Yisroel has been banging on tables with forks and spoons ever since anyone could remember. But it took his astute parents to realize that, despite this annoying habit, he seemed to have pretty good rhythm. So they bought him a bongo which he practiced on regularly and eventually a set of drums and regular lessons. Now Yisroel is a teen with a talent he is proud of and a sense of self-esteem because of the passion he has developed.
Rina loved puttering around in the kitchen while her mother was baking. She enjoyed carefully measuring the ingredients and waiting for the finished cakes to emerge from the oven. As she got older, Rina’s mother let her experiment with recipes and create her own cookies and frostings. Today she is an accomplished baker who makes beautiful pastries that she shares with family and friends.
Moshe was always fascinated by stories of the great chassidic masters. He would often scour the shelves for volumes that might contain inspiring tales of the rabbinic dynasties of Eastern Europe. His knowledge had become so broad that the menahel and rabbeim in his yeshiva would often consult with him about stories to share with talmidim. As a young bochur he was already well known as an integral assistant to the Yeshiva’s staff.
These kids, all with varying academic skills and backgrounds, have one thing in common. They all have passion – a special interest or a commitment to a specific subject or activity. Passion can be about anything. It could be a sport, a musical instrument, a special collection (remember stamp collecting?), an activity, or a talent. Passion means that a child cares enough about this interest to invest time and energy into learning more about it or excelling at it. The result is a child who is well rounded, interesting, self-confident, and has a firm sense of who he or she is. Passion makes a child feel special.
I like to encourage the children I work with to develop a passion of their own. I’ve observed many children with special interests and I’ve seen what a difference it makes in their lives. Many important life skills are developed when a child has a special interest, and not all of them are directly related to the interest itself. Children with a “passion” or a hobby develop patience and persistence. They acquire a refreshing love of learning. They learn how to get along well with other people, especially those with whom they share an interest. They develop better relationships with their parents, especially when the parents take an active role in helping them pursue their interest. And they learn how to relate to other supportive adults outside the family, as in the piano teacher, the soccer coach, the art instructor, the librarian, etc.
Now let’s compare this to children who have no particular passion. These children often complain of boredom. They come home from school, do some homework, and wander aimlessly about the house. They may have friends over, go out to play, even become involved in a sport activity for a while. Or they may fall back on an afternoon of sitting in front of the computer or visiting the mall once again.
All children benefit by developing a special interest, but none more so that the child who is struggling in class, either socially or academically. These children desperately need a positive sense of self-esteem as well as a feeling of personal value. Nothing makes a child feel good about himself as much as excelling or distinguishing one’s self in a specific hobby, talent, or activity. It suddenly gives the child a terrific feeling of being special.
Parents who recognize the importance of this should take a proactive approach in helping their children identify and develop a special interest. A clever parent will watch a child carefully, searching for the interests and passions. The child needn’t be particularly adept at this interest, in fact he or she might not be good at it at all. But the parent should have enough evidence to suggest that this is an interest that captures their child’s fancy and makes him or her excited, interested, and involved.
A note of caution – Make sure it’s the child’s interest you are pursuing and not your own. If you always wanted to be a ballerina, but never had the chance, don’t expect your reluctant daughter to live your dream for you. If you decided that it’s about time someone actually makes good use of that baby grand in the living room, don’t drag your son to music lessons if he hates the idea. Key in on the interest that gives your child a special thrill, and work to build it into a hobby or a skill.
This may mean a certain amount of investment on your part, whether you’re buying a state of the art digital camera for a budding photographer, or a semester of art lessons for an aspiring Picasso. It may also mean an investment of your time, as in chauffeuring your soccer champion to team practice once a week or attending endless dance recitals. The end result is well worth the effort. Ultimately, your child will be happier and more self-fulfilled.
Inevitably, when I discuss this topic with parents or educators, the issue of “bitul Torah” comes up. Time and time again, a parent or a rebbe will challenge me with the fact that pursuing a passion steals time from a young bochur’s ultimate “passion,” his Torah learning. And while I realize that every situation is unique, and that parents should consult a rav to assist in making the decision, I will say this: There are many rabbonim and gedolim who encourage and sometimes even demand that their talmidim develop a special interest. It is said that Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, felt that a child who develops an outside passion will also gain sharper and clearer learning skills as a result. It will not diminish his learning; it will only serve to enhance it. I also heard that Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, once “ordered” a talmid of his to take up music lessons. Somehow he understood that this was in the young man’s best interest.
In his masterful volume, Nurturing Good Children Now, Dr. Ron Taffel encourages parents to allow their children to pursue a passion. “Having passion is vital to a child’s core,” he writes. “It teaches her the rules of life and leads to the development of persistence and enthusiasm. In order to sustain an interest or activity, children need to be able to understand and express their feelings, to face new situations and challenges and to trust adults. Once a child possesses passion, it becomes a form of fitness training and muscle conditioning all in one.”
So the next time Yisroel starts making annoying noises with his silverware or Rina leaves a mess in the kitchen, think twice before you start complaining. Instead, try to channel their interests in a positive way. Help them develop these “skills” in a productive manner. The result will be children who are proud, happy, well disciplined, and self-confident.