I took a childhood education class a few years back, and the teacher had us take several different personality tests, multiple times (for ourselves, for each of our kids, and for our spouses). As I pondered this new information and what to do with it, Julie talked about how we live in a society where being “well-rounded” is considered a top priority by many. We don’t just want our children to enjoy sports, do adequately academically and graduate from high school and/or college, and learn to express themselves though the arts . . . we wanted them to be successful—often equally; who doesn’t love a straight-A student—in every endeavor. She asked us to think about this; whether it was possible, whether it was worth it, and what we would be giving up for ourselves, our families, and our children, if this was the path we choose to lead them on—the path of being jacks-of-all-trades—instead of allowing them to choose their passion, and supporting them in it.
I’m a dancer and a dance teacher. Ballet is one of my passions and it has been since I was a child. I was in junior high school when friends I had been taking class with for years began to drop out. For many, it was a change of interest, or a financial situation, but for some it was something else. Their parents had decided that their passion wasn’t worth the investment. As one friend tearfully told me, they logically explained that since she wasn’t going to make it a career—because no one does that, really—they weren’t going to pay for her to dance any longer. It was time for her to put away childish things, and focus on that which would provide a safe and useful future by their estimation. To say she was devastated was to put it mildly. It changed the course of her teen years, and not necessarily in a good way.
A few years back I was speaking to the parent of a young woman I knew. I’d seen this girl dance, and she was good. She had talent, training, and passion and had been dancing since she was small. Her mother casually dropped that her daughter had been accepted to a well-known summer dance intensive, and as I expressed my delight, she stopped me.
“She’s not going. She’s almost done with high school and she’ll have to stop dancing then anyway—it’s not worth the money.”
“You know they have scholarships and a work/study program . . .”
“Nope. She needs to get used to the truth—dancing isn’t a way of life.”
You can easily swap dancing for music, soccer, writing, giraffes, waffles, LEGOs, and a host of other things. Things that while they may not turn into careers on their own, can influence how your children see themselves, and the life-time passions they choose to pursue.
I’ve taught hundreds of ballet classes for adults in the last 10-15 years, and the only thing I don’t enjoy about it is the stories of why my dancers stayed away so long. I’ve lost count of the women who stopped as a child, teen, or college student because a parent (or evil teacher) told them their passion wasn’t worth following, as it wouldn’t result in xyz. For some of them it takes twenty, or thirty, or fifty years for them to overcome the grief of losing that passion to the point they can brave the entrance to a dance studio again. It has affected the self-worth and the courage of every single one of my adult students. For each of them, dancing was a part of their identity and something they loved, and it was summarily dismissed—I am sure for what seemed like solid, sensible, realistic reasons at the time—as unworthy of time, energy, and sacrifice. Talk about heartbreaking.
So, back to the personality tests and the idea of being good at everything. For most of the centuries before this one, people chose a path fairly young. They started as apprentices, either at home or with a member of their community, and found through trial and error things they had an aptitude for, and then slaved to create the skills needed to work in that field. There wasn’t the luxury we have now of spending the first 18-20 years of their lives getting good at fifty things, with the idea of eventually choosing something to focus on. There are positives and negatives I think to both. Sure we have more choices now when it comes with what to do with our lives . . . but how many of us ultimately keep hold of the things we are passionate about? And how many of us teach our children to do the same?
While I chose not to pursue a professional dance career, the absolute joy I still feel in teaching young dancers, and in fact still seeing myself as a dancer even if I’m not performing these days is worth every penny my mother scraped together and every sacrifice she made. She never, ever, told me that I wasn’t a dancer, that it wasn’t worth it, or that it wasn’t real. She saw the passion I had for moving, and she let me follow it . . . and I follow it still, and it makes a difference.
I am not recommending we cancel math and science classes in favor of picking flowers and baking cupcakes (every day), but when our children (or ourselves) find a passion, what can we do to keep it alive and help them understand that the things which move and motivate them are worth finding ways to engage in, no matter where we are in our lives?