My energetic 8-year-old is a pretty typical kid. Over the years, Jane has taken ballet, gymnastics, karate, soccer, and piano -- but her priority when picking an activity has often been whether or not it would be "with a friend." I hear about her classmates taking Mandarin lessons or joining travel sports leagues, but Jane has been in no hurry to give up after-school playdates -- along with pretend play and putting on musical shows -- to get on a more "serious" track. I've been following her lead, but I admit that it can be hard not to think about her future -- especially since I also have a 19-year-old daughter, and I know the agonizing process that she and her friends recently went through as they tried to portray themselves as unique and desirable to colleges.
With all the talk about how hard it can be to get into a good college these days -- and to secure a job after graduation -- it's no wonder that parents like me may start worrying when their children are still in the early grades. Guidebooks to college admissions (which you probably haven't cracked unless your kids are spaced as far apart as mine are) recommend that students "package" themselves as a memorable applicant with specific talents and abilities.
Parents often assume that their child will have a head start if he devotes himself to a particular activity at a young age, whether it's baseball or chess. They might sign him up for lots of activities with the hope that one of them will click, or they might get him private coaching to help him stand out on his team.
In addition to having college anxiety, today's parents may feel that it's their responsibility to help cultivate a special talent in their kids. No one wants to think their child is average. "We have a sense that the ideal child is one who signs up for an organized activity, is focused on it, and sticks with it -- but that's a very narrow understanding of childhood," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of The Pressured Child and a Parents advisor. "The goal of childhood is to become an independent, moral, loving, and productive young adult -- not to go to a great college."
Fortunately, there is a middle ground between being a pushy Tiger Mom or a pushover who lets her child quit every activity the moment it isn't fun anymore. You can encourage your child to explore and challenge himself without all the stress.
Even when your child was a baby, you were always looking for what would make her giggle with glee. No matter how old she is, you want her to be happy. So if she can find an activity she loves that will look good on her transcript some day -- or even lead to a career -- that's a win-win situation. "Enthusiasm motivates a child to keep getting better at something," says Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of Teach Your Children Well.
However, many young kids are perfectly content to bounce from one activity to another. "Research on child development is clear that the job of kids is exploratory -- to use their senses, to try different things, and to develop coping skills," says Dr. Levine. "A mom told me recently that she was concerned that her 4-year-old didn't have a passion, so I told her that life is a 4-year-old's passion!" Watch your child, see what intrigues her, and encourage her. "Having an interest in something is enough -- it doesn't have to be a passion," notes Dr. Levine, who is worried about increased levels of depression and anxiety in kids who feel pressure to excel.
The best way for a child to discover her strengths and interests is to have a wide range of experiences over the years, and that includes family activities, not just after-school classes. "When a child sees someone else who has a particular talent and decides that she wants to be like her someday, it can be a lightning bolt that lights up the brain," says Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, who spent years visiting "talent hotbeds" around the world where young phenoms hone skills such as tennis, singing, and skiing. For this reason, he advocates mixed-age groups in kids' activities.
After seeing a jazz band online three years ago, 10-year-old Miles Roberts, of Randallstown, Maryland, was determined to learn how to play the drums. "He's very serious about the drums now, and he likes to carry his drumsticks with him all the time," says his mother, Maria. "The lessons have let Miles discover what he can do when he really tries, and I hope he'll be able to take this confidence into any situation in the future."