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Should Kids Diversify or Specialize After School?

Both, because childhood is a buffet.

I love a good Sunday brunch buffet. I often sample lots of dishes, and then go back to get a larger serving of my favorite.

When people ask me about afterschool activities for their elementary school-age kids– how many they should be in, which activity will help them get into college someday, etc.– I explain that they should approach those afterschool hours the same way they approach that Sunday buffet. Children should sample a lot of different things so that they can figure out their favorites. Lately I have been asked this question even more often since my book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture will be released next week!

Middle childhood, which is the time between ages 6-12 (or, for a rough equivalent, the elementary school years), is the time for exposure and exploration. Parents make choices about which activities their kids should explore based on their own experiences and preferences. Maybe mom played the violin, so she wants her daughter to as well; or, perhaps she never played a musical instrument and that’s the reason she’s so adamant that her kids learn to play music. Other families emphasize physical fitness, so participation on an athletic team is very important. Within those categories of music and sports there are more choices. A child can play a string instrument, or the piano, drums, recorder, or clarinet, and the list goes on. Athletics is even more complex– will a child play a team sport or an individual one? Will it be a popular sport, like soccer or tennis, or a more rarefied one, like lacrosse or squash?

Of course, this isn’t an either/or enterprise. Many kids play sports and a musical instrument and do something else (like drawing, Mandarin lessons, theater, or chess, and again the list goes on). One mom I met while researching Playing to Win evocatively described her parenting strategy to me by saying she is striving to raise “little Renaissance men.” But not all boys will grow up to be Renaissance men and not all kids are destined to be “well-rounded.” While these are worthwhile goals, parents must also listen to their children.

Kids are an integral part of this process. In some cases, children will approach their parents with an activity that they would like to try out. Perhaps a friend at school is a skateboarder, or a girl saw Aly Raisman win the gold in the Olympics and she wants to try to be a gymnast. If a child expresses interest in a particular activity it’s a good idea to explore a class in that, or something very similar (perhaps biking if you don’t like skateboarding, or dance or cheerleading if you don’t like gymnastics). Other times, like when an activity is parent-driven and a child wants out, or even wants more of it, parents should listen to their child’s desires, especially before investments of time and money get too high. What’s important is that kids are exposed to a wide range of options when they are young so they can explore, be creative, and start to gain mastery. This helps insure that kids will be intrinsically motivated and hopefully develop a genuine interest and passion in a given area.

Of course, what parents choose to expose their kids to is ultimately shaped by a variety of individual and societal factors. To continue the buffet metaphor, not everyone will have grits or lox on their Sunday buffet, but most people will have eggs and bacon (some will have it free-range and organic, and others won’t). For example, in certain parts of the country ice hockey is more popular, and in others Pop Warner football dominates. On top of regional preferences parental background matters. More educated parents may shy away from activities they consider dangerous, like boxing, and instead push weekend math classes. And parents of boys and girls tend to favor different sorts of activities, even within the same family.

There is no right way or wrong way to make these choices so long as you listen to your child and your own common sense. There is no magic number of activities or number of hours of participation that will help your little one get into an Ivy League school ten years down the road. There is no equation that tells us whether or not your child will rebel later in life is he or she goes to ballet instead of karate. But there is a way to keep childhood fun, and full of creativity and exploration, while still training kids for the next steps in their lives. By allowing kids to explore within a structured set of choices, they’ll be able to know what they really love as they move into middle school and high school, where those specific choices start to matter more. Until then, enjoy your waffles, pancakes, hash browns, Eggs Benedict, or whatever else you and your kids prefer!