When it comes to after school activities, it’s easy to overdo. Too many extracurricular activities can strain the entire family. It can hit school children especially hard. Besides the logistics of coming and going, a student’s brain needs down time to processes new information. Many parents need childcare after school and may feel pressure to fill up that time with enrichment activities. But don’t feel guilty if your child isn’t in an enrichment activity every single afternoon.
Instead, consider focusing in on two or three favorite activities. Look for activities that give you a “big bang for the buck.” Don’t think in terms of future professional soccer players, future step dancers, or concert cellists (though wouldn’t that be awesome!) Instead, think in terms of growing a child who develops a healthy work ethic, one who understands the hard work that goes into real achievement, one who respects the wisdom of experience, and one who knows the value of passing that wisdom down.
The benefits of a good extracurricular activity are priceless. One of the best benefits is the exposure to role models. A teacher or coach who inspires respect –actually earns it—is a gift to the child, no matter what the activity. When my son expressed an interest in skeet shooting, I was considerably less than thrilled. But, after his first lesson I changed my mind. He used great metaphors to teach the abstract skill of aiming, making it clear to my son what he had to do to hit that tiny skeet. Being at a rifle range still seems weird to me, but watching people who work with passion is a tremendous opportunity and a pleasure.
We’ve been fortunate with the people who have taught our son. From these role models, my son has learned how to be honorable, how to work on a team, how to motivate and push himself, how to set goals and achieve them. He has also learned a work ethic that goes beyond showing up for the job on time. I hope my son will one day do work that he is passionate about.
In selecting activities for your child, look for an instructor who
· Has some expertise in the activity or skill
· Treats kids with respect and allows all kids to develop skills.
· Is supportive, but sets and enforces high standards.
· Can effectively communicate instruction to the child
· Considers their skill as an art that is passed on to new students with honor.
Even if you’re not doing formal extracurricular activities there are lots of other ways to achieve the same results. Think about your neighbors and friends who could be role models for your kids. One of our neighbors manages an historic wood-block print shop. He was kind enough to give us a tour of the shop and talk to my son about choosing work that you love. And, don’t forget the proverbial “wisdom of the elders.” My son and his granddad are like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, running around building cardboard boats, setting up bee hives, and making a handmade bow.
Older gentlemen at the bow-shooting range and skeet range are generous in initiating conversation with my son about ways to improve his skill. My son always takes the advice respectfully, and even if he decides not to take the advice. In a way, I think he considers himself an “apprentice” and greatly values each pearl of wisdom.
These kinds of lessons have staying power and apply to a whole life, not just one skill. Like Walt Whitman’s “small poems,” lessons like these needn’t be whoppers. Small lessons are just as valuable. On my kitchen wall hangs a series of photographs. The photos show my son, at age 4, in the process of dunking a cookie in a glass of milk. What you don’t see in the photo is that my dad was sitting across the table from my son, instructing him in the art of cookie-dunking and recording it on film. Even though my dad died a few years ago, whenever I want to see him, I can look at my son’s face in those photos. Even coaching something as esoteric as cookie-dunking can serve as a lifelong lesson.