istockphoto

page_1

If left to her own devices, my daughter Maggie, 16, would have played CityVille on Facebook all day. I'd have preferred she find a passion — a non-screen occupation to inspire her mind and soul — but she never seemed to feel the urgency. Whenever I went into a "Do something productive with your life!" rant, Maggie rolled her eyes and said, "Take a chillaxative, Mom."

Maybe I was making too much of the passion problem, I thought. Maggie earned good grades, had friends, and seemed happy. I firmly believed, though, that kids should have a beloved hobby or interest — an answer to the question, "What's your thing?" Beyond a slavish devotion to Andrew VanWyngarden (singer for the alt-rock band MGMT), Maggie's burning fire from within seemed like a pile of soggy twigs.

I knew it was wrong to compare, but other kids at her school were so accomplished. They were karate brown belts, aspiring singers, and budding politicians. Maggie had sampled dozens of sports, arts, and crafts. I'd spent a small fortune on lessons and equipment and was worried that it was all for nothing. The passion deficit hadn't bothered me as much when Maggie was younger, but now I was worried that she had drifted too far and for too long. I couldn't help feeling it was time for her to get serious about...something. The phrase "follow your bliss" kept ringing in my ears. Maggie didn't know what her bliss was.

I'm not a "Tiger Mother" like author Amy Chua, who famously forbade her daughters to do any extracurricular activities other than violin and piano and used criticism, threats, and humiliation to get them to practice for hours every day. I do push, but my aim isn't to make Maggie and my other daughter, Lucy, 12, hate me. The objective is to uncover a fascination that could lead to a lifetime of joy or (fingers crossed) a career. Plus, every parent knows intuitively that healthy kids are active and engaged.

"Extracurricular involvement benefits many aspects of a child's life, now and into the future," says Lisa J. Crockett, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska — Lincoln who co-led a team that tracked over 300 kids from age 14 into adulthood. "Participating in extracurricular activities appeared to feed their higher expectations of self; those study subjects who participated more in activities reached higher levels of education than kids who were less involved," she says. "We can also connect activity participation with early identity development. Adolescents typically wonder, 'Who am I?' and 'What do I want to do?' Those involved in activities get more information about what they like and are good at: 'Do I like this?' and 'Am I skilled at it?' They can build a richer, more complete picture of themselves and what they hope to accomplish." Or, in fun flow format: activities, aspirations, achievement.

Research shows that kids engaged in activities also tend to have better grades, higher self-esteem, and better time-management skills, and are less likely to do drugs, drink, or drop out of school. And, in case you need even more encouragement, Thomas Fritsch, Ph.D., director of the Parkinson Research Institute at Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, links adolescent activity involvement with mental agility in old age. "We studied 349 Cleveland high school graduates from the classes of 1944 to 1946," says Fritsch. "We reviewed their school records and yearbooks to see what they did as students — band, boosters, teams, other clubs. Then we tested the individuals, 75 years old on average at the time of the study, for cognitive ability. The subjects who participated in two or more activities a year as teens were one-third less likely to have dementia as seniors." In other words, playing cello and chess at 14 may well mean your child won't be forgetting his spouse's name when he's 75.

Pick a Pair

So, case closed: Children should pursue activities. But how many, and which ones?

Let's consider quantity first: Two is the magic number. "People often take on too many responsibilities. This eventually leads to frustration. The U.S. Marine Corps and other military services use the 'Rule of Three' as a general principle," writes Tina Seelig, Ph.D, a neuroscientist, in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World. "They've found that people can only track three things at once. The entire military system is designed to reflect this. A squad leader is in charge of three fire team leaders...." (When the military experimented with a "Rule of Four," notes Seelig, effectiveness dropped precipitously.) To help your child live by the Rule of Three, count school as one thing, then add two activities. You certainly wouldn't expect an adolescent to take on more than a Marine can, now would you?

Take the Slow Road

Going by the wisdom of certain guidance counselors and helicopter parents, if a kid doesn't have a red-hot burning passion by age 5, she has missed the boat. Not long ago, my younger daughter, Lucy, said she wanted to try soccer. I signed her up for a local team. At her first game, some parents on the sidelines shook their heads at me and said, "It's way too late for her to start now." She was 10. Regardless of her age handicap — you'd have thought she was dragging a cane up and down the field — Lucy lost interest after a season. And when she later auditioned for the school musical, I half expected the teacher to tell me she was over the hill at 12.

How I envy moms whose kids had a marked interest at an early age. But only a small percentage of children fit into this category. William Damon, Ph.D., director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence and author of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, conducted a seven-year study of 12- to 26-year-olds. "Twenty percent of the subjects knew what they wanted and were directed and motivated," he says. "Approximately 20% to 25% were apathetic or drifting. But the majority of adolescents and young adults — about 55% to 60% — were searching for a direction in life but had yet to find it. Many of these searchers could be described as dreamers and dabblers." Dreamers had pie-in-the-sky notions ("I wanna be a rock star!"). Dabblers, like Maggie and Lucy, bounced from one interest to the next too fleetingly, as Damon says, for their hobbies "to become the basis of an enduring personal identity." But, he points out, "dabblers and dreamers are great kids who do what's expected of them, practice their instruments, do their homework."

Eventually, these children may find a purpose. It just might take a while. Our culture presents youngsters with so many options and opportunities that a parent's job is to help a child maintain forward momentum.

So, for example, you buy the guitar, find the teacher, and drive her to lessons — and then feel crushed when, despite your guidance and support, she quits after a season. (Or at least this has been my experience.) "Parents get frustrated when their child doesn't stick with something," says Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., director of Liberal Arts Career Services for the University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored in What? "Don't worry. I'm an advocate of wise wandering. We wander to find our passions. Do experiences have value only if they tell us what we want? Probably not. You also have to spend time learning what you don't want."

Next: The three stages of learning

page_2

Try, Try Again

Thus far, Maggie and Lucy have wandered through karate, tennis, yoga, track, gymnastics, fencing, soccer, basketball, volleyball, skiing, skating, theater, clarinet, piano, violin, guitar, ballet, and tap, among other activities. My kids learned a lot — mainly that neither has a future in pro sports.

But maybe I do need to chill: Even if a child quits an activity after a few months, she may circle back to it. "Experts say there are three stages of learning," says Brooks. "Stage one is 'unconscious incompetence,' when you don't know what you don't know — a kid picks up a guitar, thinking it'll be as easy as professionals make it look. Stage two is 'conscious incompetence,' when a kid realizes this is hard and she has a long way to go. Stage three is 'conscious competence' — she puts in the effort and learns to play. Most give up in stage two. Fear and insecurity have to be overcome. Some kids are little perfectionists. If they can't do something perfectly right away, they get frustrated and want to quit."

Sometimes, between stages two and three, there's a dormant period. "Let the guitar sit in the corner for a while," advises Brooks. If the child dusts it off and starts to play again, this time she might be ready to make a real commitment.

Search for a Spark

When trying to encourage your kid's interests, don't feel obligated to play to her strengths. "Any healthy passion, anything your child enjoys, should be encouraged," even if she doesn't seem to have true talent for it, says Damon. Your child's enjoyment is the most important thing, and other benefits may follow. "The odds are infinitesimal that an 8-year-old who loves basketball will one day make the NBA. But a love of basketball can translate into a career as a coach, or in the business of sport, or in the media," he says.

It all starts with a spark. "Every kid has one," says Damon. Attentive listening and leading questions can uncover hidden glimmers. Ask: "What's important to you?"; "What's your favorite subject at school?"; "Why do you really care about it?" While watching TV, ask, "Why do you like this show?" When playing FarmVille, ask, "What aspect of this game do you enjoy the most?"

Unstructured hangout time together — weekends, holidays, vacations — will provide invaluable clues. On a lazy afternoon, ask, "What do you want to do today?" If your son says, "Let's make cookies" a dozen Sundays in a row, you'd have to be deaf not to hear "future pastry chef" and get him into a cooking class. If she says, "Let's go shopping" repeatedly, her love of trends might mean a career in fashion or design.

Surely everyone knows an oddball success story. How about the kid who watched Star Trek and Star Wars obsessively in junior high and grew up to be the head of programming at a sci-fi channel (true)? Or the geek who noodled on a computer for umpteen hours a day and grew up to be Bill Gates (true)? "I prefer the word 'energy' to 'passion,' " Brooks says. "Watch your child and look for what gives him energy. If it's playing with cats, see if he can volunteer at an animal shelter."

In my impatience for my daughters to find their passions, I realized, I had been throwing out a million options but not looking for glimmers. So, several months ago, I stopped pushing, listened, and looked. Weeks passed; then, when cleaning up a stack of Maggie's papers, I noticed that she'd doodled on every page. Before, I'd criticized this habit as distraction from her schoolwork. This time, I reserved judgment and appraised. The doodles were elaborate, detailed drawings of a monster dog who breathed fire.

"Fido," said Maggie when I asked. "My character. I've been working on him for a while."

"Do you like to draw?" I asked.

She was in art class so fast, her head is still spinning. Incredibly, her interest is growing, not dissolving. At a recent school exhibit of student work, I could plainly see that she had talent as well as passion.

Of course, I'm envisioning a fabulous career for her at Pixar; I've managed to keep my mouth shut, though, for fear of jinxing her nascent passion. I can tell that Maggie feels happier for having one. I'm overjoyed with relief that she seems to be finding her way.

Next up: my younger daughter, Lucy, who, right this minute, is on the family computer Googling "cheap ventriloquist dummy." God help me.