First Person

Parent blog: Promoting your child's passions

Boulder mom of three and psychologist Suzita Cochran reflects on helping your kids find their passions. In this case, a friend’s son found  his in the barnyard. 

On our vacation to the East Coast last summer, I spent time with my childhood friend Virginia and her four kids. Her oldest child Micah had just turned 15 when I saw him. I don’t usually expect 15-year-old boys to be great conversationalists. And for the most part Micah was succinct, though polite, when talking about his life…. Until I asked about the animals he’s raising: 40 chickens and four goats. When talking about his farm animals Micah’s eyes lit up and his speech became animated. He seemingly could have gone on forever about buying his goats “at auction” and his quickly expanding chicken business.

Boy with farm animals, BigStock photo

When Micah was 10, his family had moved to the country from the suburbs. Although Micah doesn’t live on a farm, many small farms surround his neighborhood. Soon after moving, Micah met a neighbor who owned a brood of hens. He was hooked.

Virginia reminded me that she and her husband had little experience with or interest in farm animals. She admitted that they’d put off Micah’s request to raise chickens for a year or so. But like many of life’s real passions, Micah’s didn’t ebb over time. Eventually his parents relented and soon they were sharing their bathroom with 12 fluffy chicks for the winter.

Over time Micah built his flock up to 40 chickens. He also amassed a group of regular egg customers, learning about finance along the way. Once he’d saved some money he began floating the idea of adding goats to his farm operation. Soon after Micah bought the goats, his grandparents asked what he wanted for his birthday. Micah informed them that he needed a shed. How great is that? Not an iPad or an iPhone, but a shed for his animal supplies.

Encouraging innovation

Although Virginia said it hasn’t always been easy for her, she and her husband have done for Micah what Tony Wagner advises in his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. As parents they have supported Micah’s passion. After interviewing over 200 experts on innovation, Wagner concludes that it is not important what college major or serious interest a young person chooses, only that they follow something about which they are passionate and then delve deeply into their field.

For parents like Virginia who may find themselves explaining their child’s unusual pursuit to surprised extended family members more than they wish, Wagner explains that the Internet has changed the working world in their favor. Greater communication and less rigidity in the world of work now mean there are many paths through which to enter a career.

Wagner writes, for example, about a girl who majored in art and went on to become a computer simulation programmer. When she was subsumed in her art studies during high school, her parents supported her but worried she would have trouble making a living from her passion. While pursuing an art major in college, she became involved in a computer simulation project and fell in love with this work. In this new realm she drew on an artistic background in ways other programmers could not.

“Study what you have a passion for and change the world on your terms,” one of Wagner’s interviewees urged.

The magic of mentors

Wagner observes that parents are in a unique position to notice what our children are passionate about and help them expand their knowledge base. When I last spoke with Virginia she said Micah had begun spending time with a retired veterinarian named Bob who now raises sheep on a nearby farm. After meeting Bob herself, Virginia introduced him to Micah and encouraged a potential mentoring relationship. Now Bob regularly takes Micah to local talks on goat and sheep farming and has taught him how to test his animals for parasites using sophisticated lab equipment. This may not be for most kids, but Micah is on cloud nine.

As Virginia intuitively did, Wagner reminds us to support our kids’ passions with mentors whenever possible. When a child takes a class somewhere, even on a subject he or she is fervent about, she is one of many in the room. But when a child talks to a local beekeeper, fabric dyer, bike racer, geographer or novelist, he gets one-on-one encouragement. This unique support is often what moves young people to the next level of an interest.

Sparking innovators at home

Creating Innovators was quite inspiring. Of course while reading it my mind immediately focused on how I could better promote the passions of my three children. But here’s the rather unfortunate reality. My kids seem to be, how should I say this, between passions at the moment. Such a disappointing realization after gathering so many strategies to encourage their passions!

I can say that two out of my three kids have demonstrated strong passions, which now seem to be on temporary hiatus. I would have said all my kids have, except when I really look at our third grade daughter, Annie, I think I was mistaking her passionate personality with having a passion. Just because you are an intense and excitable human does not translate directly into having a passion. Not yet, at least.

When I admitted this to Virginia she helped me feel better by telling me that her other three children have not yet happened onto their passions either although she thinks one might be close to finding it in foreign languages.

Clearly not all children follow a linear progression into their life passions or purpose as Micah has.  Parents of kids who take a more circuitous route to discovering their passions need more patience and perhaps endurance. But Wagner would tell us that it’s important to keep using our intuition to expose our kids to things we think they could be interested in.  And we need to let them quit an activity that has not taken hold after a good amount of time, or from which they are ready to move on.

My personal commitment

So I vow to keep introducing my kids to the exciting neighbors I meet at the annual block party; taking them to talks around town, such as the free Peace Corps presentation at our local REI store or the demonstrations by science professors in town called the CU Wizards; and accompanying my kids to community events like sustainable building fairs or artist open houses.

During these activities I’ll be ready to notice whether my children’s eyes light up at certain parts of the presentation, or if they are enthused all the way home as we discuss what we learned. And finally, on the home front I will try to discern the activities my children tend to lose themselves within and come away from feeling refreshed.

Come to think of it, I believe I will put extra attention into noticing these areas in my life as well.

What passions have you supported in your child?  How did you go about this? Leave a comment!

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.