Little Artist. By Eugeni Balakshin.

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Eugeni Balakshin.

I’m fascinated by natural ability — how some people can expertly sketch from memory, or play a tune by ear, or instinctively understand math, or show seemingly effortless compassion, or handle a soccer ball with native skill and energy. I believe we were all born with these kinds of gifts, though some are more obvious than others. These innate gifts amaze me, and one of the most exciting things about parenting is watching them unfold.

I’ve always hoped to support our sons in developing their gifts, to help them find expertise and joy in learning more about the things that come naturally to them. But so far, I haven’t been terribly successful.

One of our sons has some obvious natural ability with drawing and sculpture, and a pretty active imagination to go along with it. During free time in first grade last year, he made some remarkable 3-D creations with paper, crayons, and glue. In the spirit of good parenting, I was thrilled to find a great art class taught by the world’s sweetest teacher, and I signed him up for after school lessons where he could learn more and experiment with different media. And he hated it. Every Monday afternoon I reminded him that he loved art, and he insisted that he didn’t. It was discouraging to realize that my great intentions had significantly missed the mark as we argued about going to class each week. (But you agreed to go…I’ve already paid for it…You love art!) For a time, I insisted, but our little boy was so unhappy. Eventually, we cancelled lessons.

Another well-intentioned flop gave me some perspective: a friend of mine enrolled her daughter in piano lessons at age 8, and the daughter dutifully practiced for a while, but didn’t enjoy it. Her mother insisted that she continue practicing (can’t we all hear the refrain from adult friends, “I wish I’d never quit piano…”), and the daughter’s resistance grew. Her experience with the piano ended poorly. When the daughter became more interested in music around age 12, she was already burned out on the piano, and my friend has wondered if she’d waited a few years for lessons if her daughter might have flourished. Maybe we’ll revisit art lessons again when the timing is better for our son.

All this is to say, it’s not always as simple as I thought it might be to help our children develop their skills and find joy in them, though I know plenty of parents have. How have you managed it for your children? Have you moved past resistance and found a place where your children appreciate lessons? Have your kids experimented with lots of different things before they found a great fit? Does your own childhood experience inform how you approach this aspect of parenting? I’m looking forward to your wisdom!