Great Expectations: Positive Ways to Encourage Extracurricular Activities

How Practice Pays Off

Olympic athletes undoubtedly have genetic gifts that help them triumph, but hard work in any field may matter more than innate talent. In fact, when we practice a certain skill, such as swinging a golf club, over and over again, we strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain and stimulate the formation of new connections. Practicing also stimulates the growth of myelin -- protective insulation -- around the neurons. As a result, the electrical impulses controlling the thoughts and movements needed to hit the ball become faster and more accurate. "Myelination makes the flow of information in the brain more efficient and coordinated," says Dr. Fields.

Experts talk about the benefits of "deep" or "deliberate" practice, which includes repetition of a particular movement or musical passage, doing something extra slowly, and working at a level that is slightly more challenging than what you can already do. "It's a shame we call it playing music, when it's really work," points out Dr. Cutietta. "But if you never get over the initial hurdle of learning to play well, it'll be hard to really enjoy it."

Instead of practicing for a certain length of time every day, it's more effective for your child to set specific daily goals, such as "play this measure until it sounds good," says Dr. Cutietta. It's also helpful to plant the seeds for longer-term goals. Taking her to a middle-school band concert may be more motivating than seeing the local philharmonic because being on that school stage seems like a realistic goal.

When to Let Your Kid Quit

If you signed your 7-year-old up for soccer and he wants to bail after six weeks, don't panic, thinking that he has a problem with perseverance, says Dr. Thomson. "From his point of view, six weeks was a long time!" In general, it's a good idea to insist that your child complete the season or all the sessions of an after-school activity that you've paid for, but when your child has made a sustained effort at an activity and decided that it's not for him, you should move on without being resentful about having invested time, energy, and money for nothing, adds Dr. Levine. "Your investment is in an active, curious childhood." There's also no reason he can't decide to play again a couple of years later if he changes his mind. Catching up with his peers will be easier than you'd think.

If you spent money to buy a piano, you may be less willing to let your kid give it up. In fact, playing an instrument may be one area where it's harder to make up for lost time if your child quits and then goes back to it, says Dr. Cutietta. If he doesn't want to take lessons anymore, try to find out why. Perhaps he doesn't like his teacher or the type of music he's playing. If it's just gotten too hard, making practice sessions more goal-oriented can help spark his motivation. Once you know the problem, you can address it together before agreeing to let him quit.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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