When my son, Aiden, saw the animated movie Cars for the first time, he was completely transfixed. He had seen cartoons before but none that could hold his attention like this.
At 1 year old, Aiden had watched the entire movie from start to finish. Now, at age 3, he owns enough Cars merchandise to fill two entire bedrooms. The boy is obsessed. Neither my wife nor I pushed any of this on our son, but the moment he saw the cars race across the screen, he lit up.
I wonder, what makes kids do this?
Was there something innate in Aiden, maybe even God-given, that made him love that movie? I'm not sure. What I do know is that his attraction to a cartoon says something to me about my son: He has a personality that is all his own.
My wife and I can influence him, and his friends can rub off on him. His genes may even dictate the extent of some of his abilities, but that's not where his future ends; it's where it begins. My job as his dad is to guide him into the plan God has for him, based on his uniqueness as a child of God.
Look for Sparks
Over the past several years, I've been studying skill acquisition. How do people become great at what they do? Can great musicians, athletes and leaders be made, or are they born that way? It's the classic "nature versus nurture" debate, and as a parent, it fascinates me even more.
What we are now learning from science is that although humans are capable of more than anybody thought a hundred years ago, there are some abilities no amount of practice can overcome. It's not just the existence of opportunities that create success; it's that there seem to be some things we were made to do.
The questions my research couldn't answer yet are: How do we find these things? What makes some little boys and girls want to be artists instead of carpenters? Or what makes a little boy like one movie over another?
We can learn a lot from case studies of athletes and musicians and deepen our understanding through research of skill acquisition, but what we still don't know is what makes a person want to practice in the first place. Where does motivation come from?
"It starts with a spark," Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code told me. "You get a vision of your future self. You see someone you want to become. ... It's a very mysterious process."
Proverbs 22:6 says to "train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." But this means more than making your kid the ideal version of what you think he should be. Many commentators agree the meaning of "the way he should go" more accurately translates to "the way he is bent."
In other words, train your child in the way she is designed to go, according to her natural gifts and abilities. Learn to look for sparks.
Don't Follow Your Passion
There's been a lot of "follow your passion" advice in our culture lately. As a millennial myself, I hear this often. The problem is this kind of counsel rarely works. It creates entitlement and breeds disappointment when the world doesn't give you what you want or think you deserve.
Personally, I don't want to teach my son to follow his passion. I want him to look for opportunities to use his God-given skills and passion to serve the world. "Your vocation," Frederick Buechner wrote, "is that place where your deep joy and the world's deep need meet."
My goal as a parent is not to protect my son from the pain of the world or the discomfort of a culture that sometimes challenges his faith. Rather, it's to expose him to the needs of those around him so that he can understand that his calling is to use his gifts generously in the service of others.
When we do this, we find ourselves in a place of contentment that exceeds what merely chasing passion or happiness can provide. Psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl explains this in his classic book, Man's Search for Meaning:
"Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself."
Pivot Around Obstacles
In my recent study of hundreds of people who had found their life's calling, I realized one common theme was that their life's work surprised them. In other words, finding their purpose was not something they could plan. In fact, often a calling was the thing that resulted when everything else in life seemed to go wrong.
This was the case of a young boy named Garrett Rush-Miller who at 5 years old was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was given, at most, five years to live. As his family began counting down the time they had left with Garrett, the father decided to do something audacious.
At the one-year mark of Garrett's first diagnosis, Eric Miller pushed his 6-year-old son in his wheelchair across the finish line of a triathlon, as a way of declaring to each other and to the world that this cancer would not beat them. And if that was not inspiring enough, what happened next was nothing short of a miracle.
That next year, Garrett and his dad completed another triathlon. And then another. And another. And so on for the next 12 years. Garrett climbed Machu Picchu. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout. When I spoke with him on the phone, he was a high school senior who worked part-time at a climbing gym in Colorado Springs and volunteered for Wounded Warriors.
Garrett's life didn't wind up the way he or his parents or anyone would have imagined. It was much more difficult than anyone expected it to be. But what I learned from Garrett, who has certainly lived an incredible life already, is that what makes a life extraordinary isn't the chances we get, but what we do with them.
Putting It All Together
So what does this mean for us, as parents? First, I think it's important we look for sparks that clue us in to God's design in the lives of our children.
Second, we need to engrain in them that it's not enough to chase your passion. You have to connect it with the needs of others.
Third, we need to teach our kids to expect hardship and persevere when challenges come.
And maybe we all could learn something new in our lives and about what God is trying to do in us when we take the time to listen to what He is saying through the sparks and the needs and the challenges that we encounter.