Childhood is, above all, a time of curiosity and wonder.
A child’s feelings of awe and wonder at the world around her are expressions of the basic human emotion of interest. In today’s post, I would like to talk about this emotion and explain why it is so important in our children’s development.
A Child’s Interests
When you think of interest, do you think of it as emotion, in the way that you think of anxiety, sadness or joy? Most likely, you don’t. Psychologists and neuroscientists, however, now regard interest as a fundamental human emotion – an emotion that guides our engagement in the world. This may be a child’s first emotion. Consider, for example, an infant’s intense gaze into her mother’s eyes.
Interest is also of vital importance to our relationships with our children and the foundation of all real learning. In my book, Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems and in my talks to parents, I offer this basic principle of parent-child relationships:
As parents, our enthusiastic responsiveness to our children’s interests is the surest way to engage them in some form of meaningful dialogue or interaction, and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.
As a child therapist, my work with children almost always begins in this way. I ask children to tell what they like and what they like to do. Young children especially, but most teenagers as well, are almost willing – and usually eager – to share their interests. Then, we can much more easily have a conversation about what is important in their life – their ideals and aspirations, their frustrations and disappointments.
My therapeutic work with children has taught me, over and over, a fundamental lesson: Children respond to our animated expressions of interest in their interests with evident pleasure. In three decades of talking with children, I have met few, if any, children who did not want to share their interests with their parents – and few who were not deeply disappointed when their parents, for whatever reason, did not respond with enthusiasm.
Interest and motivation
Many parents express concern about the limited range of their child’s interests. I am often told, for example, “He’s not interested in reading, or writing, or drawing or riding a bicycle.”
If we look hard enough, however, we will find, in every child, some interest and a desire to do well. And where there is interest, there is curiosity and a desire to learn.
I therefore advise parents, first, to engage their children’s interests. Find out what arouses their interest and become interested in it. Ask them about their collections – their cards and their dolls. Talk with them about the athletes and celebrities they admire.
If he likes playing video games, watch him play. Then play with him. Have him teach you the game. I have never met any child who did not want to show (and tell) his parents about the video and computer games he liked to play. Then, we can begin to develop a child’s interests into projects and long-term goals.
These recommendations may seem obvious to many parents, especially when kids are very young. Too often, however, our enthusiastic support for our children’s curiosity and interest begins to fade as children enter school and we become, understandably, preoccupied with the development of their academic skills. And, too often, in our schools, support for children’s curiosity also fades. This is unfortunate, because curiosity and interest remain a wellspring for learning throughout our lives.
I will have more to say about how to help “unmotivated” children in future posts. We should begin by keeping in mind the wise advice of psychologist William Damon in his book, The Path to Purpose: “Listen closely for for the spark, then fan the flames.”