July 18, 2009

Talented Kids: Are we obliged to help them produce?

The pressure on parents to have their kids produce is enormous. Even middle-schoolers are now worried about college. Whether it’s due to our competitive, “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality or parental anxiety about building a child’s resume, the stress is making it difficult for parents to feel at ease about letting their children develop and achieve at their own pace.

The seven year-old girl with acting talent won’t hurt her future career if she isn’t enrolled in a formal Broadway-bound class. The nine year-old boy who loves to play guitar may still become an inspired, diligent musician even if he doesn’t want to practice technical drills. The eleven year-old creative writer is no less likely to be proficient if she wants to write “for fun” and isn’t interested in getting critique to help her revise first drafts.

In fact, it may well be the premature regimenting of such children’s passions that can squelch their enthusiasm. The young actress may still want to pretend and create scenarios when inspiration strikes her rather than follow the structure of a class. The young musician may not yet have the internal motivation to undertake formal training. And, the young writer may not yet have the self-confidence or maturity to accept constructive feedback.

While some parental cajoling has its place, the impetus to produce or achieve in these ways needs to come from the child. Parents can encourage their kids to stretch their comfort zones a bit, but ultimately, it is important to follow the child’s lead. While training for the Olympics does have a more demanding time frame, most of our children’s pursuits are not subject to it.

Children have less and less time to develop their own interests at their own pace and in their own way. As author Mel Levine discusses in Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, if the primary focus becomes building the impressive resume, high-achieving adolescents may end up with little idea of their own passions, strengths and weaknesses. Yet, it is precisely this self-awareness that will be crucial to both their success and satisfaction in life.

So, let the seven year-old pretend, the nine-year old strum and the eleven year-old write her stories. Sometimes being a supportive parent means just letting them be.

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