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At a family get-together the other day, I was talking with my brother about dancing (he teaches ballroom for a living) and asked him if he was doing competitions at all.

“No,” he said. “I’d be out of my league — most of those people have been dancing since they were, like, three.”*

(Brother started when he was, if I remember correctly, in his late teens.)

The conversation got me thinking about the sorts of pursuits where starting young is a huge advantage, sometimes even essential to being successful past a certain level. Most athletic activities seem to require that you train your muscles early on for you to be able to perform at the top of your game as an adult. From what I’ve seen this is true to an extent for some creative pursuits as well — music, especially, maybe because of the amount of physical coordination involved in playing most instruments? And I’d imagine with most careers and hobbies, getting an early start on building your knowledge and skill set helps at least a little.

Now that I have a little guy in my life, this is a topic that feels much closer to home. I want the kiddo to have every possible opportunity to follow his dreams. But what if he doesn’t figure out what those dreams are until it’s too late for him to have a good chance of reaching them? How can I help him find his way? On the other hand, how can I make sure I get in his way by pushing too much?

Finding my way and being pushed were never really issues for me growing up. I’ve loved making up stories as far back as I can remember, and my parents just let me at it. Storytelling is, conveniently, an activity that requires no special instruction and no materials at all to practice–the books I read were my teachers, and even with pen and paper, and later a computer, available to me, I spent many hours simply daydreaming plots and characters–so I didn’t really need any assistance from my parents, although it certainly didn’t hurt that they were avid readers themselves and so read to me often, took me on regular library trips, and that sort of thing.

But what if you have a kid who doesn’t quickly gravitate toward specific interests? How many three-year-olds, for example, really know they love dancing and are eager to go to classes and take instruction their whole early childhood? I’ve heard a lot of stories from people who recall getting bored with learning an instrument or practicing a sport or whathaveyou when they were little, but appreciate that their parents insisted they continue through that boredom and not give up, because they did come to love it again and would hate to have lost that skill. I’ve also heard plenty of stories of people resenting their parents pushing them in a particular direction, who felt stressed and un-listened to, or for whom the pressure to not just have fun with an activity but to excel at it drained all the enjoyment they once had.

How do you tell when it’s in your kids’ best interests to push, and when it’s better to pull back?

I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts–either your memories of what worked for you (or didn’t) when you were a kid, or your experiences as a parent yourself, or both!

*Dialogue an approximation; I did not write this down in the moment to get an exact quote. ;)

Originally published at another world, not quite ours - Megan Crewe's blog. You can comment here or there.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2014 01:09 am (UTC)
I think most of us (as parents) automatically direct our kids toward things we find enjoyable or things we did as kids. My DH was crazy into sports, especially, football. In my family, my brother played basketball from a young age...so D got encouraged (by me) to play basketball, which he did (and does), and which he loves. He also started football a year ago, per DH, and loves that too.

As far as music goes, I didn't really give either kid a choice there. Music has been a huge part of my life, and I know that very few kids would choose to practice as much as any instrument requires...so that's something that parents really do need to direct. Singing, though, can be much more from the kids' own choices (and takes very little training at a young age). DH's parents had him start piano lessons but let him quit, which he did. And he still wishes they'd forced him to stick with it.

My brother's kids are both being directed into gymnastics (which we've never pushed), dance, and music...I think the key might be to start them on *something* that you find meaningful and important, and then as they get older, see if their talents truly lie there or not?
Aug. 14th, 2014 01:48 am (UTC)
I interviewed a ballet teacher once. He said that it's important for dancers to start young (by age 8 or so) because of muscle memory, although a few very talented people can start later and succeed.

I was encouraged to continue my piano lessons until I achieved a certain level, although I wanted to quit because I was bored by practising. It backfired on my parents because afterwards I refused to go anywhere near a piano for a long time. And, of course, I later regretted that decision. It was my form of teenage rebellion. :-)

Oh, and the one thing I did want to take lessons in, drama, I had to fight to get.

Lessons can become a power play no matter how well meaning the parent is, no matter how talented the child is.

Edited at 2014-08-14 01:50 am (UTC)
Aug. 14th, 2014 02:32 am (UTC)
I think there are a few thing that you have to start early (like ballet or gymnastics, etc.)--but all you can do is give them a start. If at some point they aren't all that interested, it's okay to let it go.

I think the point where you're pushing too much is when you're more focused on how your kid compares to others as opposed to how much your kid improves against him/herself, how much it's making him/her grow, and how much s/he is enjoying it. My main hope as a parent is that my kids grow up to be happy, kind, responsible people. Self sufficient, but with a willingness to learn new things. So if I'm encouraging them to keep practicing cello or whatever, it's part of that larger idea, and not just, can my daughter get into Julliard? They don't have to be the best in the world--but I do want them to have a sense of joy and personal accomplishment from doing the thing.

Mostly I watch my kids to see what kinds of things they're interested in, and try to give them ample opportunity to practice that. My 16YO loves Legoes (ie robotics and engineering) and music. His 14YO brother loves running and calligraphy. Making them do the things the other brother loves would be catastrophic (yes, we did let sign the younger one up for recorder lessons in first grade, and in four months we didn't see him touch the thing to his lips once. So no, we didn't make him continue.) But I dunno, they're happy doing their thing, and the more they like it, the more they do it, and the better (and happier) they get.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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A Sky Unbroken
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