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Emotion, interest, and motivation in children

By Kenneth Barish


When talking about children’s emotions, it is difficult to avoid saying things that are not already commonly known, or even common sense. Recent advances in the psychology and neuroscience of emotions, however, now offer us a new understanding of the nature of emotion. In childhood and throughout life, our emotions guide our thoughts and our imagination, our behavior and our moral judgments.

Curiosity and wonder, so evident in the enthusiasms of young children and so much a part of their charm, are expressions of the basic human emotion of interest. Many of us may not, at first, think of interest as an emotion. Psychologists and neuroscientists, however, now regard interest as a fundamental emotion that motivates and guides our engagement in the world.

Interest is vital to emotional health in childhood and remains vital throughout life. Without interest, there is no curiosity, no exploration, and no real learning. The psychologist Sylvan Tomkins explained that, “ interest is the only emotion that can sustain long-term constructive or creative endeavors.”

Interest is also of critical importance to our relationships with our children. My therapeutic work with children and families has repeatedly taught me this basic lesson: Children respond to our animated expressions of interest in their interests with evident pleasure. Children enjoy this interaction and they want more of it.

As parents, our enthusiastic responsiveness to our children’s interests is the surest way to engage them in some form of meaningful dialogue or interaction, and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.

Many parents express concern about the limited range of their child’s interests and about their child’s inability to sustain interest (and effort) toward important goals. As a therapist, I am often told, for example, “He’s not interested in reading (or writing, or drawing, or riding a bicycle).” These parents experience frustration and dismay at their unsuccessful efforts — with any form of cajoling, rewards, or punishment — to broaden their child’s interests.

If we look hard enough, however, we will find in every child some interest and a desire to do well. When I talk with “unmotivated” students, I often find that they are interested in many things (although not in their schoolwork). They may watch the History or Discovery channels, but they will not read a history or science book. Some read National Geographic magazine in my waiting room, but they do not do their homework. Many are interested in sports, theater, fashion, Seinfeld and South Park, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart, or theories about the origin of the universe. Often they are interested in music and they are almost always willing to tell me about it.

Many of these children, to their parents’ great dismay, spend hours searching websites when they should be studying. Even more have become addicted to video and computer games, to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. We may disapprove, but these are their interests. And where there is interest, there is curiosity and a desire to learn.

I therefore advise parents, first, to engage their child’s interests, and then to expand these interests into constructive projects and long-term goals. Make note of moments of interest and effort, and support them. Find out why these activities appeal to him. If he likes playing video games, watch him play. Then play with him. Have him teach you the game. If we want to motivate our children, to build a bridge, we cannot simply meet them halfway. We must do more than that.

In his work with autistic children, child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan taught both parents and child therapists this seminal insight: that even the repetitive behavior of a 2-year-old child who is rubbing the carpet is an expression of interest, and this interest can become the beginning of an interaction, then play, and then dialogue. If we dismiss our children’s interests as frivolous or unproductive, we will miss an opportunity to engage them in dialogue. William Damon offers this wise advice: “Listen closely for the spark, then fan the flames.”

Kenneth Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University. He is also on the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and the William Alanson White Institute Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program.

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