When my daughter gets home from school, she kicks off her shoes and does whatever she wants until dinnertime. She’s free as a bird. Meanwhile, her 20-odd classmates are typically being ferried all over the place to their various after-school activities. Dancing, karate, gymnastics, tennis, piano lessons and every other creative/athletic/musical pursuit you can think of.
I’m not an evil mom who’s forcing her 6-year-old to miss out on a whole world of fun. I’ve suggested all of the above to her — checking in regularly to make sure she hasn’t changed her mind — and the answer is always the same: Thanks, but no thanks.
She does have a swimming lesson every Saturday, and we’ve tried a couple of different things after school, but her heart just hasn’t been in it, and I’m not willing to force her. When “It’s time for dance class!” is met with a weary sigh and dragged feet, what’s the point?
I started ballet lessons at age 3, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t have a passion for it at that age, but as far back as I can remember, I enjoyed my weekly attempts to pirouette without falling over. In fact, I practiced ballet weekly until I was a teenager, and I can vouch for the benefits of it: both physical and social. Ballet was my first choice of activity for my daughter. She would, undoubtedly, look adorable in a tutu. And I’d love her to develop the core strength and balance years of ballet provides. But it was clear very early on that she knew her own mind and absolutely nothing about ballet appealed.
Of course, every child — like every parent — is different. I know many parents who spend several evenings a week taking their kids to a range of after-school activities. In most cases, the kids love those activities. But not always. It’s undeniable that some parents encourage their children to take part in certain things when, given the choice, the kids would rather not. A friend of mine recently confessed that her son hates his drama class, but she insists that he goes because “it’s good for his confidence.” Does strong-arming our kids into doing stuff they don’t enjoy really boost their confidence? I’d suggest that it does the opposite, making them less likely to voice their opinions because, well, what’s the point when it makes no difference?
What are after-school activities about? Exercising? Well, my daughter does plenty of that, just in a less structured way than a weekly dance or gymnastics class. We walk our dog or go to the park or chase each other along the beach. If it’s about socializing, she’s not missing out on that either. She spends time with plenty of other kids outside school hours.
What it shouldn’t be about is what the parents want — or feel obliged to do. There’s definitely an element of FOMO among “parents who feel terrible because their children aren’t doing seven nights of hockey a week when others are,” said parenting coach Judy Reith, who wrote 7 Secrets of Raising Girls Every Parent Must Know. (In case you’re wondering, Reith believes spending more than five nights or mornings a week on an extracurricular activity is too much.)
I understand the importance of developing my daughter’s range of interests, but I’m not stressing about her lack of desire to join any of the various local clubs. She has plenty of time to do that. If she were desperate to start ballet or ice-skating or karate, of course I’d encourage her to explore that. But it has to come from her.