Q How much should you "force" a child to pursue an interest that might be good for them but that they don't seem interested in?
My eight-year-old girl tends to flit around between hobbies and interests. We started taking her to GAA football two years ago and, until a few months ago, that seemed to be going well, but now she is resisting going and it can be a struggle to get her out the door. As far as I know, there is no particular reason for this change of heart.
I am keen for her to do a sport as I know how important it is to keep her active and she does no other physical activity.
Also, she started piano lessons at home (my husband was really keen on this) but she shows little interest and does not practise in the intervening period unless we nag her. What should I do?
A I think your question is one that many parents ask from time to time. On the one hand, parents want to expose their children to opportunities to develop their talents through participating in a range of activities and hobbies. But, on the other hand, they don’t want to impose their own wishes or interests on their children and know that ultimately the child has to want to continue if they are to last.
The central question is how do you strike a balance between ensuring your child has every opportunity without over pressurising them in a counter-productive way.
Follow your children’s natural interests and talents
The key issue is to try to discover your child’s natural talents and interests and to support these. When they are young the goal is to expose them to lots of different activities and observe them carefully as to what they really enjoy and what they are willing to spend time doing.
Enjoyment is the key thing to look for as this will determine what they learn most from and what they will commit to as they get older. Often you have to be creative and persistent in finding activities that match your child’s passions. For example, for health reasons it is important to encourage your children to do physical activities.
However, there are many different types of physical activities that might match their talents and hook them such as all the different team sports (for example, GAA, basketball, cricket, and so on); individual sports (such as athletics, tennis, gymnastics, and so on); as well as many other creative activities that keep children fit (such as dancing, cheerleading or hill walking with the scouts).
In addition, there are also many family or home-based activities that have the benefits of being active, whether this is walking the family dog together, doing a weekly family hike, or working on a vegetable patch.
Expose your children to a range of activities and hobbies
As well as sports or physical activities, it is also important to support your children to develop a range of interests that build their confidence and help them find their niche in life.
As a parent it is easy to focus just on the activities you are familiar with but there are so many different arenas which could be your daughter’s area of strength and passion. For example, she could have a talent for creative endeavours (crafts, art, acting performance, and so on) or social projects (Brownies, Scouts, volunteering) not to mention reading or music.
Keep an open mind as you support her developing her interests.
Focus on informal as well as
In your question
you ask about how relevant the piano class is when your daughter seems little interested, and I think this is your judgment to make as a parent. Certainly, many children passively attend classes that their parents think are a good idea without really developing a passion for the subject.
For some, the classes eventually inspire them to enjoy the subject and to practise in their own time, but for some this never happens.
Your daughter is still very young, so you can wait and see what happens. However, if you find yourself beginning to nag, then you may have to have a rethink. At some point you might strike a deal with her, the classes will continue only if she puts in a few hours’ practise each week.
While some classes are beneficial to children’s learning, don’t underestimate the power of informal learning. Many great musicians had few formal lessons and simply got hooked into playing as this activated a passion in them that they would spend hours on.
In addition, many children get as much out of home-based activities as formal classes. Art, reading, completing games and puzzles, learning to cook or do DIY are all hugely beneficial to children and as important as “formal hobbies”.
Only occasionally insist a child does an activity
You are right to be hesitant about insisting or pressurising your daughter into doing activities.
There are so many other things you have to insist children do (such as homework, household chores, and so on) that you don’t want to add more to this list. The ideal is that their hobbies are driven by their own passion.
However, occasionally encouraging children to commit is important. For example, if your daughter wanted to miss an activity because she was feeling a bit off or had a bad experience the week before, you would want to help her see the commitment through because she knows the activity is good for her.
Also, it is useful to negotiate with young children about what their commitments might be. For example, if your daughter is reluctant to go to GAA, after first encouraging her to explain why, you might explore what other sport or physical activity she would like to do instead. You need to explain that she needs to do one. Perhaps agree that she goes to GAA three more times before you take a break, for example.
It can be also useful to use other rewards and incentives to help your daughter commit, such as going there with a friend, twinning the activity with a reward that follows, while she develops her own motivation.
Dr John Sharry is a mental health professional and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. His new book, Bringing up happy, confident children: A practical guide to nurturing resilience, self-esteem and emotional well-being, is now available. See solutiontalk.ie for details