At the age of 6, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began writing musical compositions. Bobby Fisher won the World Chess Championship at 14. At 13, Marjorie Gestring won an Olympic gold medal for diving off a 3-meter board.
Some children find their talent at such a young age and excel so remarkably that they receive accolades like “prodigy” and “genius.” But what about those children who have yet to unearth their passions?
A document released in 2014 by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 57 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 17 were engaged in at least one extracurricular activity. About 35 percent of children participate in sports, with the rest finding a place in clubs or engaged in music, language, art or dance lessons.
Whether a child is learning first position in a ballet class or how to tune a violin, parents can help their children master skills and even embrace struggle.
Creating an encouraging and supportive environment is key in helping children discover their talent, according to Stephanie Reich, an associate professor at University of California, Irvine’s School of Education.
“The parents always matter, and the more parents can convey that they are consistently there for their children is always beneficial,” says Reich, whose research focuses on child development, parenting and the impact of media on families. “Knowing that you are loved and important is something you never age out of.”
Introducing a new activity to a child is best done through what Reich calls “scaffolding.” It’s the idea that more support and hands-on instruction is given at the beginning of learning a new skill or activity and then is slowly pulled back. Reich uses swimming lessons as an example. Children start in the shallow end with the help of adults and then gradually learn more independence until they can swim completely on their own.
And just because a child doesn’t succeed right out the gate or gets frustrated in the learning stages, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to quit. “Failure is essential to learning and small failures are normal in learning new things,” Reich says. “Children and adults typically find a certain level of failure to be interesting and engaging.”
Reich says it’s important to acknowledge a child’s failure. She advises asking children open-ended questions to improve on their goals such as, “How do you feel you did?”, “What could have you done differently?” and “What could make you go faster?”
It’s also valuable to focus on the long term rather than seeking praise for winning. “Performance goals are the idea that you want to look good in front of someone else or that you don’t want to look bad,” Reich says. “Mastery goals make you want to master your goals regardless of the outcome. It comes from a place of true motivation that keeps kids going and trying hard.”
For those parents looking to introduce a wide range of activities to their children to find out what their child excels at, Reich says to consider the child’s nature and temperament.
“There are certain types of personalities that are fit for certain types of activities,” says Reich. “If your child is uncoordinated, she might not be suited for gymnastics. If they are not very detail-oriented, a fine string instrument will likely not be a talent for them, but you can find an environment that suits them.”
Even if your child isn’t the next Mozart, learning a new skill may prove beneficial. A study published by University of Toronto at Mississauga found that 6-year-olds who took piano and voice lessons weekly had a slightly increased I.Q. The United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Sports Development and Peace found that kids who play sports have improved motor skills and cognitive function.
Whatever the path to passion is, Reich says that it’s imperative for parents to pay close attention and be a consistent source of support. She says, “When you are introducing a new activity to a child, it’s always useful to encourage them to keep trying.”