Say you’re like most ‘90s parents, meaning you’ve absorbed your share of psychobabble from magazines, books and television regarding your child’s developmental needs.
Confidence. Coordination. Cooperation.
You know that a blue-chip adult needs these traits, so you figure involving your kid in some kind of activity will go a long way toward getting your child cruising at a good clip along the developmental autobahn.
But which one? Ballet? T-ball? Pottery? Any of these or other activities can be great skill-builders, but what’s peachy for one child may not be for another.
Parents should exercise some foresight, experts say, and take cues from their children to match them with activities that will help, not hinder.
Here are some guidelines for parents pondering the perfect activity to aid their child’s development.
Pay attention to your child’s current play patterns. Does the child watch television all the time? Does the child have a balanced pattern between the tube and outdoor activities? Based on those assessments and conversations with the child, try to determine if the child is simply a TV junkie or if his affinity for television is a symptom of shyness. If the child is shy, consider activities that will get him involved socially but won’t overwhelm him. Try something like pottery or swimming.
Tune into their interests. Bounce ideas off your child to gauge interests. Don’t force the child into something simply because you believe it would be good for him. If he doesn’t like it, the whole experience will be counterproductive.
“If you want to build your child’s confidence, you want to go with the child’s interest,” said Becky Bailey, a professor of early childhood development and education at the University of Central Florida.
“If they’re interested in mud wrestling, go with mud wrestling. That way, the child will have the inclination to be successful.”
Consider their developmental age level. An 18-month-old is not going to be able to perform pirouettes no matter how many ballet classes she attends. For the record, ballet isn’t recommended for children under 4, and even then, teachers usually focus on creative movements associated with ballet.
“To a certain extent, parents need to keep in mind the child’s age, strengths and weaknesses,” said Mercedes Ojeda-Castro, a family therapist with Psychological Affiliates Inc. in Winter Park. Honing certain skills and traits at an early age is “not necessarily a make or break thing,” she said.
Investigate what resources are available in your community based on what you can afford. It’s great if you can afford piano lessons, but you don’t have to spend oodles of money on costly lessons or gym fees. Parents seeking to improve a child’s self-confidence or self-discipline can achieve the same results by allowing the child to play at a safe, secure public playground.
After engaging your child in an activity, go back and make an assessment. Ask yourself whether the child is having fun. It is also important to make sure the child is not getting bogged down with too many activities.
“Someone once suggested we’re raising this generation of children in the back seat of our cars” as parents constantly shuffle their kids to various activities, said Dr. Edward Schor, an associate professor of pediatrics at the New England Medical Center in Boston, Mass.
“Many children are overscheduled, and many children would prefer to have more time with their parents than they do.”
Guidelines in hand, how do parents decide what activities to steer their children into?
A good place to start is by deciding what trait, quality or skill you wish the child to learn, then trying to match an activity to that.
“Some activities in fact do offer opportunities for children to gain new skills, whether social skills or physical skills, and those are certainly reasonable things to consider when helping a child select whatever activities they’re participating in,” Schor said.
Does that mean parents should carry around a tally sheet, ticking off self-discipline one month, then cooperation another?
Besides, “by and large, it is very difficult to anticipate what a child will actually learn in many of these activities,” Schor said.
Building a child’s confidence or cooperating skills “may be their intention, but each child is different so you can’t predict with certainty. It’s very difficult to generalize about any activity,” he said.
Parents need to consider the child’s age and the developmental milestones associated with that period. Using that as a yardstick, parents can seek out activities that foster certain skills and traits.
With children 2 to 5 years of age, for example, parents might concentrate on teaching the child cooperation and equipping the child with social skills such as getting along with others. Sharpening motor skills is also a concern.
But if you insist on some
structured activity as a supplement, experts suggest something that is open-ended, where there are no wrong answers.
Try painting, singing or dancing classes.
They can “use creative outlets to find out who they are and express themselves and use their imagination which helps them relate to others in a way that will help them out in later life,” said Stacy DeVutter, managing director of the Big Potato Academy, a cultural activity center in Apopka.
Games with rules such as baseball or soccer “are really not appropriate for children under 6 because children don’t understand the concept of rules,” Bailey said.
Team-oriented sports from baseball to soccer can expose the child to important concepts such as cooperation and sportsmanship, and individualized sports and activities such as gymnastics or karate can bolster self-reliance and encourage self-discipline. And they all build upon the motor skills they developed in their early years.
And for those children who are not athletically inclined, a host of activities from baseball-card collecting to piano playing can build self-discipline.
With Mom and Dad’s help, that is.
“Children need encouragement to practice whatever that practice might be. They don’t have the discipline for it by and large, and they need to be guided, encouraged and rewarded to do that.”The key point to remember
though is that these activities should not be seen as a test the child must pass. And parents should check their vicarious dreams of having the next Babe Ruth or prima ballerina at the door.
“Just focusing on these activities to learn skills is missing half the point,” Castro said. Parents “forget this needs to be a good time for the kid to have fun. And remember whose needs you’re trying to accommodate. You can’t forget that these activities are for the child, not the parent.”