Even though we have grown kids, we can’t speak to every aspect of parenting with wisdom and calm. There are a few things we see in young parents that still perplex us, and have us looking back on our own early parenting with questions. One of these stumpers is how much to encourage kids to participate in extracurricular activities. Parents want kids to be Well Rounded, and we want them to Have Fun, and, most importantly, we want them to Learn The Valuable Lessons that they can only learn doing that thing after school. What happens when our child isn’t into it? What happens when our child wants to quit?
In an era when high school tutoring centers are beginning to guarantee college admission by custom-crafting a resume of clubs and activities for your child, our culture seems to take for granted that every child needs to be an extracurricular exemplar. Not just a musician like every other kid, but the founding member of their high-school’s avant-garde jazz band; not just into sports like every other kid, but a star player who sits on the board of the “Child Athletes For Change” missionary organization that brings footballs to the favela; not only interested in building robots like every other kid, but winner of the Western States Robot Demolition Derby with their fusion powered Destroyer-bot.
Whatever you are hearing about what colleges want from your child, and whatever you think your child should do to supplement their education, every parent knows that children don’t need to be forced to try things. Kids are generally game to pick up an instrument and try to play it, or join a team and knock a ball around, or build a robot that can smash things. But kids also, inevitably, get tired of things and announce that they are finished.
Our kids played soccer, football, and baseball; they wrestled and danced; learned to play cello, piano, and saxophone; and they flirted with archery, robots, rockets, and nature science in various summer programs. Today they are both nationally ranked and on scholarship at top schools in none of these activities. For each extracurricular activity there came the day when they announced in one way or another that it wasn’t what they wanted. In some cases they didn’t like the coaching (too-intense), in others they just didn’t click (the boy only tolerated the piano), or it was obvious to all that a redirection was in order (our daughter displayed an exceptional ability to remain ten or more feet away from soccer balls at all times).
But every now and then, we felt a conviction that we should be helping our children push through, to stick with an activity, in order to … to … learn that valuable lesson, to develop that “other” part of their brain, to get something interesting on their resume. We’d be lying if we said that we didn’t feel that pressure. Sometimes we just wanted them to finish something they’d started. But our kids (like every other kid) knew what they wanted to do and what they didn’t. It wasn’t always easy for them to assert themselves and ask for what they wanted, but they did.
What we did, was let them choose. We let them quit things. We didn’t make it very easy all the time. We made deals with them about finishing a season, or sticking it out for a couple more lessons. We asked them to talk to coaches themselves and generally gave them the responsibility to extract themselves from situations where they were depended on, as when our son chose not to continue playing high school football.
But we’re not certain we did it right. We wonder if we raised kids with enough stick-to-it-edness. We have lots of questions still, but we also have a few insights.
- kids know what works for them, and forcing them to do something they don’t love is likely to make them bitter, even if they are learning important skills.
- kids do need to learn to finish things, to follow through on commitments. But extracurricular activities are just that: extra. The -curricular part of things actually does a good job of teaching follow through. Students are not allowed to quit school. That is, over twelve-plus years they are learning the lesson that if you keep working and finish reasonably well, you get to advance. If you quit or slack off, you will not advance unless you circle back and fulfill basic requirements. This lesson is covered pretty well by the school system.
- Fencing club and mission trips and teenage entrepreneurship are all interesting and exciting, but if you force such exotic features onto your child’s resume to “get them into college”, you may be successful, but will they? After all, at some point your child will need to start choosing their own path. What happens if they haven’t learned that valuable skill?
But when the time comes and a child is asking to be released from some activity, how do we know what’s best? Do they need a little push to follow through on something that is really good for them, but is testing their endurance? It’s OK to help kids push through a fit of laziness. Or are they really being asked to do something that doesn’t fit their personality, or match their true desires? How do you decide when to go with your child’s impulse? How do you know when to help them finish what they’ve started?
This is where we don’t have answers! Share your insights in the comments ….
This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog