Talent Show: Nurturing Your Child’s Budding Interests
By Malia Jacobson
Watching kids develop their unique talents is one of the joys of parenthood. What’s more fun than having a front-row seat as tiny dancers pirouette and sashay, aspiring actors put on plays, and future rock stars belt out warbling solos?
But effectively nurturing a child’s talent takes more than applause and praise. All parents want to foster a child’s developing skills without overwhelming them. But when does “encouragement” turn into pushing? And how should parents react when kids resist an activity, or when they drop a once-enjoyed pursuit?
A child’s interests and talents are as unique as his fingerprint. With that in mind, experts say that the best way to encourage them depends on the child’s temperament. Whether kids lean toward creative pursuits, athletic endeavors, or have interests all over the map, parents can nurture their abilities while promoting self-esteem and teaching valuable lessons in commitment and responsibility.
Talent Type: The Superstar
When a child shows exceptional talent in a specific area, it’s easy to go overboard. “Very quickly, a child’s life can become centered around that one thing,”—which can be a recipe for burnout, says Thomas Hobson, director of Child Life at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. If a talented child begins to resist a favorite pastime, a break may be in order.
Time will tell whether your child has the interest and dedication to progress to an elite level. In the meantime, keep things in perspective; interests can shift, change, even disappear as kids mature. For now, keep the focus on fun.
Aim for encouragement that’s specific and activity-focused to communicate that your child’s worth is not tied up in his performance, says Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., therapist and president of Westchester Group Works in Harrison, New York. “I can tell you worked really hard on that painting!” is better than “What a good boy! This painting makes me so happy!”
Expose your gifted child to a number of activities. This intense interest may be a passing phase, so look for ways to expand his horizons or apply a skill in a new way. For example, an exceptionally agile gymnast may enjoy tennis, and a strong swimmer may like soccer.
Talent Type: The Solo Artist
If your child clams up or clings to the wall during team activities, solo pursuits may be more her style for now. Don’t force team sports on a resistant child; instead, help her enjoy her interests and develop new ones in settings where she feels comfortable.
Choose one-on-one or small-group lessons like art and music classes, or motor skills activities that emphasize individual skills instead of team skills, like swimming, gymnastics, martial arts, and tennis. Or buddy up; sign her up for a class with one close friend. Having a pal nearby might make an activity more enjoyable.
A child who prefers individual activities won’t necessarily miss out on social growth. Cooperation, sharing, and respect for others can be fostered through participation in semi-organized activities like library storytimes, says Karen L. Peterson, Ph.D., child development professor at Washington State University Vancouver.
Talent Type: The Dabbler
Swimming? Absolutely! Skiing? Sounds great! Martial arts? Hi-yaaah! Enthusiastic kids jump into new activities with gusto. But taking on too many activities at once can make it difficult to develop a strong commitment to any of them, says Hobson.
Committing to an activity or a class—even for a short time—teaches responsibility and helps kids develop the competence that leads to satisfaction and self-esteem. So how can parents up the commitment factor?
First, don’t overwhelm kids with too many choices, says Hobson. Offer two of three choices suited to a child’s interests, and let the child select one activity at a time. Discuss what he would like to get out of the chosen class. “Does he want to learn to dribble a basketball? Play a certain game? Do a somersault? With a goal, kids are more likely to stick with the class,” he says.
If a child wants to bail on a team sport, parents have a great opportunity to talk about personal responsibility. “With team sports, it’s not just about you, it’s about other people,” says Hobson. He may decide that he doesn’t like soccer or basketball, and that’s fine—but he should continue to attend games and support the team.
Talent Type: The Dodger
When kids want to quit a favorite pastime or just can’t seem to muster up enthusiasm about any activity, parents should try to uncover the source of the resistance,” says Maidenberg. “Often, a child doesn’t want to participate in something if they don’t feel confident or capable.”
Have an open conversation to find out what’s going on. A resistant child may be responding to an overstimulating environment or a social conflict rather than the activity itself. To see whether this is the case, take the pressure off by enjoying an activity outside of a class setting. Playing soccer at a local park or putting on a dance recital at home can help build confidence and willingness to try.
Kids may need a couple of weeks to warm up to a new class, says Pio Andreotti, Psy.D., clinical supervisor of child psychology with New York’s Long Island College Hospital. “Allow the child to observe first and then slowly encourage them to join when she feels ready,” he says.
With the right activity and the right encouragement, self-esteem can flourish, says Maidenberg. “If an activity makes a child feel confident, valued, and encouraged, that’s what leads to growth.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.