Being Really Good at One Thing

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By Gabrielle. Photo of 41-year-old Olympic gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina.

I’m thinking of the Olympics today. Have you been watching? It’s fun and funny to watch it from France because it’s a whole different perspective — obviously the coverage is focused on the French athletes, and I’m getting to see events that I didn’t even know were part of the Olympics (hello, handball!).

Watching the games has reminded me of a topic that’s crossed my mind over the last year. I’ve been thinking about the benefits and disadvantages of being really focused and really good at one thing, versus being okay/fine/good at lots of things. I know there are some people who figure out a specific passion at a very early age. And of course there are parents who pick an activity for their young child, and the child ends up being amazing at it.

I guess I wonder how often it’s the first case (the child choosing), and how often it’s the second case (the parent choosing). I’m thinking of kids who grow up as almost full-time athletes or musicians or actors, with parents who started them on that road as babies or toddlers. Do the kids only love it because it’s all they’ve ever known? Would those kids have found the same passion on their own later in life (like as teens)? And would it be too late to really become amazing at it?

It seems like one of those tricky things, where windows of opportunity close to our kids before we even know the windows exist. If your 15-year-olds are watching the Olympics and wishing they were on the gymnastics team, even if they are willing to work like crazy, they’ve pretty much missed the window to participate in gymnastics at an Olympic level. (I realize there are exceptions, have you been following the 41-year-old?)

So as parents, if we want to give our kids a better chance at being world-class at something, do we try and guess what they might excel at, and then focus on that thing from the time they can walk and talk?

At our house, we’ve definitely done the try-it-all thinking. For example, music lessons. Our kids have taken, and continue to take, a whole bunch of lessons throughout their lives. So far, we’ve done cello, violin, piano, trombone, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, voice and ukulele. Four have been in the school band. Three have been in the school choir. They all love to play, and some even love to compose. Family jam sessions are not unusual. But I don’t think any of them think of themselves mainly as a musician. Should we have chosen one instrument for each of them at an early age and required them to focus on that one option until they were proficient? Should we be pushing them toward a career in music? (I’m not feeling regret or guilt here, just curious.)

I don’t have an answer to the question I’m asking. It’s just something I think about. And I hope I’m seeing the tradeoffs clearly. If my child focused on one activity 25+ hours per week, and they were really good at it, that seems like it would be a really positive experience. But, they may be missing out on other opportunities, or even feeling like they didn’t get a childhood. On the other hand, if my child tries a whole bunch of activities, and never really focuses, they may miss the chance to be really extraordinary at something, and they may end up feeling like they’re only mediocre at pretty much everything.

What’s your take? Do you ever think about this? Do you come to different conclusions? I’d love to hear! And do any of you have kids that consistently spend 25+ hours per week on a certain activity/sport? Or maybe you did as a kids? What is that like?

P.S. — I know some of my friends have lost interest in watching the Olympics — they feel like the games end up being too much of a burden on the host city and its citizens. I see their point, and definitely wonder about the requirements for new stadiums and venues that I fear won’t get much use after the games. Have your opinions on the Olympics changed?

43 thoughts on “Being Really Good at One Thing”

  1. I am “boycotting” the Olympics because of the corruption of the IOC and because of the way Brazil has manhandled its citizens on the way to the games (and the World Cup and World Youth Day in 2013).

  2. I think about these questions too. We took the broad approach with our daughter (10) in lessons and summer camps. We try to offer her a mix of intellectual and athletic choices. She has taken piano lessons for years and always chooses to do an art camp in the summer. But she also loves gymnastics, swimming and acrobatic dancing. She also goes to Cantonese classes. She hasn’t asked to do one thing more than the others and I like that she tries new things. She is going to circus camp this summer and trying digital art. I think she still has lots of time to find her passion!

  3. Just a thought (a theoretical one, coming from me, since I simply don’t have that level of drive and commitment, whether for myself or my child): is the either/or you pose valid?

    What I mean is, even if the activity is chosen by the parent initially (perhaps even against the child’s wishes, tiger-mom style), if the child comes to excel at it, might that not itself be a uniquely fulfilling human experience, whether you chose it for yourself or not?

    Take Mozart, for instance. Obviously he had incredible innate talent, but it’s also clearly the case that his father was bound and determined to make him a musical prodigy from his earliest childhood. But regardless of how he got that way, just having music in your soul and in every fiber of your being, like Mozart did, must have been an amazing way to be.

    1. I’m sure I didn’t express it well, but I agree with you. I think being really extraordinary at something would be a very positive thing. I imagine for some people it comes with tradeoffs, though others may love it wholeheartedly and not feel they missed out on anything by focusing on one thing.

      I guess that’s what I’m thinking about. Should we be like Mozart’s father? Do our best to force excellence? If we think back on our own childhoods, do we wish we’d been forced to focus on one particular area? (Like you, I don’t think I have that level of drive and commitment. Especially not with 6 kids. Maybe if they all focused on the exact same thing?)

      1. I am interested in all these questions because 1. I never had the discipline to pick one thing and commit and 2. My mom never forced me and 3. Even knowing how being good happens, I could never follow through on making my kids either…but I did read some interesting studies about it. there are many many many who put in the same drive and focus and time and never get to excellence. And, also I have watched my kids see friends that are so focused and my kids think there is only room for the really talented athlete or musician or artist and they don’t see that most people won’t be that talented ever and it’s still ok to participate. No answers, but many questions on how to build passion and hobby when you aren’t the best!

  4. I think there’s a really strong argument for being well-rounded. Learning how to do a bunch of things pretty well not only makes you/your child good at those things, but it teaches them how to learn new things as well as how to lose gracefully. Let’s be real – most kids aren’t going to be a Mozart or an Olympian, so pushing them for that intense commitment is more likely to set them up for stress and failure. But learning how to play an instrument and be on a sports team and compete in the Science Fair helps them build a variety of skills, which I think is much healthier in the long run.

  5. This is something I’ve been tossing around in my mind as well as I try to figure out how to raise my daughter.

    My mom realized in her teens that she should have started something long ago to be great at it in high school, so she became a Tiger mom. She had me start private piano lessons at the age of 4, and by middle school I was already spending about 30 hours each week on ballet and piano (I was home schooled). I learned to do both at a much higher level than your average kid, and loved both art forms, but I didn’t really learn to do much else. These hobbies both created and consumed a good chunk of my identity growing up.

    My husband was the opposite, and did some of everything, but was only mediocre. He didn’t learn the struggle or joy of staying with something until you master it. Now he continues to try new things and enjoy them for the sake of enjoying them and, while I tend to be a perfectionist and don’t enjoy doing things unless I’m able to do them well.

    I’m not sure if the way we were raised contributed to our personalities, or if our personalities contributed to our respective feelings of success in the way we were raised, but I assume it’s some of both. I see pros and cons in both approaches, and at this moment I think what is best for each child would depend a lot on his or her personality.

    My opinions about this will probably change many many times as I learn and grow more as a parent and as a person, but at the moment I think the most important thing is that we provide our children with opportunities to fall in love with a hobby, discover the value of trying, and find personal success. Whether “success” is being an Olympic gymnast or just being able to do a decent somersault.

  6. So funny you wrote about this! This is the one thing I have been obsessing over in regards to my parenting. I have four girls, between the ages of 10-5. My parents raised six children on one income so spending the time and money to excel at something wasn’t an option. Therefore, I am “ok” at the many things my parents and grandparents taught me, but I excel at nothing. I can sew, cook, play piano, sing, write, etc… But none of them can I do in a way that makes me feel like I “own” it. My husband, on the other hand, is an amazing painter (www.jasonsacran.com) and has made it his life’s career. We both have great lives and enjoy them equally. But I’ve always wished I had mastered a skill. So when it comes to our children, I struggle. I have one child who could easily excell at ballet but we would have to commit a large amount of time (and money!) to make that happen. Is it worth it? I have another child who could probably be a very talented violinist. Do I push her to that extent? Which approach is better? I’ve been interviewing parents from both sides whose children I admire, and so far all the answers have greatly varied. Which hasn’t helped me at all! Lol

    1. I am a professional musician who plays with one of the nation’s top orchestras. I always loved playing music growing up starting with piano at age 7. By age 12 I was playing three instruments, singing in choirs, accompanying choirs, playing in string quartets, playing two instruments in orchestra- all because I LOVED it. My parents encouraged me and my sister but never forced us to do anything. I always practiced because I enjoyed it. If my parents had made me practice or do anything I didn’t like, I would not be a professional musician today. I tried doing sports and other activities because I felt one should be well-rounded. I also realize now I felt a lot of societal pressure to at least be involved in sports and to be “well-rounded”. In high school I started feeling like the person I was meant to be (read: “comfortable with self”) when I dropped the activities I didn’t enjoy as much and started practicing my primary instrument three hours a day- by my own choice. This is pretty much the story of every other professional musician I know. At least those of us who are not today’s Mozarts: Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, etc. Moral of the story: let your kids do what they want! If they want to be a professional athlete/musician you will know because they will SHOW YOU with their interest. You could make a child practice 3 hours a day, but that would be cruel if they have not chosen that for themselves! And believe me, the child choosing to practice three hours a day does much different work than one who was forced to!

      I have 2 sons- both wonderful. My older has shown incredible talent for several different things- including music. But after trying two instruments it’s clear that musical study is very frustrating for him right now. So we let him quit! Everyone assumes he plays something, so now every time someone asks “what instrument does he play?”, I say “the iPad”! Let your kids explore and support their choices whether they stay with something or drop many things and try other things. Eventually they will find something they like. They do not have to excel at any one thing. Most people are not willing to put 10,000 hours into mastering something- parents included! Let them explore life and enjoy the unique discovery of who they are meant to be!

        1. I couldn’t agree more. Why do so many parents think their child must be an elite athlete or excel at one thing and be one of the best in the world? With regards to sports, there is a ton of evidence that keeping things light and fun until the teenaged years is a better way to produce “active” adults for life, not just pro athletes. This is called physical literacy, the ability to move the body in a wide range of motions that enables one to play and participate in any sport with confidence. With most sports there is plenty of time once they reach adolescence to start competing and getting serious. Also, it’s not even ideal for anyone to focus solely on one sport year-round. A great example of this is former pro basketball player Steve Nash who played different sports in basketball’s off season, it allowed him to develop different skills and to not be subjected to repetitive strain injuries. We wouldn’t push our children to be the best mathematician in the world (most of us anyway!) so why do so many parents push their kids so hard with sports? It’s never fun that way. It has to come from within the person, no matter what we are talking about.

  7. We have six children and have come to frame the activities we choose and support in terms of diverse experience and appreciation (so, try something new to see and learn and so you can appreciate those who really excellent at it). We have chosen to have all our children play the piano as well because it is a skill that enables service, requires a work ethic difficult to develop in the suburbs and is a skill a that can be used, enjoyed, shared and bridge to other skill WAY after one is past their physical prime.
    I have several friends who were incredible dancers in high school but now in their late 30s and 40s there isn’t as much opportunity or need for their talents and abilities. Whereas I am a singer and use my skills all the time for my own pleasure and to serve. Of course my friends had and continue to have healthy bodies, a great appreciation for the art and a great work ethic as well so the dance years had a great benefit, but if there is a talent or skill that I can do for pretty much the rest of my life, all the better.
    Perenting choices…so fun right?

  8. Regarding your last comments, there really ought to be 3-4 (ish) Olympic venues that are on a rotation. When the games come to that city every 12-16 years, the venues can get an upgrade but keep their original character and structure. The venues will develop historical significance, and no more poor neighborhoods will be demolished for new stadiums. I hate the massive construction and exploitation that happens in each new host city, leaving behind a giant wasteland of useless buildings.

    1. You might like this article that was recently in the Atlantic about other solutions to the Olympics being in different places every time: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/08/rio-olympics-permanent-host/494264/

      One is your idea: “Some propose rotating the Olympics among several cities that recently hosted the Olympics—perhaps choosing five to represent the five interlocking rings of the Olympic symbol—or cycling them through one permanent venue on each continent.”

  9. I think the parents helping the kids to explore is the most important. If a child takes to something, I think the child’s interest and passion will help be a driver to becoming a master at that activity. I don’t think it happens just because a parent is a driver. I do think the parent has to be supportive financially and emotionally. I have a nephew who had the passion and talent for ice hockey, and I really expected him to play professionally, but by the time he was playing in college, it was clear that he wasn’t able to handle this emotionally. I think my brother and sister-in-law crippled him emotionally, and he wasn’t able to put the talent, the dedication/passion, and the emotional side together for success.

  10. We have tried to expose our children to a lot of sports and opportunities with art and music. Our son found his passion and singular focus on his own though! After having a hard time with traditional sports and experiencing sadness not making certain teams, he discovered running completely on his own in 5th grade. At 14 he has completed 4 half marathons and is finishing in the top 1% of the races. Our daughter plays soccer and runs, but it turns out she is very fast in running, too, and we never introduced her to it either. The sad thing to me is the traditional 3 season sports model for kids isn’t an option as kids are expected to specialize if they want to be “the best” at a given sport. This doesn’t affect us, but some of our friends’ kids who are great at several sports are being advised to pick one and then spend an absurd amount of time playing that sport year round. It’s like kids can’t be kids.

    1. I totally agree with you. I think the model of kids picking one sport and trying to be the best actually hurts them. A lot of the best athletes did not spend all of their time with one sport. They played many sports, which assists with their physical and mental abilities. Too many kids get injuries by spending their time on one sport year round.

      I think it’s great that your son has found something he really enjoys! And that your daughter also seems to be excelling at her own activities!

  11. I have to say I believe in more of a well-rounded approach. Especially when it comes to sports- many recent studies have shown that playing only one sport can actually be bad for young athletes- it can cause more injuries. I didn’t start playing the sport that I ended up being my best sport until I was in 10th grade- I wasn’t awesome at it, but I enjoyed it a lot!
    As for your last question- I am currently living abroad and I have to be honest- I didn’t even know the Olympics had started until after the fact! I don’t watch tv here, so it never occurred to me!

  12. My middle son was coordinated from the day he was born. We tried many sports with him and got around to swimming I think he was about 8. He was terriffic, never entered a meet he didn’t win and he hated it , go figure.

  13. As a child, I was a jack-of-all-trades. I have played 4 instruments (for several years each); I act, sing, and dance; I was in orchestra and choir and theater; I also played soccer and baseball. At some point, I realized piano was my true love, but even then I could see that I didn’t want to give up everything else at that point. As an adult, I’m glad I did it all. I can jump into all sorts of activities without feeling like I’m not capable…and that is a great skill to have!

  14. There’s also the consideration that if you are really good at just one thing, and something happens where you can no longer do that one thing, your world can collapse around you. When you have many skills, you may mourn the loss of the things you can no longer do, but there are always others.

  15. I love the Olympics and I have profound respect for Olympians. I’m grateful that I know enough to begin to appreciate the price these amazing athletes must pay for their moment of greatness.
    I participated in drama and music during my high school and university days. Again, I’m grateful that I learned to appreciate the sacrifice and discipline the amazing artists , who “make it” learn to devote themselves to. Grateful for at least the amount of “intelligence” to appreciate the price champions pay. I hope my children have this understanding.

  16. Such an interesting post and I have been thinking of the same questions as I watch the Olympics. I watched gymnastics with my daughter (23) last night who wondered what would happen if she had continued in gymnastics. She joined because one of her older sisters was competing. It got to the point where they were going to the gym (45 mins away) 5 hours/day 5 days/week with competitions on weekends. To continue they would have needed to up their hours which would have meant homeschooling. It was too bad but the world of competitive sports involves lots of difficult choices and sacrifices.
    The entire family had to make choices, too. We have 4 children and work (I’m a teacher) and it was always a balancing act.
    My daughter became an equestrian vaulter (dancing and gymnastics on horseback) but when she reached the top level, her choice to continue was on a world team in Hungary. She didn’t want to leave home at 14 and we didn’t want her to go either.
    Sports helped my children to develop self-discipline and to learn organizational skills that have helped them in life with school and careers. Plus, they continue to keep in great physical shape.
    So, we admire the athletes but also wistfully say, “What if…”

  17. I was thinking about this as well as we watch the olympics! When our daughter was 5 her gymnastics program wanted her there 3 days a week for 3 hours! It was too much for her and us. But it seems like for most people if you want an athletic career, that’s where they start! It’s intense! I think like one of the commenters above, you have to know your child. There is a lot to say about being well rounded!

    On a side note- the mothers who are olympic athletes! They are amazing to me, I can only imagine how they manage to stay at a olympic competing level and be a mom! I keep thinking, she has 3 kids and she’s an olympian! Surely I should be able to workout for 30 Mins! Ha :)

    Also the Olympics were here in SLC, where I live and I feel like our state, city and the US have made great use of the facilities after the Olympics. They are used as venues year round and continue to bring in revenue. Many of the olympians since have trained here. Maybe as a winter spot there wasn’t as much construction, but I feel like it was a great investment for SLC.

  18. I was a swimmer growing up, won CIF titles, and even tried out Junior Olympics for a while. I started “late” at age 10, and before then tried different things (karate, piano, Girl Scouts). Honestly, I think your child will let you know whether or not they want to continue doing something but I think it’s good to try a bunch of different sports/activities to test the waters. I stopped doing piano because I hated it (and yet now I wish my parents had forced me to keep playing, OF COURSE)! I stopped karate because I wasn’t all that interested in it after moving up a few belts and I stopped Girl Scouts in 4th grade because, 1) We moved, and 2) I didn’t have any REAL desire to join again after moving. Swimming though? Loved, loved, loved. My best friend was in gymnastics and the swim club for our city, the one I’d just moved to, and she invited me to swim practice one day and it was just like…THIS. IS. IT. I loved everything about it. The fact that you are racing against yourself, to beat your best time–at least that’s how my coach taught us to think–despite it being an individual sport, equally a team sport (relay races were where I excelled). Swim meets and practices are some of my most cherished memories growing up. When I think about having kids, I definitely want to put them in swim but my fear is, “What if they hate it!?” My parents didn’t grow up playing sports or instruments and so never really “pushed” me to stick to one particular thing. It obviously worked out for me, but if I had never met my best friend…? It’s crazy to think about.

    1. I wrote above about having a boy who hated it, we made him finish the commitment (I forget how long it was) and then we dropped swimming. I let them try everything except football ( and I have never felt bad about that) and ice hockey ( it was too far to drive at 5 am). All three of them are scratch golfers and the youngest was a great left handed shortstop. The one who didn’t love the swimming? He wishes we had forced him! I never saw the point of that.

      1. Haha, that’s how it is though, right? I mean, I think I just SAY that because wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could play piano right now–the whole fantasy behind “What if?” The truth is, if I REALLY regretted it I would be learning piano this minute =p

  19. My daughter, who is 9, decided that she wanted to try gymnastics. This was about 4 years ago. We finally gave in and let her try a rec class for a month…she is now a competitive gymnast who trains 12 hours a week. Thing is – it truly is her passion. I had nothing to do with pushing her towards anything. In fact, I was hesitant to start gymnastics, then I was hesitant for her to move up…but she would be devastated to have to stop for any reason. We have made it quite clear that she can stop at any time she wants, or move from Junior Olympics to Xcel, or even stop competing completely and do rec classes. She has no interest. So as long as it remains her passion, I will continue to help her follow her goals and dreams, even at the expense of trying other activities.

  20. We call the try it all approach “having a vocabulary in many things”. My mom started that-she wanted us to be comfortable enough with different things to be willing to try new activities, so we did a little tennis and a little piano and a little basketball and a little dance… My sister and I are neither one awesome at any one thing that we could compete in, but we really did end up with a can-do outlook. We’ve both built (functional but not beautiful) furniture, decorated our homes, learned to cook well, sewn clothes, started small businesses, made our children’s gifts, etc. Oddly enough, our mom does not craft or sew or cook or decorate herself, though she does have a can-do attitude towards other things. I just say that say-she didn’t teach us those kinds of things, we just had enough confidence in our ability to figure it out that we would watch you tube videos or look up directions online.

    I grew up in an area where many parents did push excellence in one arena, and I know very, very few adults who still enjoy that activity or participate in it at all. That leads me not to value putting all your eggs in one basket very highly, though it is beautiful when it does work out.

    I have three girls, and I fall somewhere in between with them. They can try anything for a semester one night a week, but there are three and we can’t afford or manage for them to commit to three nights a week on one child. Then, in the summer we do swim team, and when they start fourth grade, they start a string instrument at school. The school offers it as a class, so it seems wasteful to let them go to study hall if they could be learning music. They are actually not talented swimmers, but we all do summer best when they have a bit of structure to their day and have some pre-planned exercise, and we just love the swim coaches where we are. Whoever above said that it’s an individual sport with a team spirit is right. It’s a hard balance, though.

  21. I will also add, I once knew a family who had four children, and all four were brilliantly talented. One was a instrumental musician, one a dancer, one an artist, and one a talented vocalist. They were lovely and loving and the only family I had ever met that seemed to have really done “expert” well. I had just become a mom, so I contacted their mother to ask how she had nurtured such beauty into her children.

    Her answer?

    “Well, honey, I just told them Jesus must be coming back soon, and then they never learned to make any money”.

    It was not quite what I was looking for.

  22. I`ve got a good friend, who actually participated in the Olympics (Sydney in 2000), her sport is canoeing. HEr journey to the love of her sport is, I think, not very unusual. Till the age of 11 or 12 she was not really focused on any concrete sport. She attended what we call Sokol in the Czech Republic (I think it has its organizations also in the US, American Sokol). It is an organization that provides sport activities for all ages, based on the principle of versatility (no particular sport but try-everything strategy). This friend of mine told me it evoked love for sports in general in her. And so, when she coincidently took canoeing at the age of 12, it was – in her words – mainly the love for sport that became the main motive of her active sports career (finished with the birth of her third child last year).

  23. My son didn’t want to participate in anything until age 7 and then decided he wanted to do gymnastics, piano lessons and baseball. All at the same time. He gave up the gymnastics and baseball at age 10 when he went ice skating one day and decided he wanted to take lessons. By age 12 he decided that all he cared about in life was figure skating and at age 15 he made it to figure skating nationals last year for his level. Now 16 he would prefer to do nothing but figure skate 24/7. He goes to public school, but only for an education. He has no social life at school and prefers his figure skating social life instead. His misses out on a “normal” life, but it is his dream and we will struggle financially as much as we can to help him achieve the dream.

  24. It seems to me there is a thin line between making them stick with it for a little while, finish the commitment/season/a few months just to see if they might like it once they get a little better at it. But my experience with my kids has been that they hate anything I force them to do. So they way we approach it now is that I can sign them out anytime, but they are not allowed to skip lessons just because they don’t feel like it. My younger two are passionate about martial arts and now have the junior black belt. There were many days they just wanted to stay home and play but once I told them I would have to sign them out they were not ready for that. They now are so proud of their accomplishment. My older son had quit guitar in 3rd grade and then picked it up again in 5th to actually play the music he listens to. He now sits in his room and plays for hours just because he feels like it. He also is in a band and they have so much fun together and perform frequently. I guess the best approach in my opinion is to find something they will enjoy some day as a hobby, that will enrich their lives…not a career. And then it could always turn into more.

  25. Personally, I’ve taken a spiritual approach to this. I believe that our children are born with innate gifts and talents, and it has been one of the most satisfying parts of my mothering to really, deeply, think on this topic, observe my children, listen to my heart and intuition and even pray to know what my children’s unique gifts and contributions to the world might be. With one of my children, I knew within three months of her birth what her unique gifts was, and it has been a pleasure to guide and support her in nurturing that. With another of my children, it has taken much longer, but I finally feel like I’ve had some clarity and vision on her behalf and I’m so excited to get started in helping her down a path that I know will bring her immense satisfaction and confidence.

  26. Boy, this is a toughie.

    My mom was a single parent, so could never afford any lessons. I learned to swim at the local pool (free). I didn’t take music lessons in school because we moved too often. I had friends in gymnastics and dance, but too much money/time/commitment.

    I regret not having paticipated, but I also loved all the free time I had. So, my philosophy has been to try everything, but only focus on what my kid LOVES and not overschedule. That means we tried swimming, soccer, gymnastics, rock-climbing music, etc. My 9-year-old has decided he loves soccer and swimming. And, now he wants to join band in 4th grade (hooray!!). My 3-year-old daughter adores gymnastics and swimming. She is already quite good at gymnastics and ADORES

  27. . . . it! We have been encouraged by her coaches to enroll her competitively, but for now she is 3 and she is young. So, we are just going to let her have fun for a while and see where it goes. :)

    Overall, we don’t want our kids overscheduled. But, we want them to expand their minds and bodies in ways that they enjoy.

  28. I loved reading the comments here!!

    This is so interesting, my oldest is six and we are just getting activities “organized.” My mother had five children- and we all learned to be musicians- violin, piano, cello, and I’m a harpist. We were very fortunate to be able to afford private music lessons. I learned so much from them! It was sort of understood that we could pick what instrument we wanted to learn, but we had to be working on something. Once I got into harp at age 12- I kept it up and played through college and then professionally for a little while before I had children. I still keep it up for orchestras or weddings or little events… I’m so glad that my mother felt it was important to get our practice time in. I certainly didn’t WANT to practice every day as a teenager, but I felt a sense of accomplishment and discipline from a young age. Life long skills.

    Now my little six year old has started piano. (which is just such a great foundation for any sort of music). It’s so weird to be on the other side of things! I hope she will love music like I love music… but if she doesn’t, that’s okay too!

  29. This is a constant struggle for me as a mom. I began violin lessons at the age of 6 and by the time I was a teen, I was playing in one of the top youth orchestras in the US. In high school, I played at Carnegie Hall, for foreign royalty, etc. But I hated every.single.minute of it because I felt forced to do it. It was never my passion but rather, my parents’ goal for me. After receiving a full ride scholarship to University, I burned out my sophomore year and quit cold turkey; forfeiting all of it and having a major meltdown and fall out with my parents. It put a huge strain on our relationship until recently. Now that I’m a mom, I can see that my parents were probably doing the best they knew how and were well-intentioned. Mastering a skill gives you a strong sense of confidence and identity. That can also translate into financial gain – for example, I know I will always be able to provide for myself by playing weddings, teaching violin, etc. So I am now trying to find a balance between providing all those things for my children but doing so in a way that honors their interests and desires. It’s a fine line between pushing your kids to be the best they can be and forcing them against their will. Hopefully I can find that balance!

  30. You reminded me of something I’ve often thought of: what about all those people who could have been amazing at something – fasted runner, musical genius, etc, but lived at a time or place where their talent wasn’t discovered or fostered? The world’s fastest swimmer may not be competing at the Olympics right now and they might have no idea they’re that great. Just interesting to ponder!

  31. My mother danced with a professional ballet company. When she was growing up, it was not unusual to begin recreational dance classes around the age of eight, and to “get serious” in one’s early teens. Nowadays, it seems that keen parents enroll preschoolers in recreational classes and hope for admission to a professional school by the age of eight or nine! And if I’m not mistaken this trend has occurred in other arts and sports.

    Of course there will always be rare prodigies who succeed in spite of a later start, but I rather wish things remained as they were in my mother’s youth. Then a child would have more time to choose, and more leisure time, before committing to one thing. And parents would be spared some of the demands in terms of time and money in the early years! My maternal grandparents had six children and could never have supported more intensive childhood training in ballet for my mother.

    Nowadays early training seems so intense that to delay would, I think, put all but the most talented children at a significant disadvantage.

  32. As a person who found my passion and talent in a thing I was forced to commence, I very much hope my children will find joy in something at a high level. You do not get that from dabbling. But…. Getting to the high level requires years, commitment, and somewhat geographical stability. Also, I enjoyed the camaraderie of a group of people who excelled that I admired.

  33. Interesting post and comments. My parents had us take at least 5 years of music lessons (my two sisters loved it, I quit after 5 years) and we swam on a summer league every summer from elementary through high school. But other than that (and a deep focus on academics), extra curriculars or hobbies were up to us. We didn’t dabble in everything, but my parents let us explore- I took art through high school and while it never became my career, I’m much more comfortable trying new mediums and having a creative outlet. I’m glad they encouraged it. The three of us all pursued things we wanted to- I pushed through with art and love it to this day, one sister has a beautiful talent with piano, and another took up an intense and highly self-motivated running hobby when she was in middle school. Exposure to different things is good- it developed healthy habits in us all. The being said, I’m glad we also consistently focused on music, swimming, and academics too. It brought out different skills.

  34. A couple thoughts.
    For me personally, I had a broad range of interests as a kid. But I LOVED gymnastics. It was a huge time commitment and honestly, I wish I had done other sports too, but there was no talking me out of it as a kid. I wasn’t even very good, but I really liked it. I do regret not playing a team sport growing up. I also did dance and choir, mostly just through school. And I took orchestra for a year, but quit.

    As an adult, I coach youth lacrosse (which I started playing in college after quitting gymnastics, and I love it). Having a broad range of interests is kind of a catch 22 from a coaching perspective. The best athletes don’t specialize in one sport – basketball, soccer, hockey etc all make a better-rounded lacrosse player. But, over-scheduling can be an issue within a season. If someone can only come to half the practices because of other commitments, then they’re not really giving either/any activities their all.

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