In an American culture that encourages/blesses perfection, how do we raise successful and well-rounded kids without sacrificing our lives and the family’s happiness?
Before we had kids, my husband and I always joked that we really hoped we would raise average kids. It would be such a burden to have an Olympic gymnast in our care. We wouldn’t want to squash their potential, but… we knew we weren’t cut out for the cutthroat world of competitive sports that takes up every single evening and weekend and around which all travel revolves.
Our kids are 11, 9, and 6. Like all parents, I think my kids are anything but average! But happily, they are in the typical range of not-Olympians or prodigies in any one thing, but extremely capable and interested in lots of things. So the bigger problem has become: how do we choose which activities to do?
All middle-class parents deal with this question. We have to juggle finances, schedules, and carpools. We have to nurture each child’s passion while making sure they get a taste of all the things to make sure we haven’t missed an undiscovered talent.
Some parents take the approach of trying to introduce their child to everything and seeing what sticks. Obviously, you cannot play all the sports and instruments at one time. But over the course of a few years, you could introduce enough variety to let the child figure out what they like and maybe what they’re good at.
Others take the approach of waiting until the child expresses interest in something before signing up to participate. That way, you aren’t forcing anything upon them against their will. The only risk is if their interests don’t align with your priorities at all. But if this is you, and you are the type of parent who has figured out how to not project your personal ambitions onto your child, then you win anyway!
We take a somewhat middle-ground approach, which seems to fit our average-sized ambitions. We have decided that we will make all of our children take piano lessons, even if they don’t want to. In return, they can each choose another activity that interests them.
Our oldest happens to love piano and seems to be quite good at it. She has dabbled in other areas, like swimming, basketball, and art classes, but piano looks like it will stick.
Our middle daughter is definitely the one who is forced into those piano lessons against her will. But in exchange, we let her do some of what she loves too: horseback riding lessons. She is the type of single-minded child who has never expressed interest in anything but horses, so it’s fun to watch her explore that.
Our third daughter is only six, and just beginning her piano lessons. So far she is excited and motivated, so we’ll see how that goes. She seems to be more like her oldest sister in that, besides piano lessons, she will want to play a variety of sports and have fun with them.
In addition to piano lessons, the only other activity we insist upon is the neighborhood summer swim team. Not only do they learn to be great swimmers, but they also learn hard lessons of sportsmanship, being part of a team, losing races gracefully, and winning races gracefully. My neighbor captured a treasured photo of me with my youngest daughter this summer. She had just done that inevitable (but still embarrassing if you’re six) mistake of diving in before the whistle and had to redo her freestyle event. She was humiliated but still swam her best. I was timing and got to greet her just out of the water and tell her how proud of her I was.
It’s moments like these that make me so grateful for opportunities for our kids to stretch themselves, try new things, and make mistakes and grow from them. Life gives us lots of these—through school, sports, and other activities.
We can’t do it all. Especially with more than one child, a family cannot commit to exposing our kids to everything. So it’s fun to think strategically about how you help your children choose from all the options and discover their gifts.
We might not end up with all-star athletes, but just like we hoped, we seem to have well-rounded, even better than “average” kids. And we never end up with so many events and activities that we have to sacrifice family dinners every night, or our sanity. Our bank account definitely feels the pinch of piano lessons times three, but that’s on us.
How do you decide what to sign your kids up for? Are you an “expose them to everything” parent or a “wait and see what they like” parent? Or are you like me—a little bit of both? A new school year and sports season are upon us. Happy chauffeuring!