Monica: Hey Chandler! Did you like the macaroni and cheese?
Chandler: Oh yeah, it was great. You should be a chef.
Similar exchanges during playdates have led me to sign my pre-school aged children up for a variety of highly random classes in an attempt to find their ‘calling.’ In today’s competitive world of parenting, it’s almost as though children are being encouraged to find their life’s passion by the time they get into Kindergarten. Private coaches, expensive tutors and overscheduling are part of the norm in this quest for uniqueness and achievement in at least one very specialized area. We all claim to want happy, healthy, well-rounded children with a variety of interests and yet, we’re all guilty of enormous pride when our kid is the obvious MVP and a smidge of envy when they’re clearly not.
My daughter puts together crazy outfits (like most three-nagers do). Maybe she’s the next Vera Wang! My son loves Legos and Star Wars. Maybe he’s the next George Lucas or Frank Llloyd Wright! Sign ‘em up! After all, there are classes out there for every interest imaginable and it is our job as parents to expose our children to a multitude of options in the hopes that one might stick. And though children run the risk of burning out by middle school, the younger a child starts honing in on one particular skill, the better. After all, we all know how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice).
Two or three times a year, parents look at the seven days of the week and schedule their children in various activities. Each extracurricular seems to serve a very specific purpose from helping the child do better in school to being social with friends (otherwise known as the FOMO* activity) to developing a special skill the child can excel at and call his own. Of course, that last goal can be all about ‘building confidence’, ‘earning the rewards that come with hard work’ and ‘supporting little Timmy who is totally passionate about playing the oboe’ – all of which are admirable intentions. But in a community of well-educated parents, it can sometimes feel like the college application process has already begun and kids need to declare a major (yes, you read that right). Often times, there are more activities than there are days in the week. So, with all of the very valid reasons mentioned above, it’s hard to know which activities to keep on the calendar and which to cut loose.
One afternoon, while sitting in the bleachers and watching our sons play soccer, a friend of mine put everything in perspective when she exclaimed, “I’m paying for college!” With that one statement, I actually began to relax (despite the overwhelming monetary implication of saving for the kids’ college funds). The reality is that out of the thousands of students who graduate high school each year, only a very small percentage will actually be recruited to play on a team or given massive merit scholarships. And the percentage is even less for those who actually go on to play a sport professionally. Think about all the blood, sweat, tears, money, schlepping and stress that both you and your children expend with such ambition, especially when it begins at such a young age. I realize that achievement in one particular area and/or being the MVP of a winning team are extraordinarily valuable experiences to have throughout adolescence but is learning these lessons at such a highly intensive level absolutely necessary? Yes, many children have the genuine drive, talent and desire to do it and what parent would say no when asked to support that? After all, it’d be hard not to don a Mama Rose boa, live vicariously and get enraptured by the thrill of such success, especially if it’s an activity the parent himself once pursued. But what about all the other kids who don’t have the ‘it factor’?
I’m a drama teacher at a reputable theatre and I often get this question: “Emily loves to sing and dance around the house. She also says she wants to be on one of those Nickelodeon shows….how do I get her an agent and where do I get her headshots?” While I truly applaud this parent for being supportive of her daughter’s dreams and believing in her, I also question if she realizes the path they’re about to embark upon (and this is assuming the child has extraordinary raw talent – which is a very rare phenomenon). While I’m not necessarily against it in certain situations, pursuing the performing arts, sports, music, or any activity professionally while still young is a real commitment, both literally and emotionally. Children and parents alike may not be aware of the necessary sacrifices and challenges (financially, academically, at the expense of siblings, etc.) and children may not be developmentally ready to take the emotional roller coaster ride of rejection and extreme competition. And yet, for a variety of understandable reasons, parents and children can subconsciously feel that the simple enjoyment of a hobby at the amateur or recreational level is just not good enough anymore. As a result, our children struggle to be both the jack-of-all-trades and the master of something.
I recently interviewed a High School senior who was applying to my Ivy League alma mater. He went to a very prestigious private school in Manhattan and I was very impressed by his well-rounded and accomplished resume. I’ve interviewed many similar candidates over the years and sadly and surprisingly, they do not get accepted. Since becoming a mom, this reality is rather troublesome. These poor kids are bombarded by countless catch 22s! I reassure myself with the knowledge that the world is ever changing and it’s unknown what the meaning of a college degree will be in 20 years. Then I check Facebook for a slew of reminders that everyone seems to be leading happy and successful lives regardless of their grades and talents in high school. Then I call my best friend, Sari, who first picked up a tennis racket at the age of 12 and was a thousand times better than all of us who had already taken 8 years of private lessons. This 3-step anxiety-reducing process does wonders for my default setting as worrywart mom.
Before the end of our conversation, I asked the interviewee what his advice would be for the next generation. For the first time during our conversation, I saw him relax, smile and give a little chuckle as he said, “I spent a lot of years playing soccer and saxophone to please my parents and follow in my brother’s footsteps. All I can say is, do what you enjoy, and do it for you.”
* FOMO: Defined by Urban Dictionary as ‘Fear Of Missing Out’