A friend told me that her teen daughters recently said they wished she had forced them to keep playing their musical instruments. But then, they also said they felt bad for a pal whose parents made her do activities.
Ah, parents can't win!
Should you require your kids to gut it out in a not-so-fun-for-them extracurricular that you think is good for them — and for their college applications? Or not?
Forcing kids backfires, says my own 12-year-old. "They'll never try because they don't care." (Recently she asked to start taking piano lessons again – and is practicing with new gusto.)
To supplement my daughter's view, I checked with two of my favorite experts – child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character, and Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, the father of four and the co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? Some advice:
Don't worry too much. "If your offspring says, 'I wish you had forced me to play the piano,' a parent can enthusiastically respond, 'Wonderful! Fortunately, you have a whole lifetime ahead of you," says Berger. "'So you can start forcing yourself to take the piano just as soon as you'd like. Why, tomorrow, for example.'"
Let your kids take the initiative. If you can't afford lessons now, so be it. After all, Jimi Hendrix figured out how to play the guitar on his own. And Adele has said she taught herself to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, and Roberta Flack.
Know when forcing is necessary and when it isn't. Parents must make their kids get vaccinations and get up early for school, says Berger. "A child's day is full of being forced, even without the development of special talents and interests. So I think that children must set their own agenda for these special activities although the parent can certainly help the agenda become a reality."
Be a sounding board. "Parents can certainly shore up sagging morale and lend wise advice, helping the child recognize that the goal of playing in Carnegie Hall cannot be achieved by magic alone but only through daily dedication," says Berger.
Be a good role model. Do you bring passion to your job and your hobbies? "If parents are loving, respectful, devoted, responsible, hardworking people, then their children will admire them and want to be like them – in their speech and their manners and in their character qualities as well," says Berger. "Parents who follow their own dreams by investing the necessary hard work raise children who do the same thing. No parent can 'make' a child hard working. A parent can inspire a child to be hardworking, but generally this is best done indirectly, through the parent's example. It is not the parent's mission to determine the child's dream."
Figure out what is in the best interest of your child. You want to prepare your offspring "to be curious and passionate about life — and to be independent," says Hindy. "The goal is to get children to discover interests and to enjoy learning and discovering new things, not to fill their teenage resumes with things that they've done." Expose kids to different possibilities, says Hindy. "It's about finding the right fit." Some kids may benefit from a vocational interest survey, he says. (Does anyone else remember taking the Kuder assessment, which back in the day asked whether you'd rather build a birdhouse or read a book?)
Turn a "failure" in an activity into a success. One of Hindy's sons wrote his college admissions essay about his struggles as a non-superstar high school wrestler who voluntarily stuck with the sport for all four years. He got into Cornell. He persevered despite "losing match after match," he wrote. "I learned from my failures and used them as self-improvement motivation."
Don't be obsessed with getting your child into a name-brand college. Avoid requiring kids to pick from activities on a list. "You end up with a kid who goes through the motions, and it may look good on the application, but who are we really fooling?" says Hindy. College admissions officers can tell when an applicant cares deeply – or not. In "Getting Into College, Demystified," former Stanford admissions dean Robin Mamlet, co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, told me, "The message is do what you care about, not what you think we will care about. Don't spend your time just crossing off checking the boxes. It's not about how busy you are."
For more stories about kids and extracurricular activities, read:
For more stories about kids and college, read: