We have two boys, 10 and 12. Two years ago, we moved from a small town to a city. Before we moved, our boys were involved in extracurricular activities they liked. After we moved, we decided to give them a few months to make friends and then choose their interests. They found the friends; the interests not so much. Now, we appear to have budding mall rats with no interests other than their friends and video games. Do we force them into something? We're not aiming to have kids who are on the go five days a week with different activities. We believe in the value of free time, but it's just getting out of hand. We thought we'd set a good example in this regard: my wife and I have interests! We taught the boys to ski and camp and fish and play tennis and badminton. We've tried piano, basketball and various other activities – but there's always some reason to quit, the biggest: "I don't want to do anything that my friends aren't doing."
Great question. The essence of it seems to be this line: "Do we force them into something?"
To which, in my view, the short answer is: "Yes."
Of course, your kids' default mode (especially these days, with its proliferation of distractions) is to lay around like jellyfish, playing video games, hanging out, doing whatever it takes to keep themselves amused.
Your job as a parent is to lash them forward, show them by word and by deed that life is not purely a string of episodes of self-amusement. The really difficult question is knowing how far to take it.
In his excellent memoir, Open (a great read, even if you're not a tennis fan), Andre Agassi says over and over again, and tells everyone who will listen: "I hate tennis."
But his father (mostly for his own chip-on-his-shoulder, I'll-show-'em-type reasons), Emmanuel "Mike" Agassi, pushed his son on in a demonic frenzy, barking and screaming at him, shooting thousands of balls at little Andre every day from a modified ball machine Agassi called "The Dragon."
Good parenting? Bad parenting? Andre Agassi went on to become world No. 1, earn tens of millions on the tennis circuit and hundreds of millions in endorsements and marry Steffi Graf.
But then, he was a prodigy, a phenom. Of course, as Jerry Maguire says, some kernels pop, some don't, and for every Agassi, there are 10,000 or more kids whose parents pushed them to do something they wound up dropping. I still think it's better to err on the side of encouraging kids to stick with something, even if they squawk and complain.
Take piano lessons (please), the bête noir with which parents have tortured their children for generations.
I took them for years, hated every minute, with the net result: I can play maybe three bars of Fur Elise.
But I'm sure I learned all sorts of things such as discipline, appreciation for music and that life is not purely composed of episodes of self-amusement.
And my wife on the other hand took piano for about the same amount of time and can happily sit down and sight read just about any music you put in front of her, making her the life of numerous parties.
So: You never know what thing you force your kid to do will wind up becoming a great hobby or passion or even eventually a way they make a living – maybe they'll even become rich, and support you in your old age.
So, yes: Force your kids to do stuff. And then negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Probably life is one long negotiation: Certainly parenting is after a certain point.
You seem well on your way with the camping and the badminton and all the rest of it. Keep it up! Just maybe don't let them quit whatever the activity is too easily.
(I should admit at some point I've let my kids quit stuff – e.g. piano lessons – but only after years of negotiations. And in the case of the kid who quit piano, further negotiation led him back to lessons again. Which he hates. And on and on it goes.)
Your kids may end up resenting you for it. But I doubt it – at least, in the long run. Far more likely, I think, is they thank you in the end.
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