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How to Help Your Child Discover Real Interests

(and hopefully get them to take action!)


As many of you know, there is nothing I love more than helping students realize that they can create opportunities that other people believe are extraordinary.

It's also one of the things that parents most ask me about because, let's be honest, it can be difficult to motivate a teenager to do anything, especially something they DON’T want to do.

Given the challenging time we are living in right now, families face an even more daunting task of figuring out what to do in the summer, given that many programs have been canceled and opportunities like jobs and internships are all on standby.

That's why this week I thought I would present a few ways I get students to think about what might interest them in order to be able to brainstorm activities that they can actually get excited about.

When I meet a student for the first time, usually with his or her parents, there's always two questions that I asked within the first half hour.

The first question is this:

What would you do if you had $1 billion right now?

And I will say, "Look, I'm not looking for the, 'I would build an orphanage' answer if the actual answer is something more like 'I would travel all over the world with my friends.'

In other words, I want their real answer.

Now most people, especially a teenager, have never thought about this question, so it's really interesting to watch as students often look up at ceiling and say something like "Hmm, that's a good question, let me think about that for a second."

Of course, some students don't have an answer, but if I press them a little bit and give them some examples, they can usually come up with something that they would do with the money. I might ask "Would you invest some in the stock market? Would you buy an NBA team? Would you give some to charities?"

And then if they say yes to any of these questions, I'll go a little bit deeper by asking things like "What charity do you have in mind?" Or "What cause might be interesting to you?"

Or I might even ask, "Would you get a house for your parents?" (Because very few teens ever say this one at first…sorry mom.)

I have several reasons for asking these questions. Not only do I want to hear a student's answer because it starts to help me to understand what is important to them at this moment in their life, but it also starts gets them thinking big.

It also serves as a setup for my next question, which goes something like this.

Let's say that you had $1 billion so that you had all the money you'd ever need. And let's say you have graduated from college so that you already have a degree. Now in this scenario, you can any job without any restriction (you could be an astronaut, a rock star, a senator, or a CEO of a huge company)…what would that job be?

Now about 50% of teenagers have no idea how to answer this question. Then there are times when teenagers have very specific answers. Recently a student immediately blurted out, "CIA agent!" And her mom said, "Wait…what? You like English!" The girl just put her hand up to her mom, looked at me and said very seriously, CIA agent.

Then there are students who have some idea of what might sound interesting, even though they may not know a whole lot about it, and that's fine too. I don't expect a 15 or 16 year-old to know exactly what they are going to do, but it's fun to hear what they consider as possibilities. It could be working as a CIA agent or becoming a doctor or working in the front office of a sports team or becoming a journalist or being the editor-in-chief of Vogue; I just want to seize on whatever a student feels they are interested in. (At the very least, the questions gets them thinking, and they might come back to you with an answer the next morning. )

For me, it's all about asking teenagers questions because the more questions I ask, the more I learn about what is going on their mind at that particular moment. Also, the more questions I ask, the more teens are able to create connections in their brains about what might be interesting.

Next up, I ask a student what their favorite (or I sometimes say "least hated") academic subject is in school? Parents often think they know the answer, but sometimes a student's opinion changes based on teachers, level of homework, etc. and being able to learn where they are at right now will increase my chances of helping them come up with something they might actually take action on.

At Stanford University students classify themselves into one of two categories, techies or fuzzies, and I love asking students which group they would put themselves in. Techies are kids who generally lean towards math and science, while fuzzies are students who generally like English and history. Now, of course, students can cross and mix, but there usually is at least one category that a student is attracted to and I will also take this answer into consideration when trying to help them come up with interesting things to do.

I might also ask questions such as "When you were little, what did you think was fun? Did you play with Legos? Did you sing all the time? Did you do Sudoku problems and love math? Did you draw all over the wall walls and you still keep a sketchbook?" Again, it's not that parents don't already know these answers. It's that the process of asking a teenager these questions gets them to consider their own lives and it can give parents even more insight into what their child might have been thinking about privately.

Once some preferences, interests, or even memories come up for a teen, I can then help them come up with ideas of things to explore, whether it is learning something (by say, taking an online class or YouTube video series that teaches a skill) or creating something (which can range from say, starting a small baking business to writing a short story to programming a video game).

A a-ha moment might not come up right away, but by at least initiating the conversation, a teen starts to understand that they really should be doing something productive and, more importantly, that they can be the ones to choose something they personally want to do.

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