Tuesday, May 30, 2017

You Can Dance If You Want To

Don't You Want to Dance?  Say You Want to Dance.

We recently received an important piece of mail in our house, the result of our 6 year-old's dance tryout.  Our two girls have both been dancing at a local dance studio for the last few years, and this spring, we allowed our oldest to tryout for the "competition" dance team for the following year.  She could have auditioned last year, but we (mainly I) felt that it would be too much with her also starting kindergarten.  Five seemed a tad young for her to start spending a seemingly excessive amount of time on one particular activity.  Six year-olds are obviously so much more mature.  

Of course joining a "competition" dance team is considerably more consuming, in nearly ever facet, than having her participate in the current "recreational" classes she has been doing for the past few years.  After attempting to explain to her the difference between continuing on with her current classes and trying out for a competition team; the increased time commitment and expectation and, somewhat more subtly, the larger financial investment that would need to be made, we asked her if she wanted to tryout for a team, which she did.  Having other classmates already involved on a competition team and others planning on trying out likely swayed her decision - she has #FOMO^ already.  

Fortunately, she genuinely seems to enjoy dance and tends to have knack for the activity.  She was "invited" to try out for a competition team the past two years, and her current instructor made it readily apparent to both my wife and I that she was very much "ready" to be on a competition team based on her dancing ability.  This year they even guaranteed her a spot on one of the competition teams, but asked that she attend try outs to see where she would best fit.  It was a flattering gesture, but I also wondered if it was part of a broader marketing ploy to get families hooked into the "comp" community, ensuring a steady stream of dancers and tuition dollars for years to come.  With a younger sister currently in her second year of dance that has the same level of interest and ability as her older sister (if not more) and a younger brother who seems to possess just as much enthusiasm for dance as his older sisters, I'm certain we are the model family. 

As a parent it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the myriad of organized activities available for young kids, at a (debatable) fair market price.  Growing up in a much smaller town and further from a sizable metropolitan area than what we currently do, my access to organized activities, especially during the summer, where much more limited.  Almost everyone played summer rec baseball or softball because it was the only thing available.  Odds are you took swimming lessons at the local pool, if you had access to one, and did a week of VBS (Vacation Bible School) at your church or another one in the community.  When you got a little older, you may have had the luxury of participating in a sports camp or league at the nearby community college, and when you got old enough, you got a summer job.

I certainly think the opportunity for kids to participate in organized activities is beneficial.  We're also very fortunate to have convenient access to a plethora of various types of activities, recreational and artistic, and have the financial means to take advantage of those offerings, both during the school year and summer.  Without doubt your kids can learn a great deal by participating in such organized activities, both about the particular activities, as well as the softer social-emotional skills of interacting with others and taking direction from adults other than yourself.  But the shear act of deciding what to sign your kid up for can cause a mild level of anxiety.  A quick glance of the summer recreation offerings available to our kids, who have a cumulative age of 12 includes (but is certainly not limited too):

Art Camp
BMX Racing
Equestrian Camp
Piano/Music Lessons
Swimming Lessons
Theater Camp
Vacation Bible School
Volleyball Camp

All seem like great options of activities to engage young kids in, and if time and resources allowed, you could certainly make a full time job of carting your kids to their various activities, and some parents likely do.  But if there is one thing the peer reviewed parent literature agrees on, Amy Chua probably being the lone exception, it's about the importance of giving your kids ample unstructured free time.  Not only is it beneficial for the kids, it can certainly help keep your parental sanity in check.  We've all seen the harried parents piloting their SUV (or minivan if they are a tad more sensible) down the street like a race car, perpetually late for their next scheduled kid-related activity.  That will never be us, we tell ourselves.

As easy as it can be to over-schedule your kids, another supposedly dangerous phenomenon in kid's activities is over-specialization, especially in regards to athletic pursuits.  The social media feed of one of my grad school classmates is filled with articles and advice, typically by very successful athletes and coaches, about the importance of engaging in multiple activities and giving each activity an appropriate off season.  However, what I've started to notice is if a kid is progressing in a certain activity, particularly a sport, the commitment (time, monetary, emotionally) goes from minimal to exorbitant in a hurry.  Almost overnight you go from being a parent whose child participates in something once a week to a "dance/soccer/hockey/fill in the blank-mom" (or dad), with the logo of child's organization adorning multiple items of your clothing and decal-ed to a prominent location on your vehicle.  In a few short years, you too may find yourself with entire walk-in closets dedicated to dance costumes worn a handful of times.  I've been told that these exist.

It can be hard not to get caught up in the over-commitment trap when you observe the vast chasm in ability levels of kids in a certain activity, likely corresponding with how much time they spend on that activity each week.  Watching our girls' year-end dance recital last spring, it was readily apparent which kids just went to dance, and which kids were "dancers".  The "dancers" were incredible, some of whom looked not much older than our oldest.  It can be hard for a parent, even someone like me who is very cautious about measuring my kids to the ability of others, to not want your own child to be able to dance like them.  The stark variance in ability was also something I noticed last summer when we attended a youth baseball game to cheer on our 11 year-old neighbor.  It didn't take long to pick out which kids had likely spent a sizable amount of time honing their four seam fastball with a pitching coach already.  Our neighbor clearly not being one of them.

Because our kids are 6, 4 & 2, and the jump into seemingly-excessive organized activity is a relatively new concept for us, I can't pretend to purport a lot of of wisdom or advice on how to best ensure that your day-to-day activities don't become a blur of moving from one organized kid related activity to the next.  Whenever I lament on my anticipated scheduling nightmare of extracurriculars to parents with older children, I tend to be, poignantly, responded with a look of apathy that tells me I'm preaching to the choir.  Without doubt, considerably smarter parents have likely come up with some hard and fast rules when it comes to allowing their kid's to participate in organized activities.  For a vast majority of us, it tends to be a "fly-by-the seat of your pants" experience (which is congruent with pretty much every other aspect of parenting for me).  However, there are a few things that I hope to keep in mind, and other parents might do well to remember too:

Establishing Priorities - Extracurricular activities are just that, extra.  During the school year, if you have school aged kids, school work should always come first and academic learning shouldn't be compromised for kids to participate in other activities.  Yes, kids learn a lot by participating in extracurriculars, but if you want them to succeed in school, you have to set the tone that school is a priority.  I also believe that responsibilities to the family also have to take precedent over organized activity.  Studies have shown how beneficial it is for a family to sit down for dinner together.  Identify  those rituals that help your family bond, and do your best to keep those intact.  Likewise if your kids have certain expectations for helping around the house (i.e. chores) or if you expect them to work a part time job when they get old enough.  This helps show your kids that the world (even their world) doesn't revolve around their activities, their activities are privileges to be enjoyed after all of their responsibilities have been completed and their commitments to the family have been honored.  Establish your priorities early because it is easy for things to get out of hand in a hurry.    

Activities are Voluntary - No one is forcing you to log a few hundred miles each week carting your kids to various activities.  If balancing all of your various kids activities is causing you excessive amounts of stress, it's time to take a step back and reassess the role that they play in our family's life. Any benefits that they get from participating in those activities will most certainly be negated by the stress and anxiety they absorb from you.  Resist the urge to sign your kids up for tons of activities just because your neighbor or co-worker or overachieving relative is doing so.  And do your best to not be that parent who gets caught up in the pettiness that can often be present in over-invested caregivers.  If you find yourself complaining about your kid's activities, or complaining about the parents of the other kids who constantly complain about their kid's activities, remember that you signed up for it.  Sure it won't always be butterflies and roses (unless if you sign them up for some Intro to Gardening class), but it should be an enjoyable experience, for you and your child, a vast majority of the time.  

They are Kid's Activities - We all selfishly want our kids to be involved in certain things - likely the things that we enjoy doing.  But allow your kids to find their own way with their hobbies and passions.  Introduce the activities to them that you are passionate about and enjoy, but if they don't take to them, help them find something that the really do enjoy to participate in.  Remember Julie Lythcott-Haims advice to "never let your parenting behavior be motivated by your own ego."  You can certainly make suggestions on what you think they should participate in, and you have the authority to make decisions on what they may not participate in, they are kids after all and you are the adult.  However if it is something you are forcing them to do, odds are they won't enjoy it and it will just create more stress trying to get them to participate.

When I was young, my parents forced me to take piano lessons and I hated it.  Subsequently, despite taking six years of piano in my youth, I hardly remember anything from my lessons, which is something I really regret now.  In effort to encourage me along the way, my Mom even signed up to take lessons herself, bless her heart.  I figure if you want kids to gravitate towards the activities that you are particularly interested in, allow your kids to see you doing those activities (and enjoying it), and odds are they will likely take an interest as well.  You'll also likely have to accept the fact that kids can have a short attention span and lose interest in something pretty quickly.  Just because they are obsessed with something now, doesn't mean they will continue to be for years to come.  But make sure that they understand the importance of honoring their commitments - if they've signed up to participate in something for the summer, make sure they stick it out for the entire summer before giving it up.    

They are Just Activities - Yes they can build character and teach certain skills specific to the activity.  But on their face, organized kid's activities are essentially just a way to keep kids busy, and often an excuse for us parents to get some adult social interaction.  At some point, the activities will cease to exist and it can be easy to wonder if all of the time, money and gray hairs were worth it.  Try to avoid envisioning where a particular activity will get your child; sending them to sports camps will ensure that they get athletic scholarship offers for college, music lessons will help get that family band a record deal, etc.  Instead think of how it will enhance their life as they grow older - participating in dance will presumably allow our girls to better enjoy wedding receptions in their later years.

Participating in activities is also a great way for kids to gain perspective on putting things into context.  I'm certainly not one who adheres to the "every should get a trophy" mindset, but too often the excessive competitiveness and win-at-all costs mentality can take hold, especially at an early age.  Kids should want to compete and work hard for the sheer sake of doing so, not just to get a medal.  The odds of a child turning a certain sport or activity into a potential career or livelihood is pretty minuscule.  Better to set the foundation of it being something that they enjoy and something they will continue to want to do, long after the organized aspect of it is gone.                            

As parents, we have to set the tone.  Remember Dr. Leonard Sax's advice that "you are the parent, and you are in charge."  Finding the balance of involving your kids without over-involving them can be very tricky (just like finding balance in most every other thing with your kids is).  But don't feel like you are short changing them if you are not running three times a day to different structured activities.  Embrace the opportunity for them to have free time.  Odds are it was something that most of us had as kids, and we seemed to turn out okay (right?).  It can be tough to realize preemptively when things are getting out of hand, but once you've made that realization, make a change.  Consider what makes the most sense for your sanity and the overall environment for your family.  Sandlot baseball can be just as beneficial to their development as playing in the Little League World Series.  Dancing doesn't only have to happen in a studio with a highly trained instructor at a dedicated time each week.  It can happen on a whim right in your living room.  If it is with somebody who loves you, its safe to assume it will be a good time.
^"Fear of missing out" is what the FOMO acronym stands for.  At least that's what the kids tell me.

*That dancing seems to come naturally to our kids shouldn't surprise us much, as their mom and dad claim the honors, in no particular order of importance, of "multiple year state dance team champion" and "senior class best dancer".

Some pictures are worth a thousand words.
This picture is worth a (few) thousand dollars
of future dance-related expenses.

At least we'll hopefully get some additional
use out of the old recital costumes.

Postscript - My Ideal Kid
In the effort of full disclosure, I should probably divulge what I honestly would want my kids to be involved in/passionate about if I had my way and time and money (and sanity) didn't play a factor.  Yes, it is absurd, and I think it illustrates how easy it can be to fall into the mindset of needing to sign our kids up for every activity lest with jeopardize their personal and professional development.  Hypocrisy abounds!

First I'd like my kids to be academically gifted.  Smart, but not too smart that they lack social skills.  I'd take top 10% of their class.  They'd have an interest in the arts - especially music and hopefully theater.  They'd play piano and at least one other instrument; hopefully different ones that could contribute to the family band - drums, guitar, violin, etc.  And they'd love to sing and feel comfortable getting up on stage to perform, but still be a little nervous about it.  They'd enjoy reading, but not necessarily those bizarre science fiction books.  They'd also enjoy playing board and card games; particularly chess and cribbage but not necessarily poker/blackjack or Pokemon.  They'd love to be outside and enjoy hiking, camping, biking, downhill skiing in the winter, swimming in the summer.  They'd be adventurous, but calculated risk takers.  They'd want to travel and have an interest in different cultures and places, and when they got old enough, be knowledgeable in current events.  They'd learn a second (or third) language.  

For sports they'd play volleyball (even Gus) and tennis for sure, and basketball, golf, soccer, baseball/softball if they wanted.  I'd also allow them to continue dancing if they wanted (even Gus).  No football or hockey.  Hopefully they would be good enough to play at least one sport in college if they so choose, but not feel obligated to do so.  They'd also be runners and competent swimmers.  Beyond activities, they'd be liked by their classmates, but not the most popular kids, as that would probably indicate that they were involved in some questionable behavior (the most popular kids are usually so for a specific reason).  They'd be empathetic and feel the urge to volunteer once in a while for a good cause.  They would notice trash on the side of the road and stop to pick it up.  They'd confront bullies, especially when someone else is being bullied, but they'd be calm enough to refrain from throwing punches.  They'd be leaders and have the courage to stand up for things they believed in, but also humble about their leadership abilities.  

Oh, and they'd be content.  Not necessarily happy, but content.  These all seem like reasonable expectations, right?               


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