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Passion: Helping Our Children Choose Passion

By Lara Niedermeyer


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?

About Lara Niedermeyer

Lara Niedermeyer writes to savor and connect. Growing up in Port Townsend, Washington, she was surrounded by art in all its forms and the wild coast of the Pacific. This foundational experience and landscape continue to shape her creative choices. Raised on the poems of Carol Lynn Pearson (whose books she snuck off her mother’s shelf and hid in her suitcase when leaving home), she revels in poetry which is both mystical and plain-spoken. Joining Segullah in 2009, she previously served as Poetry Editor and on the Poetry Board. Her poems have been published in the anthology “Seasons of Change,” Segullah, and read aloud for the “Words Fall In” podcast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family, where she rents vintage dishes for events, and regularly teaches writing workshops.

21 thoughts on “Passion: Helping Our Children Choose Passion”

  1. I've always tried to expose my sons to many different ideas, subjects, movies, music, opportunities and to let them find what they love. I find it a fight against my family and their schools that they have to "be the best, know what you want to be and how to get there" and "what makes the most money?"

    I believe we all find something we are passionate about, and it doesn't have to be something "career", but "life" – and I'm determined to let my kids work out what that may be. My youngest has recently been impassioned at the idea of becoming an astronaut, and that passion is a beautiful thing to see.

    Thank you for the reminder that I don't have to let cold pragmatism kill passion.

  2. Such a great topic! Because I am that jill-of-all-trades that isn't sure how to focus on one skill long enough to develop real talent. At 47 I'm still deciding what I want to be when I grow up. But I have had a lot of fun along the way. I'm lucky to still be dancing…and painting and even a little writing. Some volleyball or knitting or sewing. Or cooking some gourmet thing. Or making origami stars throughout December. I've tried to let my kids find passion. I have 2 writers, and my oldest son isn't sure what his passion is yet. Thanks for making me think about this.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this. I do think it is important to expose children to many different things, and I do think there is value in being well-balanced. In other words, I think it is good for the sports-obsessed child to have experiences with art and music, and for the bookworm child to have experiences with physical activity and getting out in nature. I think one of the tragedies of our modern educational system, at least in the U.S. is too much focus on only a few things (e.g. math and writing/reading). It is one reason I have chosen to take my kids out of the school system to educate them at home, where I am trying to provide for them a true Renaissance education with consistent exposure to a broad variety of subjects and skills. I do have some real concerns with encouraging children at young ages to settle on one or just a few "talents" and putting time and energy into those things that IMO is more appropriate at a much older age (even college age).

    Now of course there are children who are born passionate and obsessed… I have one of those. I have walked that careful line of making sure he has opportunities to pursue his passion (soccer), but also be exposed to other things that might possibly become passions as well. There is also the issue of balancing his needs and interests with other children in the family and with the family budget of money and time. In some ways, it frustrates me that our society has fed this idea of "bigger and better and sooner" and often children have to get on that track early, too early. For example, competition sports teams for younger and younger children. My son is envious that a few of his team mates on his local team have parents that pay several thousands of dollars and drive their children 2.5 hours one way each time to play on a stellar team in a larger city. These kids are 12! It is not gonna happen at our house. We can't afford it, and it would not be fair to the younger siblings who would have to come along on these trips.

    On another note, this same child has talked for years of growing up and traveling and world. I used to often try to talk down his ideas, pointing out the impracticalities involved. Then one day I realized what disservice I was doing. How was I to know that someday he wouldn't do just what he dreamed? After all, there are plenty of people that do travel and live all over the world. Now I listen to his dreams and encourage them.

  4. Thanks for your comments everyone. I think exploration should be a lifelong pursuit, and it's wonderful to hear you talk about doing this yourselves and encouraging your children to do the same.

    I'm not advocating an attempt to lock children into a particular skill at a young age, more making sure we respect the things they are drawn to, even when they are small, recognizing that these passions can turn into much more as they grow, if we choose to be supportive. And also to be careful about requiring them to be spread thin trying to become accomplished at many things, instead of allowing them to focus on something they love at any age.

    Keep the discussion coming, and thanks again for reading and commenting!

  5. I am torn about this as well. When it is something like lego I can encourage it. When it is a video game I don't. If it is enjoying playing football I encourage it. If it is thinking you can play in the NFL I don't.
    I do not like our culture telling kids to pursue their dreams. That is why so many people graduate with a ton of debt and can't find a job to pay for the debt. I have told my kids that because of the internet they can learn about any thing they want for free. No reason to go to college just to get educated. Paying for college should only happen if you have a career in mind that needs a degree.
    My children have passions that change. "Be Dr. Who" isn't a career for that passionate Dr. Who fan who wanted to grow up to be Dr. Who. Writing can be a passion that is done as a hobby, no reason to expect to grow up and be paid to write whatever you feel like. Football is great, but after high school and college there is no more opportunity to play football (when you are a lineman and you never touch the ball you just push/hit people and are part of a complicated team effort. You never get to do that again). Reading is a lifelong hobby. I encourage it but also have to drag them away from it sometimes.
    I give my kids room to be themselves. I try to enjoy them as they are. I try to help them develop their individual potential. But I also don't believe in bankrupting my family for their passions. Would I rather them do that activity or save that money to help them in college. It is incredible how much people spend on a sport or music or whatever. I spend it sometimes on my kids…..so far, it has never developed into a passion (except one kid for football) the rest of the time it is just "jack of all trades" exposure, helping them get exercise, helping them be social, trying to give them opportunities to do something and eventually letting them quit because it is too much money and too much hassle if they don't really care about it. But I know that sometimes it takes years to learn to care about something.
    My oldest is passionate about getting good grades. I have to support her but then help her manage her anxiety. I have to tell her it is ok if she gets an A-. We'll see if an A- actually happens or if she keeps her 4.0. I try to push her to be social or physical or spiritual. Kindly, of course. I try to help her when her life seems out of balance.
    I have a child who had language learning difficulties. I had to push him from the age of 2. Speech therapy. Language therapy. My life revolved around giving him enough practice at his level to help him improve. I made sure that I didn't just make him practice his weaknesses…..I also made him practice his strengths. That way, he could see that practice makes you improve (otherwise, with his weaknesses he would see that practice makes it so that you are still a little behind others). I believe in practice and hard work. It is more important than innate talent in order to be successful in many, many areas of life.
    My kids are who they are, and yet they are affected by what environment I have provided for them.
    Passions? I don't see a lot of passions that last a long time. I encouraged the cooking/baking (even though it meant a messy kitchen and last minute expensive ingredients) but it didn't last. My kids are perhaps too much into serial passions. It is exhausting to try to talk a kid into staying with something when they don't want to.

    But really, I think it is unfair to criticize a parent who doesn't want to pay for an expensive summer dance program. It is a valid concern to want to keep dance as a hobby. If a person is truly passionate about dancing, does she always need to pour money into the hobby? Is that really what a passion is? A young adult shouldn't feel like they have a right to spend a fortune every month on a passion. I was raised to be frugal and wise with my money. If they have a job and can afford to spend a fortune on their passion then it is their privelege to spend their own money.

  6. I feel like some of the comments argue against things that Lara, the OP, wasn't actually saying. Lara was writing about supporting our children in things they've shown a passion for. She didn't advocate locking kids into highly competitive sports leagues at a young age, or allowing them to focus on one thing so exclusively that they become totally imbalanced, or paying for expensive camps (in fact, in that vignette, she tried to tell the mom about scholarships and work/study).

    Lara simply encouraged us to be careful not to override kids' passions (or our own) with adult "practicality." I think she's responding to a common western-culture mindset: "How are you going to make a living with that?"

    My own daughters love songwriting. They know that most people don't make money songwriting. As parents, we don't pay for expensive training we can't really afford. But when Coursera offered a free Berkelee School of Music songwriting class I encouraged my oldest daughter to take it. When she wanted to take guitar classes in college I didn't say "but there's no career in that" or "don't waste your credits." I urged her to take advantage of this opportunity to pursue something she loves, to balance her required classes with some that are just fun.

    She entered the MTC yesterday, and one of the last things she did before leaving was record a few of her own songs to leave with us. It's a precious gift, a bit of her heart. That's what Lara's writing about, giving our kids enough space to find out what's in their hearts, and nurturing whatever it is they find there, whether or not it seems practical in the "real world." She's reminding us that it's worth it to make room in real life for the things that bring us joy.

  7. I tend to disagree. I think it's completely reasonable to not spend the outrageous amounts of money these activities tend to cost as children age. Why is it not okay to tell your child that if this is something they truly love they can pick it back up when they can afford to pay for it themselves? Also, I think it's great to have a passion and even better to make that passion a hobby. It is stressful to try to support yourself on many of these skills and many times it can kill the joy you originally found within the particular passion.

  8. As an artist embracing passion is essential to success. I also try to make the point that some of those seemingly "less practical" passions teach us to think and work in unique ways. Art taught me some of the most valuable lessons about failure, starting over, diversity, personal voice, creativity, etc. Those deeper lessons may get sacrificed when we treat things for only their economic value or direct relationships. Passions make you excited to get up in a day. In my case it makes work feel like play ( it has hard aspects do get me wrong but by in large I like to paint more than I like to eat or sleep , and that is something I wish I could give to every child. then again I am a big believer in you can be more than one thing– so I say find your passionS and embrace them

  9. Thanks for your comments! I definitely don't advocate sending your family to the poorhouse to feed the desires of one individual!

    Much of my dance experience and training came from my own work, with the encouragement and support of my family–my parents then, and my husband now. I got scholarships and did work study for summer intensives, and my last two years of high school cleaned the dance studio on weekends to pay for my classes. One reason I currently teach is to barter my skills so that my children can take classes (and I wouldn't have those skills if I hadn't sacrificed and worked all those years ago to hone them). I checked out dance videos and books at the library, I helped backstage to be able to attend local productions…and many of those things were suggested by my parents. They didn't have a million dollars to help me choose this passion, but they helped me learn how to think outside the box so that I didn't have to give it up completely when times were tough–that is an important concept in becoming a life-long passion-living, person.

    As passions change, and life circumstances change, teaching my children how to hold on to those creative, innovative, curious, sparks within themselves is critical for me as a parent because I see how much joy it's brought into my own life. And it's not about giving it all to them–I can't–it's about teaching them how to find what is most dazzlingly beautiful to them, and work to obtain it for themselves, even when there are challenges involved.

    The idea behind this piece (and its title) is that we could be assisting our kids in finding the things that are more than just passing fancies for them–we know them so well, and have more years than they do, God to guide us in parenting them–and we can see things that feed into their strengths and can teach them important life lessons. Not just handing them experiences to flit to and fro from, not just expecting them to choose on their own where to focus their energies or following society's one-size-fits all Life, but looking deeply at their passions, and helping them find ways to become and grow as individuals who follow paths that lead them to what matters most. I appreciate each of you taking the time to comment!

  10. Cheri – yes! It's about "giving our kids enough space to find out what’s in their hearts, and nurturing whatever it is they find there, whether or not it seems practical in the “real world.” and remembering "it’s worth it to make room in real life for the things that bring us joy." I concur wholeheartedly.

    Nice thoughtful piece, Lara. Sure it's a balancing act, but I think sometimes we forget that part of our purpose here to experience joy and there are many paths to discovering what we're passionate about. Even post 50 I'm still discovering things that bring me joy. I hope my kids learn from my example and keep pursuing their dreams.

  11. I think that this post is for families that can afford extra-curricular activities. "Passion" falls by the wayside when we're just trying to find a job, or keep the lights on, or buy new shoes.

  12. I just want to clarify that I actually do think it is important to help our children find the things they love and then find ways to pursue those things. I myself went on to college to study something that isn't terribly practical in terms of getting a job or bringing in an income, but it was and is my passion, and I have no regrets. As a music teacher, I also had the experience of seeing miracles happen to bring these kinds of extra-curricular experiences to a student who needed them but whose family had very little money to spend on them. I personally would never tell one of my children that their passion wasn't worth spending money on because it wouldn't lead a a future career. I would, however, tell them that we could not spend time or money on something they wanted to do for many other reasons, some of which I listed above. I was just trying to point out, in my original comment, that there are often many other factors at play, and we live in a society which often tries to make children–and parents–feel like they just *have* have have certain experiences, often expensive or even at times age-inappropriate, in order to pursue their talents.

  13. Angie, I have been that mom, who has wondered how we're going to pay for toilet paper when it runs out (not covered by food stamps). It lasted for several years. Even once we settled into a steady income, it was modest. My daughters still wrote music and took free online song writing classes, my son pursued his passion for theater at school.

    A good friend of mine is a widow who raised 5 children on her own, heating their northern Utah home with a wood stove fueled by wood from a friend's tree-trimming business. She always found creative solutions like barters and scholarships so her kids could pursue their passions, and several of her kids are now studying theses things in college.

    Lara just commented that she cleaned the studio on weekends to pay for her classes.

    Finding ways to help our children pursue passions is most definitely not reserved for the wealthy. Of course, there maybe seasons of grief or stress when we don't have emotional attention for creative solutions, but I hope we wouldn't allow that to permanently define our children's lives.

  14. I have been pondering this topic in my own life for some time, reflecting on my experiences as well as those of my children, what I have and have not done, what I hope to do. I think there is a huge misconception around that we should pursue our passions only through rigid, structured, classes, programs and training. I went to a very prestigious music school and time and time again students were having to be taught how to unwind and perform with freedom and abandon. Many of my friends that have gone on to actually have careers in music were also the same kids that spent summers playing/singing on the streets of Europe (living in hostels) or finding opportunities to perform and create music with community groups, or even starting their own groups, the passion HAS to drive the opportunities, not the other way around. Where there is a will, there IS a way. Lara is suggesting something wonderful, that we notice, nurture and encourage these talents. Much more important that the right program is the right kind of support from mom and dad, kind words, exploration and encouragement. It is never too late to learn and be passionate, and the joy comes from doing just that, not attaining elusive accolades.
    I recently had this discussion with a friend of mine, a dancer, who was torn between encouraging her children, (and herself and her husband, because, let's face it, these are family endeavors) into starting intense dance training, she knew if her child did not start young, they likely would not be able to join in to this particular program later. And I say fie! And exclusive program does not always an excellent dancer make, and if the child is not wanting and willing, then it definetely does not a happy child make.
    In short, many opportunities are out there, we are blessed with a world/society full of them. For that I am very grateful!

  15. p.s. Angie, of course more money = more opportunities, and constant worry over basic necessities leaves little energy for non-basics. The whole issue is incredibly complex. I just think passion is worth fighting for.

  16. My oldest loves acting and singing–but I've only once had her in paid theater classes and that was a few years ago. She's tried out a few times for community productions, but theater is a big deal where I live and there are plenty of kids that have had years of theater classes and voice lessons, so she's never been in a production. However, there are some parents at her elementary school who love theater and every year put on a musical with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. I know it's a whole lot of work for them, but it's great that my daughter gets a chance to perform on stage. Maybe in junior high and high school she'll do theater and school too, or maybe not. I don't know, but I'm glad she has the chance now while she's interested in it.

    I had two thoughts while reading this post. First of all, there's a trend in American culture to make sure that kids "maximize their potential" and I don't think this is always positive. I know many parents who stress about making sure their kids have a chance to try a bunch of things in order to find their one special talent, and then when they do they feel pressure to spend a lot of time and money "maximizing" that. There are those in our culture who feel that if you are not "the best" at something, then why should you do it? Of course, not everyone can be in first place, but none of us wants to admit that our child might not be the star.

    Related to that, I think there are a lot of parents out there who have come to see their children as investments, in a way (there's a book out there called "All Joy and No Fun" that talks about this trend in American culture). This seems to be what Lara is seeing in the parents she talks to–parents are investing their time and money in their child, and if she's not going to be the next Olympic athlete or elite dancer, why bother? I don't think parents are necessarily doing this because they don't love their children–in fact, I think that sometimes we assume we are sparing them from future pain and uncertainty by shutting down what we see as fanciful career paths or wasted time.

    Lara's post has given me a lot to think about in how I work with my children, who are still young. I don't think my oldest is going to grow up to be a Broadway star or a playwright or a drama teacher. But she doesn't have to do any of those things to enjoy theater or to act occasionally; a passion for something may or may not mean turning it into a career. I'll never view her time spent acting as "wasted".

  17. Man, do I hear you on this Angie. It is a mental game whether or not you have money to spend on extra-curricular activities. More important than actually spending money on a child's passion, is the parent's attitude about the idea of them pursuing the passion. Many, MANY, successful artists, musicians, dancers(….and doctors, lawyers etc.) come from poverty. There are tremendous resources out there to help people hungry for knowledge and opportuntities (libraries, internet, online courses, community centers, scholarships, grants, friends, mentors, etc.). The problem is finding the energy and keeping a positive mindset in the midst of the financial struggles.

  18. I agree with Jo. As the wife of a "recovering symphony musician" I am seeing the real-life results of trying to make a passion a profession that is not valued by society. By all means, work to develop your talents and encourage that in your children. But reality is that one's greatest talents (even if they are truly wonderful, like my husband's) may not be a good way to provide financially. Choose first to seek education and training for something that can lead to a good job and provide enough for your family. Then you will have more resources (emotional and physical) to be able to continue enjoying what you really love as a hobby. What is really tragic is to spend 2 decades trying to make music work as a profession, receiving graduate degrees and working one's proverbial tail off, only to have a family still on welfare and barely squeaking by. I could write so much more about this — maybe I will on the blog sometime — but now that we are tens of thousands of dollars in debt trying to begin a 2nd career with my husband in his 40s, I just thought it might help someone else out there make a decision about this topic. It is difficult because of course we are given spectacular gifts and meant to develop them, but our society / circumstances may not always allow our greatest gifts to be our means of earning a living. Maybe those greatest gifts are sometimes meant to be used for serving others and bringing joy to our own families.


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