By Gail Belsky
Fortunately, you don't need expensive tests to tell you what activities capture your child's attention, spark her imagination and excite her so much that she'll practice them without being told to. You just need to observe.
"Parents very much want their kids to be successful in a variety of ways -- and kids want more than anything to please adults, which is why they'll stick with things for a long time even though they don't like them," says former school principal Jennifer Fox, author of Your Child's Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them. That cycle actually keeps kids from developing their innate talents and interests, according to Fox. In order to nurture their natural skills, "parents need to take notice of the things their kids choose to do when they don't have to please anyone."
Here, five ways to discover -- and nurture -- your child's natural talents.
1. Watch him play.
Does your kid naturally gravitate toward group activities or solo projects? Does he prefer running around or sitting quietly? Which would he go to first: a drawing pad, an iPod or a scooter? Seeing what your child chooses for himself will give you a good idea of where his talents lie.
2. Give him real choices.
It's understandable: you want your child to appreciate music, so you sign him up for piano lessons. But is that really where his interest and ability lies? What if he'd be more engaged -- and happier -- strumming, drumming or singing? Or just listening, for that matter? "Kids are going to be who they are, despite who you want to make them," says Fox. The key is to let your kid explore different angles of an activity and to watch for what really grabs his attention. If you think your child will like them, start with piano lessons but tell him that if he doesn't enjoy playing after six months, he can move on to another instrument. Or something else altogether.
3. Validate his interests.
You may think that playing video games is a waste of time, but if your child is into graphics, animation, storytelling or problem solving, it may be boosting his innate talents. Parents often lump activities into big categories, but by doing so they may miss the details, says Fox. Instead of criticizing your child's skills, validate them by saying, "Wow, I noticed you like playing games -- and you're really good at it!" Telling him it's a waste of time may only squelch his desire to pursue his interests.
4. Encourage expression.
If your child comes home from school, whips out his notebook and starts writing a short story just for fun, you might be thrilled. But what if she sits down to draw cartoons? Or write riddles? What if she spends an hour creating crossword puzzles? Encourage her all the more! Loving to write and writing what you love go hand in hand. And the minute your child feels censored or limited, she might stop expressing herself creatively.
5. Forget about you.
Whether your child loves or hates the activity you want him to do, it's not a reflection on you. In fact, it's not about you at all. Remember to put aside your own interests, prejudices and preconceptions. If you're disappointed by your child's lack of interest in an activity, Fox recommends asking yourself, "What would happen to my child's life if he didn't take music lessons? Or if he quit them to pursue acting instead?" Chances are, the consequences aren't worth your worry.
"It's all about being able to have a choice," says Fox. And given the freedom and encouragement, she adds, "kids will make good choices."
Gail Belsky has worked on a variety of women's publications, including Parents, Working Mother and All You, and she recently wrote a book for women, entitled The List: 100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life. She is the managing editor of Your Family Today.
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