Written by Kari Patterson
A note from Jamie: Kari’s post today is longer than usual, but so worthwhile. I hope you’ll pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and pop over to the site when you have ten minutes to ponder and enjoy it!
I will never forget the day my daughter quietly posed the question:
“Would it be okay if I stopped ballet? I’d rather stay home and play with the chickens.”
Oh sweetie-girl. I smiled down into her little face.
First of all, I love that she was free to ask the question. She shouldered none of the shoulds that plague us parents. In her mind, playing with chickens was every bit as worthwhile as perfecting pirouettes. And, having tasted a bit of both activities, she preferred the coop.
Of course, a tiny bit of me had to die. We had just bought beautiful ballet attire for her birthday. Would it go to waste? More importantly, was I teaching her a terrible lesson by allowing her to quit? Plus, truth be told, I really enjoyed that hour sitting all alone with a book while she leapt and twirled. Was I willing to give that up? And, above all, she was just so adorable in her leotard!
Basically, I had to evaluate my own heart: a daughter doing recitals would make me proud. A daughter filthy-dirty with her feathered friends would make me … do more laundry.
But I had just prayed for wisdom about whether to let her continue. While it was a ballet class, many of the moves were hip-hop, and when I heard the recital involved Taylor Swift and little booties shaking’ it off and my daughter wondering what “haters gonna hate” meant … my heart sank a little. Somehow this wasn’t what I envisioned for my wide-eyed, barely-six-year-old.
Now, years later, we’ve wrestled through a number of extracurricular decisions. We’ve participated in ballet, baseball, swimming, piano, horse-riding, art, and theater. Some have stuck. Most haven’t. I have agonized over this issue.
Jamie has already shared her journey in this excellent post, but I’d like to offer some key questions to ask as you consider extracurriculars for your kids.
First we began with some simple, straightforward questions:
- What sparked this in the first place? Am I trying to keep up with those around me or is this a genuine area of interest for my child? Is “fear of missing out” fueling this activity?
- Does this activity fit well in our family culture? Is it in line with our core values? Is it non-negotiable because of our environment? (i.e. If you live near water, swimming lessons may be a must. For other families, merely a fun option.)
- Will involvement still allow a sustainable balance of active and calm days? Will we still enjoy family dinners? Will my child still get enough sleep and downtime?
- As I consider my own extroversion or introversion, will this add to or deplete the joy of our family? What will this require of me, as the coordinator and chauffeur? Am I willing to joyfully fulfill this commitment?
- Am I helping my child achieve something she greatly desires, or am I dragging her into an area that interests me? Am I acting out of “I wish I had learned this when I was a kid”? Should I take lessons instead?
Then, as we waded more deeply into discussions, five more questions surfaced:
6. Does this activity make my child more or less interested in this area?
Strangely enough, I noticed that often my child’s interest in a particular area peaked before taking lessons. Dutch loved baseball until he played baseball. He loved piano until he took piano. This was not because he didn’t have fantastic instructors or good experiences. He did! Nothing “bad” happened.
As Meg Meeker discusses in her excellent book Boys Should Be Boys (afflink), it was just that the love for these things was tied up in the “freeness” of playing them. Once the element of freedom and imagination was taken away, the interest waned. This doesn’t meant formal lessons are bad, it probably just indicates the child isn’t ready.
So I did a little informal survey by asking adults who are passionate, skillful, and actively involved in music whether they pursued their instruments on their own or were required to master the skill as a young child. Every single person I asked had pursued the instrument on their own at an age of 12 or older. That’s not to say that childhood music lessons are wasted. There are plenty of benefits, including discipline. But I may be better off teaching discipline and work ethic in other areas, and then freely allowing them to pursue that skill (or not) when they are older.
Now if a child’s passion and interest does grow during involvement, great! Stick with it! Children will go to extraordinary lengths to work hard in areas they are interested in.
7. Is there a better way to teach this skill or instill this quality?
I realized that discipline, good work ethic, and ability to get along with others were the primary reasons I was eager for my kids to be involved in extracurriculars.
But I realized they could develop these better from activities that didn’t require cash and me carting them around here and there, which could shorten my to-do list as well!
For example, my kids learn diligence through their daily care of our new baby, our animals, housework, and completing their independent schoolwork without being asked.
In terms of social interactions, Kim Payne in Simplicity Parenting (afflink) explains,
In play, children freely negotiate the rules, are actively involved in the social process, learning as they make their way. In sports, the rules already exist, and children instead learn how to play within predetermined boundaries… As a society we’ve discounted the developmental riches involved in what kids do naturally. Self-directed play builds multiple and emotional intelligences.
While I’m grateful for the experiences my kids have had in organized sports and classes, I have seen the greatest social benefit in providing them unstructured (but supervised) free play.
Similarly it’s worth asking: Can I better teach my child this skill? For example, we wanted our children to be able to swim, but were unable to fit formal lessons into our schedule.
Instead we committed to attending Family Swim night every Tuesday for four months, so Jeff and I could give one-on-one instruction to our kids for one full hour each week. For much less money, we were able to be with our kids, give them far superior instruction, and gain a “family night” as well. I admit, I dreaded the cold pool during those winter months, but it was worth it!
8. Is my child naturally gifted in this area? Am I honoring the unique way she’s wired?
I grew up in a sports family. My dad played college sports. My brother and I were both athletic and played year-round, every year. Playing sports was, quite simply, what you did.
Then I had Dutch. He is brilliant, funny, capable … and not athletic. He’s also not musically-inclined. He is however, a whiz in history, science, and has a near-photographic memory of everything he’s read. So instead of agonizing over the fact that he can’t hit a baseball to save his life, we’ve investing in areas of interest instead.
On the other hand, our daughter Heidi demonstrates a remarkable ability for art. After a recent camp, her teacher conveyed her amazement at Heidi’s abilities. “With good instruction she could be earning money for her art in just a few years,” she confided. We were floored, as neither of us are artistic, but we decided that as Heidi showed interest, we would invest to cultivate that God-given gift.
9. Is my child developmentally ready for this commitment?
After being pulled-aside by Heidi’s art teacher, I was eager to sign her up for formal lessons. But to my surprise, Heidi resisted:
“No thanks. Not yet. I just love doing art for fun. I don’t want the stress of having to take lessons every week.”
It’s not that she’s lazy. She does some sort of art on her own every day. It’s that, at nine-years-old, she’s not developmentally ready for the rigor of these lessons. She just wants to be a kid.
In Leadership Education, the authors explain the differences between Love of Learning phase, and Scholar phase. In short, kids in Love of Learning (8-12ish years) should be allowed to explore, play, and pursue interests in a way that’s fun, without the stress of mastery. Later, the onset of puberty and mental maturity prepare a child for more rigorous pursuits.
As much as my pride would love my daughter to pursue excellence in art now, I’m content to let her go her own pace. Like Jamie said, I’ll know she’s ready when she’s begging for lessons.
10. How will I determine “success”? How will I define “quitting”?
In the event that you do take on an extracurricular activity, it’s wise to determine how to define success and how to navigate the termination of said activity.
Oddly enough, a book on dating and courtship helped me with this. The book explained that in dating, usually a break-up is seen as a bad thing, a failure. But in courtship (as this author defined it), the relationship is an experiment: a respectful experiment to determine whether or not the two involved are indeed a great fit for life.
If not, both parties can move on without guilt or remorse (though certainly emotions are involved), because the experiment was a success — they succeeded in finding out they weren’t a fit!
I see extracurricular activity in the same way. Though I’ve never articulated this concept to my kids, I was thrilled to hear my daughter verbalize it to me recently. She said,
“Mommy, I’m grateful that you’ve let me try things that I’m interested in without making me feel bad if I don’t stick with them forever. I’m really glad I’ve had the freedom to learn which things are or aren’t for me.”
On the other hand, we have to determine what really is plain old quitting. We’ve said we will finish whatever season/session we started, even when it takes tremendous courage to keep going.
I’ve seen this required finishing work well. After two days of intense art camp, Heidi asked to quit. We required her to finish the week, and by the end she was thrilled with her experience, the teacher pulled us aside to remark on her abilities, and she’s begging to go back next year. Similarly, last week she asked if she could quit theater because she was nervous about an upcoming monologue. We said no, helped her practice and gather her courage. She did great, loved it, and gained confidence by overcoming fears.
My point is: the old “never quit” adage isn’t enough. We need to wisely determine: What is quitting and what is just moving on?
Trying an activity, giving it your best, finishing the season, then determining it’s not for you is most certainly not failure.
The bottom line: I know great families who land all along the spectrum on extracurriculars, from lots to none at all. My intent is not to say our way is the only way, but to pose some questions as you navigate these decisions for your own kids.
My hope is that wherever you land, you are free from guilt, pressure, striving, and fear. Every family is different, and I pray you have the freedom to pursue what’s best for yours.
How have you navigated extracurriculars? We’d love to hear!
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