Kindling the Fires of Passion

By Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Like all Montessori programs, following the child is the foundational method of our work.  We “offer the world”, present choice of activity and encourage exploration.  We set the groundwork to ignite a child’s interest and offer a prepared environment where they can pursue it.
But it is not a given that every child will find their “passion” at an early age because true passion develops on its own schedule and it just may happen long after childhood.  If there is any place in our lives as parents and educators that we just have to be patient, it is in the evolution of our children’s passions.  They are without a time clock or map and they cannot be rushed.
We live in a world where much is expected of our children.  We praise childhood exploits that break age boundaries—in sports, music, philanthropy and art.  Of course it is wonderful to hear of a 9 year old who has started a successful charity or of a 14 year old who has circumnavigated the globe by air, but we should not assume that younger is better. Not always.
What is passion? By definition it is when you put more energy (or uncontrolled emotion) into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement. Passion is ambition that is put into action without reserve.
Passion, in these terms, is not simply a fleeting interest or even a childhood talent.  "Passion comes from a special fit between an activity and a person," said Geneviève Mageau, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal. "You can't force that fit; it has to be found."  Mageau and colleagues completed a broad study on the development of passion in children.  The study focused on what psychologists call autonomy, the basic need to feel like you're acting based on your own values and desires, not those of others. For the individual it means: "I have a say in what happens and can voice my opinions regarding my activity."  To connect passion to autonomy, Mageau and colleagues performed three studies in which they surveyed hundreds of athletes and musicians ages 6 to 38 with different skill levels.
In one study, the researchers followed 196 middle-school students as they picked up a musical instrument for the first time. After five months, the psychologists found that one major variable that predicted whether children developed a passion for music was if their parents allowed them the freedom to practice on their own schedule.  The passionate kids on average scored 9 percent greater on the autonomy scale than the non-passionate kids, which is a big effect in a psychology study, Mageau said.
Passion is one area of our children’s lives that we probably cannot create or control.  But, adult role models can foster the development of passion:
  • Curiosity killed the cat, but makes the child.  The world is a mysterious place, full of puzzles and challenges to be figured out.  We can create the time and space for children to explore their world and to ask the questions that will help them figure it out.  A curious mind will find its passion.
  • Acknowledge what does not interest them.  This helps the child recognize that they are unique in their style and interests.  In this way the child begins to identify with the things that do “give them a buzz."
  • Recognize that real passions are aligned with a sense of autonomy and adolescence is a time when autonomy is a strong developmental need.
  • Don’t jump into every new activity that your child expresses interest in.  It may be fleeting.
  • Don’t pressure your child.  Kids think differently than we do and we can quickly squash their interest or enthusiasm. Use reflective listening to help them discuss their experiences.
  • Give encouragement—but gently.
  • Some passions evolve from an impactful experience.  This can be with another person, activity, or even story.  Observe your child and watch for those moments that create a sparkle in their eye.
The most important thing is to know your child and their personality. Some children do not express their emotions freely or show enthusiasm effusively.  That is probably the way they approach most things in their life.  If you have ever experienced having a litter of puppies, you understand that “every one comes out different”.  Be patient.  Parental effort is not the key to the explosion of a child’s passion, but when the moment comes that your child, young adult, or adult-child intersects with that thing they “want to put more energy into than is required”, you will look back on all you did to make that possible.