When my oldest son was 2 years old, he sat mesmerized in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “First Steps,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for half an hour. By the time he was 11, he was taking classes alongside adults at the Art Students League (for everyone who asks me how to keep a talented boy motivated, I have only one answer: female nude models).
When his younger brother started school, he was so active (read: hard to manage), that I enrolled him in dance classes as an outlet. Now, he takes pre-professional level ballet, modern, and Spanish dance seven hours a week. That is, when he’s not teaching himself to computer program.
Conversely, for the first years of their little sister’s life, her only activity was being dragged along on their activities. She was a very good sport about it. She’s a good sport about everything. But, eventually, it began to bother me that I was not putting the same kind of effort into encouraging and nurturing her interests, as I had with her brothers.
I told myself it was because she was the youngest. Who has the same strength and enthusiasm (not to mention the time) to put into their youngest, that they did with their oldest?
But a small part of me worried that it was because she was a girl. Maybe, on some level, I just didn’t think a girl warranted that kind of intellectual cultivation?
Well, I certainly wasn’t about to let that stand. Youngest or not, girl or not, my daughter was entitled to the same treatment as her brothers.
Except we had a teeny, tiny problem.
By the time they were her age, both my boys knew exactly what they were interested in. My daughter… not so much.
It’s very hard to encourage a child’s interests when they don’t appear to have any.
Now, I’m not saying that a first-grader must necessarily find something to specialize in and stick with it for the rest of her life. That would be ridiculous. But, on the other hand, as I’ve written before, I believe that passions make life worth living. Yes, I wanted her to hurry up and pick something so that I could prove I wasn’t neglecting her. But, I wanted her to do it for herself, too. Loving what you do is fun!
We tried dance classes at the same studio where my son goes. She was OK with it, but didn’t express enough enthusiasm to make it worth me basically spending all my time there (and trying to put her hair in a bun was the deal-breaker). We tried a children’s chorus. She was OK with it, but only after a bribe. We tried a drama class in Russian. She was OK with it, but when I asked her about signing up for another semester, she said, “No, thank you.” We tried piano lessons (one thing neither of her brothers ever showed much interest in was music, so I thought this could be her thing and hers alone). But she was not OK with that. It was a disaster. When she practiced by herself, she practiced her mistakes over and over. And when she practiced with me, more often than not, the session would end in tears.
So forget the arts. What about the sciences? She’s an adequate student, but nothing she was learning at school seemed to be capturing her imagination. She did her homework, but expressed no interest in learning more about anything.
And then, last summer, we were walking along the beach in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, when she noticed that some jellyfish had been washed ashore. After making sure that their stingers were gone, I told her she could play with them. She ended up building an entire habitat. (We didn’t have the heart to tell her they were already dead.)
When we got home, she looked up jellyfish online. Then, she wanted to check out jellyfish books from the library. When she’d read all the ones written for children, she moved on to adult volumes. Jellyfish lead her to ocean life. We’ve now clocked multiple hours at the American Museum of Natural History, not only under the big whale, but at all the computer terminals, too. She carries around a notebook for jotting down ocean life facts. She’s on her seventh one.
In my husband’s MIT alumni magazine, she read a story about an oceanographer who’d broken the world record for an underwater research mission. She emailed her with questions, and now they’re pen pals. (Thank you, Grace Young, who was so amazingly kind and generous.) She read the autobiography of Sylvia Earle, another “lady oceanographer,” watched her documentary, “Mission Blue,” and is planning her own science project on sea life. (Though she has made it clear to me that she will not do any experiments that will hurt her subjects, so, at this point, I’m really not sure what this experiment will turn out to be. But that doesn’t matter.)
The point is, my daughter finally has an interest! Jellyfish! Oceanography! Never, ever in a million years would I have even thought to suggest this.
Man plans, God laughs. And parents sit around with their jaws hanging open, wondering what just happened. I tried so hard to help her find her “thing.” And, in the end, she didn’t need me, at all.
I couldn’t have asked for a better result than that.