In America we worship the child who’s best all-around. We expect them to score As in algebra and English literature…to field a fly ball as competently as they diagram a sentence. But it’s not fair to expect kids to excel in everything—especially when it’s not expected of us as adults.
In the real world, thank God, we are allowed to be lopsided. Be honest: do you really expect your dentist to have a grasp of American history? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn…as long as he makes sure I don’t feel a thing while he’s drilling.
Does your car mechanic really need to know how to translate French verbs? I’d settle for one who tells me the truth and doesn’t try to rip me off. And does it really matter if Bill Gates flunked geometry now that he’s made billions revolutionizing the computer industry?
The real world rewards specialists, whether it’s Bruce Springsteen penning another brilliantly depressing blue-collar ballad or a cardiac surgeon performing a delicate heart transplant. So why do we continue to browbeat our children into becoming “well-rounded”?
After all, the most interesting people usually have an obsessive interest in one thing, whether they’re writing the great American novel, trying to find a cure for cancer, or digging for dinosaur bones in the desert.
It might seem contrary, but a great way to nurture your child’s passion is to allow him not to be interested in everything, according to Kathy Seal in Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning. “We ought to say, ‘Do an adequate job on the things you have to do, but do a superb job in the things that really interest you,'” says Nel Noddings, who taught high school math before joining the faculty at Stanford.
If your child loves drama and hates sports, letting him know that’s fine with you may, ironically, motivate him to work harder on the things he doesn’t like, just to get through them and get back to focusing on what they really love.
As a right-brain writer who nearly suffered a nervous breakdown trying to pass high school algebra, I am a big fan of this perspective. If I had been force-fed the mathematical diet my brain simply couldn’t master too much longer, I would have scrounged up bus money for the bridge a long time ago.
I am convinced that the best way to succeed in life is to do what you love. So if your child has an abiding obsession—whether it’s organizing neighborhood games and bossing everyone else around, examining rocks, or arguing the other side of every issue—why not encourage it, as painful as it might be at times? Chances are the current passion will be one of many to strike during his childhood, but you never know.
He or she just may grow up to be a successful CEO, groundbreaking geologist, or superstar attorney like F. Lee Bailey. If nothing else, you will have encouraged your child to follow his or her dreams. Time enough for reality when they’re all grown up.