Should Parents Push for “Passion”?

Do what you love.

If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.

Life’s too short not to have fun.

Follow your bliss.

These catch phrases and bumper sticker slogans suggest that finding one’s “obsession” has become a cultural obsession — and with the best of intentions. Does it come from helicopter parents who value participation trophies as much as actually winning? Is it something parents fret about when trying to get their kids into the best colleges, as Lisa Heffernan argued earlier this year in the New York Times? Heffernan was responding to a myth-busting Washington Post article on what colleges are looking for, and “well-rounded” is not one of them.

But is it necessarily so bad to proactively recognize talents and aspirations in our children and to seize every fleeting opportunity to help them maximize their gifts? Aren’t we evolving as parents to recognize that our young ones may have gigantic advantages if they can find their call a decade or two before the rest of the dilettante herd? Is it better if the end-goal is to teach the value of hard work, sacrifice and discipline from an early age? Doesn’t this teach the hard won lessons of the “growth mindset” from Carol Dweck’s famous book?

It turns out, as with virtually anything done with the best intentions, pushing too hard for kids to find their “passion” can be harmful. But why? How much does one push as a parent, and how much does one simply facilitate a revolving door policy?

In 2010, when I encountered Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, my children were 8, 5 and 2. It seems people now discuss the “10,000 hour rule” as if everyone understands all you have to do is focus a few hours a day for 5–10 years at a relatively young age and you should be able to claim some degree of world class excellence at your particular activity — or passion or calling.

Interestingly, also in 2010, a three-part study led by Geneviève Mageau at the Université de Montréal, showed something contrary. Children and young adults are more likely to pursue sports, music or other pastimes when given an opportunity to nurture their own passion. Mageau reports,

“We found that controlling adults can foster obsessive passion in their children by teaching them that social approval can only be obtained through excellence. An activity then becomes highly important for self-protective reasons that don’t necessarily correspond with a child’s true desires.”

If only there was a single right answer. Children may become resentful that they were pushed too hard in what everyone believed was “their thing.” Or they may become resentful that they weren’t pushed to do anything. Moderation is not the only answer either.

Should a kid be ‘programmed’ to be a coder because he likes video games and hacks into his parents’ accounts? Maybe, but it’s probably more important to “Explore your world!” as Dora the Explorer exclaims.

Often our children will let us know if, and when, and for how long they’re willing to go along with the channeling of a single pursuit. My oldest son, for instance, was simply not going to practice piano even ten minutes a day, much less for hours on end. After all, in the end, a passion is a personal relationship with something that comes from within. And that’s something you just can’t fake.