Are we too eager to help our kids find something they excel at? Experts share realistic ways to nurture your child's talents.

girl playing sport
Credit: Masterfile

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.

Pursuing Passion

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."

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.

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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