“You cannot will yourself to be interested in something that you’re not interested in.”*
More than any other measure, our passion for what we’re doing, combined with the determination to get better at it, predicts whether we will succeed. If we want to empower our children to achieve their goals, we can do two things: help them discover what they’re interested in, and teach them the self-regulation needed to stick with it.
Develop interior motivation. Without emphasizing the purpose of a goal, achieving it becomes an empty victory, even if that achievement is extraordinary. If a child wants to swim 10 laps without stopping, ask her why she wants to set that goal. Is she doing it to impress her coach and friends, or does she want to become a better swimmer? We can teach our children to set goals that lead to personal growth, rather than impress others or compete against them. A self-motivated, self-evaluating child matures into an adult who makes goals that fit her own development, and whose sense of self-worth is not as reliant on the judgments of others.
Teach them incrementalism. It’s a trope to adults - that every journey starts with a single step - but adults sometimes forget that children are easily overwhelmed by the immensity of goals, even ones that we know they can easily achieve. Faced with a goal of reading 20 books in a year, how many parents have heard their child cry, “But I’ll NEVER be able to do that!!”? We can help our kids get past their inclination to quit before they begin by teaching them to break big goals up into small, doable ones. If they still feel overwhelmed at those steps, break it down further, and keep breaking it down until they are ready to take that first step, no matter how tiny it is.
Help them stick with it. New interests can be like fireworks - an initial spark of enthusiasm and excitement that quickly fades and falls apart. If we anticipate that fading-interest period - knowing it’s going to happen - we can help our kids push past it. Record their first attempts at the new hobby, and show it to them when they want to quit. Seeing proof of progress is incredibly motivating. Consistent daily practice is the other key - have them do the activity every day even for a short time, and even when they don’t feel like it, just to keep their hand in it. When a breakthrough in their skill level comes, it can reignite their interest.
And if they really want to quit… Make sure they’ve actually lost their interest in the activity. Often kids try new things and then find out that they don’t like it after all. If their passion is gone, it won’t matter if they keep practicing, even if they become incredibly good at the activity.
It can be hard to tell when the passion is gone, especially with younger children. If a child engages in the activity even when they don’t have to, or does pretend-play that involves it, usually there is still a spark in there somewhere for it. But if they don’t look forward to it, and don’t use the skills anywhere outside of their lessons, then they are probably done and it’s time to stop. In fact, apathy is usually a better indicator of a lost interest than hatred. With hatred, there’s frustration at trying to achieve and not succeeding. With apathy, they’ve stopped caring, and it’s time to quit.
Model determination. We never stop needing determination, and we can model it for our children. Set a goal for yourself, tell your children about it, and share your failures and successes with them. Be consistent in practicing, and talk about how you feel when you don’t want to work toward your goal. When they see you struggling, they will realize that “grown up” doesn’t mean knowing how to do everything, or an end to changing and growing. Determination is something we need throughout life - especially when we parent.
*And If you haven’t heard Angela Duckworth (quoted above) discuss her fascinating studies of how grit predicts success, be sure to check out the Freakonomics podcast interview with her, and her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.