Primary & Secondary Activities

During the Q&A sessions at my events, I am often asked questions such as "How can I get her to socialise?" or "How can I get him to write?" by parents in reference to their children who cannot bring themselves to carry out said activities. One recurring theme I notice in parents, by absolutely no fault of their own, is a tendency to mix up their children's primary activities with their secondary activities. Allow me to elaborate.

A primary activity is essentially the same as a special interest. It is the absolute focal point of the child's attention; that without which they cannot live, that which nourishes them, and that which ignites the entirety of their being. Whatever falls outside of the attention tunnel is of little value or sense - largely non-existent.

A secondary activity is more of a supplement - something which can enhance the primary activity or special interest. It isn't indispensable, but it can certainly benefit the current special interest.

It is important to note that primary and secondary activities are not absolute - what is, in the moment, a secondary activity does not preclude it from ever becoming a primary activity, and vice versa. Let's look at some examples: a child may be driven to read for reading's sake, and is therefore not particularly fussed as to the content of what they are reading as mastering the ability to read is their goal. Reading in this case is the primary activity. But if the child's special interest happens to be British history then they may find that reading can be used as a functional vehicle with which they can efficiently navigate British history or whichever subject they are engrossed in. Reading in this case is a secondary activity.

The PDA child will not incorporate an activity into their repertoire for two reasons:

1). The way in which the activity is presented is demanding and not inspiring: the parent places untenable value on, say, reading and the child senses this. The child will therefore resist the demand to read as they do not have a good enough reason to read and because the parent 'says so'. If the child feels inspired to read by, say, noticing someone poring over a book who isn't actively trying to make the child read, then, perhaps, depending on the child, the sight of a person sitting contented, expanding their mind, speaking about their love for words, etc, might be enough to inspire the child to take on reading as their primary activity. Another child may have no interest in reading regardless, but would probably feel inspired by another activity being carried out passionately by a person who has no intention of imposing the activity on the PDA child. When it comes to a demand, words like 'intent' and 'agenda' or 'expectation' are crucial. When perusing PDA literature, one will often come across the word 'indirectness' being used as an effective strategy. Now this is correct but needs to be expanded on. It is in a parent's best interest to monitor their agenda prior to talking to their PDA child. The PDA child is solely focussed on the person's expectation more than the person's phrasing. We often hear about examples such as 'I'll race you to the front door' as being more effective than 'we're going out now', but the difference here is in the expectation more than anything else. The former is a shared goal that appeals to both parent and child, and therefore works, but the latter is a direct instruction fraught with separation, and will knock the child straight out of control.

If a parent resorts to using reverse psychology and says 'don't go to school today' when in reality they mean the opposite, their expectation stays the same and the only thing that has changed is the phrasing. The child's intelligence has been underestimated and, provided they are old enough and shrewd enough, they will be able to see right through this.

2). The parent does seek to inspire the child instead of instructing them (my PDA law) but their efforts are still in vain. In this case, there is a chance that the child does not regard the activity being presented to them as primary. It COULD, however, be a useful secondary activity depending on their current interest.

Presenting a secondary activity to a PDA child without a primary activity is like laying the icing before baking the cake. If a parent suggests to their child that they need to 'be more social', the child may resist because they cannot detect a valid reason as to why they should be social. Being social to the PDA child, in this case, is about as useless as a satsuma is to a lion. The lion's primary focus is on surviving. A lion biosynthesises vitamin C and does not require it from a food source, unlike we humans or guinea pigs, for example, who cannot make our own vitamin C. The lion must locate the nutrients that will increase its chances of survival. Survival is the primary focus of the lion, and the secondary focus, or the means to survival, is the antelope or zebra.

Let's say that a PDA child's special interest is music and they decide to take up the drums. Perhaps after a year's worth of practicing alone in their room, they decide they want to join a band. Joining a band is the next stage in the development of their interest as a drummer/musician. It may occur to the child that in order to get a group together, it will help to brush up on their social skills. They want to ensure that they endear themselves to their future band members, so socialising immediately becomes a secondary, supplementary interest to their primary interest, being a musician. No one has told the child that they need to socialise: it just occurs organically for them as part of a natural process.

The same applies to writing. A parent may value writing because it is a useful skill to have in life, but if the child does not share this view, writing will likely be discarded as useless. If, however, the parent enquires as to what their child's special interest is first, and offer writing as a potential useful supplement or secondary interest that can fit snugly into their primary interest, then they may find that their child will be a lot more open to writing - or any proposed activity for that matter.

Harry ThompsonComment