People have interests they have had since childhood, whether it’s sports, the arts, or academics. Even if they are not particularly talented, those who actively pursue their interests live meaningful, fulfilling lives.
There’s no shortage of parents that want to help their children be themselves, develop their abilities and find their passions as soon as possible. But how can children find what they’re interested in, their special “something”?
The topic of this article is “what parents can do to nurture their children’s interests.” Today, Keio University School of Medicine Professor Dr. Takao Takahashi takes us through this topic in an easy-to-understand way. Conducting this interview is one of our Birth Preparation website staff members and father of two, Staff I.
Though we can’t see them, “seeds of interest” are everywhere.
I: Today, we would like to ask you about how children develop their interests. It’s common for siblings to have different interests and preferences, even if they are raised the same. Which leads me to a question: where do these “seeds of interest” come from?
Dr. Takahashi: As adults, we cannot predict or control where a child’s interest may sprout. It’s not a good example, but it’s like how you don’t know where all the mildew in your bathroom came from, but it’s there before you know it. Before you know it, the child’s interest becomes stronger, and we as parents can only realize when it starts to appear in their actions and behavior. These “seeds” are floating everywhere around us, but can only be seen by children. I think curious children chase them like the soot sprites from My Neighbor Totoro.
I: The soot sprites are a good analogy! So, even though these seeds are everywhere, adults can’t see them… Maybe this is exactly why I am asking such a question.
Dr. Takahashi: That might be it. Perhaps the spark that stirs interest in children exists in many more forms that we adults can imagine. Adults do the same, but children especially come across something and know in their hearts “this is it!” For example, they may encounter a cat at their friend’s house and be fascinated by its cuteness.
I: I feel truly happy when I see my children’s eyes twinkle after discovering something they are excited by.
Dr. Takahashi: Children have a sensitivity that is both sharp and abundant, and will be able to find these seeds even if we leave them be. Moreover, an important element of genuine excitement is believing “I found this on my own.” For example (though not one about small children), people who pride themselves on their fashion sense think “I bought this because I like it, and now it’s trendy.” Rather than thinking of themselves as trend chasers, they believe they are choosing clothes that they like as an individual. In reality, the stores choose what products to display, and it reflects the stores’ prediction of what will be on trend that season. But they believe they have chosen based on their own initiative. Even if it’s not true, being able to believe “I found this on my own”... in a similar sense, I think this is a crucial factor for children to become truly interested in something.
Parents should not force interests that their children are not interested in.
I: So there are seeds of interest lying around everywhere. If so, what do you think about parents consciously choosing which seeds to present to their children?
Dr. Takahashi: What do you mean?
I: I think there must be different sizes to these seeds. Even just within sports for example, major sports like baseball and soccer have plenty of opportunity to be of interest. If you just turn on the TV you will see all levels from professional to amateurs and high schoolers play these sports all the time. On the other hand, more minor sports have less opportunity to be of interest unless their parents or peers consciously present them to some degree.
Dr. Takahashi: That’s very true. And a parent recommending their own interest to their child can be a good thing. A child born into a sports-loving family probably has the “sports gene,” and the parents may play or love a minor sport. I think it’s then a natural, good choice for the child to try the sport. There is a chance that they will also be interested and that their own talents will bloom. The probability of a child liking what their parents like is high.
I: If you’re not forcing it upon them, right?
Dr. Takahashi: Yes, that’s a given.
I: I feel like environmental influence is a big factor in this. Children of kabuki actors speak boldly even at the age of 2 or 3, and athletes who get noticed at a young age for things like judo or table tennis often have their parents as coaches.
Dr. Takahashi: However, those are unique cases, and do not necessarily apply to most families. I question parents who choose interests based on reasoning like “this sport will increase their concentration” without experiencing it for themselves, and force their child to participate even though they are not particularly interested. Of course, they may happen to like what the parent chooses. But parents should approach this in a relaxed manner with no expectations, with the understanding that if their child wants to continue they should continue, and if not they should stop. If you say things like “I spent this much money on you, so keep working hard and get better until you win!” your child will only do it begrudgingly because you told them to. You cannot expect their interest and talents to grow under these circumstances.
I: Their own will is the most important thing. But we won’t be able to tell what they’re interested in, or they may express interest in something uncommon. Considering this, should we be giving them as many opportunities as possible to find their special “something”?
Dr. Takahashi: There’s probably no right answer. However, I do not think more is more when it comes to opportunities. I think it’s not as simple as letting them do everything, or swinging the bat as many times until something hits.
I: I see.
Dr. Takahashi: The more chances they get, the higher likelihood of success--that’s true from a probability standpoint, but having too many options may be overwhelming and have the reverse effect. When you go to a buffet with lots of delicious foods, it’s hard to choose what you want. This is similar. This is precisely why it is vital for them to find the thing that makes their heart twinkle just during their everyday lives. I don’t think parents need to worry about trying to show their child everything.
Once they’re interested, leave them be.
I: It’s not that I don’t have faith in them, but will children really be able to find their interests on their own?
Dr. Takahashi: There are times where it just clicks, where they think “this is it” and are excited. And it can be anything, no matter how mundane. It doesn’t have to be something you as a parent want or approve of. If they’re interested, the best thing to do is to leave them be.
I: No matter how mundane?
Dr. Takahashi: That’s right. The thing that my eldest was interested in was just the rocks along the road! Every time he went out he would pick up some rocks and bring them home, and all his pockets were full of rocks.
I: What a funny story!
Dr. Takahashi: Well, as a parent I was still puzzled, but I let him do as they like. One day, the lady at the jeweler next door told my kid “I loved rocks as a kid too. You have great taste!” and took him to a jewel exhibition. This absolutely dazzled him, and apparently he didn’t even want to leave. Though his job now as an adult has nothing to do with rocks, he still loves them to this day. He’s not a collector, but he’s pretty knowledgeable and always looks happy when talking about rocks. When I see this, I always remember it’s all thanks to that lady.
I: Because a person with the same interest was there, his seed of interest sprouted.
Dr. Takahashi: Right. I want to emphasize that if there is something your child is interested in that they found on their own, and you as a parent think it’s boring or useless, it’s crucial that you do not put out that flame. Of course, you should stop them if it’s dangerous or morally wrong, but if not, let them do it to their heart’s content. As a parent, when your child is interested in something you may be tempted to get excited, thinking this will be their talent, or that it may be useful for their future, but this is not always the case. Children have the ability to be interested in many things. The range of things they are interested in is wide. And even if their fascination ends up being short-lived, to think that they are “easily bored” or “indecisive” is wrong.
I: Parents definitely have the tendency to view things that way. But is there a way to measure or a standard to decide whether our children are really interested in something?
Dr. Takahashi: You’ll probably know just by being their parent. If they’re indifferent about something, they will probably tell you “I don’t want it” or “I won’t do it.”
I: Is it pointless to make them do something they’re not interested in?
Dr. Takahashi: If you make them repeatedly practice, they will improve even if they aren’t interested. This can be a good experience too. It’s possible that something will even trigger their interest if they do it long enough. However, though they may continue to get better through hard work and even become genuinely interested, I don’t think it’s likely they will ever be fascinated. Being fascinated by something is like love at first sight. It just clicks right away. Most importantly, they should feel “I like this!” or “I want to do this!” on their own.
I: I agree.
Dr. Takahashi: We adults are fixated on “concentration,” but being told as children to concentrate is painful. It’s more important to be excited. Being excited by something is the happiest you can be. There are two requirements to feel this way. The first is that the activity is pleasurable. The second is that it does not get boring no matter how much you do it. This requirement might sound more like an addiction than just pure fascination. But if there is something that sparks joy in your child in such a way, let them do it. Let them do it until they’re bored of it; and they might never become bored with it. That would be truly amazing. However, be careful of addiction and dependence. For example, a love for gaming may turn into a gaming dependence, where without gaming they will be anxious and unhappy. Please be careful of this.
I: Of course! I will keep in mind that there is a way for parents to protect their children without necessarily interfering with their interests. Thank you again for talking to us today!
Dr. Takao Takahashi
Keio University School of Medicine, Head Professor of Pediatrics, Medical Doctor specializing in General Pediatrics and Pediatric Neurology
After graduating from Keio University School of Medicine in 1982, Dr. Takahashi served in the Department of Pediatric Neurology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital and as a neurology lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He returned to Japan in 1994, and has been active as both doctor and professor at Keio University Pediatrics since. His hobby is running, and his best marathon time is 3 hours 7 minutes at the 2016 Tokyo Marathon, earning the nickname of “fastest pediatric professor in Japan”.