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Subject: Parents need to let children develop passions of their own (SARA MIA)

Boston Globe By BARBARA F. MELTZ
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Date Posted: 05/12/04 3:43:57pm

With the popularity of the seven-part Bravo reality-TV series Showbiz Moms & Dads, parents in living rooms around the country may be wondering if they, too, have a budding star on their hands. Here are two words of advice from early-childhood educator Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Somerville, Mass., who also happens to be the mother of movie star Matt Damon:

"Back off."

She doesn't mean that in a laissez-faire kind of way. Not, back off and do nothing, but back off from anything that smacks of the adult world overtaking your child's natural ability and talent, not to mention a normal childhood.

For children under 10 she recommends no talent competitions, auditions, commercials, or TV roles, no coaches, no agents, no nothing, except doing whatever comes naturally to them: acting out favorite storybooks, or creating and embellishing characters and story lines of their own.

Like some of the parents on Showbiz, which follows five children as they audition for roles, rehearse for music competitions, and participate in beauty pageants, Carlsson-Paige knew early on that Matt had a passion for drama. As a 2-year-old, he created simple, dramatic scenes with action figures. At 3, he put a towel around his neck to turn himself into super-hero characters. "It was what he wanted to do every day, as soon as he woke up in the morning," she says.

Unlike the Showbiz parents, she didn't try to broadcast it to the world. "My goal was to keep anybody from knowing this child had talent because I knew it could be corrupted and taken away from him," says Carlsson-Paige, a professor at Lesley University who is co-author of several books for parents and teachers as well as a storybook for children, Best Day of the Week (Redleaf Press).

Nurturing a child's passion has nothing to do with performance or recognition, she says; "That's an adult agenda." Her goal was helping both her children (son Kyle is a successful sculptor) be all they could, not just in one arena of life, but also in all ways.

Carlsson-Paige's professional training taught her that a parent's job is to provide opportunity and support, to be pulled along by a child's passion rather than to push it. Given the buzz Showbiz has created and the status that stardom of any kind generates in America today, her advice may sound like a bitter pill to some parents. She gets plenty of support, however.

"Children need to experiment with different activities, interests, hobbies, without it being a career choice. It's how children grow and process the world," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Gregory Fritz of Brown University.

Carlsson-Paige didn't enroll Matt in drama classes; she carved out time, space, and materials at home for his dramatic play. When he was 8 and ran in from outside to announce, "Mommy, I know what I want to be when I grow up: an actor," she just sent him back out to play. But she did seek out an alternative public school in Cambridge, now known as the Graham and Parks School, where the drama program responded to students' interests rather than focusing on miniature adult productions. When he finally had his first audition, at 14, it was because he answered a posting on a bulletin board, not because she suggested it.

Fritz says, "Let the child come to you, begging for one more lesson. Even if you have a prodigy, that's good parenting." He is medical director at Bradley Hospital in Providence.

Educational psychologist Robin Schader, a professor at the University of Connecticut whose area of research is talent development and whose daughter was a piano prodigy at 4, offers two questions for parents to ask themselves as a way to gauge whether they are crossing the push-pull line.

Question 1: If my child wanted to quit tomorrow, how would I feel?

Question 2: Is this my child's passion or mine?

If you're uncomfortable answering the first one, you probably won't answer No. 2, and that's a dead giveaway. The danger, she says, is that the more you push, the less likely your child is to have a well-rounded childhood, whether the passion is for baseball, violin, or chess.

These are the children who tend to end up feeling resentful and rebel before the gift reaches fruition, says Tufts University developmental psychologist David Henry Feldman, who has studied child prodigies.

With young children, it's easy to say, "I'm not pushing, my child loves it!"

Don't believe it. "Young children want to please their parents. That's reason enough for them to comply," Feldman says. Indeed, he says 5- to 10-year-olds who lose in a competition typically think they have failed the parent. "That's a lot of pressure for a child to handle," he says.

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