Kids go through many phases and it can sometimes be impossible for a parent to keep up. One day it’s rock climbing, the next it’s guitar, and then all of a sudden they like trains now! But as a parent, it’s important to support every interest our children explore. Not only is it important to a child’s well-being to know that their parents are tracking their interests and doing what they can to support them, but research shows that supportive and attentive parents bolster their children’s communication skills, motivational skills, and language development. It’s time we take a closer look at exactly why supporting a child’s interests is so important and what we can do as parents to make that happen.
Why Support Child’s Interests?
Supporting a child’s interests, no matter how ridiculous or short-lived they are, is an integral role of a parent. A parent who engages with a child’s interests demonstrates several things that their child will pick up on at an early age. They show that they care, that they’ve been observing and listening, and that they want to spend time doing things the child loves to do.
Not only do all these things make a child feel loved and happy, but they can also motivate children to interact for longer periods of time and provide parents with more opportunities to promote their child’s communication. Additionally, research indicates that many of infants’ first words relate to specific, motivating situations and activities and toddlers and older preschoolers’ language learning is often tied to specific events and activities.
“Many studies have shown that children learn more effectively when adults engage them in everyday activities that are based on their interests. Recently, researchers at the CECLL compared 41 studies (which included over 4000 children altogether) and found that children had better communication and language outcomes when their interests were included into everyday learning activities. This was true for both children with and without communication delays and disabilities… The bottom line…. when caregivers talk about children’s interests during motivating everyday activities, children are more likely to interact, pay attention, and learn new words.”
So how do we identify what our kid’s interests truly are and which interests are merely fads that they will lose interest in just as fast? It can be a tricky territory to navigate, so let’s look at the example of Nina and her son.
Interest or Fad?
This hilarious story brought to us from the Sleeping Should Be Easy blog reminds us that sometimes the role of a parent is not to judge or predict, but solely to support. In this story, Nina took her son to the zoo. Most children love the zoo for the animals of all sizes and shapes and this is a great place to learn about a child’s interests as they may connect to a specific animal in a major way. But Nina’s son didn’t show any interest in any of the animals, instead, he focused solely on the fountains!
What had started as a funny quirk had now grown into a full interest. Some parents may have judged this bizarre interest and put a stop to it right away. They may have given their child a Batman doll or a baseball bat and told them to enjoy that instead. But Nina, being an emotionally-intelligent parent, put her own feelings about fountains aside and supported her son’s interest!
She helped him make a photo book of all the fountains they’d visited, she showed him footage of famous fountains from around the world, and whenever they went out to eat, she’d always ask to sit by the fountain. In total, she did about as much as a parent could do when faced with a child’s unexpected interest.
Of course, her son quickly moved on to being obsessed with bridges, an equally bizarre interest for a child, but the moral of this story is clear. Don’t worry about the what when it comes to a child’s interests and focus on the how. How can you support them, how can you make sure they are getting some kind of educational value out of this interest, and how is this interest affecting them in a positive or negative way?
Even if the interest ends up turning out to be a fad, if you support it, it will become a happy memory instead of one where you shut them down.
How to Be Supportive
We’ve talked a lot about the importance and benefits of supporting a child’s interests, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what that looks like and the best practices. There are all sorts of strategies out there for all different ages, so here are a couple of my favorites.
At a very young age, it can be difficult to identify what our children are interested in solely for the fact that they haven’t yet developed their language skills. What this means is that we need to be observing our kids and not intervening. Hopefully, you’ve received some toys as gifts, but it’s a good idea to buy a wide selection of things a toddler may enjoy. The best way to learn what your child likes is to just let them reach out for whatever toys catch their eye and support whatever they like most. At this early stage, learning a child’s interests requires precise observational skills on the parent’s part to identify what gets the biggest and best reactions out of their kid.
Once a child has reached pre-K and Kindergarten, you may start to see them pursuing more complicated interests like sports, musical instruments, specific topics like science or history, or going to specific places like the zoo or museum. It’s important to encourage your child to try new things and how you guide them through these different interests will make a huge impact on their outlook on trying new things throughout their life, so it’s important to be on the same page.
First off, it’s important to emphasize to a child that they’re not expected to be good at something the first time they try it. This is true at every stage in life, which makes it extra important to stress right away. Growing pains are expected and acceptable and should not prohibit them from trying new things.
Up next are scaffolding and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD refers to skills that a child cannot learn on their own, but which can be learned with guidance. Scaffolding is the method for administering guidance and assistance that is tapered off as the child becomes more competent and can accomplish the tasks on their own.
Say, for example, your child wants to operate their own lemonade stand this summer. As their parent, they will look to you for guidance, but it’s likely they have the ability to do it all on their own. Scaffolding in this example would be providing the materials to get started and letting the child know to come to you if they have any questions. Maybe you can be the first to try the lemonade they make and offer advice if it doesn’t taste quite right.
Both “scaffolding” and “ZPD” are ways to make sure that any difficulties a child experiences when trying something new are mitigated and handled in a manageable way that will encourage, not discourage them from continuing. These are great examples of emotionally-intelligent parenting because they represent parents taking an active role in parenting without micromanaging or forcing their own beliefs and ideas on their kids.
Lastly, repetition, incremental goals, and tracking a child’s progress are all great ways to support their interests. Repetition is the key to learning any new skill so stressing the value of repetition builds resilience. Incremental goals are related to scaffolding in that they represent small, incremental markers towards a larger goal (say, winning a track and field event). Maybe you start with a goal like running 10 laps without stopping, then move on to timing those laps, and eventually, with many smaller goals achieved, your child will reach the ultimate goal!
Tracking your child’s progress is key to making sure they don’t get discouraged. When they get frustrated when they have to stop running after only 6 laps, instead of saying “better luck next time” or “that’s not good enough,” remind them that only a few weeks ago they couldn’t even get through 3 laps without stopping and to look how far they’ve come already. When tracking, be sure to praise effort and not natural talent or intelligence as effort is not an inherent ability, but a purposeful application of your child’s determination.
What I hope this article encourages is for parents to take an active role in their child’s interests. It can be a lot to manage, as both time and money may be involved with many different interests, but it is one of the biggest secrets to good parenting. Children who are engaged with their interests develop a love of learning, a resiliency in the face of life’s adversity, and a deep appreciation for the fact that you can’t do everything alone in this life.
By showing them your support, you are role modeling what it means to be motivated, goal-oriented, and supportive in life. They will absorb this lesson and hopefully take it with them into adulthood by valuing and supporting their own friends’ and family’s goals and passions. What kinds of interests are your kids engaging with and what have you done to support them? I would love to hear about it in the comments.