Asking about School
The Myth of the Perfect College
Preparing Older Teens for the Workforce
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Limiting Afterschool Activities
The other day, a woman told me
that her 14-year-old son wanted to play basketball during the winter. But
because she is a working single mother—with a younger daughter who
has her own activities and homework needs—it would be terribly difficult
to transport him to and from practices on school nights twice a week, plus
at least one game each weekend. Despite the obvious hardship to her and the
rest of the family, this mother struggled with her decision. "Is it reasonable
to say no?" she asked.
Many mothers and fathers today face similar quandaries about their kids'
activities, and for good reason. Providing enrichment has become so sacred
that it is almost a sine qua non of loving, supportive parenting. Many parents
want their kids to develop skills and talents (musical, athletic, etc.) they
can use throughout the rest of their lives. Yet it's anxiety about achievement
that often drives more urgent desires to enroll kids in afterschool activities.
For example, people believe that extracurriculars spawn academic success,
facilitate acceptance to competitive colleges, and unearth innate talents that
must be nurtured. With these compelling goals in mind, no wonder parents have
a hard time limiting teens' and tweens' extracurricular activities—and often
deal, as a result, with frantic afterschool hours; exhausted, on-the-go families;
and depleted bank accounts.
In reality, all these goals have flaws: Research on the relationship between
activities and grades is complicated; college admissions officers have become
wary of over-committed students arriving on campus already stressed-out and
burned out; and the urge to discover potential prodigies as soon as possible is
terribly misguided. For most of us, producing the next Eli Manning, YoYo Ma, or
Meryl Streep is unlikely at best. Furthermore, pushing students into doing too
much or specializing too early can lead to physical injuries and mental fatigue.
Worse, the assumption that kids who don't start violin lessons, join soccer teams,
or perform on stage by age 5 should forget about shining in these areas dissuades
many students from even trying new activities—activities that could provide
enjoyment, self-esteem, and social interaction.
Yet the most persuasive argument against allowing—or even promoting—too many
afterschool commitments may be this: by doing less, your child gains more. What
I mean is that by limiting extracurricular activities, you are giving your teen
or tween the gift of other, perhaps more meaningful, opportunities to grow and
In my research with middle school
and high school students, I found that families' financial resources didn't
determine whether teens felt stressed-out to be successful, but it did affect
their reasons for experiencing pressure. When families had limited resources,
teens felt compelled to justify the sacrifices their parents made so they
could take private music lessons, enroll in dance classes, or work with tutors.
Interestingly, teens without financial constraints felt pressured by seemingly
endless enrichment opportunities; they felt like they were expected to do
everything and to do everything well. When you restrict your kids' activities
to what is affordable and avoid making enormous sacrifices, you are actually
relieving teens and tweens from destructive pressure to achieve and succeed.
Conserving Parental Energy
By the end of the day, after coordinating
multiple schedules and carpooling an array of children to and from activities, parents
are understandably exhausted. For many, the task entails being in several different
places at once. It is difficult, especially for mothers, to acknowledge the
impossibility of this situation—much less to ask for help—without feeling
guilty or incompetent; after all, many think, isn't this their job? So we knowingly
take on unreasonable afterschool schedules, bending over backwards to make it all work
so our kids are not deprived of potentially beneficial activities.
But at some point this commitment extracts too great a cost. When we're frazzled, we
can't be emotionally attuned and available to our kids. Judy, the mother of three
daughters aged 9 to 14, resorted to using Excel spreadsheets to track her girls' myriad
daily appointments, yet chastised herself because she "checked out" nightly instead of
helping with homework or reading to her youngest daughter. In my experience, the chance
to connect meaningfully with parents during childhood and adolescence is far more valuable
to development than any skill, be it conjugating French verbs or dancing on pointe. In
addition, when we parents (usually mothers) twist ourselves into pretzels to accommodate
our kids' presumed needs, what message are we giving our young daughters about a woman's
propensity to sacrifice her own?
Sanctifying Family Time
With fewer activities and less rushing
around, families generally have more time to spend together. With more calmness
prevailing, the chance for higher quality connections is also that much greater.
The dinner hour is a prime example. These days, I see far too many teens whose
families don't eat together because no one is at home at the dinner hour or
everyone is on different schedules. Teens who play sports or have more than one
afterschool activity on a given day may not get home until 9:30 at night, when
they grab a bite by themselves while starting their homework. So-called
"enrichment activities" that deprive kids of family time, especially dinners,
may be an oxymoron.
As parents well know, it is during down time—often when we least expect
it—that we have the best conversations with taciturn teens. Discussions occur
not when we plan them, but rather during a quick trip to the hardware store or
while saying goodnight. A son's offhand comment may spark a dialogue or a daughter's
facial expression might betray feelings in a way that invites further inquiry. Such
meaningful exchanges happen when parents and teens are receptive—in relaxed,
unguarded moments, not when we're rushing them out the door, yelling at them to
remember their equipment and get to practice on time.
Carving out Invaluable Free Time
Lightening up schedules frees up
afterschool time, not only for homework but also for other activities. While
they probably won't add to a college resume, they are invaluable to teens'
development. When Justin, age 16, was cut from a basketball team, he returned
to drawing, a hobby he enjoyed as a younger child, quickly producing an impressive
portfolio and honing his interest in architecture. Erica, age 14, spent her afternoons
writing poetry and playing her cello—just for fun. Perhaps the greatest gift of quiet
time is the chance to reflect; teens and tweens desperately need this rare space to
figure out who they are, their real passions, and the sorts of adults they aspire to
Teaching Different Lifelong Skills
All the extracurricular options
available to teens and tweens today are often overwhelming. Yet when parents
limit the number of activities they can do, kids learn that they can't do
everything; they're forced to consider their priorities and make choices.
What better practice for when they are in college—and beyond? As a bonus,
many teens and tweens value their selected activities that much more. They cease
taking them for granted. This often relieves parents from fighting with kids who
balk at having to go to the music lessons or athletic practices they begged for
in the first place.
Finding the right balance—supporting teens and tweens in cultivating their
interests without sacrificing family life or retirement savings—is yet another
tricky objective of parenting. We can all learn from mothers and fathers who take
a moderate, judicious approach. Two families come to mind. When their 10-year-old
son became interested in basketball, Jordan's parents didn't immediately sign him
up for expensive camps or private coaching or install a half court in their yard.
They let him participate in a low key, recreational league. When he demonstrated
a commitment to the sport, they negotiated greater involvement in a step-by-step
way, even asking Jordan to do odd jobs to earn some of the cost.
Friends of mine also handled this issue admirably. Though they were both avid
pianists, they were not invested in their son following suit. It wasn't until he
was 12 that Evan asked for lessons. Six months later, as I was walking up to their
house, I heard such lovely music that I thought it was a recording. But no, it was
Evan playing—demonstrating that starting piano at age 3 is not in fact necessary
to discover and nurture talent. Clearly, waiting until their tween was ready for
lessons did him no harm.
Needless to say, I supported the single working mother who hesitated to ask her
son to wait until spring to play basketball. Hopefully, they'll spend at least
some of those winter evenings enjoying mugs of hot chocolate, board games, and
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