As Cindy Wilson’s* two kids neared the end of elementary school, she worried that they weren’t involved in sports. She had always participated in athletics and still worked out daily, so was surprised to raise relatively inactive children.
Wilson had signed the two up for a host of sports teams, but when they failed to show a strong interest or talent, she let them quit. Meanwhile, many of her kids’ friends were already deeply focused on a single sport or musical instrument. Wilson wondered if she should have pushed her kids harder.
Her children stayed close to home, reading, watching movies, playing with non-electronic toys and creating skits with the neighbors. In middle school, they asked to take youth theater classes, and in high school, they participated in student plays. The oldest now wants to be a screenwriter; the second plans on a film career.
Both children found their passion after exposure to a variety of sports and activities, as well as plenty of down time, which is a very healthy route, according to parenting experts such as Barbara Swenson. “Some amount of ‘couch potato’ time or daydreaming is essential to a child,” Swenson says. “Even when the body appears inactive, the brain is developing.”
Should kids specialize?
We live in an era of specialization when many parents start pushing their kids towards music or athletic scholarships or pro-level competition, before the children even understand long division. Jenni Coles, a Mercer Island mother of four, was one of those kids.
When she was a young girl practicing pliés and sautés in ballet class, Coles’ teachers recognized her preternatural flexibility, strength and grace, and suggested Coles’ parents support her budding talent.
Coles’ mom took on the task, driving her child to and from classes and rehearsals; stocking her closet with leotards, tights and toe shoes; and even arranging for her to live with another family, several hours away from home, so she could join an apprentice program at age 14.
The work and dedication paid off for Coles; she danced professionally, and quite successfully, until her second child was born.
But perhaps in reaction to her hyper-focused youth, Coles refrained from pushing any of her own kids to specialize at an early age. All four are athletic, musical and artistic, but Coles chose to let them dabble in a variety of activities throughout elementary school.
“I’m really starting to question the choices I’ve made versus the way I was raised,” Coles admits. She wonders if her 11-year-old daughter should step up her voice training, and worries that one of her sons will regret dropping oboe lessons. “I don’t think kids are capable of making the choices they need to make to be successful, so the parents need to do that.”
Swenson, the parenting expert, says that Coles and Wilson needn’t worry. Delaying specialization is good for kids, she says, adding that only those with extraordinary talent (such as Coles, a ballet virtuosa) should be so focused so young.
“I am adamantly opposed to specializing in any sport too soon,” Swenson says. “I know parents worry of ‘lost opportunity’ to become a ‘star,’ but truly less than 1 percent of kids are potential stars in any sport or activity.”
“For the handful of kids who really excel in music or sports, it is advantageous to start early,” says Joan Franklin, a Mercer Island–based college-admission adviser. “For colleges to look at those kids [for admission], [the children] do need to start as early as elementary school. However that is really a very small percentage of kids.”
The downside of focus
For the other 99 percent of children, narrowing the world too soon can have negative effects, Swenson says. “We know that we have a finite amount of time — the first 10 to 12 years — when the frontal lobe [of a child’s brain] is wide open to taking in a lot of activities and interests,” she explains. “If kids are forced to focus [in one area] when they are too young, they can miss out on development of their brain, body and social skills.”
In addition to hindering brain development, early specialization can lead to career-ending injuries — such as the elbow injury the pitcher on my son’s seventh-grade select baseball team sustained from overuse of the arm — and, perhaps more commonly, burnout.
“If a kid is doing it for love, that’s one thing,” says Franklin. “But a lot of kids who have [focused on] one sport or musical instrument for too long burn out and suddenly give it up when they are in high school. And then, if the parents feel that they have sacrificed money and family time, they get angry.”
Although selective universities do desire students who demonstrate exceptional achievement or passion in at least one area, other college hopefuls still have plenty of opportunities. “For most kids, there are a lot of great college choices [that don’t require the student] to sell his soul and give up his childhood,” Franklin explains. “Most kids are generally really happy where they end up.”
Linda Williams Rorem is a writer and editor who formerly worked for Time magazine.