Mining For Gold: Helping Your Children Discover Their Passion

By Jan DeLisle

“To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.” – John Dewey

Some gifted students seemingly come out of the womb knowing what they want to do in life. A high school senior talks of a lifelong love for animals and prepares for a study in veterinary medicine. Another tells of taking apart a radio as a toddler to see how it works and is accepted into an engineering program. Similar anecdotes can be told by any teacher or coordinator of gifted students. Watching students with multiple areas of interests weave their talents together in advanced studies and creating careers that combine their passions is undoubtedly the most exciting facet of the job of a parent, gifted coordinator, or classroom teacher. Helping students find an area of all-consuming interest, providing opportunities for them to extend and deepen their knowledge, and help them envision a future which includes that passion is a joy and privilege.

Some students, however, wander without specific focus well into adulthood. Helping your son or daughter define an area(s) of interest becomes increasingly important as the transition is made from elementary to secondary school and becomes critical as colleges and careers are considered. A vague or nonexistent vision of the future or sense of purpose can definitely become an economic issue; unfocused students may take longer than the traditional four to five years to complete a degree, if they graduate at all. Frequent changes in fields of study can drain financial resources and patience of frustrated parents.

On the other hand, encouraging or forcing a student to settle on a career before he or she is ready is not appropriate. Students in this position perceive a loss of control over their life. The most unfocused students with whom I’ve worked are those who believe this to be true. Their solutions can range from aggression and lashing out, passive aggression and willful underachievement in school, to depression and self-harm.

What can we do to help our children find their passion and purpose in life without taking over? Instilling a sense of wonder in children from the time they are babies can help. 

Babies are born curious–as frantic parents all over the world will attest! When curiosity is lost, so is a passion for life. Parents can provide freedom to explore in expanding circles of safety as children grow and share in the excitement of exploration. When that circle expands to school, other adults will become your allies. Teachers continually apply learning in their classrooms with real life and possible careers. Students are encouraged to think like disciplinarians or professionals in a field, using the vocabulary and methodologies of the discipline (Kaplan, 2000; Kaplan, 1974). Those who see an application of instruction in the scope of their personal goals rarely have motivation issues (Anderman & Midgley, 1998). A student with an eye on journalism or becoming an author understands that learning the intricacies of excellent writing are skills to be mastered. Digging deep into historical trends and patterns of human behavior is a joy to a student who envisions a career as a history professor, diplomat, or living history re-enactor.

Mining at school

A gem that can be found in school is the gift of time for students to work individually on a study of their choice. Elective courses in Independent Studies are offered in many schools or may be arranged with a receptive teacher in the area of the student’s interest. Texas includes in its array of course offerings Independent Studies in all of the core academic areas and outlines four levels of student-designed study, to include Independent Study/Mentorships (IS/M). These IS/M courses provide interaction with professionals in the field and internship opportunities. Independent Studies can help students decide what they like and do not like about a field of study or career. For our multi-talented gifted students, finding out what they are not interested in may be more important than finding another area that intrigues them.

Venues for students to share their interests can occur throughout the school years. In elementary school, stations can be created within the classroom by a student with a current passion. The child can work on them when they complete their regular work, “buying time” to work on their project by demonstrating via pretesting that they have mastered the content being taught. Allowing students to be Resident Experts (Winebrenner, 2001) within the classroom, and reporting on current events in their area of expertise, is easy for teachers to incorporate in the classroom and helps other students see real-world application for what they are learning.

Mining at home

As parents, you have many more opportunities to informally dig below the surface for that prized ore of underlying interests. Reflective listening plays such an important role:

-“You really seem to enjoy history/math/science/writing/art .. is this correct?”

-“You spend a lot of your money/time on this? I can see it’s very important to you. Do you think this might be something you’d like to do in college/when you grow up?”

-“You really enjoy shows on the History/SciFi/Science, etc. channel. What do you like about them?”

If you avoid value loading your comments, the child can explore his or her thinking and make you a partner in their adventure.

Passions can often be traced to an impactful experience. Make the time to visit museums, historic sites, re-enactments, and exhibits, anything that may be intriguing to you or your son or daughter. Lying under a star-filled sky to watch a meteor shower can trigger a fascination for space. A love of history can be traced to a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Plymouth Plantation, or Sturbridge Village. Political careers can be rooted in early visits to the voting booth and the discussion of civic responsibilities that arises from that trip. For those who enjoy hands-on, interactive learning experiences, field trips can have a powerful impact. Encourage your child to see the world through all their senses and, most importantly, with “new eyes.”

In his book, Teach Your Child How to Think, Edward de Bono (1994) suggests ways to foster creativity and conceptual flexibility. His “Po” thinking, a lateral, out-of the box thinking term, encourages individuals to look for possibilities and potential without the limitations that are typically imposed. Parents, teachers, and professionals in the field can cultivate a child’s sense of wonder by exploring the mysteries, puzzles, and challenges in his or her area(s) of interest. Behind-the-scenes tours can often be arranged on field trips. For an avid young person who lives and breathes marine biology, a backstage pass at an aquarium makes a life-long memory. Likewise, an employee-guided tour of a technology company can turn a tech-savvy student into a care