Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Extracurriculars Create Extra Worries...But Important Lessons, Too

Sending kids off to school is easy. It's the extracurriculars that get you.

For me, the pitfall is: How many should you let them do?

I wish I was the kind of mom who, when faced with a new activity for her kids, would say, "Absolutely not. You have enough going on as it is." Instead, I always say, "That sounds like opportunity knocking. You should do that!"

Richie is a joiner. He wants to take guitar lessons! He wants to learn tennis! He wants to play golf! He wants to join Cub Scouts! Flag football! 3&2 Baseball! The other day he asked if he could raise pot-bellied pigs, and I think there's a club for that, too (4H).

I can relate. I also joined everything as a kid. I wanted to do Ballet! Gymnastics! Swimming! Modern dance!

And I wanted to do each five nights a week. I dreamed of being fanatical about an activity. I wanted to be the kid who woke up at 4 a.m. to go to gymnastics and then ended up quitting school and moving to Russia because that's where they have the meanest coaches who would cast you into the snow if you messed up your back flip.

When I'd hear stories like these on the Olympics, I'd actually get jealous. Why couldn't I be the one with that insane coach? I wondered. That could be me standing on the podium with a broken ankle and skin as thick as a sailor's.

In truth, it couldn't have been. For one thing, I don't like being yelled at. It hurts my feelings. Also, talent-wise, I never got past the cartwheel. And no Olympic gymnast worth her salt does a cartwheel-only routine. Lastly, I couldn't become obsessed with gymnastics when there were so many other things to try. Acting! Volleyball! Irish Step Dancing!

Johnny, on the other hand, likes to throw himself into one thing: football. He wanted to quit Cub Scouts to focus on it, but I wouldn't let him. I wanted him to stick with his pack. Then I made him join a new club because--you guessed it--opportunity knocked. Now, he's over-booked and I'm officially crazy-extracurricular mom.

If we lived on a block where tons of kids ran free, the kids ideally wouldn't do anything. They would just frolick outside with the other younguns. Such is not the case. So this summer, I tried to orchestrate a spontaneous activity. Some kids came over and played Whiffle ball on Wednesdays while the parents sat and talked. It was supposed to be like an old-fashioned pickup game except that I scheduled it. This is the world we live in.

Overscheduling is just one extracurricular concern. Parents worry about all sorts of things in clubs and sports. That an intense coach will take the fun out of playing. Or that supercompetitive parents will. Or not getting enough playing time will. On the flip side, I heard a mom complain that a coach was playing the kids too equally. She thought that not winning was taking the fun out of playing. Coaches (who are usually parents themselves) have other worries altogether, such as dealing with the parents.

I've worried about some of these things, too. But now I see that my expectations were out of wack. I viewed extracurriculars as an extention of school, but they're not.

At school, learning new things, playing well with others, and doing your best have the highest value.

Extracurriculars, on the other hand, are the Wild West. The coaches and parents and players might start out focusing on learning, best effort, and teamwork, but in the heat of the moment, the focus often shifts to winning.

I get it. I keep score. I like to win.

Ironically, I think focusing on winning teaches kids the opposite: Even when it looks like winning is everything, it's not.

The fact of the matter is: You win some and you lose some. You lose some you should have won, and you win some you should have lost. And sometimes, you're just up against better players. But the best is when you win because you learned new things, gave your best, and were a good teammate. Life teaches us over and over that if you do these three things, you've already won. On the best days, games teach us that, too.

On other days, they just teach us to stop overbooking our children. I have to remember that opportunity isn't always knocking. Sometimes it's ding dong ditching.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think you grew up overbooked. I'm trying to think of everything you did - volleyball, basketball, cross country, soccer, ballet, track, gymnastics, tap, modern dance, speech team, plays - acting and putting them on yourself, swimteam, coaching swimteam, dive team, tennis, babysitting, putting on and going to basketball camps, volunteering at a women's shelter, then in college, you played football, soccer and volunteered with the homeless. What have I forgotten? That's what I can think of off hand. I wonder why you feel like you look at activities as oportunities. They are!!!! At least you and i always thought they were!!! Love you, Mom

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh yeah- writing poetry and stories and piano lessons, art lessons at the art gallery.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Tim Higgins said...


This would all be a lot easier if kids would just come with well written instruction manuals. Nothing as elaborate as that for a car, but the size used as a quick guide for cell phones would be helpful. Heck, even the Constitution isn't that long a document, and look at all of the things it has to figure out.

We all look back on the experience of parenting wishing we had done a better job, as our parents did before us. Surprisingly, most of the time the people who raised us (a tough standard to be judged by) think that we have done pretty well.

Relax and enjoy the hectic nature of your current experience. It will be over before you know it, and long before you want it to be.

7:09 AM  

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