Consider Temperament when Supporting a Child's Interests


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Watching children 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 act out a story and little rock stars belt out warbling solos?

But effectively nurturing a child's talent takes more than applause and praise. As parents, we want to foster our tots' developing skills without overwhelming them. When does "encouragement" turn into pushing? And how should parents react when kids resist an activity, or drop a once-enjoyed pursuit?

Children's interests and talents are as unique as they are. Experts say the best way to encourage them depends on their temperament. Parents can nurture abilities while promoting self-esteem and teaching valuable lessons in commitment and responsibility.

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, Tenn.

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 or even disappear as kids mature. For now, keep the focus on fun.

Aim for encouragement that is specific and activity-focused to communicate that your child's worth is not tied up in his performance, advises Michelle P. Maidenberg, therapist and clinical director of Westchester Group Works, which provides group therapy resources in Harrison, N.Y. For example, saying, "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 tot 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.

Be on the lookout for signs of burnout. If a child begins to resist a favorite pastime, it might be time to take a break.

The solo artist

If your child clams up or clings to the wall during team activities, solo pursuits may be more his style for now. Don't force team sports on a resistant child. Instead, help him enjoy his interests and develop new ones in settings where he is comfortable.

Choose one-on-one or small-group lessons such as art and music classes, or activities that emphasize individual skills instead of team skills, such as swimming, gymnastics and martial arts.

Another idea is to sign your child up for a class with a close friend. Having a buddy might make an activity more enjoyable.

The dabbler

Swimming? Absolutely! Dance? Sounds great! Martial arts? Hi-yaaah! Young kids often jump into new activities with gusto. But if they take on too many activities at once, they may not feel a strong commitment to any of them, Hobson says.

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 encourage commitment?

First, don't overwhelm kids with too many choices, Hobson advises. Offer two or three choices and let them select one activity at a time.

Also discuss what a child would like to get out of a class. "Do they want to learn to dribble a basketball? Do a somersault? If they have a goal, they're more likely to stick with the class," he says.

If a child wants to bail on a team sport, parents can use this as an opportunity to talk about personal responsibility, depending on the child's age. "With team sports, it's not just about you; it's about other people," Hobson says. A child may decide he doesn't like soccer or basketball, and that's fine, but he should continue to attend games and support his team.

The dodger

"When kids want to quit something they once enjoyed, or just can't seem to muster up enthusiasm about an activity, parents should try to uncover the source of the resistance," Maidenberg says. "Often, children don't want to participate in something if they don't feel confident or capable."

Try to find out what's going on. A resistant child may be responding to an over-stimulating environment or a social conflict rather than the activity.

Young kids may need a couple of weeks to warm up to a new class, says Pio Andreotti, clinical supervisor of child psychology with Long Island College Hospital. "Allow them to observe first and then slowly encourage them to join when they feel ready," he says.

Take the pressure off by enjoying an activity outside of a class setting. Kicking a ball around at a local park or dancing to music at home can help build confidence and the willingness to try.

With the right activity and encouragement, kids' self-esteem can flourish, Maidenberg says. "If an activity makes them feel confident, valued and encouraged, they're going to want to keep at it. That's what leads to growth."  n

Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mom to a preschooler who adores gymnastics.

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