Don't Smother Your Child's "Have-to's"


Parents are often tempted to give “have-to’s” to their children—imperatives like “go do your math homework.” They may not realize that there are already plenty of have-to’s within in every child, without anyone having to put them there. Those have-to’s are urges to do something, to learn something, or to create something, borne purely of the child’s curiosity and interest.

Giving children have-to’s does plenty to keep them occupied. This may seem like a good thing when you see math homework getting done on time. However, it is problematic when you consider what isn’t getting done. A child who is busy with someone else’s priorities is robbed of the opportunity to pursue their own.

The converse is that with the proper support from parents, a child’s have-to’s can take hold, imploring them to get moving on something that is important to them. Because they are doing something important to them, they will do it with more vigor, learn about it more intently, and create something more meaningful.

What exactly will a child have-to’s impel them to do, to learn, and to create? The short answer is no one knows, not even your child. That is because those have-to’s are not just sitting in there waiting to be discovered. They develop as the child explores them.

They don’t develop in a straight line. They move unpredictably. Your child grows their have-to’s in various directions, like the branches of a tree.

A child might start off ‘having to’ win on a certain video game. While on this quest, he might find he loves the accompanying music. He starts scoring the video game melody onto sheet music so he can play it on the piano. After much work on that, his preference shifts to jazz music. He eventually joins a jazz ensemble with like-minded friends. In an unfortunate turn of events, one of his fellow band members contracts Lyme disease. His concern for his friend prompts him to research medicine, something he becomes intensely interested in. He eventually decides he wants to study patient care.

Who could have predicted a passion for patient care from a foray into video games? His parents might have pressed him to focus on his math homework, in an effort to keep him away from the video game. But that would have crowded out his own motivations. He never would have had the chance to know his own have-to’s, and to develop them, because he would have been too busy complying with his parents’ instructions.

His own motivations would have withered from lack of nourishment. He would have grown up learning how to respond only to the motivations and urgencies of others. This outcome could only be described as a human tragedy, yet it is all too common these days.

The story plays out in millions of homes every day. A child is kept from exploring the world so he can follow the straight and narrow path prescribed to him. His zest for life is slowly drained, and his own have-to’s become a faint memory as he grows into the life that he has been prepared for.

At least, for a brief period, his parents had some A+ math quizzes to stick to their refrigerator door.

Doesn’t every child deserve better than that?

How to Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “Don’t Smother Your Child’s ‘Have-to’s’”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date],