Sometimes it’s so hard not to get caught up in the craziness that is parenting. We all want our kids to get ahead, to have an edge, to be the best they can be.
From the day our children are born, we worry about whether they’ll get into a top college. We sign them up for soccer when they’re three, for art classes and drama classes and swim lessons.
By the time they’re five, they’ve already been on basketball teams and tee-ball teams. We hire them pitching coaches and vocal coaches and put them in private tennis and golf lessons. By the time they’re ten, they’re on traveling teams and club teams, performing in equity theater productions, and going to specialized camps for two weeks in the summer.
They have no down time, no time to explore other activities, no time to just hang out and be kida. And for what? To help them be the best? To help them get into college? Sometimes I think everyone just needs to take a step back and ask themselves, what’s the end game here?
When I was a college counselor, I used to tell all of my students to find one thing they love and pursue it to the fullest extent possible. Not because it was a means of getting into college, but because it would enrich their lives and make them more interesting people, which in turn had the not unpleasant side-effect of making them more attractive college applicants.
But now that I have children of my own, I’m starting to rethink that advice. Because the truth is, not everyone at five or ten or twelve or sixteen years old knows what they love. I mean, I didn’t figure out that I love writing until I was in my mid-thirties. And I have lots of friends in their forties and fifties who still haven’t found a true passion in life. And you know what? I think that’s okay.
There are very few people who find something they’re truly passionate about at a young age, and even fewer people who are passionate enough to want to do it all the time. Sure, some kids are talented athletes who can play at a high level, but just because they’re good at it doesn’t mean they’re always going to love it. I’ve seen plenty of kids who loved baseball in elementary school burn out on it by seventh or eighth grade, when the pressure becomes too intense. I’ve seen kids who love swimming quit cold turkey when five am practices make it not fun anymore. And I’ve seen kids who love acting drop out when endless rehearsals threaten to take over their lives.
It’s a rare person who has the discipline, the drive, and yes, the passion for something to want it to be the only thing they do, and the main thing that defines them. There are only so many Michael Phelps’ in this world. For everyone else, I think having interests is good enough.
Yet as parents, we worry so much that mere interests just aren’t going to cut it. We hear things about the kid who got a full volleyball scholarship to Stanford, or the kid who’d spent half his childhood in off-Broadway plays and was home-schooled who got into Yale. And we think that if we just push harder, get them more coaching, spend more time practicing, that our own kids will have the same result. But if your kid isn’t truly passionate about what they’re doing – if he or she doesn’t want it with all of his or her heart – no amount of coaching or practicing is going to change that.
What we all need to do, I think, is take a deep breath and ask ourselves: is there anything that I am so passionate about that I’d want to be doing it every free moment? For most of us, the answer is no. So why the double standard for our kids?
If I could go back in time to counsel my students now, I’d revise my old advice. I’d tell them to find something they enjoy and to purse it to the fullest extent that makes sense for them. If someone likes to play the piano but finds that recitals take the joy out of it, then I’d tell them to just play for fun. Start a band, jam with your friends; who cares if you have a piece of paper that says you played in a concert hall if you hated every second of it? If someone likes playing basketball but doesn’t love it enough to practice six days a week, then play in pick-up games, or start an intramural league.
As parents, we have to remind ourselves that being the best at something isn’t the only way to participate. And a bitter kid who’s been pushed too hard isn’t going to impress a college. But a kid who can find creative ways to explore something he enjoys? That, I think, is infinitely more interesting.