Question: Any insights into how to get an elementary school child involved in after-school activities?
What I’m asking is how to find an activity that your child likes/engages in.
My child apparently is not a naturally competitive kid. I’m trying to encourage her to try this and that and am meeting with resistance. I’d like her to have something to occupy her time after school. She just turned 8 and has rejected soccer. She’s a great skier, but that’s a winter/weekend sport. I’ve signed her up for tennis, hoping it will take.
Answer: Ahhh, so interesting. My first immediate thought is, “Why is America obsessed with competition?” I mean, we really, really are. And the competitive spirit has been creeping more toward our young children (via their parents, not the children).
But before you think, “Great! Meghan hates competition and wants every child to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” think again.
Competition is a normal and healthy part of being human.
Healthy competition can light a fire under us, get and keep us motivated and help us reach for goals that, without the competitive spirit, we would leave untouched.
Competition is awesome, and our technology, medical, sports and architectural fields are where you can see competition push the boundaries in amazing ways.
But what about your just-turned-8-year-old daughter?
Here are some things I don’t know (and I invite every parent to ask themselves these questions):
Does this child have to do an activity? If you answer yes, then why?
Some children, given their druthers, will do absolutely nothing. They will eat junk, watch TV for hours, game for another couple of hours and lie around. Some children truly need structured time and activities; it keeps them healthy, alert and involved in life.
Does the activity have to be competitive?
Many children face a pretty hectic day at school. They are working their bottoms off to pay attention, navigate social circles and be “good kids.” The idea of competition may simply exhaust their overloaded brains, rather than excite or motivate them. Remember, there are other options for children who do not like competition.
And, yes, maybe the child has to stay in after-school care until you retrieve her. Your child could finish homework, read, and maybe just play.
Allow me to put every parent’s mind at ease about children who are “not naturally competitive”:
There is no developmental reason to put your child into a competitive activity. It will not grow her up, mature her, make her sportier, create aptitude where there is none, grow her social skills, etc. If the child is miserable in a competitive activity, only her misery will grow — not her competitive spirit.
The history books are rife with stories of children who have been begged, manipulated, bullied and threatened into competitive activities, only to develop a host of anxiety and depression issues. (Read Andre Agassi’s autobiography as an example.)
If you push your child into a competitive activity before she is ready — or when she just doesn’t want to compete — your child will feel bad about herself. Your child will feel as if she is not enough. And if a child feels that she is lacking or not enough, and you continue to force her into an activity, her young brain receives this message: “I am not good enough being who I am. Dad does not value me for me alone.”
And two bad things happen as a result of this feeling.
First, the child works her tail off trying to make you happy. When a child works to impress Mom or Dad, she is veering further and further away from herself, and these are dangerous waters. Whereas wanting your parent to be proud of you is normal and healthy, wanting to gain a father’s love and respect leaves the child panicked and insecure.
Second, the other (and healthier) thing that your daughter will do is fight you. Not only will she not participate in the after-school activity, but she will start to fight you in areas of your family life that were previously working well. She is telling you, “Stop! See me. I have my own personality. Please accept me for who I am.” This is a healthy response for a new 8-year-old, and I am encouraged, as a parent coach, when I see a child stand her ground.
So, what is a parent to do?
Maybe you know your child would like to try something but is too nervous to join. Maybe you know that the child has to stay at school, and fresh air is a better option than sitting in front of a screen. If you remove your ego from the decision process, you can begin to see your child for who she is and what she loves.
Can she join a running team? This is both an individual and a team sport. Can she take a yoga class? Invigorating, fun, good for the body and soul, and low on the competition. Can she join the gardening club? Good for the planet and the brain, and everyone is outside. Can she join a Lego club? A photography class? An art class?
Essentially, it comes down to this: She is 8. She should do something that makes her smile.
And, though this may be a challenge to accept, she may prefer to come home, relax, be by herself and recharge in silence with a book.
We can respect her personality while still encouraging her to try new things; it requires that we remove ego-driven parenting decisions and use our good ol’ common (and heart) sense.
And, oh yeah, get ready for ski season and allow her to shine there.
Send questions about parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Sept. 24.