Thursday, July 12, 2012

Under Pressure

It seems like half the conversations I've had lately center around children's schedules and extra-curricular activities, specifically the sports they'll be doing come fall. Now, it's only mid-July, so I don't yet want to think or talk about our fall schedule, but there are decisions to be made. Child X's parents gave me a card at the playground the week school got out for the club soccer team that involves tryouts, twice-weekly practice, and Saturday games that require travel. The dance studio sent me the girls' end-of-year "progress reports"and wants their registration, with $50 deposit, by August 1. Child Y's mom texts me to ask what I'm putting Jemma in this fall (a fall that will include full-day kindergarten, by the way, and probably the accompanying meltdowns and 5:30 p.m. weeping that I enjoyed when Annie began full-day school) and I tell her, guiltily, "probably nothing." This week's tennis instructor talks up the fall tennis clinic at the gym. Annie turns a billion cartwheels in the lawn and nags me every day to sign her up for gymnastics. Church wants Sunday School forms returned. Piano lessons continue unabated through the summer. And the Parks and Recreation fall brochure hasn't even come out, with its pages and pages of yoga! and swim lessons! and drawing!

And even as I participate in it, it drives me crazy. Here's why.

Last fall, Annie - who had been enrolled almost continuously in dance classes since the minute she turned three - decided she wanted to take a break from dance and try tennis instead. Fine. So I signed just Jemma up for dance on Thursday afternoons, and Annie and I used the forty-five minutes outside Jemma's class to work on homework projects, enjoy a snack together, and read aloud if there was time. It was a nice break, and at the end of it, Annie decided she wanted to take dance again beginning in January.

Because none of the classes offered for that semester at our parks and rec. department worked with our schedule and because I had decided that, if Annie was to continue dance, she should probably start going to a studio, we signed up at a new place. The instructor - a very nice person, obviously, with lots of talent and experience - had the girls come try out a class before letting us sign up. Jemma was immediately put into the age-appropriate class. After watching Annie (who, remember had taken several continuous semesters of dance but hadn't danced since the previous spring because of a summer off and not enrolling in the fall), the instructor recommended that Annie take a few private lessons before starting in the 7-year-old class. She was behind.

That's when I knew. And even though Annie took two private lessons, subsequently enrolled with her "cohort," and enjoyed the spring semester of dance with the talented instructor at her studio, I learned the lesson that every parent attempting to retain a semblance of a normal childhood learns. I learned that we must constantly keep up with an activity or else we risk being left behind completely. Worse, I realized that this is the case with every single activity that kids participate in, and it begins at least by age seven, when the pressure begins to change from participating in lots of things all the time, to the pressure to specialize in AND BE AWESOME at something.

Already, that dance instructor wants Annie to audition for the studio's ensemble, which would require her to dance two afternoons and one Saturday morning per week. Already, the local parks and rec. soccer is badmouthed by parents in the know, and we're encouraged to sign her up for something more organized and ambitious. Already, there are children in her tennis class who have clearly taken tennis every week of this summer and who are worlds better than her. Already, a parent talks about how frustrated her son is to be on a baseball team with kids who are "just trying baseball for the first time" and how kids like him (the good kids) get singled out for the All-Star team, where they can really play without the newbies dragging them down. (This same parent talks about how her "entire life is for the kids" these days; these two topics seem to me to be related.) Already, Annie has friends who are in year three of competitive swimming, so that each year that Annie does not swim on a team that practices three days a week and competes in meets is another year that the possibility of her EVER being able to swim on a team like that grows smaller. Already, there are not enough days in the week for Annie to keep up with the things she enjoys, not to mention to try new things that she hasn't yet dabbled in. Already, there is very much the feeling that she must PICK SOMETHING NOW and STICK WITH IT FOREVER and have it be HER THING, and that if she doesn't - if she keeps trying to dabble here, enjoy there, try this, take a break, take up something new - she will not be good enough at anything. (Also: "good enough" to . . . what? Make the middle school team? Play varsity tennis? Get a soccer scholarship to college? MAKE AN OLYMPIC TEAM?) WHAT IS THE GOAL HERE?

Are those kids going to be happier? More successful? The most in-shape adults? What? (Tangent: Most adults I know who took this path - crazy travel soccer, psycho swimmer, college athlete, etc. - don't even participate in the activity as an adult. At all. Ever. Huh.)

She is seven. SEVEN. She enjoys - and is fairly good at - lots of things. And I want her to be able to keep doing them: because she loves them, because she is good at them, because it is good for her to grow her skills, because I want her to be well-rounded, because they are fun. But it's clear that we're reaching a level where there aren't enough days in the week, where it's less possible to do things in a casual, low-committment way, where the cost and scale and intensity of each individual activity goes up, where she (and we) are going to have to choose. And I wish that I could put that off for a few more years. I wish, like a funny and wise friend said a few months ago, that we could all collectively just agree to not do this with our kids. I wish that I could remember that Jason, who is playing electric guitar on stage next week, didn't start taking guitar lessons until he was in college, and that I hated track in high school but went on to run a marathon at age 26 and my fastest 5K ever nine months after Annie was born. I wish I was surrounded by a few more sane voices shouting for moderation. Mostly, I wish I could figure out a way to let my girls pursue their passions with a little lot less pressure.


  1. Ugh...dreading this, although I can see snippets of it already when I take Anna to tennis. And, she's four.

  2. OMG. Stephanie. Thank you for this timely - and terrifying - post.

    I was just thinking this today, as I heard a mom at camp pick-up talking about her older child wanting to quit gymnastics but she "can't because it's her THING and colleges need to see she can stay with something and excel at it."

    I believe the child she was talking about is 9.

    I was wondering if this is just a Northern Virginia thing, where everyone is over-scheduled and hyper parenting and OY VEY IT'S EVERYWHERE ISN'T IT??

    I want my kids to get to try things out and have a relaxed childhood. I don't want my kids to be left out of what they really truly enjoy. Do I have to choose between these two things??

    I guess I do, huh?

  3. I'm with you on this, Steph. I have no answers, of course, but I'm still with you!

  4. ugh, this is disturbing. I was even surprised to read that 7-year-olds would be doing any one activity three times a week--that seems like a lot! It's way too young for them to commit. And you're right, I no longer draw or dance ballet (well, once in awhile for fun), which were "my things" at a young age and the stuff I focused on. (Now it's more running and photography, which I got into in my 20s.) Then again, back in the 1980s there just wasn't this pressure, wasn't there?

    I really, really don't want to overschedule Will, and I hope we can somehow circumvent all this, but how??