Listening to your children

How can you help your child blossom into a confident, happy person? There are as many ways as there are parents, but I’ve found it very helpful simply to pay attention and listen carefully for clues about what makes them tick.

Before you can do this, however, you must acknowledge that what makes you tick may not be the same thing. Letting go of your own agenda for your child’s life is a huge first step, one that many well-intentioned parents unwittingly overlook.

Only then can you “tune in” to what feels most natural to him. This matters because a child who is encouraged to discover his own passions-and to build a life around them-naturally will experience greater pleasure, competence and success, both now and during his adulthood, than a child who isn’t.

Think it’s too early to worry about this stuff? Think again. Kids as young as 10 are making choices about which electives they’d like to pursue when they enter middle school.

Of course, it’s helpful when children offer specific cues about their passions, as my son did on a stroll through the spruce grove at the Morton Arboretum.

“I’m a nature boy, Mommy,” he volunteered. Being outdoors has remained important to Noah, and as he registers for his first year of high school and considers the impact of his choices now on the opportunities they will afford him in the future, we’re both bearing that in mind.

Sometimes, however, the cues don’t come that easily.

When this happens, listen to what it is about your child’s activities that is most appealing. Is your daughter having fun in gymnastics class? Is it because she feels good when she sticks the landing or because her BFF is there? My daughter loved going to practice-until a trainer told her to stop talking as she waited her turn for the balance beam. Holly valued the social aspects of the experience more than the training, so she decided against taking the competitive route. I was a competitive gymnast, and this was a moment when I discovered that I needed to let go of my own agenda for her, no matter how much potential I thought she had. Since then, Holly has found an activity she does value, soccer. When she verbalized her frustration that others in her recreation program weren’t taking the sport as seriously, I recognized this as a cue that it was time for more advanced training.

The question about what your child should do with his life-and with his time-isn’t a problem to be solved, but a discovery process to enjoy. You can help by offering lots of food for thought. I like to think of childhood as a smorgasbord of possibilities.

Helping your child to discover what it is he does like about activities or classes will unhook you both from stressing if he fails to make the grade. But even if he makes the grade, what makes him happy?

“Just because I’m good at math doesn’t mean I like it,” my son said when he was 11. This was an “aha” moment for me. On the math fast-track since elementary school, he’s decided it isn’t something he enjoys, so this year he chose to forgo the most challenging class so he can focus his energies on areas he finds more interesting, that make him happier. And why not?

Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia. Ask away. Got a concern? If you’re a parent and it’s on your mind, chances are you’re not alone. Send questions to

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