How to teach your kids to find a passion

You are not trying hard enough. You only try hard at what you like.

This is a refrain you hear in school all the time. Probably because it’s true, that kids intuitively try hard at what they like. In early grades, this means boys are trying hard at recess. In later grades it means very few kids are trying their hardest at math. It also means that we intuitively know what it looks like when a kid is be focused on trying their hardest.

As a student, I really took the criticism to heart and I wondered what was wrong with me that I wasn’t trying my hardest at everything. After all, I didn’t feel lazy. I wrote in my journal every day of my life. I wrote poems and stories that no one even had to assign me. I read all the books in my grandmother’s bookstore (it was small). Yet I still internalized the voice that kept saying, “You’re not trying your hardest. You do only what you like.”

In hindsight, it’s amazing that it’s a valid criticism to tell someone they only try hard when they are interested in something. Because in the corporate world, where people actually study productivity, it’s taken as a given that people will not perform well when they are not interested. So why try to force kids to do what adults cannot manage?

On top of that, adults who have career problems rarely have the problem that they can’t do what they don’t like. They have the problem that they are doing what they don’t like and they don’t know what they like. Because school doesn’t teach you to figure out what you like. School teaches you to squash your inclination to focus on what you like.

I don’t actually think that our society believes that people should try hard when they aren’t interested. But our society is wedded to the idea of school. School cannot make an affordable teacher-student ratio work without teaching kids a bunch of stuff they are not interested in. Which means that people have to vehemently defend the idea that you should work hard at what you don’t like. Because if we didn’t defend school as a valid institution, then we’d feel bad sending our kids there, and then we’d have to homeschool.

I know, because that’s what happened to me.

I think kids not trying hard enough is the precursor to kids not living up to their potential. Which I have always thought is complete BS. If you are not living up to your potential, it usually means you are not living up to the expectations your parents had for you. Because people can just be who they are. We can’t be something else. And who we are is who we are. If your parents tell you, over and over again, that you’re not applying yourself, you’re not trying hard enough, eventually that becomes, “you’re not living up to your potential.”

And that’s one of the most damanging phrases to take into adult life. If you fear not living up to your potential you don’t trust your instinct. You lose the gumption to craft your own path because you fear failure. If you fear not living up to your potential you live the life your parents invisioned for you.

This is not what you want for your kid. I know you don’t want this because the most unhappy people I coach are people who feel they are not living up to their potential. And I spend the first half of the session explaining to them why they don’t need to follow someone else’s dreams.

Set standards for your kids that enable you to say, “I like that you found something you like doing.” Let kids know the standard is that they need to find stuff they like and do it. The more you encourage that, the more likely they will find the thing they adore doing. And then they’ll work really hard. Because we all work hard when we love what we’re doing.

16 replies
  1. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    For me the battle is not to help them find their passion, but to help them be okay with the passion they’ve found. Because their passion is creating video games, and everything around them tells them that this is not a worthy use of their time and talent.

  2. Matt
    Matt says:

    This is by far, one of the more intriquing posts I’ve read; I’m here daily hoping for an update.

    You’re absolutly right, who determins the potential? It’s not a measurable, tangable variable; a child’s potential is subjective. They’re compared to other children or even worse, as you put it, the parents’ expectations.
    I really like this idea, that you can create, and discover, your own potential; without having people tell you what it is, or isn’t.
    It just IS.
    As long as you can hold your head high at the end of the day, who’s to say you’re not doing enough?

    I’m going to try and use this concept when people feel like a failure, or feel they should be doing something other than what they are doing. It’s like a free pass to be OK with who you are instead of who you’re told you should be.

    Very well done Penelope. Posts like this are why I keep coming back.

  3. CJ
    CJ says:

    My father has said this to my sister her entire life. He has said it behind her back, to her, and screaming it all her life. I have always watched it crush her soul to dust, as her body got larger and larger with food comfort and her goals got smaller and smaller. She is now a 40 something living 100% off his support and he still will say how he “still believes she has so much more in her,”…”she can be so much more,”…I blink and wonder how he doesn’t recognize her paralysis.

    There’s a wonderful line out there that says the most damaging words a parent can ever use with their child is “disappointment.” as in “I am disappointed in you” Because the only thing a child learns at an early age of not living up to their parents idealism of the child is that they never ever will. Fear is pervasive. The insecurity grows like a weed in a child that learns is harsh lesson from their parent. And, doesn’t life and the whole big world supply enough of the message of we all cannot live up? It’s just my two cents, but as a mother all I want to be is my children’s compass, shelter from the storm, and supportive, loving guide through. I can’t see myself as a soul crusher and run from parents that see it as their J O B.

    Great post PT

  4. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    There are at least two components to passion, the intrapersonal and the interpersonal, or global component. If your passion has only intrapersonal significance, then you might be hard pressed to figure out a business model to sell it (interpersonal = of value to others, and you enjoy giving that passion as an offering to others), since it wasn’t conceptualized with its importance to others in mind. This sometimes works out, though, by chance.

    Passions that are of only intrapersonal significance are still worth pursuing–or even not pursuing in light of any other surpassing passion. Just because you can’t make money off of an interest doesn’t make the interest economically worthless. If it gives you energy and maybe even unplanned networking opportunities, it’s worth it.

    But if you find something that you would do for no money for yourself, and–here’s the main point–you might even do it for others for no money, then you’ve maybe found a calling that could develop into a living.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think that people who are truly passionate about something become great at it. And if you are great at anything you can figure out how to make money from it.

      It may be a circuitous path. For example, I get paid to write. But not what I imagined that I had passion writing about. I think the need to earn money forces us to zero-in, again and again, on what we are good at, make it more and more narrow until someone will pay for it.

      Show me someone who is absolutely great at what they do and I can show you how they can make money.


    • Bec Oakley
      Bec Oakley says:

      Thanks for that Daniel. I have no doubt that they’ll be able to succeed and make a living with this passion, my problem is that as a society we think that kids + computers = bad. Despite most adults spending their working hours doing the same, it’s considered unhealthy to let your kids sit at the computer all day.

      But more than that, there’s an incredibly strong community bias against this being their passion. They’re already well aware of the negative reaction they get when someone asks “what do you like to do” or “what do you want to be” … so they’ve stopped talking about it to others.

      What effect does it have on a passion when you sense it’s not a good thing to be passionate about?

      Anyway, I taught them to say software engineer instead of “make computer games” and the difference is incredible. People only hear the engineer part and somehow that turns it into something legitimate.

  5. Margaret M.
    Margaret M. says:

    I suspect my comment on the last thread sparked this idea or prompted you to write about it, and the very thought makes me giddy (so no need to disabuse me of the notion, ha ha).

    Needless to say, I think this is so thought provoking. Ursula Le Guin wrote (somewhere, I can’t for the life of me find it) that coming of age is our chief responsibility as teens and young adults and it took her until she was 30. And that it’s about figuring out who we are and struggling to truly know ourselves. I know that timeline was about accurate for me.

    But I’m curious about what the pattern is like for kids who are homeschooled. My best friend was unschooled in her teen years and she has a strong sense of what drives her and where she wants to apply her efforts. If you are raised in an environment that accepts your interests as valid wherever they may lie, I think that really changes the way you grow up and makes you healthier for it.

    At the same time, this discussion is also interesting when placed aside the question music lessons. Do you push your sons to apply themselves at music or would they pursue it of their own volition? Is it the job of parents to push kids to the difficult subjects, through the hard parts, or accept their lack of interest and drop it? Not being a parent (only someone’s daughter) I’m not sure what the answer to the question is.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes! That comment made me think of this topic. Honestly, my whole education on homeschooling comes from reading everyone’s comments to figure out what I should be thinking about next. So thank you. I should have mentioned it in the post.

      At this point, I have so internalized your reasoning about “trying your hardest” that I think it’s my own reasoning :)

      The music lessons is an interesting issue in our house. We are modifying Suzuki because my older son loves his violin, but he loves fiddle music. So we go through the Suzuki program to learn skills which makes the fiddle music that he loves very easy for him.

      This assuages my guilt that he doesn’t like playing classical music, and it still allows me to force him to keep up with the Suzuki lessons. This also allows me to say to myself that he’d never know he loves fiddle music if I had not forced the Suzuki music until he stumbled on fiddle music.

      I think in a few years, though, I’ll probably have to find him a fiddle teacher, because that’s what he loves to play.


  6. Mariana Mai
    Mariana Mai says:

    I aagree with Margaret, regarding music lessons, where dou you draw the line? I am sure it wasn’t fun in the beginnin, esp. for your older son…

  7. Vicious cycle
    Vicious cycle says:

    I’m watching a vicious cycle go on with some of my homeschooling colleagues.

    1. They have a curriculum in mind that they think their kids have to learn.
    2. Their kids aren’t interested, drag their heels, whine, and goof off.
    3. The adults think their kids just aren’t applying themselves, and need to work harder.
    4. The adults try to make their school at home even more school-like.

    This has come to the point where our coop day is about to fall apart from the tension between parents who want to make it as much like school as possible and parents who want it to be as little like school as possible.

    I have my share of fights with my kid too, but I recognize at this point that neither one of us really wins when we fight and we should cooperate instead. If he doesn’t want to learn something, trying to make him is a whole world of wasted effort and time that we left school to escape. On the other hand, when he finds something that interests him, his focus is intense and amazingly productive. Stubborn and tenacious are two sides of the same coin.

    I see my job as much more helping him to find those things he likes than making him like the things I come up with. I am frequently surprised by which things really resonate with him.

    Just as a child may need to pass through a certain amount of boredom before his creativity kicks in and he finds a new way to play, a child needs a certain amount of laxity if he’s to discover his passions.

    So we loaf and invite our souls.

  8. Becky
    Becky says:

    I like this post a lot. I struggled my whole life against authority figures’ opinion that I wasn’t living up to my potential. I found some comfort in a Buddhist idea that everything is perfection in the moment, applying it to myself to oppose the idea that there was some better me out there that I’d not achieved yet. But I don’t always manage to think this way.

    You clearly connect the judgement of not trying with the problem of being other- rather than self-driven and how not being self-driven hinders success. Thanks.

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