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Helping your child find a passion: One mother's story

A mother shares the lessons she learned while helping her son with a learning disability find hobbies he could put his heart into.

By Melinda Sacks

If you have a child with learning disabilities, chances are someone has given you the same advice I’ve been hearing since our son was first struggling to learn to read. “Just find his passion,” teachers, counselors and tutors would tell me. “Once you know what he is really great at, you can use it to teach almost any skill — from memorizing math facts based on baseball scores to writing a great essay about a favorite musician.”

But such advice is easy to dole out and less so to follow. Our son Alex did not clearly excel at sports or school or music. In fact, it seemed that he struggled with almost everything. He found the most popular activities of the neighborhood kids — soccer, basketball, and band — too chaotic, stressful, and competitive.

It took years for our Alex to find his own passions — golf and playing the drums. And they aren’t necessarily activities that will win him scholarships or public recognition. What is much more important, we have learned, is that he has discovered the things he can be reasonably good at and that he can enjoy doing for relaxation and pleasure.

Before we came to drums and golf, though, my husband and I tried to introduce our son to numerous activities that didn’t work out at all. There was the soccer team his dad coached that seemed to bring out the worst in our kid, who was an anxious, unathletic 8-year-old. Swim team, with its loud whistles and screaming coaches, was a disaster. And horseback riding, while it held his interest for a while, got too scary when the teacher wanted him to gallop and all he wanted to do was go on trail rides.

Know your child

The biggest mistake we made in searching for that “something special” for our son was that my husband and I kept looking at what everyone else was doing, rather than focusing on our own child. We found out the hard way that perhaps the most important step to zeroing in on your child’s passion is matching an activity or interest to his individual personality, rather than a limited menu of what happens to be popular among other kids.

Once we realized that a big group and a lot of noise were too distracting for our child, it was easy to see that team sports were not a good choice. We did know he likes to use his hands and he needs action and movement. Even though his grandfather loved chess and tried his best to teach it, the sedentary methodical game was definitely not a winner for our son. Countless other efforts ended in frustration.

But one trip to the musical instrument store and we had an 8-year-old boy mesmerized by the kid-sized drum set. A CD of the local university marching band was all the inspiration he needed to start playing the small drum we brought home.

Last spring, five years after we bought that drum, Alex realized his life-long dream when he marched with his middle school band in the May Day parade, carrying the enormous bass drum on his heavily padded shoulders.

Think outside the box

Our experiences were not unique, according to educator and author Shirley Kurnoff, who interviewed 142 families with children who have learning problems for her book, The Human Side of Dyslexia.

“The normal thing is you offer kids an array of activities while they are young and they find something they love,” Kurnoff says. “But I think the most important thing when it comes to children who learn differently is thinking outside the box. The parent might  have to be open to activities outside the expected. Is it bird watching or crew or needlepoint or knitting? You need to get outside the box of soccer or basketball. You need to go find the activity, don’t wait for it to come to you.”

Finding that special something may not be easy. It may also require getting far away from school curriculum, Kurnoff and other special education experts suggest. Maybe your child loves to cook, or hike, or has an affinity for animals. Almost any interest, it turns out, if encouraged, can turn into a passion, and a pastime.

Comments from readers

"My ADHD daughter just turned 15 and has taken a very-passing interest in alot of different things but never seems to develop any sustained interest--especially when it involves doing or practicing it on her own, outside of a teacher or coach-supervised, or class/group environment. On her own, she won't apply herself to anything but mindless entertainment/passive enjoyment, and seeks constant novelty rather than delving into anything she's already started. She's extremely social so group activities revolve around that aspect, distracting her from the activity itself--whether it's knitting, swimming, tennis, basketball, an educational trip or museum outing, playing an instrument, singing, being in a theatrical production, volunteering at a library & at an aquarium, or whatever. I know her charismatic personality could take her far, but her preoccupation with frivolous teentalk, passive media entertainment (despite limited screentime)& celebrities doesn't contribute toward dev! elopment of any worthwhile talents, abilities or academic interests. Her attention span is very short and we haven't found anything yet that holds her interest. This weekend she starts volunteering at a recreational & skills-development program for special needs (mostly Downs Syndrome & autistic) children, so hopefully she'll like that. She does love children, likes to babysit, and has a heart for the elderly & disabled, so we hope this clicks and starts diverting her from the sort of frivolous, time-wasting stuff that seems to fill her head most of the time."