A Solid Foundation
In order to excel at anything, you do need to start young, but that doesn't mean age 4, 6, or even 10. A child can discover his passion at age 17 and still become a standout success because the brain continues to develop until one's early 20s. "What makes us different from other animals is that the development of our brain -- and which parts grow stronger -- depends on our life experiences," explains R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity section of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Studies have shown that there are critical windows in brain development for certain types of learning. "If you learn a foreign language before puberty, for example, you will be able to speak it like a native," says Dr. Fields. "But if you study a language after puberty, you'll speak it with more of your own accent."
Other research has found that most of a child's musical aptitude develops by age 9, and that having a variety of musical experiences before then can help enhance his natural potential, says Robert Cutietta, Ed.D., dean of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and author of Raising Musical Kids. How much a child actually achieves with his talent largely depends on the time and effort he puts into practicing.
But the truth is that young kids may not have the focus or drive to give it their all yet, and that's okay. "Different children develop physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual maturity at different ages," says Parents advisor Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
Caution on the Fast Track
Although experts acknowledge the benefits of working hard, they agree that it's usually not wise for children to get too hard-core too soon. This may be particularly true with sports. There has been a dramatic shift in the youth-sports culture in recent years, including a boom in regional travel leagues at younger ages and kids focusing on one sport that they play year-round. The result: Too many kids are burning out and quitting. Bob Bigelow, a former pro basketball player and author of Just Let the Kids Play, blames both overcompetitive parents and coaches. As young as age 8, children now get identified as being "talented," while other kids -- who might have become dynamos in high school -- get weeded out.
Young athletes and their parents often have big dreams -- if not the Olympics, then a college scholarship. Yet fewer than 1 percent of high-school athletes end up getting a full ride. Studies have shown that the best athletes develop a broad base of skills in various sports. "Specializing in one sport almost doubles your risk of injury," says Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports-medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York City, and author of The Young Athlete. Doctors have seen increases in the numbers of children with sports injuries, and most of them are overuse injuries. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against sports specialization and recommends that kids take at least two to three months off from a sport each year.
Ice hockey has traditionally been an intense sport that gets children as young as preschoolers into leagues and playing several days a week. In recent years, however, USA Hockey (the governing body for the sport) found that too many kids were dropping out by age 11 because they just weren't having fun at the rink anymore. So the organization decided to take a new approach that limits ice time, focuses on age-appropriate skills, and actually encourages players to play other sports too. As a result, fewer kids are now quitting, and the governing bodies of other sports such as tennis, swimming, and soccer are evaluating what USA Hockey is doing.
The Right Balance
It turns out that college admissions officers also think parents need to relax and let our kids be kids. "I have friends whose 6-year-old children are on traveling soccer teams, and it's mind-boggling to me from a parent perspective," says Greg Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and the dad of a 9-year-old. "If parents are strategizing about something beyond elementary school, that doesn't make sense."
Plus, he notes, it's simply not true that every kid needs to be great at something in order to get into college. "The number of students with extraordinary talents who get admitted for that reason is very, very small," says Roberts. "The vast majority of kids we accept are good people and good students who like learning and like to be involved with things -- but not at the level that they are so super-talented that that's their hook," he told me.
When it comes to planning your own kid's extracurricular schedule without going overboard (or broke), do your best to give her opportunities to pursue what she's excited about, with the understanding that it may change in a couple of years -- or even a few weeks. And try not to let your own ego get involved, even though it's nice to be able to brag about your kid's accomplishments.
Keep your child's temperament in mind -- some kids are happy doing four activities every week, while others need more downtime at home, says Dr. Mogel. Also consider how much driving and travel different activities involve, and whether there are certain subjects that have been cut at your child's school, such as art, music, or physical education, and choose extracurriculars that can help fill those gaps.
A reasonable guideline for most kids is to participate in no more than three different activities -- one that's physical, one that's creative, and one that's social/community-oriented, says Dr. Levine. Children who are overscheduled are likely to complain of physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. This past year, we enrolled our daughter Jane in a musical-theater class that she was excited about for children ages 7 to 10 -- along with a friend -- and she got a kick out of being with the older kids. Maybe she'll get bitten by the acting bug like others in my family, but for now I'm just enjoying hearing her sing in the shower and talk to herself in a British accent.