"Overzealous parents usually start out being supportive of their child's interests," says Dr. Martha Pieper, psychotherapist. "However, these parents will begin to see a talent in their child and will do everything within their power to help develop it and expect the child to do the same. These parents don't mean any harm; they just don't know when to stop."
Extracurricular activities offer children of all ages an outlet for expressing themselves, their talents and their interests. Whether they are sporting or academic activities, these "after school" programs create a diversion from the normal school structure and offer kids a little fun and creativity. But there are students whose only reason for involvement in these activities is a pushy parent.
"I never really liked soccer," says Alec Kurdzel. "I only played it because my grandfather played and my Dad wanted me to play it, too. I love football and baseball, but soccer was never for me. I did fine playing soccer, but didn't enjoy it...it wasn't fun. I played because I knew it would make them happy and because I knew, to get my Dad's attention I had to play. He wouldn't let me try out for football, so I settled for soccer."
Forcing a child to participate in an activity in which they have no interest can have a lot of negative effects. "Children are entitled to their own recreational time just as adults are," Pieper says. "If an adult had free time and someone told them how to spend it they would be upset. Kids should be entitled to decide how they would choose to spend [their free time]. They need those choices and need to experiment to see what they enjoy, or what is best suited for them. When parents step in and make them specialize and do only do one thing, as well as do it to the level the parents wants but the child may not, that child is essential robbed of an important experience of childhood. The child may then grow up and always try to find an authority figure to tell them what to do or totally rebel and be against authority the rest of their lives."
Offering unconditional support and encouragement to a child gives a message of acceptance. "Children may come to feel that the parent only values them for their performance, not for who they are," Pieper says. "Pushing a child to excel beyond their want or means in any area can take away a child's self-esteem. Children may begin to judge themselves on whatever performance they give, good or bad. The message we want to give our children is that we love you, we think you're great, whatever you do is fine with us."
Some parents push their kids because they're determined to see them continue in college. For others, they may be looking to relive their own youth. Harry Owens, a father of three from Richmond, Va., says, "I had a chance to play football at college but blew it by messing up. I got into some trouble and ended up being a daddy instead. I want my sons to get the most they can out of what they can do. Maybe I do push them too hard, but I just want them to have all the things I didn't. I want them to learn from my mistakes, I guess. I do love them and want the best for them. I know I'm not perfect ... maybe I'm trying too hard."
"The most important message that a parent can give a child is that this is supposed to be fun. That's what after school activities are for. If you're not enjoying it, then you don't have to do it," Pieper says. "The parent must be completely comfortable with the idea that a child may walk away from the activity. It must be a child's choice. It is crucial that a child be allowed to make the final decision on whether or not they participate, as well as the reasons why."
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