an affinity for. 

But Krauss’s take is that it’s wellness, not only “readiness,” that we’re really after for our kids. So, in that vein, hold space for enjoying the journey, even if it doesn’t directly support college or career ambitions. In addition to helping your child reach their potential, fun, creativity, connection, exploration and agency all support a life well lived.

As a former pre-K teacher, Krauss loves alliteration. Here are five Es she offers as reminders for lighting the path of your child’s interests:  

  • Exposure is a light introduction to a variety of things, activities, and ideas that kids may or may not be interested in—along with the space to be curious and open-minded about them. It’s an idea tidily summed up in the catchphrase, “you can’t be what you can’t see,” Krauss explained. “If kids aren’t exposed to it, how could they possibly know if they’re going to be interested in it or not?”
  • Exploration and Experimentation are about giving the child room and resources to engage with the topic on their own terms by doing, building, creating, and asking questions. The parents may have set the table, so to speak, but kids have “voice and choice” over how they initiate, sequence, and personalize their engagement. Their discovery is open-ended and inductive. They are gaining knowledge without having any specific theory or hypothesis in mind. Experimentation, for me, suggests taking things a bit deeper and building insight through trial and error and testing their ideas.
  • Experience and Expertise imply significant time on task. For example, this is the level when a child decides soccer is their thing and goes beyond interest to commitment. At this point, their identity begins to shift from someone who plays soccer to a soccer player. Krauss says that interests aren’t only about enjoyment, and the final E of expertise comes when kids are also challenged by their pursuit and they stretch themselves to attain mastery. We parents should intentionally support what Krauss calls “the wide and long of their lives.” The wide is their exploration of interests across settings—home, school, summer, community, etc. And the long means throughout their lives. 

Be Supportive & Encouraging in Everyday Moments

Clearly, taking kids on trips or paying for extracurricular programs and activities are ways we invest in our children’s interests. But those are far from the only ways to make that investment. Parental investment is present also, and perhaps moreso, in the little daily moments when we are present enough to listen well and affirm our kids’ budding expressions of interest. 

“We hold the power that shapes and shifts kids’ interests based on our attention and responses,” Krauss writes. “Imagine a child who loves art and wants to pursue it. They pour their heart into their sketchbook and finally get up the courage to ask you to look at their drawings. What happens if you go over each drawing with awe and wonder? What about if you breeze through, busy and distracted? What if you say you don’t like their art, or sarcastically suggest they find a new hobby?”

Let this remind us to be encouragers for our children. We never know exactly where their quirky interests may lead, but we have it on good authority that supporting their curiosity, exploration, and experimentation bolsters their health and happiness. 

Try This At Home

Ready to put Krauss’s recommendations into action? Get started with a quick two-part journaling exercise to sharpen your observations and prime your next steps.

  1. Notice and foster kids’ interests. Jot down a list of the children in your life. Beneath each name, list their interests and what you can do to support their exploration of those interests.
  2. Model your own purpose. Write down an interest you have—whether a physical activity, artistic pursuit, intellectual hobby, volunteer project, or other initiative—and jot down ways to increase your own exposure to it.

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