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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

Megan was brought up in a musical household: her mother was a trained musician, her siblings all played instruments, and Megan was placed before a keyboard by the time she was two. It was a given that she, like the rest of her family, would flourish in music.

And she did. Rigorously-trained and what some might label a prodigy, she was giving recitals by the age of four, and an award-winner soon after.

But it didn’t survive her teen years. After rocketing toward a sure-fire career in music, Megan decided that she no longer enjoyed performing. The fire went out. Her passion compass did not align with her parents’ plan. Today she’s a successful businesswoman who plays the piano only sporadically.

What happened? The same thing that happens to children around the world: Rather than allow her love of music to develop organically, it was force-fed to her. Once it became clear that she was expected to devote her life to it, music became a chore rather than a joy.

We all do this with our children, but it’s not malicious. In fact, it’s actually quite natural. We discover that our child has a talent for art, and we enroll them in endless painting classes. They show an aptitude for music and we envision them as the next Martha Argerich. The kid can dribble a basketball? Gotta sign him up for every sports camp available.

Sometimes it’s a natural fit, and the child carries that fire all the way into adulthood. But often what we find is Megan’s burnout, where an overwhelming push from parents and teachers smothers the flame.

We usually mean well. If the child shows a natural ability – or is brought up in a house full of people with one specific interest – we embrace the idea that it’s meant to be. And yet, how many parents can tell a tale of their child not following in the golden footsteps?

So what’s the answer? The first step is to clearly delineate between her dreams and yours. I coached youth sports for years, and have countless stories of sons who were pushed into football and baseball by dads living vicariously through the boys’ efforts. Dad was a big football star in high school; by golly, Junior now must be All-State.

Next, communication is critical. You have to open an honest, on-going dialogue regarding your child’s true interest. We make it so clear that his participation is important to us that it’s difficult for him to say “I don’t really like the cello.” He knows it will crush us, so he soldiers on, all the while dreading each new lesson, and potentially developing an actual grudge against it.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t encourage our kids to excel, and it certainly isn’t meant to suggest that we let them drift from activity to activity without anything more than a cursory effort. It’s important for them to stick with something long enough to give it a real chance. Forcing them to make it their life’s ambition, however, is another story.

The same thing applies with academics. You might’ve been an English master – and now dream of a daughter who writes award-winning novels – but she might prefer mathematics. You love science with a passion, but your son can’t get enough history. The key is to expose them to all of it, and allow them to discover what trips their trigger.

Today Megan has an electronic keyboard at her house, along with an extremely bright daughter – a daughter who doesn’t even play Chopsticks.

And Megan is just fine with that. Her daughter’s passion compass will alight on the right thing at the right time.

Dom  Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty-three years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people embrace the idea that Smart Is Cool. More info at DomTesta.com>.

Image courtesy of Roland Urbanek via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.