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Sunday, February 23, 2014

help your child find their passion; expose them to everything; or not...

I recently overheard a mother of college-age kids talking about helping her children find their passion. Then I received an email from a professor who I know, about a test someone she knew was creating to help kids find their passion. Numerous books exist on helping you find your passion, complete with exercises to help you remember what you loved to do as a child, or teaching you how to brainstorm. And then of course, there are plenty of academics who write about passion-based curricula.

Sounds nice. Everyone should do what they love.

On the other hand, we have the “exposure” people.  Defenders of the existing school curriculum often use the word “exposure” to defend the fact that everyone must take algebra or chemistry in high school or write papers on Dickens in college. How could you know if you are interested in these things you are never exposed to them?

This puts modern day parents in a bind. They are torn between racing around to various after school classes and summer programs and extra lessons that will help their children find their passion and, at the same time, reinforcing decisions made by educators a century ago that their child must study, and do well in school, and learn to love whatever it is they are being exposed to this year.

I feel sorry for today’s parent. So much obsession with something they cannot control. They can’t fix the curriculum (only Bill Gates can do that -- hence Common Core -- and its hardly a fix) and they can’t figure out how to help their child find their passion. (Chess club, skating lessons, flute playing, soccer practice -- there is so little time.)

So let me make a few observations. I realize I am long past the age where I have been raising children, and that the modern generation of parents takes it all so seriously (while mine just said “go out and play”). But really, let’s think.

  1. your kids passion may suck: my son was passionate about being a rock star; I said no
  2. my daughter wanted to be a ballerina; I said no
  3. my son wanted to be quarterback of the New York Giants (so did I ); I said no  -- this time because “really?” it wasn’t going to happen
  4. my daughter wanted to be a full time writer; I said she had to learn a real profession, something that would help her eat.

Yes, I know, I am out of touch. I actually vetoed my children’s choices of majors in college (english and history). I would have vetoed my son in law’s choice too (russian literature) but I didn’t get a vote.

We need to realize that high school and college are so out of touch with the real world that the choices they offer (what they expose kids to) is for the most part useless (unless of course they wish to be professors or researchers.)

The other options, the passions that we hope our kids will develop, are typically taken from a set of hobbies and are not about realistic opportunities in the real world. They should be passionate about getting a job someday.

In 1962, I chose computer science as my field of study. I didn’t know a thing about it, except it seemed to be something new that might matter, and being good at math (which I was) was supposed to be helpful. (It wasn’t.) Nevertheless I was able to find my passion within that field. 

I have found over the years that things that make me angry give me a passion to fix them. First I was angry that computers were so dumb, so I decided to try and fix them. I was angry that they didn’t understand English, so I worked on fixing that. And I was angry that they didn’t learn, so I worked on fixing that. 

Now I am angry that people don’t learn anything of value, so I work on that.

What is it that people don’t seem to be able to learn? For one thing they aren't able to make good parenting choices. (If parenting was or is your passion good luck with courses on that.)

  1. Stop helping your kids find their passion and listen to what they talk about. (My son talked about subways all the time, so I helped him work on learning how to do that for a living. He has done quite well at that. You could look him up.) 
  2. Start helping the school system change. Do this by letting your kid learn anything that seems like fun while asking constantly: how are you going to make a living from that?
  3. Don’t insist on college. Tell your kid to go to work for a few years and decide on college when they know what they want to do. After working in a real world job they might learn what makes them angry.
  4. Let your kids do something on their own. I sent my son out on the subway, or anywhere else he wanted to go when he was ten. I played on the streets when I was eight. Today’s parents would have me (or my parents) arrested for doing that. Good luck with your totally dependent children who need you to help them find their passion and who need you to expose them to things.

A simple maxim: don’t expose and don’t look for passions; just listen and make good suggestions


Justin P. said...

Dr. Schank,

What a timely blog post. I hear the "it's good to expose students to a wide range of subjects" argument all the time and I'm always dumbfounded at those that make this argument because they never seem to realize how little students actually retain or care about when they are 'exposed' year after year. While I agree with most of this recent post, I have to wonder, though, about the piece on passion. You say to listen to your kids (which, I agree, is critical), but at what point do you begin to steer them away from what they keep talking about? You mentioned how your son wanted to be a rock star and your daughter wanted to be a ballerina, but you steered them away from those 'passions' because they sucked? Having two young daughters, I know being a ballerina or a dancer is a shared dream of theirs, but when do you say, "OK, I know you'd like to be a ballerina, but let's be serious, it's not going to happen. You need to focus on something that will get you a job." When do you become a job seeker instead of a passion seeker? Are we just to resign to the idea that our passions (passions based on a hobby, as you point out) won't lead to jobs?

Thanks for listening.

Deceptively Educational said...

Did you give permission to have this article republished elsewhere? If not, it looks like your content has been plagiarized.

Lydia Storm said...

How about if kids learn to program, write, and dance? I agree that college isn't necessarily where everyone should go right out of high school, but restricting your kids' majors according to outdated criteria may be a mistake. There are lots of jobs for liberal arts grads. Even fine arts grads often have a great set of skills for the information economy.

Angela Maiers said...

Great article--could not agree more and I wrote a whole book on the importance of passion.

We confuse passion with things kids like to do and learn about--those are hobbies. The root word of passion - is to suffer. Passion is what shows up when the work, project, practice stops being fun.

A much better way to orient our kids to finding their essentialness, is to follow their heartbreak or heartbreak in the world.

More about the process here:

Lisa Cooley said...

The parents who seek out what their kids feel passionate about are on the right track. The overscheduled kid is only overscheduled because of the dead spot in the middle of the day called school. Believe me, if I could find some way not to bring my daughter to ballet 50 minutes away three times a week and violin lesson 35 minutes away once a week, I would do it. But what she's doing in school only revs her engines about as often as a stopped clock is right.

When people have told me that their kids didn't seem to "have a passion," I answer, do they have something they enjoy? Something they talk about? Start there. Always start there and I don't care how stupid it is, you give them time, resources and support to do it. Passion doesn't lead to narrowed experiences, as one administrator said to me recently. Opened doors lead to more open doors. We have to give kids trust, respect, time and support.