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Z is for Zeal for life pursuits

Posted on March 12, 2011 by laurakastner Leave a comment


by Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

“I’m going to start a car washing business this summer!” “I’m writing a graphic novel that will be a science fiction version of the Odyssey!” “I raised money for a girls’ school in Iraq!””

“Let’s get some beer and meet in the park!” “Let’s skip class so we can skateboard on our new half-pipe!” “Everybody loves the photo of you in your underwear that I posted on my Facebook wall!”

All of these scenarios involve zeal. By “zeal”, I mean energy directed toward a rewarding experience, which may be associated with a particular goal beyond the experience itself—or not. Of course, parents would prefer their children personify the first cluster of examples, and prudently avoid the second.

Oh, and by the way—the kids in the first cluster? They are the same ones as those in the second cluster, respectively. Zeal in a child doesn’t always get directed to both good and bad ends—just usually. We all know straight-arrow kids who are uncomfortable with anything but painting within the lines and directing their laser-like attentions toward lofty goals, like a chess championship or winning state in the butterfly stroke.

But most kids are like garden hoses. They flail around with their flow of energy and focus, drawn to learning juggling from YouTube one day, re-reading Calvin and Hobbes for the umpteenth time the next day, and daring to write a poem to a new love interest the next.

Daniel Goleman included zeal as one of the facets of emotional intelligence. Along with a pile of other strengths, kids with a lot of zeal can turn into some of our most spectacular star performers. Zeal is the intense drive that entrepreneurs demonstrate on their path to success. But as many a mother has said, “I know Janie will be successful someday—with all her high-voltage enthusiasm—but first she has to live through her childhood…and so do I!”

Here are the questions parents typically ask me about zeal:

• How do I control the bad kind of zeal (e.g. rule-breaking, acting up in class, dominating siblings) while trying to encourage the good kind (e.g. trying new hobbies, positive leadership and working hard in school)?
• How do I know if I’m stifling my child’s natural zeal with over-scheduling?
• How do I help my child direct her zeal in productive ways so she can find her passion?

Controlling zeal

Parents often wish they could control outlets for zeal, so that children could be more productive and risk-free. Alas, it is naïve to assume parents can have dominion over any realm of a child’s desire. We guide, supervise and re-direct, but we can’t completely control the energy of those garden hoses, especially when they flow with high octane fuel. In fact, trying to control a child’s zeal too much can even snuff it out. Hurrying childhood and prematurely supplanting play with parental goals has been the focus of concern for child development specialists for decades.

Zeal is related to the stuff of play. Watching a child play in a park allows us to see zeal in action. Children explore their imagination, joy for joy’s sake and creative cooperation with friends and nature’s materials. Free play is considered to be an indispensable ingredient for the physical, social, cognitive and emotional development of the brain, but it is disappearing from many children’s over-controlled and media-saturated lives.

Goal-directedness is involved in about half of children’s play if we leave them alone long enough to let them discover what they want to do with their zeal. Children like doing certain things playfully, and when they experience them as rewarding, they do them again (dopamine is released and the “do it again” button is pushed!). Zeal pushes exploration, and motivation flowers from there if it has been a pleasant experience.

Among teens, I consider zeal to be the “miracle grow” of selfhood. Whatever the teen finds pleasurable and exciting will strongly determine their motivations. Some kids will find hip hop dancing rewarding, others will want to play Xbox non-stop and others will be driven to make a 4.0 grade point average. In psychology, this “variety” of behavioral motivations is called “individual differences”—code for the mysterious blend of nature and nurture which creates uniqueness in all of us.

Parents can manage access to the Xbox, tutoring and hip hop classes, but they can’t control a child’s intrinsic motivation to seek a 4.0 grade point average. However, they can and should broker access to Xbox for time spent with homework, and here is where the parenting part really comes into play during adolescence (stay tuned).

Teens and their zeal have always been a rub for parents. Today’s adults worry about the excessive use of electronic contraptions the same way parents in the sixties worried about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll and Aristotle worried about youth indulgence in wine, women and song. Indeed, teens need supervision and guidance. Teen motivation for dopamine-rich pleasures should make any parent motivated to find some healthful outlets for their teens’ zeal.

Managing zeal

Since controlling zeal is an unrealistic goal, parents can instead focus on helping their children manage their zeal, discover their related signature strengths and channel zeal into life-long healthful joys, goals and skills. The parenting qualities which are helpful on this journey are patience, authoritative parenting and strategic management.

Employing authoritative skills (post 9/6/10), boundaries (post 8/25/10), and competence-building guidance (post 2/16/10), parents can make wise judgments about providing children with opportunities to experience zeal in healthful ways. The challenge is finding ways to help children explore their natural interests while also protecting them from harm. A balanced approach is optimal—kids need opportunities to express their zeal freely as well as organized activities that will allow them to focus their zeal on pursuits that may kindle life-long skills and interests.

By the time children become teens, parents have usually channeled some of their children’s time and energy into structured activities, like sports, talent development and volunteering. Structured activities help teens to be physically active, unplug from media and discover healthful outlets for their zeal. These opportunities allow teens to experience positive emotions, skill-building, character development, beneficial peer influence, contact with adult role models, and contexts (mostly) free of problematic risk-taking. Downsides of structured activities include over-scheduling or over-funneling free expression of zeal into straight-jacketed activities.

The “overscheduled child syndrome” implies an excessive pursuit of programmed activity which is deleterious to the child’s health or development. A child may be prematurely pressured into sacrificing self discovery in the service of seeking super-excellence in a limited set of goals. Children can be pressured to “specialize” by middle school, thereby losing the opportunity to pursue other things that “turn them on” and peak their interests. If Freddie is a member of three soccer teams, he may have to forego his delight in learning bird calls. What a shame—he may have discovered a life-enhancing avocation, or maybe become a happy ornithologist.

Eager exploration of one’s internal and external worlds with or without goal-directedness has become a thing of the past in many homes with teens. Creativity derives partly from free expression of oneself without worry of evaluation or a particular endgame in mind. I like to think that the countless hours my teens spent listening to music and tweaking their personal playlists were not only a pleasurable focus for their natural zeal for music, but also a respite from the competition, grading and performance pressure involved in the other parts of their lives. Ambling around on a bike, skipping stones and playing with the dog sound good too, don’t they?

Too little structured activity for teens is problematic also. Without rich contexts to spark the safe and healthful versions of zeal, teens often seek pleasure and excitement in dangerous and growth-stunting ways, like violent video games, drugs, sex, and excessive shopping, to name a few.

Sometimes the news media has overblown the phenomenon of the overscheduled child syndrome. Research has found that the average child aged 5 to 18 has only five hours of structured activities per week. Averages are tricky, since some kids surely have too many and some too few. The take home is that we probably need to worry about those children that don’t have any activities more than those with an excess.

After-school opportunities are associated with class and culture. Impoverished parents often lack the money, time or resourcefulness to support their children’s exploration of their particular interests. Parents in rural, immigrant or traditional communities may lack access to diverse activities. And not every child has a yen for sports.

Giving teens an outlet, direction and experience of zeal through structured activities may look like a luxury item, but I think it’s like missing preschool. In most cases, missing these stimulating opportunities is a disadvantage, unless there are rich alternatives for guiding zeal, growing brains, and developing interests.  Living in another country for a while would probably work, but we’re back to economic opportunity again, aren’t we?

Teens with a bumper crop of zeal especially benefit from supervised activities, where adults other than parents can do some of the wrangling about freedom, boundaries and irrational exuberance. (High zeal and low zeal kids will be addressed in “T is for Temperaments—working with them, not against them”).

Finding passions

Parents seem to be as anxious about children “finding their passions” as they are about having too many of the wrong kind or not enough. Well-meaning parents who think (and worry) about their kids’ futures sometimes expect their children to have already figured out their passions by middle school. Some have, but it is the minority, and most of those switch them out for others by college.

Research has documented that adolescents are involved in a meandering process of identity exploration all the way through their middle twenties. Therefore, to expect that teens in high school know what they want to excel at is unrealistic. It can even be harmful if the teen feels pressured and inadequate.

Most teens experience zeal while socializing, accessing media and learning about the world in their preferred ways. Some might love composing music on the piano, and others will be enthralled with fantasy football. Some childhood passions look more impressive than others, but we need to remember how many super-achiever adults were once rowdy rascals without a lot of merit badges.

Doesn’t every parent want their teen to have some time to experience zeal, free of worry about being evaluated, over-controlled, and expected to meet some future goal with it? Anxious parents sometimes quash free “play” or zeal, because they feel like free time equals wasted time, compromised school work, or risky business. Dancing in front of the mirror every night may seem rather pointless, but is it without value?

Encouraging time for unfettered zeal is never without risk. But we need to think about the risk of not giving and making time for teens to explore their natural interests. My cousin built a cabin and a three-floor tree house when he was a teenager. Yeah, he’s an architect. I wonder what would have happened if his parents had insisted that he spend more time on homework or that he join more school activities.

Nature can be a catalyst for zeal. Most kids have some version of the “nature deficiency disorder” these days. We need to get teens unplugged and kick them out of the house so they can discover the energy and delights unleashed by experiencing more of the natural world. But like “face time”, going outside doesn’t release the same burst of dopamine as quickly and efficiently as electronic “plugging in”. A dangerous development, wouldn’t you say? Thank goodness for camps. But we also need to invest gargantuan efforts in expanding and using park space and green space. Nature is another resource and nutrient slowly disappearing from childhood, especially from disadvantaged ones.

I believe that if parents could wave a magic wand that bequeathed a quantum of time for relatively safe, agenda-less zeal and play throughout adolescence, they would. Anxiety robs parents of tolerating some of the wooly wildness and aimlessness of zeal. We need to trust that zeal stimulates seeds of interest to germinate. Some of them will develop into avocations, vocations or even sources of spiritual meaningfulness down the line. We also need to trust that zeal, like play in young children, is good for its own sake. It’s energy! Of course, it partly needs to be energy invested in safe and healthful ways. But let’s value zeal as the energy of growth, first and foremost.

I often think that the risks of squelching childhood zeal are under-estimated, for both children and adults. Personally, I bet a lot of adults would pay big money for some of their childhood zeal of yore. Some of it might be invested in productive areas, but some of it would be merely enjoyed.

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