Elisa Casas has always adored collecting vintage clothing. But what makes it even more special now is that when she scours flea markets, antique shows, and garage sales, her 6-year-old daughter, Ruby, is by her side, indulging her own passion for pocketbooks, crinolines, and leopard-print hats. "I try to make each visit short and fun for her," notes Casas, who lives in New York City. "I'll say, 'Whoever spots a stall with vintage clothing first wins!' or 'Let's look for an antique dress for Davina (her doll).'" The outings have turned into a bona fide hobby for Ruby, too, who likes to spend free time at home putting on shows in dress-up outfits created from a treasure chest of clothes, fabrics, and accessories.
"I'll sit happily through the hundredth Powerpuff Girls and bond with Ruby that way," says Casas, "but when she gravitates to my interests, it's thrilling. It adds a whole new dynamic to our relationship."
When most of us think of our hobbies — and sometimes thinking about them is as far as we get — we probably picture either a solitary activity (gardening, for instance) or one that involves adult company (like book clubs or tennis). And we tend to expect our kids to get their kicks on their own or with peers too, as in: You drive your child to a class and then pick her up, or you sit on the sidelines while she's out on the soccer field. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But as exciting as it is when your kid scores the winning goal, it's not a journey that you have taken together. If, instead, you discover an activity you can both enjoy, everyone wins.
"Nothing will bring you together faster than sharing a passion. Your children will feel that they know you more intimately and that they have something that the two of you can share for the rest of your lives," points out Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., child psychiatrist and coauthor of Hyper-Parenting.
Let's face it: If you ask your child point-blank "What's new?" or "How do you feel about such and such?" you are often going to get a shrug or a grunt. But it is in those quiet moments when you are both working toward the same goal that thoughts and connections will rise to the surface. "You can't have quality time without quantity time," notes Dr. Rosenfeld, "because those are the moments when kids open up and speak what's on their minds." These are the times when your child will truly let you in on his concerns and opinions and surprise you with his insights and talents. Here's how to make it happen.
Pique His Interest
To drum up enthusiasm and excitement, start simply: Let him hang around you as you pursue your passion. John Squier of Falmouth Foreside, Maine, started by letting his 8-year-old son, Craig, hang around while he worked in his garage, tinkering with cars. "I never pushed it. And eventually, he wanted to know what I was doing, so I'd answer his questions, show him a few things. If he asked to help, I'd find something safe that he could do, even if it was just handing me a rag," says Squier. Now a confirmed car nut, Craig builds model cars, watches Nascar races with his dad, and can help his father with engine work. "It took a while, but now cars are something we can truly share," says Squier.
To involve your child, try talking out loud about what you are doing when pursuing your hobby ("Okay, I'm cracking the egg into the batter now, and I'm going to beat it until it turns a light yellow"). Hype your excitement when you get to a favorite part ("I love shining up old silver coins I've collected. They look so cool. Want to help rub?"). Ask his opinion ("Well, that didn't work right, did it? What do you think I should do?"). And don't forget to use kid-friendly language ("Paint remover is like a supermagic potion that fixes mistakes").
Carve Out Time
If this is going to work, you need an unhurried, unpressured atmosphere and a sense of continuity. You need what we don't all come by naturally: to make your time with your child a priority. "It doesn't have to be big chunks, but there does have to be some time that is set apart, and come hell or high water, you are going to stick to it," says Anthony Wolf, Ph.D., psychologist and author of The Secret of Parenting.
Sue and Rick Werber of Germantown, Maryland, always take their two children, Douglas, 9, and Laura, 3, along on their favorite weekend pastime, sailing. "To me, sailing is a means to an end," says Rick. "When we are all together out there on the water, exploring quiet coves, having adventures, or just watching the blue herons, something very special happens, and we jell as a family. The kids feel it too."
Break It Down
Throw too much information about the intricacies of your hobby at your child, and you'll just end up frustrating him. Think of how to reduce your activity to its simplest elements. What skills are needed before you can begin? "Anything beyond your child's ability is going to be a struggle rather than fun," says Kay Willis, author of Are We Having Fun Yet?: The 16 Secrets of Happy Parenting.
Maurice Elias, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Rutgers University and coauthor of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, suggests: "Think about what it was like when you first developed your passion. What pointers did you need? Then write out the steps, making as few assumptions as possible. Show them to a friend who is not involved in the hobby, and see if it makes sense to her."
When Spencer McCullogh, 5, of New York City expressed an interest in sewing — the hobby that his mom, Lynn Glasgow, loves — she considered what he could do at his age.
"Spencer likes to help pick out material with me," says Glasgow. "He can also help measure and line up the material before I make a cut." Glasgow's brainstorm came when Spencer asked her to do a project with his class. She brought her sewing machine to his school and made a quilt with the children. "They couldn't sew, obviously, so I got fabric paint and markers and let each child design his or her own square," she explains. Glasgow then completed the quilt and hung it up at school. In addition, she read the students a story on quilting and showed them photos of different quilts. "Spencer was so excited that I came in. He was just beaming," she says. And pride in projects and being able to show off to friends "what Mom and I made" can spur a child's interest in a hobby.
Keep Your Cool
Do whatever you can to make this a relaxed, fun, and special time. That means accepting beforehand that some of your stuff is going to get wrecked — and understanding that you probably aren't going to get to perform at the level you are used to. When Beverly Wilkerson's daughter, Meredith, 5, of Los Angeles started asking to go jogging with her mother, Wilkerson gave her the green light. "Of course, she jogs a little bit and then gets tired," notes Wilkerson. "And I do feel torn between wanting to run and yet wanting this time together. Usually, I just turn it into a nature walk — we both love looking at the leaves around us, listening to them rustling — and I find some other time to run."
If you get frustrated — and you probably will — because your child is progressing so slowly, remind yourself why you want to do this: The point is not that you are going to produce a kid who is going to excel; it's to have this special time together. "If you are obsessive and rigid, if you get angry when the slightest thing goes wrong, your child will get the message that this is not an enjoyable activity," says Robert Billingham, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University.
Be a Cheerleader
If it's your child who is getting frustrated, praise her efforts and help her focus on her improving abilities rather than the end product. "You have to nurture your children, bring them along. Think of them as apprentices. There should be a lot of instruction and encouragement and little criticism," agrees Elias. Always try to find something positive about what your child is doing. Say "I think this project is better than the last one" or "Remember last week when you needed help holding the paintbrush? You don't anymore." Let her know that this is not a command performance or a race, but a journey.
If she veers off course, ask questions that might help her recognize her goofs ("Wow! You put the smokestack on the model ship all by yourself! I wonder how the smoke actually comes out? Maybe we should put the open part on the top rather than the bottom. What do you think?").
Also, help your child recognize her mastery of new terrain by supplying the right gear. Debbie Cougle of Daytona Beach, Florida, has been sharing her love of crafts with her two children, Amanda and Aaron, ages 12 and 16, ever since they could hold a crayon. As they became more proficient at crafts like calligraphy and painting T-shirts, Cougle presented them with their own tools. "At one point, Amanda wanted a hot glue gun," says Cougle. "I told her that as soon as she learned to handle mine safely and responsibly on her own, I would buy her one. That inspired her to work even harder, and finally, when she was 11, she earned it."
Make It an Experience
Go ahead and break some rules. If you are teaching your kids about astronomy, for example, let them stay up late on nights when there are meteor showers. Or establish some kind of special ritual, such as always stopping at a certain diner for soup on the way home from a biking trip. "We think it's so important to make it an adventure for the kids," says Sue Werber. To that end, she and her husband organized a special kids' cruise for the Fourth of July. With other families, they sailed to a secluded beach, where they built sand castles, raced dinghies, lit a bonfire, and made s'mores. "The kids loved it," reports Sue, "and were begging for more boating trips — not just for the joy of being on the water, but also for more of this kind of family time."
Weave It Into
Encourage your child to borrow books from the library about your hobby. Take him to museum exhibits, performances, or fairs that relate to it. Or try building the hobby into vacations. The Wager family of New Rochelle, New York, is passionate about music: Mom Terry plays the flute, Dad Marc plays the French horn. Their sons, Adam, 17, and Noah, 13, both play piano and sing. Every summer, they go to a chamber music festival and hang out with others who share their interest. "The boys look forward to it. If we stopped going, they would be brokenhearted," says Terry.
And that's when you know you've really connected, says Dr. Rosenfeld: "Any ritual or interest that you can share as a family establishes a sense of identity — of who you are as a family. And that will stay with your children all their lives."
Beth Levine, a writer who specializes in parenting and health, lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.