My daughter, Sara, skipped across the gleaming floor of The Dance Center in south Spokane, a ballerina wannabe. She shot me a satisfied smile and a thumbs up and moved to the end of the line. For a second, I saw myself, a shy 4-year-old in an orange sherbet-hued tutu, terrified the dance instructor might call on me. But my Sara showed no fear. She was soaking it all in.
Tapping into a child’s love for dance or any other activity is tricky business. Some kids thrive in team sports while others prefer the solitude of painting. Experts agree, finding your child’s niche is a trial-and-error process. And if it’s going to be a success, parents must allow their children to lead the way.
“No matter how good you think an activity is for your youngster, don’t railroad him into it,” writes Dorothy A. Bodenburg, author of “Overachieving Parents/ Underachieving Children”(Lowell House, $22.95). “You need to truly listen to what your youngster is saying about his interests and dislikes. Be alert to what draws his attention naturally and use that as the starting point for activities he will enjoy.”
Bodenburg also advises parents to take a good look at their own investment in their child’s choices and ultimately, in their successes. Is Dad trying to relive his glory days through junior’s football? Is Mom pushing a daughter to be the concert pianist she never was? “Parents often see their children as extensions of themselves,” writes Bodenburg. “Unfortunately, this causes clashes of wills, for in truth, children are not extensions of their parents. They are unique and separate individuals.”
Terri Casey, mother of 4-year-old Amanda, uses the smorgasbord approach, encouraging her daughter to sample whatever strikes her. “When I was a kid, I did absolutely everything. I thought it would be fun for Amanda,” says Casey. “It’s better for her to be busy than sitting around at home, bored, watching one more video.”
So far, Amanda has tried art, gymnastics, swimming, ballet and choir. Narrowing activities is up to her. “I knew choir wasn’t her thing when she’d rather stand on her head than sing,” says Casey.
Structured activities offer kids a lot of strokes, like learning new skills and being a part of a positive peer group. Judy Marcille, a program specialist with Camp Fire Girls and Boys, Inland Northwest Council, says youth organizations can teach children values like good citizenship, self-reliance and cooperation - living skills they’ll carry into all facets of their lives.
She points to teens who have stuck with Camp Fire through high school. They’re involved in sports and other activities. “Some of it is personality, they’re natural leaders. But they’ve also been worked into a system that taught them leadership skills.”
There’s no perfect age for kids to dive into activities, says Spokane clinical psychologist Lawrence Weathers, but choices should reflect the child’s developmental capabilities. “Younger kids should be involved in things that look like play, like swimming. I don’t know many 4-year-olds who wouldn’t love to get in the water and kick,” Weathers says. “As they get older, kids become more competency-oriented and want things that look more like education and training.”
Weathers also says it’s OK for kids to be busy, as long as they aren’t feeling pushed or pulled by someone else and are running on their own power. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with high structure,” he adds, but parents need to watch for cues that children are still having fun. Are they energized or exhausted? Is he making up excuses not to make practices? Is she feigning illnesses?
Sara and Cam Phillips of Coeur d’Alene say their own parents never pushed them, but they’re not taking any chances with their four kids, ages 10 to 17. “We encourage our kids to excel in all areas,” she says. “Today’s world requires it. They need to do their best or they won’t succeed in an overcrowded job market.”
At the heart of the family’s “busyness” is an overriding theme of balance. “We get lots of down time at Priest Lake,” Phillips says.
She also allows limited access to television. “School is tiring. It’s learning and social and takes a lot out of them. Unwinding with a little TV is OK.”
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