It’s been cold enough this winter that the pond in the park is frozen. When I drove past on my way home the other day at sundown, several kids were playing hockey on the ice. Practicing, actually. They were taking turns shooting pucks at a makeshift goal, the way they would in an organized drill. They were studying, refining, mastering, though no coach was there to direct them.
It’s safe to assume that at least a few of those kids are not showing the same discipline and determination in their schoolwork that they were that night on the ice. Many of them likely struggle through much of their days sitting still, reading, answering questions. Their best selves emerge late in the day, out there on the ice. We exclaim “That’s because hockey is fun!” “It’s different! It’s a game.” “They have to do schoolwork for their own good but it’s not fun so of course they resist it!”
But these explanations – the words we use to dismiss the variation in commitment we see in kids – don’t hold up when checked against what we know about the diversity of actual people, based on how each of us chooses to spend time when it’s up to us. There’s no list of inherently fun things and another of un-fun things for kids to consult when they’re choosing what to love and where to direct their resistance. (Though there do seem to be ways in which turning something into an actual game can alter the experience of it.)
Hockey is something some people love, with all the zooming around, the crashing, the strategy, the repetition, the force. And hockey is something other people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot… stick – all that high speed and spilled blood and chaos and repetition and bruising. For some people, hockey is fun. For others, yikes.
So it doesn’t work to say hockey IS fun, just as it doesn’t work to say that schoolwork IS NOT fun. I sat with a 14 year-old the other day who, when she arrived at my office, was exhausted and deflated from a week of racing around from class to activity to part-time job. After a few minutes of reviewing practice SAT questions, she was invigorated and delighted. She loves to think about words, about what they’re doing in sentences and paragraphs, how they can be interpreted in more than one way. Others would have wanted to poke their eyes out at the thought of spending time on this kind of thing.
Fun is not a fact, it’s a taste. It’s a specific and dynamic way of relating to an activity. When a person is experiencing it, they’re often driven to push themselves toward deeper mastery. Someone who under one set of circumstances appears lazy and indifferent can in the context of something that’s fun for them look like a patient and driven student, striving for excellence.
We can choose to roll our eyes and scowl when we see kids favoring the things that are fun for them, or we can get interested in what they’re choosing. If it’s future work and livelihood we’re worried about (when they show preference for things we think are distracting them from what’s important), we’ll be wise to notice that kids’ choices can actually tell us a lot about what kinds of work they may be suited to – what kinds of participation and contribution might be right for them.
If we can find the courage to open ourselves up to it, we’ll see that whatever is setting those fires of commitment and determination under kids can expertly inform the guidance we offer them. What we learn from their choices and preferences can help make it possible for us to offer kids the chance to carve paths through life that make the best possible use of the capacities and commitments they’re already carrying around with them.