According to a Gallup poll published in 2017, 85% of adults worldwide hate their jobs. What a depressing statistic! All those years of school, exams and hard work, only to end up hating what you do. There’s something up with our system, and stats like these certainly make me happy that we’re trying a different path here. Happiness is never guaranteed, of course, but there’s no harm in learning from what certainly doesn’t work.
The trick to being happy in what we do is, the experts tell us, to follow our passions. I have no doubt that’s true. But it does beg the question, Why don’t we let our children do this?
Yesterday, I watched a TEDx talk by psychologist Peter Gray called How our schools thwart passion. Among other things, Gray talks about his half-brother, who had a few years of traditional schooling at primary age, but was then self-directed. Free to follow his own interests, he developed a love of working with wood and musical instruments and is now a successful instrument maker.
I was reminded of a child who briefly attended the alternative school that D (13) and E (11) went to for three years. This child was probably about nine when he went to the school and lasted only a few days before giving up on it. He was clearly stressed, couldn’t get along with the other children, and fought it at every turn. For a while after leaving, he would spend all his days at the local BMX track doing what he loved, riding his bike. Later, under duress from her family, his mother (who would have been happy to keep him at home) tried to get him to attend another school. This battle was fought over several years, but he always refused, and finally, the family and the local education authority agreed that it was pointless and he may as well be at home. We were still battling with the education system ourselves when this boy made his brief appearance at the school. I hadn’t yet considered the idea of no school at all, and when I heard that he was then riding his bike all day, that didn’t seem enough to me. How would he get anywhere in life?
I love it when children blast through our sloppy thinking and prove us wrong. They don’t mean to. It’s just what they inevitably do, and if we listened more we would learn a lot. This boy is 17 now and I bumped into his mother the other day. I asked after him and she told me that he is happy and busy. He has started a successful business fixing bikes for other people, has a big group of friends that he rides with and continues to spend most of his days at the bike track. Right now his passion provides him with friends, an income and happiness. Not bad at 17.
These cases are interesting, as are the quotes of several people that Gray cites in his talk. Brilliant people, from Einstein to Edison, who did not enjoy or do well at school, yet who then followed their passions, with outstanding results for humanity.
Are we born with our passions? Do we develop them? Maybe it’s a combination of both. Who knows. But if you look around at your friends, your partner, your children, and of course, yourself, it’s clear that we are not all cut from the same cloth. Our three children have such different interests and ways of viewing the world. They’re clearly not meant to be all be doing the same things each day. That wouldn’t work at all, not for them or for society as a whole. E has a hunger for knowledge about the world which has him studying the atlas, researching tribes and little-known languages, learning the different flags, capital cities and populations. I don’t know how his future life will encompass this but it will certainly always matter deeply to him. I can’t imagine telling him to stop because he has to do something different that I find more important.
The passions I had as a child (crafts, speaking languages, generally organising things) are very much alive in me now. I’ve picked up some other things along the way that occupy my thoughts and that I wasn’t aware of as a child, such as childbirth and unschooling. Other things morphed into career opportunities, such as my organisational capacities which translated into managing my own business. I’ve also had times when life just felt like one long hard slog. That was always when I was attempting to conform to someone else’s idea of success, and my own interests were put aside. Talking to other people—my age, some younger, some older—I hear many who find their jobs pointless and dull but inescapable. A lot of these people are outwardly successful, but their yearning is to be of true value, to feel a sense of real purpose. I guess they are part of the 85%.
There must be good evolutionary sense to why we all find purpose in different ways. We’re not supposed to all be walking the same narrow path. As a society, we need the people who question authority and we need the ones who can help us turn painful emotions into art. Just like we need people who like to organise everyone, as much as those who can’t organise a thing, but who have an ability for dreaming up creative solutions. We need the ones who will take risks and those that just want to keep us all safe. We’re all different and we’re all necessary. We all have a purpose, and it seems logical that that purpose manifests itself as the passions we start to develop as children.
I’m not suggesting that every passion is destined to become a career. Some will, like the instrument maker or bike fixer. Others will be more subtle in purpose. They may be interests that come and go, but that we have a need to explore for some reason. I always loved poetry but never wanted to be a poet. I did become an editor though, and thoroughly enjoy that chase for exactly the right word. Poetry is a small but important part of the whole.
The thing about passions is that they need time and freedom to be explored at will. As parents, our job is simply to facilitate where needed, perhaps by buying materials, organising a trip or helping out when asked, but probably more by listening or by just not interfering. This is where our own deschooling is so important. A passion for something isn’t ‘a way to learn’. Of course they will learn, and later, perhaps for our own satisfaction, or to make a point to other people, we can list all the different things they learned, but that is not the purpose of their interest to them. The minute we try to harness their passion and use it to coerce them into doing things that we think are good for them, we will smother all the joy out of it. In our early days of unschooling, we certainly did this, and our enthusiasm always drove the child into retreat.
So, embrace your child’s passions. Let them delve as deep as they need and spend as much time doing so it as they want. Get out of the way, and just let it happen. And if you find yourself doubting at all, just imagine the depth of meaning and pleasure their journey is giving them. And think how many adults get to 30, 40, 50 or beyond and find themselves trying to figure out just what their passions are and how they can inject some meaning into their lives. Adults just don’t always know best.