I had a conversation recently with author and radio host Armin Brott about how kids are growing up these days in a climate which diminishes their motivation to do things that should, in principle, be fun, and in the long run serve them well. Case in point: Brott cites data from the National Alliance for Youth Sports suggesting that over 70% of kids have dropped out of sports by age 13, primarily because it's not fun anymore. 

It's not just sports. I've talked to many an adult who told me how they were required to take music lessons - typically piano or violin - for as long as they could remember, only to give it up as soon as they had the chance to do so. They had proficiency, but did not get any pleasure out of it. One adult - a very successful journalist - recently told me that she's just noticing how she and most of her friends don't have hobbies.

The same case can be made for academics. The push for achievement is so intense these days - starting at early ages - that many of our students end up being "overloaded and underprepared," having lost their enthusiasm for learning. College administrators have told me that the one thing these days that stands out in a student application is an authentic sense of joy, a palpable indication that they are excited to be going to college. That does not bode well for the future of our kids, or our future for that matter.

//creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This is what childhood should look like.
Source: By Austin Kirk (Sprinkler Fun) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So what do we do here? We all need to step back and embrace the notion that success doesn't just come from overpracticing and overworking and being critiqued up the wazoo and pushed to be better than everyone else. The "secret sauce" for success is often enthusiasm and motivation and self-drive. That's the stuff that carries us through setbacks and pushes us to push ourselves to get better at something, one step at a time - and to find that something that will let us be our best selves. 

And there are peripheral benefits to finding pleasure in things even if we aren't excelling. Some kids might not be awesome at sports, but find out that they are great teammates. But kids won't have a chance to discover that if they are evaluated constantly on their performance or if their life is consumed by practices and games - and if it becomes such a drag that they just don't want to do it anymore. 

This isn't about lowering a bar or indulging kids or not preparing them for a competitive world. In Raising Can-Do Kids, we interviewed a number of highly successful entrepreneurs. What stands out is that their fuel was always some type of pleasure principle. They never sounded lukewarm when talking about something they pursued - especially when they recounted the struggles and setbacks before they attained their successes. The heart beat of their success was finding things that turned them on, and once that happened they found a way to learn everything they needed to learn. That's why we translated the kinds experiences they had in childhood into actionable steps for parents to raise kids who will be primed to not only succeed but thrive, personally and professionally, later in life

How does this translate to the everyday life of a kid growing up today?

First of all, kids need time for unstructured play. They should be able to run, throw or kick a ball, dance, sing - whatever - without feedback and critique from adults. Not every second of a kid's life needs to be mentored and the purpose isn't to get great at something. Let them sample and muck around and do things in order to discover the joy of doing. To be clear, I'm not against structured activities and not suggesting we do away with them. They can be rewarding at any age especially when designed to cultivate enthusiasm and foster motivation. But every activity shouldn't be structured, and structured activities shouldn't dominate a schedule. Why? Because kids need some dedicated time every day to treat play as play, plain and simple.

The same goes for learning. Kids do not inherently dislike learning. Spend a day with a toddler and count how many times they use the word "why". They are wired to be be curious. Watch them in a children's museum. Left to their own devices, in an environment where they are encouraged to touch and explore without instruction or critique, they go wild investigating the unknown and figuring out how things work. Why would we want to extinguish this natural inclination to be curious, creative, innovative, and self-driven? But when we start putting too much emphasis on grades and the long chain of pushing for "achievement" that leads to trying to get into an "elite" college - rather than carefully nurturing the love of learning - we can end up with those kids with stellar resumes but exhausted minds and bodies and a lack of that spark that they should have to carry them to be lifelong learners.

The beauty of childhood is that play is work. It's an old saying. But the danger is that years from now the saying may become that childhood is work. There's a big difference, and not a good one.

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