Once you identify a skill in your son or daughter, be it baseball, karate, dancing or art, how do you subtly foster that skill without being overbearing and snuffing it out?
As children grow, they become more aware of the world outside their own and begin to view things from others’s perspectives as well. Emotionally, they go from a stage of autonomy as toddlers to a stage of initiative as preschoolers and on to the stage of industry as school-age children. At this stage before the teen years, they usually want to do things with others, and they enjoy joining clubs and being part of teams. This is when you may see more of the skills that you describe in your question will begin to develop.
All children from infancy to teens display interests and strengths that you may notice as you observe what they choose to focus on. As early as toddlerhood, we see children who prefer exploring art more than music, for instance. You may see your child enjoy one activity over and over as a preschooler then suddenly (it seems) switch to something else when he or she enters school and their world begins to grow. When this happens, they blossom, too.
So how do you foster a skill that you see dominates your child’s choice of activities? First, ask yourself, is it truly your child’s desire, or is it yours? For example, a parent who wants her child to grow up to be a great pianist might enroll them in piano lessons and insist on hours of practice. This would be more of the overbearing approach that could snuff out an interest.
In my experience, the best way to foster a skill would be to truly observe what you child’s interests and strengths are by watching as she tries out new things and talking to her about the things she is learning and likes to do best. Once you see that strength in action, use encouragement over praise. Instead of just saying “Great job” after seeing your child perform well in a school play, talk about what she did that helped the performance to be a success. Even if your son’s team does not win the game or championship, let him know that you noticed the points he scored or the support he gave a team member to make that pass that did win the game. What you notice about the steps your child is making to succeed is more important than the achievement itself. In other words, recognize the effort, not the overall achievement. This is, in itself, a form of praise. I like to call it descriptive praise. For instance, saying “I see you tied your shoes all by yourself” is much more effective than “Good job.” Now the child knows what he did and can place his own value on his achievement. Just the fact that you noticed is more important than the praise.
Educational research supports the idea that when parents show interest in children’s play, talents and school work, the child realizes how important learning is, and is consequently better able to achieve self-fulfillment with his projects. This will motivate him to continue to learn. This attention will eventually lead to his proficiency at school work and extra curricular activities. Intrinsic motivation is much stronger than extrinsic, where you rely on what other’s think. Intrinsic belief in self is also the foundation of self-esteem. Just think about the children’s story “The Little Engine That Could.” When I think I can, I usually want to try harder, and I find out that I really can do it!
Stop, look and listen. Take the time to try new things with your child. Go to museums, sports events, concerts and art galleries as a family. Notice what peaks your child’s interest. Talk to her about trying some of these activities. Listen as she expresses what she likes and doesn’t like about the experience. Then encourage instead of praise. Parenting is not easy, but it can be very rewarding. Seeing your child do his or her best is all the praise you need to feel successful as a parent!
Carol Osborn is the Director of the Virginia Preschool Initiative with the Department of Family Services Office for Children in Fairfax County and Piedmont Family Magazine’s Parenting Matters columnist.