September 19, 2013

Extra Curriculars: Whose Choice?

There was a period, during each of my children’s early adolescence, when I fantasized that they would go to Harvard. This bit of maternal foolishness was a way of expressing two things: Wow! My kids are so smart! I’m so proud of having smart kids. Yes, it does reflect on me (despite my protestations to the contrary). How could it not? Who wants to be the parent of stupid kids? The second emotion that my Harvard fantasy expressed was wanting the best for my kids. We all do.

Now that I have grey hair, grown kids and the wisdom of hindsight, I get that wanting the best for them, while a laudable and expected feeling, offers treachery. There are complex shoals to navigate. Because we love them so deeply, and because we invest so dearly in every aspect of their success, it’s hard to step back and give them the space to find themselves. We just want so badly for their lives to be wonderful that we don’t do so well at the backing off part of the equation. Many of us parents assume that it is we who should choose the activities our children pursue outside of school, because we know best what will suit and stretch them appropriately. In theory we do know best because we have more miles on our tires.

In practice, acting on that belief causes us to overload our kids with activities they may not love. This in itself is not a problem. So what if the kid plays soccer or softball and doesn’t care so much for it? It’s good exercise, you meet people, and besides, you need extra curricula’s to get into Harvard. And the Ivey. Some kids would never get off the couch or put down the screen toy if we didn’t force them to do a bunch of extra curricula’s. What then is the harm of making these choices for them? The harm lies in the act of choosing.

Choosing is at the very heart of human behaviour. When thinking (and talking) about kids who behave badly, most of us rush to use words like “bad kid” or problem child.” Which condemns that child to a label that can be pretty sticky, as labels are. But every child is just as good as their last choice. Behaviour is a collection of choices made, and everyone can make a better choice… next time.

Whether it’ soccer versus baseball… versus growing roots on the couch, the act of choosing their activities may be as important as the activities themselves. The majority of kids, given good support and a modicum of self- esteem, will choose to do something. For the child who is consistently avoidant about activity of all kinds, I’d ask two questions: First, what are mom and dad modelling? Are they active? Does the family do active things together? If the answer is no, look in the mirror and get off the couch, because monkey see, monkey do. If the answer is yes, and your child is chronically avoidant of activity, especially with peers, you may want to get them some help with anxiety about peer relations and activity.

But most kids aren’t like that. Most kids like to play in groups. How then to help them choose their extra-curriculars? Think of this as crucial practice for all the many choices they will have to make over the next decade, and think about how important it is that they learn how to make thoughtful choices.

This is where you guide without smothering. This is where you don’t tell them what to do but instead ask a lot of questions, using the Socratic method to help them discover what they want. And in the process, grow a child who knows how to make choices. That will stand them in very good stead.

Who should choose your child's extra curriculars?
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