When I was in seventh grade, I had a friend named Jessica. Jessica had everything, it seemed: She was one of three daughters (I prayed for and was denied a sister year after year); her parents were accomplished professors; and she had a calendar of extracurricular activities I envied, including piano.
Between the three daughters, the keys were always tinkling at Jessica’s house. If I happened to be at her house during her piano lesson, I’d wait in her room while she sat beside her teacher, rerunning her scales.
“You’re so lucky,” I told her once, envious of the mystique of the piano.
“I hate it,” she whispered, her eyes tearing. “My parents force me to practice every night. The piano makes me sick.”
I’ve never forgotten the look on Jessica’s face. I promised myself that I would never push my own kids into practicing something they didn’t want to do.
Fast-forward 25 years. My daughters have participated in many extracurriculars: violin, ballet, soccer, debate club. I’ve rarely demanded they practice. They are 10 and 12 now, and while they do some of these activities beautifully, it’s possible they could be twice as accomplished if I pushed them more.
I don’t care.
There’s been unending debate about whether today’s kids are overscheduled, and whether extracurricular activities are helping them “find their passion” or preventing them from developing essential skills: self-motivation, grit and the creativity that stems from boredom and activating the imagination.
A few years ago, my urge to chill about practice was bolstered when I read The Dolphin Way by psychiatrist Shimi K. Kang, M.D., of Vancouver, British Columbia. Citing research about sleep deprivation and stress, Kang urged parents to abandon intense schedules and embrace “pod” life, based on communities and spontaneous play.
A 2014 study by the University of Colorado, Boulder, supports this thinking. It found that children who spent more time engaged in unstructured play and less time in organized activities displayed higher levels of executive functioning.
My daughters have participated in many extracurriculars: violin, ballet, soccer, debate club. I’ve rarely demanded they practice.
Of course, you can find research to support any parenting instinct. When I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in 2008 (my daughters were still toddlers), I became convinced that if my kids were going to succeed at anything, we’d have to make sure they got in their 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” as soon as possible. Luckily, a 2014 Princeton study — which found that practice accounted for only a 12 percent average difference in performance — convinced me to take a more relaxed approach.
I wasn’t ready to unschedule my kids completely, but I decided I wouldn’t force them to practice. If they arrived at next week’s violin class playing J.S. Bach’s Minuet No. 1 with no improvement, so be it.
If my children were going to grow passionate about and skilled at something, they would have to push themselves. I wouldn’t nag, threaten or pressure. Effort would be met with positive reinforcement, but it would not be mandated. (Schoolwork is different; we require that it be completed.) My husband agreed.
Maintaining this value isn’t easy. I’ve fought the urge to project my own childhood insecurities and adult ambitions on my kids, including my regret that I never mastered an instrument and my fantasy of being world-class at, well, anything. I also realize that not pushing kids to practice is a luxury — that my family is privileged to afford extracurricular activities and lessons, and that spending money without “tangible” benefits is an extension of that privilege.
For us, though, the important lesson is not to spend a certain amount on building skills — children can explore their passions at the library, through free or affordable community-based programs or by bartering lessons with another family. My older daughter is wild about baking; she taught herself from books. My younger daughter became obsessed with crochet this summer, taught for free by a kind next-door neighbor.
What I want my kids to know is this: You are your own best motivator, and if you can learn to chase your own passions and push yourself without anyone nagging or forcing you, you can do anything.
I’ve seen this — the push and pull between having fun and becoming an expert — play out time and again with my daughters. Both have watched friends evolve into elite soccer players while they’ve stayed happily at the rec level. Last year, my older daughter performed at her middle school’s fall concert; she played beautifully, but I know if she practiced more she could already be slotted into one of the more advanced orchestras. More recently, my younger daughter, who is a supreme arguer, lost the chance to participate in this year’s debate competition because she missed a couple of classes and chose not to spend hours at home catching up.
But you know what? She’s happy. They’re happy. They have time for relaxing, pretending and daydreaming. Our kids know we’ll support them in whatever pursuits they try. We encourage them to give their all. We discourage quitting.
But we don’t force them. We don’t put the emphasis on the number of hours committed. We focus on how good it makes them feel when they do something they love.
My older daughter spent this summer on a self-imposed practice schedule aimed at helping her jump ahead an orchestra level, because she wanted to. My younger daughter recently overcame her fear of performing in public by standing in the middle of Seattle Center one summer day to play the fiddle, its case open, awing passersby not necessarily with her perfected technique, but with her guts and enthusiasm.
The kids will be all right.