My intention here is to discuss the establishment and development of true passions, as opposed to talents. I am splitting hairs, you may say, but many gifted children have talents that they may or may not be passionate about. A child can have a gift for something, yet not feel any great affinity toward the subject. An example would be the child who tests very high, yet has a neutral, or even a negative feeling toward the subject. A student who excels in math but doesn't find it interesting certainly does not have a passion for it. A gifted athlete may be good at many sports, but only feel strongly attached to basketball. Sincere passion can bring great joy and meaning to a person's life. Passion is also the buzzword that colleges are tossing around these days, a word that has come to replace “well rounded” in the description of the ideal candidate for admission. We'd all like to see our kids embrace things in life passionately and with gusto, but how do we transform potential and ability into passion? I don't really have an answer, but I think the single most important thing we can do is to listen to the child. Pay attention to the things that appear to make him happy, and do what you can to promote that interest.
Sometimes passions develop with very little encouragement from adults. We may be responsible for the first exposure to something, but the connection for the child is so instantaneous and strong that it almost seems like magic. One of my daughters was two years old the first time she took a pony ride at a local fair. She fell head over heels in love with “Sparky” the tiny pony she rode that day. From that day forward, she was crazy for horses of all kinds. When asked what she wanted for birthday and holiday gifts, horses and ponies were at the top of her list. A toy horse collection started, and has continued to grow over the past seven years. We now have many herds of equines in our house, with the largest member a four foot long stuffed pinto named “Twilight” and the smallest some one inch tall “mini-whinnies” from Breyer. An avid reader, nine year old Artemis has probably devoured over a hundred books on horses. She first read Black Beauty at age three and a half. A quick inspection of our bookshelves this morning showed close to 50 different horse books, including classics like Misty of Chincoteague, National Velvet, and The Black Stallion, along with horse care manuals, books on horse breeds, and all sorts of others. These are only the books that we own- she has read just about every book on horses at three local libraries as well. Though Artemis was young when the horse passion struck, her interest has not waned. We signed her up for horseback riding lessons at a local barn when she was four and a half. Artemis has been riding as often as she can and is about to complete her fifth year as an equestrian. She's talked about being a trainer and a breeder, and she is waiting for the day when she'll be physically big and strong enough that she will be permitted to work at the barn.
When you think of gifted kids and passions, your mind might first go to mathematics, writing, or perhaps music. Many gifted kids are passionate about their academic areas of strength, and that can be a very powerful combination. But gifted children may also have strengths in areas outside the academic plane, which are strengthened and enhanced by their intelligence. In return, they bring lessons learned from their personal passions to further develop their academic strengths.
So how does a passion for horses affect a child's personal development? I'll share what it has done for Artemis. She is small in stature and controlling large animals has been very empowering for her. She has also learned to stick it out in adverse conditions. At one memorable horse show she competed in a complete downpour. She wore a raincoat over her jacket and went on without a single complaint. She took the frigid New England winter off when she was four, but has been riding year round ever since, at her own request. The unheated indoor arena where her lessons take place in poor weather keeps the snow and rain off, but it is not at all warm. Physical gains include improvement in balance, timing, strength, range of motion, visual-motor integration, and eye-hand coordination. Social-emotional benefits gained by horseback riding include improvement in self- confidence, empathy, self- control, and responsibility. Artemis has also found affiliation with other horsey folks, not limited to those who she knows from her barn. Learning about horses has helped her to learn about herself, and to establish self concept and identity.
No matter what your child is passionate about, take it seriously and do what you can to support that interest. You never know where it might lead.