On childhood, opportunities, and finding your way

At a family get-together the other day, I was talking with my brother about dancing (he teaches ballroom for a living) and asked him if he was doing competitions at all.

“No,” he said. “I’d be out of my league — most of those people have been dancing since they were, like, three.”*

(Brother started when he was, if I remember correctly, in his late teens.)

The conversation got me thinking about the sorts of pursuits where starting young is a huge advantage, sometimes even essential to being successful past a certain level. Most athletic activities seem to require that you train your muscles early on for you to be able to perform at the top of your game as an adult. From what I’ve seen this is true to an extent for some creative pursuits as well — music, especially, maybe because of the amount of physical coordination involved in playing most instruments? And I’d imagine with most careers and hobbies, getting an early start on building your knowledge and skill set helps at least a little.

Now that I have a little guy in my life, this is a topic that feels much closer to home. I want the kiddo to have every possible opportunity to follow his dreams. But what if he doesn’t figure out what those dreams are until it’s too late for him to have a good chance of reaching them? How can I help him find his way? On the other hand, how can I make sure I get in his way by pushing too much?

Finding my way and being pushed were never really issues for me growing up. I’ve loved making up stories as far back as I can remember, and my parents just let me at it. Storytelling is, conveniently, an activity that requires no special instruction and no materials at all to practice–the books I read were my teachers, and even with pen and paper, and later a computer, available to me, I spent many hours simply daydreaming plots and characters–so I didn’t really need any assistance from my parents, although it certainly didn’t hurt that they were avid readers themselves and so read to me often, took me on regular library trips, and that sort of thing.

But what if you have a kid who doesn’t quickly gravitate toward specific interests? How many three-year-olds, for example, really know they love dancing and are eager to go to classes and take instruction their whole early childhood? I’ve heard a lot of stories from people who recall getting bored with learning an instrument or practicing a sport or whathaveyou when they were little, but appreciate that their parents insisted they continue through that boredom and not give up, because they did come to love it again and would hate to have lost that skill. I’ve also heard plenty of stories of people resenting their parents pushing them in a particular direction, who felt stressed and un-listened to, or for whom the pressure to not just have fun with an activity but to excel at it drained all the enjoyment they once had.

How do you tell when it’s in your kids’ best interests to push, and when it’s better to pull back?

I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts–either your memories of what worked for you (or didn’t) when you were a kid, or your experiences as a parent yourself, or both!

*Dialogue an approximation; I did not write this down in the moment to get an exact quote. 😉


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