When it comes to my kids, one of the things that stresses me out is this whole idea of “specializing.”
Since my daughter was four or five, I’ve watched as many of her friends have streamlined their focus on piano or guitar, on club soccer or volleyball teams, on ice skating or
acting or singing or swimming or tennis or dance. The stakes seem to get really high really fast – weekend tournaments in Las Vegas or Sacramento, private coaches before and after school, auditions for TV shows or equity theater groups, lessons or practices five or six days a week.
It culminated a few weeks ago – for me, anyway – when I heard how women’s soccer coaches are recruiting girls as young as thirteen to play for their universities. It seems like
craziness to me…but is it?
Is there even room anymore in our college-obsessed world for kids who like to do lots of things but not do any of them at an elite level?
My daughter is a Jill-of-all-trades who never met an activity she didn’t love. She’s been playing basketball with a group of friends in our local rec center league since kindergarten, and she has a blast. Is she good? Not especially. She probably could be good if she worked at it for three hours every day, but she doesn’t love it enough to want to do that. She’s fine with being good enough.
My daughter has also been taking a musical theater class the last few years, which ends each semester with a performance. They only rehearse once a week, and the shows are super cute, but they’re not jaw-droppingly awesome. She doesn’t want to audition for an actual theater company though, because those rehearsals are every day, and then she wouldn’t be able to play basketball, or ice skate, which she also loves to do. Lots of girls at the rink have multiple coaches and they skate before and after school and go to competitions every weekend. My daughter enjoys skating and she likes getting better, but committing to skating at a competitive level would require her to give up theater and basketball, and she just doesn’t love it that much. She’s perfectly happy taking years to learn what other girls – girls who practice every day – achieve in three months
Is that bad? I don’t know. Some kids, I think, are just born with an affinity for a certain sport or instrument, and they love it so much that there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing. Some kids, though, take forever to find their thing, or never even find it at all.
I didn’t specialize in anything when I was a kid. I liked reading and writing, but those couldn’t be translated into an extracurricular activity. I was thirty before I realized that writing was the one thing I was passionate about, and I’d already gone to college and law school and had two different careers by then. But I don’t think I ever would have come to that realization if I had put all of my energy into one activity when I was younger.
If I had played say, lacrosse, or softball, or become a concert pianist, I might never have spent so much of my time reading, and if I hadn’t read so much, I can most certainly say that I wouldn’t ever have been inspired to write, or even have known how to structure a novel. My husband, on the other hand, knew in seventh grade that baseball was his path, and he played on all-star teams and traveling teams and even played in college. He’s not complaining – he loves baseball and still plays in a hardball league – but who knows what else he might really enjoy as an adult if he’d had the time to explore other things when he was younger?
The problem, I think, is that so many of us – myself included – tend to focus so much on outcomes.
We want our kids to get into great colleges, and we keep hearing about this kid who got into Stanford because he plays the trombone, or that kid who got into Harvard because she runs cross country. It’s hard not to be blinded by those kinds of stories, because you never hear about the kid who ice-skated just for fun, or who was in just-okay performances, getting into Yale. When a kid loves something, and is good at it, it’s easy to just keep letting them go to higher and higher levels. And if it will help them get into college, then why would you stop them?
And yet, for those of us with kids who don’t love something, or who aren’t naturally gifted at something, it’s troubling, especially as they begin to move into the middle school years, when everyone else seems to have settled on a “thing.”
Sometimes, when my neuroticism gets the better of me, I think that maybe I should just make my daughter pick ice skating or theater or basketball, and let that be her thing. And sometimes, when I’m in a more rational mood, I feel like I should just let her keep exploring, and hope that, as she gets older, she’ll find the thing she loves to do above all else. But as we all know, it’s hard not to compare your kid to others, and it’s even harder to not get caught up in the anxiety of what everyone else is doing.
But then I remind myself of what I used to tell parents years ago, when I worked as a college counselor: It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And the truth is, if colleges were to suddenly declare that that none of it mattered, then I wonder how many of us would still schlep our kids out to Vegas for weekend tournaments, or get up at five am to take them to pre-school workouts.
So, as hard as it is, I think I need to take my own advice. I need to stop worrying about outcomes, let my daughter enjoy her journey, and have faith that she’ll still get to where ever it is she’s meant to go.
What do you think? Would you rather your child be GREAT at one sport or “good enough” at lots of different activities?