The Role of Desire in Learning


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My husband is an avid downhill mountain biker and would love nothing more than to share this love of bikes with our two daughters. The problem is that my 4-year old daughter doesn’t share his love of bikes. She has a nice new bike that she even picked out, but alas, she is more in love with the accessories that go with it – like the blue water bottle in the nap sack. She will ride 10 feet and then proclaim she is thirsty and get off to have a sip of water and graciously share with her sister. I can tell my husband is disappointed that my daughter would rather walk her bike and play with it than ride. Although he doesn’t say so, I know it also bothers him that some of her friends LOVE riding their bikes and are doing so WITHOUT training wheels! What is a Dad to do?

Last year my husband faced the same issue but with ice-skating instead. He signed her up for lessons only to find she wasn’t interested and refused to go on the ice.  I don’t think these types of situations are uncommon in families as it is natural to want to share one’s interests with our children. Some children aren’t interested – does it mean they never will be? Can a parent encourage or move a child in this direction?

Understanding the difference between form and spirit is critical. Does a child want to ride a bike? Learn to ice skate? Play a musical instrument? Is there a bias in the child to try these new things? If not, then we put the form or the learning before the spirit or desire. Why is this a problem? Because the desire for the learning is the parents and not the child’s. It will serve to diminishes the spirit for learning in the child.

In talking to my husband about this he equates it to the difference between hockey players in North America vs. countries that start to train athletic children from a young age to play sports because of their physical prowess. The spirit for the game of hockey is very evident in North American players by comparison and he attributes this to putting spirit before form. I also think of one of my dearest friends who learned to play the piano at age 3 and achieved a high degree of success. I have never heard her play because she just doesn’t enjoy it. She says it was her Mother’s dream and not her desire. In the end it became an exercise to perform to meet other people’s needs but she takes no nourishment or joy from playing.

So if you want your child to play music or even be toilet trained then you have to ask yourself whether or not they want to be. If they don’t, then work at exposing them but not pushing and set the stage for their initiative to emerge. Letting their desire take the lead in the learning process can do much to propel them forward.  Spirit is what needs to come first. When a child has a desire to learn then it is easy to teach them the form, in fact, this will be effortless in comparison. When we try to teach them when there is little desire then we are putting the cart before the horse.

My daughter isn’t the fastest swimmer nor the most athletic in the water, in fact her leg kicks remind me of a ‘Friends’ TV episode of Phoebe running in the park. The thing I will say about her is that she has spirit, she loves the water, can’t wait for her next lesson and her teacher often remarks on her enthusiasm. On top of it all, her wild leg kicks has fondly earned the nickname ‘mermaid’ which suits her just fine. I just have to keep reminding my husband that she will get there and when she does, it will be hers to cherish and relish in.

Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD, Kid’s Best Bet – Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice and on faculty at the Neufeld Institute. She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See www.macnamara.ca or www.neufeldinstitute.com for more information.