We live in a pretty competitive environment for kids. I have noticed lately that whenever I meet new people, or even when I am with my friends, the following question arises, "What's your kid into?"
The answer to this question is not meant to be Mine Craft or Lego or American Girl dolls.
People are talking about travel soccer, elite swim teams, competitive gymnastics, and many times per week ballet lessons.
My kids don't do any of these things. They do a lot of stuff -- they play instruments, they play sports, they go to religious school, they do some theatre. But, they do all of these activities once per week. They aren't tremendously talented at any of them. They certainly aren't destined for Broadway or the Olympics (so far as I can tell). As one of my dear friends said a few years ago as all of our girls were galloping around ballet class, "I guess if any of our kids were prodigies, we would know already!" In our home, we place a lot of focus on school and also on education outside of school (through travel, exposure to culture like museums, concerts, etc.). We view the rest of these activities as "icing on the cake".
I've noticed lately, however, that when people discuss what their kids are "into," it brings up a lot of emotion for me. A little anxiety, a little frustration, a shade of sadness....
On the one hand, I worry that I haven't pushed my kids hard enough. Should their tennis lessons be less fun and more focused on the game? Should we amp up the sports to travel teams? Should my daughter who is good at theatre be doing theatre all year round instead of just over the summer? Should she have a vocal coach and a dance coach? Ah!!!!
But then, I take a step back. With school and the relatively limited activities we do, there is barely time for our kids to PLAY. Play is extremely important for young children -- building with Lego, playing make believe with dolls, doing crafts with materials available to them that aren't dictated by a specific assignment. In my clinical work, kids say all the time that they wish they just had more time to play -- and I think this is a statement we should listen to.
Furthermore, while I believe there are some kids who do come to a true passion on their own at a very young age, I am angry by the idea that all is lost if our kids haven't found that passion before they hit the double digits. Is it possible that they have not been exposed to the activity yet that they are meant to love and excel at? Perhaps they haven't yet met a certain teacher or other influential adult who they want to emulate. Developmentally, they might not be ready yet to be an amazing lacrosse player or to be committed enough to play piano for two hours per evening after a full day of school. Isn't it okay if this hits in 7th grade or 10th grade?
Here is my thought. As parents, I think all we can do is expose our kids to a wide variety of activities that we think they might enjoy. We should take their lead. If a child is very artistic, we should expose them to more art, rather than forcing them into sports because "everyone else does sports" or because it might get them into college. We should be responsive to our children saying they want to do more.....and be comfortable saying NO to coaches or teachers who are demanding more to the detriment or play time, social lives, or even sleep. And, we should be okay with our kids just liking lots of things, rather than having a specialty at a very young age. After all, variety is the spice of life.
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.